Wednesday, 17 February 2016

Turning rage into hope: Reflections on brief time in two radical spaces


I felt the need to get some thoughts onto paper - or least an electronic variant - as I transited between two different, but overlapping labour/social movement educational fora over the weekend. These were (and are), I argue, radical spaces for critical reflection on how knowledge is produced by movements, both social and labour. As well as developing some areas for on-going discussion, I'd like to draw a reference below to one of the few pieces of literature which explores an overlap in the tensions and possibilities of how such movements generate, apply and learn from knowledge created from and in action. As ever, I welcome feedback on what is written here.

Dublin - Thursday
Last Thursday night I was very pleased to be one of two guest speakers at an event organised by Laurence Cox (who runs a sister MA at Univ. of Ireland, Maynooth to the one I run at Ruskin - search for his name in this blog and you'll see commentary on his research output) hosted by the Dublin office of UNITE, with an accompanying guest speaker  Brendan Ogle (UNITE Education Officer, Ireland).

This was to be a public talk and discussion and was promoted with the title: What education do union organisers and other activists need?

The 'blurb' for this event was as follows:

Ruskin College Oxford is well known as a strategic educational location for the labour movement in Britain and beyond, with a continuing educational mission to provide radical, socially transformative education to working class men and women. For the past ten years its MA in International Labour and Trade Union Studies (ILTUS) has been the only programme in the UK written specifically for those employed or active around issues of worker organisation, mobilisation and representation. This year it has been updated as the MA in Global Labour and Social Change. Its coordinator, Ian Manborde, will talk about the experience of the MA so far and the debate about what education union organisers and other activists need most.

Ian Manborde is coordinator of the MA in Global Labour and Social Change at Ruskin College Oxford, with its close links to the labour movement. A lifelong trade unionist, he was a convenor with the CPSA (now PCS), was projects manager for the General Federation of Trade Unions and is a founding member of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists (UK). Ian has worked in workers’ and trade union education for over twenty years, including the Workers’ Educational Association and Northern College, Barnsley. He has also worked extensively as consultant and / or teacher for many trade unions and federations in the UK and internationally.

The Right 2 Water campaign gathers momentum in Ireland
A key focus of the evening's discussion was the growing momentum of the campaign against water charges in Ireland, and the accompanying role of trade unions as part of this:

Allied to this was discussion around the work of colleagues like Tish Gibbons of SIPTU, Aileen Morrissey of Mandate and Brenda Ogle's also in developing short courses of study around key themes which invariably enable trade union members and the wider public to unravel and grasp key dimensions of the relationship between the context and causes of the economic crash (of which Ireland is still experiencing the aftermath) and the continuing neo-liberal assault on public services.

Over 100,000 people attend the first Right 2 Water rally
in Dublin in 2015. The next major event is 20/02/16.
I was struck also by the recognition that, as part of this unravelling, there needed to be an honest assessment of the role organised labour has played historically in Ireland through social partnership of accommodating a prevailing economic climate which helped to precipitate the current economic state of the Ireland. Of particular interest here was the discussion around the need for mainstream classes/forums to discuss the nature of political economy both in a national and international context, and not least as a safeguard against a replication or the worst excesses of corporatism.

My contribution to the discussion was to ask the assembled group what I hoped would be four, reflective, discussion-oriented questions about such an educational programme:

1. What is trade union education for? Asked in the political context of trade union education as part of an accommodation within capitalist economies, or as a framework to realise popular agency as part of on-going critical reflection.
2. What do we want trade unionists to do with such education? Asked to suggest that traditional models and mode of trade union education need to recognise that they are often only supplement to subjective and objective knowledge gained in the workplace and wider civil society.
3. Can knowledge be gained in other ways? Here I had an eye on informal approaches to education with an eye on praxis as a means to learn through experience.
4. Can we learn with others? Here I wanted to challenge a hegemonic practice of seeing trade unions and trade union education as holistic and as necessarily distinct from other social entities/movements and practices.

A key outcome of the discussion was that trade unions could serve a wider community-oriented body of need, accommodating activists and members alike. Critically important was the need to utilise the momentum of the water charges campaign as a vehicle through which trade unions, working for and with others, can materially support the growth of the campaign by assisting an increase in political consciousness. This would come through the discussed development and delivery of focused formal and informal education around the political economy of the water charges.

