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


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