Monday, 31 August 2015

Critical Dialogue and the Beginning of Infinity

I am just preparing a blog item on a long-standing area of interest around machine learning and the distribution of information/knowledge. In preparing for this I reflected on the purpose and value of this blog. I occasionally come across people who have read posts, but I must admit that I have no contact whatsoever (comments are rarely left and I'm not sure why this is the case) with the vast bulk of those who visit the blog, a large number of whom are in the US, with a healthy sprinkling of interest in Russia, the EU and Australia (so, an appeal for readers to leave comment please).
On looking at the data on who reads what the greatest interest historically (sometimes nudging 600+ page views) has been around posts which combine a discussion of educational methods/pedagogy in the context of labour movement/adult education. This short piece on the 2014 event in Bridgewater, Somerset on the future of workers' education is a prime example of blog interest notching up 544 page views:
There is also significant interest in the general coverage of how labour movements fare globally - one of the principal reasons why I write the blog - with, for example, two articles I wrote combining Ruskin's historic connections with South Africa's labour movement, latest developments there and the launch of a new scholarship both topping 600+ page views each: and
I'd like to think that this blog contributes - in some form of Freirean style - to a wider discussion/analyses of how the values, interests, concerns and needs of organised labour, particularly from an educational perspective, can be progressed. That really is for others to say though, so another appeal then for more comments in relation to posts, and in particular of how we can pursue further analysis, dialogue around the items posted here, not least in the pursuit of transformative change in the workplace and wider society.
Ultimately what I am aiming form is some (even if minor and partial) contribution to the comprehensibility of the future of organised labour in its myriad form, 'trade unionism' being one of these. In the spirit of David Deutch's The Beginning of Infinity I aim to work with others in "the quest for good explanations" in this case around how organised labour might evolve globally to respond to the major challenges it faces, and doing so rationally and optimistically.
Whilst reviewing the 300+ posts written since I started this blog in 2007 I was able to capture an image of what some of these posts look like when viewed using one of the images/pictures used in the post - below are a few hundred of these. Personally, they represent a significant number of hours of thinking/analysis/writing, but more importantly they reflect an attempt so support a critical pedagogy in trade union education, and, as the new academic year kicks off at Ruskin College, I look forward to a further year of discussion/debate in the classroom with trade unionists and the opportunity to examine this experience further here.

Thursday, 20 August 2015

Protect the Right to Strike: Join the TUC Campaign


I wrote earlier in the year about the attempt by the employer's group within the ILO to challenge the fundamental right to strike in ILO Convention 87. One of the points I had commented on was that part of the group's intention was to limit appeals to the ILO when national governments started to reform/repeal domestic frameworks for industrial action.

The UK Conservative government's Trade Union Bill will pose massive challenges to trade unions undertaking lawful industrial action. See details of the Bill's assault on workers' rights here:

Please also sign up to support the TUC's campaign against the Bill here:

You will also find it really useful/valuable to follow the analyse of the implications of the Bill by Ralph Darlington at Salford University. He has already co-written a particularly valuable piece of research which has examined the implications of the proposed balloting reforms using prior industrial action in the UK - his analysis is both optimistic and pessimistic about the implications of the Bill.

For on-going coverage/analysis follow Ralph's blog 

To read the comparative industrial action research see this:

I will also be covering the implications of the Bill, and the Act if it cannot be overturned.
In Solidarity

Monday, 17 August 2015

CLS/CSE Event: Work, Politics and Austerity: 14 Nov 2015

The continuing intensification of neoliberal policies across Europe and beyond will bring major challenges to the workers and popular classes, at home and abroad.

The re-composition of radical left politics in the UK and internationally presents both a challenge and an opportunity for activities and academics. In this context, Critical Labour Studies (CLS) in partnership with the Conference of Socialist Economics (CSE) has organised a one-day event with the intention of encouraging discussion and reflection after the political changes of the current year.

The CLS tradition is one of open debate and discussion. The day will be organised around four themed session, with maximum time for discussion from participants:
  • Crisis and austerity: trade union responses
  • Left poiltics and the labour movement
  • Alternatives to austerity in Europe
  • New worlds of work
Speakers will include activists/academics from a number of backgrounds including, Martin Smith, GMB Maurizio Atzeni, Jenny Chan, Rachel Cohen, John Kelly, Phoebe Moore, Paul Stewart, Martin Upchurch, Bob Jeffery.

DATE: 14 November 2015 11-5pm.

VENUE: GMB Euston Office. 22 Stephenson Way Euston London NW1
REGISTRATION: Please register by emailing critical_labour_studies Spaces are limited.
COST: £20 waged and £10 unwaged.

Sunday, 9 August 2015

The Real World Meets the Gig Economy


Apologies for such a long delay between this post and my last - reporting on another great CWU BME  Leadership Weekend - but I have been away teaching a tremendous amount, with little time to reflect and write. (Also, this post has been finished when on holiday in St Davids, Pembrokeshire, so apologies for apparent brevity towards the end of this post)

I have though just landed back from a wonderful week of teaching at the ILO's International Training Centre in Turin, Italy (20-27 July). I was invited to teach by MA ILTUS alumni Ariel Castro (who was at Ruskin full-time 2008-09) and is now head of Asia and the South Pacific region for worker's/trade union education, having been based at the ILO's Delhi office for some time, after he had graduated from the MA.

The course, Trade Union Organising Strategies for Inclusion and Development ran from 20-31st July, and all training materials/resources can be found here, including a detailed list of participants and the course programme.

The students (pictured above) comprised highly experienced trade union officers and activists, many of whom combined wider political/social campaigning as their brief. Countries represented included the Philippines, Cambodia, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, the Maldives, Morocco, Sri Lanka, Jordan, Thailand, India, Nepal and Myanmar.

Thus some of the countries represented comprised the worst violators of human and trade union rights internationally,  and without wanting to sound overly fawning, it is quite humbling to listen/hear from international trade unionists talk of the day-to-day social and political dangers of carrying out their trade union work, when positioned in the relative advantage of the UK.

Whilst the course focused on how colleagues could apply and embed various ILO conventions and other technical instruments, a key emphasis was around the role of the ILO's supervisory mechanism to encourage the reporting of systemic abuse of workers' rights. Whilst the ILO can appear toothless in sanctioning rogue states, there exists a real-politik within the UN system which - whilst not as aggressive and direct as we would wish - can nevertheless effect forms of change when allied to wider geo-political shifts around trade, aid, migration etc.

Of course the ILO will never be a substitute for independent, strong forms of organised labour, and where the course was most dynamic were the sessions led by Emily Paulin (Head of the ITUC's Organising Academy) on strategic organising and political campaigning and Elsa Ramos (writer/researcher/activist on gender, informal and domestic work) on the role of gender in trade union organising strategy and in particular in activity with and for domestic workers. 
Here the teaching/learning was highly informative to observe, as it allowed for national/cultural differentiation, but also the sharing of ideas/experience to enable the articulation of new strategy/policy frameworks. The pictures reflect an energy and vibrancy which was a core feature of these sessions in particular.
I particularly enjoyed the insight provided by students of how different labour centres/unions were approaching some of the major challenges of trade unions globally. So, for example, it was of profound interest to hear from Michelle Wong (Hong Kong Domestic Workers General Union) and Sunil Shinde (of the Indian union Rashtiya Mazdoor Sangh (RMS)) to hear of their experience in organizing domestic workers, particularly where the union activity had to transcend ethnic/national divisions. This is hard-edged work and cuts across so many of the competing challenges facing trade unions globally.

The Gig Economy
The main feeling generated during the week spent with trade unionists undertaking the course, was that they represented the real-world exigencies of an untethered neo-liberalism. Where labour movements toiled in a political and economic landscape shorn of those historically protective structures garnered by movements of the global north, albeit understanding that that self-same neo-liberal tide is slowly (irrevocably?) generating a global equilibrium, according to the ILO’s World of Work 2014, of low-paid, precarious work:

As described earlier however, the week’s focus was around a means by which a multiplicity of forces, whether through the jurisdiction of the ILO, or more organic forms of mobilisation, could withstand, repel or mediate this tidal force: so there was no sense projected of an inevitability that labour movements were a spent force, nor that civil society more broadly did not have answers to on-going economic dislocation or social change.
On coming back to the UK, and reading the article by Arun Sundararajan in that Sunday’s Observer, it was if reading not only of a separate hemisphere, but of an entirely different world occupied the by ‘the gig economy’:

This notional, over-hyped ‘economy’ is nothing more than aggrandised self-employment mediated via social media or other digital platforms.
Although Sundararajan is careful to finely balance his writing between between the optimism on entrepreneurialism and the hazards of poorly remunerated small-scale tasks, his overall pitch for the suggestion that this economy is anything new and radical collapses with his opening sentence, “not so long ago, the only people who looked for “gigs” were musicians”.

False Self-Employment
Sundararajan spuriously suggests that, somehow musicians can somehow live without any of life’s requisite material and spiritual resources (food, housing, relationships etc.) whilst others find “real jobs”’.

In the time I have spent working alongside or observing the work of the Musicians Union (MU) and talking to the union’s members, I’ve never met anyone who actually revelled in, or could easily survive, what is in reality forced self-employment.
In reality parts of the the live entertainment market has created a vicious underworld which purely serves its own interests at the expense of those who are perversely a central feature of that market.

False self-employment is nothing new. In ‘Blacklisted’ Dave Smith and Phil Chamberlain pain-stakingly chronicle the means by which the UK’s construction industry forced workers into a primal form of self-employment; therefater brutalising and blacklisting workers when they rightly challenged not only this form of employment but also the degrading working conditions with which it comprised.

When and if there is ever such a backlash from those dispersed legions of workers undertaking small-scale ‘assignment’s for Amazon et al within the ‘gig economy’ remains to be seen, although the ILO portends that the increasing scale of this economic activity requires a review of how such work can and should be subsumed within regulatory frameworks to ensure appropriate monitoring and subsequent regulation:
The Cybertariat

Some of the best analysis of the increase in forms of work embedded within new technologies has been written by Ursula Huws, and is all the more valuable for a gendered perspective. In ‘The Cybertariat’ Ursula Huws rightly suggests that we should see the ‘gig economy’as a new phase of capitalism, albeit one, I would contend, which poses massive challenges for organised labour, both to mobilise these workers (whether at one end of the spectrum essentially processors, and at the other so-called knowledge workers) but also to generate a systematic, uniform response to how these patterns of work are disrupting economic norms:

Huws updated her 2003 cybertariat thesis last year with the publication of Labour in the Global Digital Economy: The Cybertariat Comes from Age. Here, Huws maintains the theme of a new mode of capital accumulation, but one which projects a new vision of entrepreneurial freedoms, but which occasion such significant economic structural shifts (in particular the continued fragmentation of public sector service delivery and welfare/healthcare mechanisms) to pose seismic change to the quality of life:

 This, in essence, is the real danger of the gig economy, and one that Sundararajan acknowledges (although not forcefully enough I would contend) which is that the stability required by advanced (and emerging) economies rest, naturally, on the economic stability of those feeding into and off that economy. The peer-to-peer aspect of the gig economy (airbnb, Uber etc) are welcome aspects of a mixed economy, but their success (taking Uber in any major city of an advanced economy as an example) rests principally on profit derived from customers enjoying even relatively stable incomes of their own.

Nick Dyer-Witheford does a reasonably good in interpreting in its bleakest form what this means for workers, economies, and for movements (including organised labour) when/if the gig economy reaches fullest maturity, in Cyber-Proletariat: Global Labour in the Digital Vortex, published in May by Pluto Books. Pluto have made the introduction available here:

 It’s important to keep an eye on the writing/analysis of Huws et al as the gig economy is far too large and relentless to ignore, particularly from a labour studies perspective. The reality however, both in the global north, and in the countries represented by the trade unionists I met in Italy recently, is that the majority of work sits outside of this economy, but is exposed to the fragmentary, unstable nature, and it is this overlap that must be our continuing concern.

Similarly, the challenge for movements (particularly for organised labour I contend) is how to respond to the occupational and economic outcomes of the cybertariart, whilst at the same time determining its own place in the technologies themselves. Dyer-Witherfood poses the challenge well when we writes:

Proletarian movements against capital must make use of cybernetic communication, because they are in a profound way inside such systems, and indeed of them, formed under conditions of technological subsumption that have for generations shaped workplaces, subjectivities, and cultures: it would be difficult to riot, organise, or occupy without using networks. At the same time cybernetics, perhaps to a greater degree than any other technological system, has been imprinted with and implemented for capital’s dynamic of abstract value, to accelerate, amplify and intensify the circulation of commodities.

Invariably these are times I will be returning to in this blog, but I very much welcome comment and debate about the books/themes/ideas flagged up here.
In Solidarity