CWU, Alvescot, Oxfordshire - Friday-Sunday
The discussion could easily have gone on longer, but we were finished before 8pm and after continued informal discussion afterward in Dublin, I was back in the UK and in the beautiful, rural surroundings of Alvescot Lodge, educational base of the Communication Workers Union (CWU).

Working with Trish Lavelle (Head of Education) we have devised a two-stage leadership programme for black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) activists and members of the union. This weekend-based programme is designed to act as a springboard into mainstream CWU activism, but specifically also into the newly created branch role of BAME officer, and/or into membership of the union's national body for race equality matters, the race advisory committee (RAC).

The BAME leadership programme is in its second successful year and I enjoy teaching with the CWU immensely, not least to experience the workplace dynamics of race and racism in quite disparate sectors.

AJ Singh: Underlining the need for a
trade union presence at work and in
the community.
A key feature of the weekends - and of my similar teaching with unions - is that the experience of BAME workers cannot be decoupled from the wider political economy of race, and that balancing the role of activists within the workplace and outwith is a critically important dimension of any such programme.

On that basis it was wonderful to have as our guest speaker on Friday night AJ Singh, Chair of the CWU RAC and Branch Secretary of the South East Wales Amalgamated Branch. AJ has a distinguished trade union history having also served, for example, as President of the Wales TUC.

Whilst AJ welcomed those attending and encouraged them either into activism, or to maintain their CWU roles, he developed a clear agenda of trade union purpose of working in those communities from which CWU members were drawn, and drawing a clear association between wider inequalities in society with those manifest in the workplace.

This trajectory was underlined further when Trish Lavelle joined the group to outline the national purpose and history of the union's work around race equality, but in particular to discuss the relevance of mainstream social and political issues race and social justice as legitimate areas of discussion and activism for trade unionists. In particular Trish discussed her own experience of the iniquitous legal doctrine of joint enterprise to highlight the prevailing injustices faced by BAME communities from across the criminal justice system.

Those attending the course were encouraged to learn more about the campaign body JENGbA, and to invite speakers to branch meetings:

A lasting impression from the CWU weekend was the freedom given to those attending to shape trajectories of union engagement and activism around, for example, attendant dynamics of managerial and/or trade union power which generated a sense of powerlessness. Thus it was important to acknowledge that there were barriers to overcome within the union itself, but that the best place to challenge hostility and/or complacency around issues of race was within the union.

A picture from Saturday supporting the TUC's Love Unions
week in front of one of the many CWU banners at Alvescot.
These can be very difficult discussions to handle, as there must be a sense of hope in the context of sometimes anger at what can appear to be blocks on qualitative change in trade union culture, policy and strategy.

As the period from Thus-Sun ended I was reminded of a chapter in Choudry and Kapoor's seminal 2010 edited book Learning from the Ground Up Global Perspectives on Social Movements and Knowledge Production.

David Bleakney and Michael Morrill's chapter Worker Education and Social Movement Knowledge Production: Practical Tensions and Lessons has been a critically important primer for my doctoral thesis research on the impact of the MA that I run for trade unionists at Ruskin, and was one of the first, and few pieces, I have read on what can be learnt from how social and labour movement activists come to build knowledge from their experience. The chapter also provides a framework of what preconditions should exist to enable  an  honest, reflexive analysis of movement failures and impediments as part of holistic critical examination of movement strategy, and what can occur if those conditions are not regarded.

Workers not permitted to be participants in critical reflection on their reality are not likely to be agents for change. Resistance is personal and social, and requires slipping outside the “quantitative box” into which we so easily, unconsciously, and compliantly fit. The process of using anger and action is valuable in worker-based trainings. However, when workers remain in the anger stage, worker-educators have done no favors to the transformative process. Indeed, resolutions to problems have been contracted out to union advocates, thus reinforcing the model of disempowerment and union paternalism, no matter how well intentioned. Facilitators must aim to assist participants in transforming rage into hope. With hope, action can follow. What is the purpose of worker education if not to assist people to act on their collective wisdom and experience? It gives people chances to be participants in profoundly democratic ways.

As the pictures of the CWU activists below illustrate, trade union education is at its best when it facilitates engagement with the work of other movements and enable activists to devise collective strategies for agency both in the workplace and across civil society. This isn't always achievable, as it very much depends on the will/strategy of a union and the prevailing political/economic dynamics it is situated in. The last few days demonstrated what can be achieved though and I enjoyed playing a small part in it.

In Solidarity


PS: Update re joint enterprise: