Thursday, 30 April 2015

On May Day we will be mourning: Solidarity with Nepal


All of us have been following the news following the tragic events in Nepal.

There have been a series of initiatives launched across the global labour movement, working in alliance with other organisations to distribute aid and support the work on the ground of the bodies like the General Federation of Nepalese Trade Unions (GEFONT).

A note of some of the actions has been brought together in the latest newsletter from the International Federation of Workers' Educational Associations (IFWEA):

This includes a news item written in Equal Times which includes an interview with Bishnu Rimal, President of GEFONT which I wanted to re-produce below. Please read the IFWEA news item, particularly the call for support from the ICTU and find out what aid and support your own union is providing.

It is at times like this that the international labour movements works at its best.

“On May Day, we will be mourning”

Less than two days after the powerful earthquake and subsequent aftershocks that hit Nepal, leaving at least 3,700 people dead and thousands more injured, Equal Times spoke with Bishnu Rimal, President of the General Federation of Nepalese Trade Unions (GEFONT).

How is the situation on the ground in Nepal?
The capital Kathmandu is devastated. Many buildings, temples and World Heritage sites have collapsed. We are still pulling people out of the rubble.
Many neighbourhoods have no more electricity. There is a lack of food. Thousands of people are living in the streets and on public places – in tents or with just a few blankets.
We are very worried about the situation in the villages of Nepal. Some of them are hard to reach and we fear that the death toll could be much higher, especially because most of the population in these remote areas is made of elderly people, women and children.
It is a consequence of the lack of jobs here and the use of Nepali workforce for construction projects abroad, especially in the Middle East.*

What are the most urgent issues to tackle at the moment?
Rescue workers are working around the clock and foreign help is starting to arrive. We need to continue searching for survivors and helping the ones staying outside by providing food, medication and any other kind of relief.

Fortunately, the earthquake hit on a Saturday, which was a public holiday. If it had happened during the week, a lot more people would have died in the office buildings and workplaces that were damaged.
What is the labour movement of Nepal doing to help?
We are asking all our affiliates to encourage their members to donate blood and to help the people affected by any way they can. We need to mobilise as many volunteers as possible.
We have also decided not to celebrate May Day this year. Instead we will mourn and pray together for those who died and those who are injured.

Finally, we are pushing the government to increase the search and rescue efforts and to provide help to the people who have lost everything.
What can the international labour movement provide?
We need solidarity. At the moment it is still too early to determine exactly how. We are still collecting information and data before asking for international help.
But one thing is for sure: a lot of reconstruction efforts will be necessary. We will need help and expertise to rebuild the infrastructures and buildings that have collapsed.
But we have to be careful not to repeat the scenario of Haiti, where aid was not properly allocated and foreign companies took advantage of the disaster to push their own interests.
To prevent this, we will need to keep pressure on the government both locally and on the international stage.

But we are hopeful. We believe we can work together with the authorities to turn this tragedy into an opportunity by creating jobs, social benefits and reducing inequality in Nepal.

In Solidarity


Wednesday, 22 April 2015

What is critical labour studies?


There is much that feeds into the educational and pedagogical strategy of the international labour and trade union studies programme at Ruskin College.

Some of this is a reflection of our day-to-day work with trade unions when meeting their own educational needs and from this devising a sense of what activists and officers 'need' from us in the form of the BA and MA ILTUS. Similarly, as we read to prepare for teaching (and creating allied resources) there is much rich material to draw from (the activist experience of our students is a constant source of material also and co-production of teaching/resources with students is a Freirean fundamental) and engage with.

Of course we also draw on our own activism, and critical reflection of this is essential to continual change, improvement etc.

I must though give special thanks to those who comprise and contribute to the Critical Labour Studies (CLS) network. The stalwarts of the network (Jane Holgate, Miguel Martinez Lucio, Simon Joyce, John Stirling) do a essential job in keeping the network alive and functioning despite their own workload challenges.

MA ILTUS Full-Time students (Matt, Chilayi, Nokwazi and Paul,
with Fenella Porter (vital MA staff member) and I, after the MA
students presented papers on their dissertation research at the 2015
CLS symposium
The network has proved to be a vital source of guidance and inspiration for trade union learners and teaching staff at Ruskin, and if it didn't exist, it would have to be created. Join it, contribute and come along to the annual symposium.

John Woods (BA ILTUS) contributes
to the 2014 CLS symposium
Below is a short piece written by John Stirling (hopefully to be published in Red Pepper) about the network from the perspective of the last network symposium at Ruskin at the end of Feb.

I wanted to publish John's piece here to provide an insight on the work of the network, but also to show that in the tradition of workers'/adult education, it acts as a key bridge between the scholarly and the 'coalface'. I wanted also to do this to send a note of thanks to all of those who comprise the network and for their help with the work of the ILTUS students and staff at Ruskin.

What is critical labour studies?

Strikes in China’s docks; organising migrant workers in the UK and domestic workers in Turkey; fire fighters and floods; the future of socialist feminism along with the quantified self were all up for debate at this year’s Critical Labour Studies conference at Ruskin College. CLS was founded over a decade ago to bring together radical academics working in the field of employment relations with trade union officers and activists to build joint working and provide a forum for new ideas and open debate. Today the conference is also joined by new researchers as well as students on Ruskin College’s trade union studies degree programmes alongside international trade union visitors and researchers.  

Katia Widlak (MA ILTUS) contributes
to the 2014 symposium
From its foundation CLS participants have engaged with the major issues facing trade unions and the labour movement and one recurring theme has been the importance of organising – but organising for action not abandonment. For example, Phoebe Moore explored the significance of new ways of working for controlling work and workers and inhibiting organising and solidarity. She introduced us to the ‘quantified self’ which builds on the tracking devices already familiar to warehouse workers by giving employees the wrist bands we can all buy to monitor our eating, breathing and sleeping. This time though, the data helps employers to see how your sleep patterns disrupt your productivity and even the ownership of the data is open to question.

Pete Dwyer, Academic Co-ordinate of
Humanities at Ruskin, presents a paper
at the 2014 symposium
With the Greens surging forward to the election there were important contributions on unions and the environment with Daniel Jakopovich discussing alliances across unions and campaigning groups and Fire Fighter Paul Hampton of the FBU using their action on the floods to highlight the continuing austerity attacks on the service. Both emphasised how far unions were now moving on environmental issues and campaigning, from a past when this debates had often focussed on jobs at any price.

The Scottish referendum also figured as a conference theme with Paul Stewart providing a detailed analysis of the voting patterns followed by a discussion of its implications for Labour and the unions. The enormous activity and action the debate provoked in Scotland has major implications both for UK politics and also for campaigning and organising strategies.

The Ruskin student input from Matt Hannam showed how vital the CLS academic/activist interface is as he drew on the early stages of his research to show the devastating impact of Tory policies on school education. Shifting employment practices have undermined pay rates but also, potentially, driven a wedge between qualified teachers and classroom support workers which required new ways of organising.

We can hardly do justice to the range of argument and debate which often prompted a return to the opening conference paper on workers control and why trade unions should still be interested in the idea. The discussion of domestic labour and social care workers highlighted the significance of ideas about retaking control of work. CLS is asking its contributors to post their contributions on their website if you want to follow up some of these issues in detail or view what went on at previous conferences. You can also join our mailing list at the websiteand get involved in future conferences.

In Solidarity


Tuesday, 14 April 2015

Power from the people: why trade union decline should concern us all


This short article of mine has been published today on the Future of Work Hub website:

Power from the people: why trade union decline should concern us all

Who benefits from trade union decline, and what lessons can we draw from this analysis about the state of the political economy in the United Kingdom? 
Power from the people’ by established International Monetary Fund (IMF) economists, Florence Jaumotte and Carolina Osorio Buitron, provides an intelligent, robust analysis of the correlation between the reducing size and influence of trade unions as an institution of labour markets in advanced economies, the increasing wealth of the top 10% in these economies, and the shrinking value of wages for low and middle-income earners.  
Much of this analysis can be garnered elsewhere. For example, the UK’s Office for National Statistics (ONS) has charted the steep, persistent decline of the value of wages in marked contrast to increasing productivity and overall profitability of private sector business. What is of allied concern though, is what structural factors are at play that catalyse trade union decline, precipitate the increasing precarity of UK workers and have resulted in a profound imbalance in the status of the average UK worker relative to that of corporate power and influence.
Some economists argue that strong trade unions disrupt ‘market clearing’ influences which normalise and stabilise wages in free market economies. Jaumotte and Buitron unravel this well-worn trope, dismantling also the free market assumption that trade unions are a causal factor of high unemployment: 
The empirical support for this hypothesis is not very strong, at least within the range of institutional arrangements observed in advanced economies. For instance, in an Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) review of 17 studies, only 3 found a robust association between union density (or bargaining coverage) and higher overall unemployment. (p.30) 
The critically important outcome of the report however, is the finding that: 
“lower unionisation is associated with an increase in top income shares in advanced economies during the period 1980–2010, thus challenging preconceptions about the channels through which union density affects income distribution”.  
Whilst there have historically been concerns about trade union power and influence, one outcome of their presence in advanced economies following the second world war era onwards, was in the stability of earnings relative to economic growth (see for example, A Booth’s ‘The Economics of the Trade Union’). 
The latest collection of essays from the Resolution Foundation focuses on this very issue, albeit with attention to the plight of young workers (and their relative absence from trade union membership) a large proportion of whom increasingly find themselves locked out of the UK economy on the “low road” of poorly paid insecure work and lack of career progression.
The dismantling of trade union power and influence has been a planned-for outcome of sustained implementation of neo-liberal policy agendas from the first Thatcher government of 1979, through the New Labour era and under the current Coalition government. 
This loss of influence has had wider implications other than in the arena of pay and reward. As the IMF report suggests, the resulting economic inequality “could also hurt society by allowing top earners to manipulate the economic and political system”.  
This arguable manipulation is seen, for example, in the joint report of the House of Commons Scottish Affairs and Business, Innovation and Skills committees, into the collapse of logistics firm Parcel Link on Christmas Day 2014. The firm maintained trading during the run-up to Christmas knowing of impending liquidation and that it was unlikely to be able to afford the minimum period of consultation prior to redundancy let alone notice of contract termination. Due to the complicated way in which City Link was purchased by private equity firm Better Capital, the taxpayer is left with the redundancy bill, and thousands of self-employed drivers are unlikely to see outstanding fees paid. 
Complicit in this manipulation, and using the mantra of ‘the fight against red tape’, is the Coalition government who in 2013 introduced fees to pursue a claim through the Employment Tribunal Service for a case like that arising from City Link. To compound the situation of workers like those at City Link, in the year prior to the introduction of fees the Coalition reduced the period during which employers had to consult with unions over mass redundancies. It should be a profound concern that a firm like Better Capital can behave with such arrogant disregard to the welfare of its employed and self-employed staff and face no judicial or governmental penalty as a result. 
The Conservative Party and parts of the UK media would have us believe that Britain suffers from a ‘dependency culture’ particularly in the context of welfare. We can agree on this, although I contend that the real dependency culture exists in myriad form between parts of the private sector (Better Capital being a case in point) and the state. This dependency culture has found common, contemporary form around, for example, limited liabilities for corporate tax payments, exemptions from employer liabilities towards employees and the increasing scope for significant segments of public services to be awarded to private sector contractors. 
Actually, where I would start in accentuating the corporate dependency culture is in the form of the massive subsidy paid from the welfare budget to workers employed across a range of sectors, but particularly retail, catering and hotels/hospitality, where wages are so low, and hours so limited, that they are reliant on welfare to survive. According to Stewart Lansley and Joanna Mack in their book ‘Breadline Britain: the rise of mass poverty’, the ‘British corporate welfare state’ is one where poverty has risen fastest for those families in work, and is overall at a post-war high. I would argue that this is a result of defined corporate strategy to offset the wage bill through welfare payments. 
The future of work
The economically insecure, poorly paid women who comprise the majority employed in the social care sector exemplify not only the scandal of the corporate dependency culture, but are also a critically important barometer of where the UK is heading as the country races headlong towards a hardened, structural two-tier economy.  
The future of work: Jobs and skills in 2030 from the UK Commission on Employment and Skills (UKCES) is a particularly sobering read in this context. Its main message is this: 
If current trends run a steady path, in 2030 the UK workforce will be multi-generational, older, and more international, with women playing a stronger role. While the highly skilled will push for a better work-life balance, many others will experience increasing insecurity of employment and income. As businesses shrink their workforces to a minimum using flexibly employed external service providers to cover shortfalls, a much smaller group of employees will be able to enjoy long-term contracts. (p.5) 
A two-tier economy may benefit some, but it will, as now, be at the expense of a large segment of the UK workforce, with dire, complex consequences around issues of social cohesion, health and well-being. Similarly, the on-going toxic debate around immigration in the lead up to (and no doubt thereafter) the general election serves no beneficial purpose to the long-term health of the UK economy. 
Whilst the benefits of trade union activity may be subject to ideological dispute, any examination of the future of work in the UK (and across advanced economies as the predicted patterns are similar) should give all of us cause for concern for the future economic and social stability of society and the well-being of the population. 
Like it or not, strong trade unions create economic and political correctives essential in the kind of free market economy created by the mainstream political parties.  The position of organised labour relative to capital means that it is one of the few, arguably only, civil society actors capable of leveraging concessions from employers and the state. 
If you remain unsure as to the value of trade unions, think about the past week, month or year of your life and ask yourself if you, your family or friends benefitted from any of these.  Then ask yourself who fought for them and what life must have been like before these:  weekend leave, sick leave, sick pay, paid holidays, compensation for injury at work, minimum wage, maternity leave, maternity pay, a pension, a written contract of employment, freedom from discrimination, equal pay between men and women etc. etc. 
Ian Manborde is the programme co-ordinator, MA International Labour and Trade Union Studies (ILTUS) at Ruskin College in Oxford.

Saturday, 11 April 2015

Researchers & Activists Forum on Precarious Work (23-24 April Loughborough Univ.)


A reminder that this event is coming soon and one of significant interest to trade unionists internationally. There is a fantastic line-up of speakers and current/past students of the MA ILTUS at Ruskin speaking about their allied research/outcomes.

There are no costs to attend and lunch is provided on both days free of charge. Places are limited though so please email Ruth Cufflin asap to secure a place:

In Solidarity - Ian