Friday, 20 May 2016

Trade Union Learning: What I've Learnt


Just a brief(ish) post from Warwick University library as I work on my doctoral thesis. I thought I'd write up some personal notes/reflections on what I consider a trade union education pedagogy to look and feel like.

This is partly because I am wrestling with emerging findings from interviews with alumni and current students of the MA in international labour and trade union studies (ILTUS at Ruskin College. As a reminder of my thesis focus, a key goal is to explore personal impact, but also the contribution (if any) the MA makes to activity, strategy and policy of trade union renewal.

MA ILTUS Students at Ruskin College: Sharing learning and understanding -
a community of practice.

In thinking through my findings and discussing them with my supervisor (Cilla Ross: Vice-Principal, Co-operative College) she reminded of the way that what is emerging from my research with trade union learners, has some coherence with research that she (and others) completed for Unionlearn on the experience of members engaged in learning (formal and informal) initiated by their unions:

I'll write a further piece on the nature of my findings. What I felt it useful to do as an aspect of my reflections though was write something simpler on what I consider is my pedagogic approach to working with trade union learners (and add photos from my teaching) . I also wanted to draw no distinction here between my MA or BA ILTUS experience at Ruskin, and teaching with the many groups of trade union learners I encounter every year - the kind I write of regularly.

At this year's TUC Black Workers' Conference I ran the session on black workers
and precarious employment.
So, what am I trying to achieve with trade union leaners?

Primarily to build confidence in themselves and their capacity to engage with the myriad challenges they face in the workplace and wider society.

Confidence, I feel, comes through a combination of self-esteem and the idea that agency/action reflects the power/influence of the activist and members.

This means that I focus on validating the experience of activists. Stressing that their knowledge and experience has value to others.

I try and illustrate also that our learning - from one another - can generate understanding of (a) linkages vertically and horizontally with the political economy of work (e.g. why is this happening to us, and to others in the union?) and (b) how shared knowledge and understanding is possibly the most powerful tool we have. Too much trade union education focuses on legal remedy rather than workers' power.

So a focus on experience (even the worst kind) is critical, as the deconstruction of this allows us to identify commonalities (thus networks and movements are borne) and strategies.

CWU reps attend the BAME Leadership weekend in February this year.
In linking the issues above together, I try and do some simple things:

Remember names, workplaces, case studies of experience. Using colleague's names from the outset means that we create a dynamic, engaged learning environment: a community of practice. Remembering workplaces and experience not also evidences respect but allows us to build a sense of common experience and capacity to critique this and develop common solutions.

Underline that politics and history is everything and everywhere. Too few trade union learners (in my experience) feel confident in their political and historical knowledge. It is fundamentally important that their experience of the workplace can be seen to have vertical (national, European, international) links to that other workers also, and horizontal (other unionised and non-unionised workers in their sector/city) otherwise we cannot build consciousness.

Concentrate on the ways in which most employer strategy attempts to exert power and control in micro and macro ways. Much of what I see in the public sector represents a need, for example in local government, to maintain service delivery despite massive job losses. The resultant ill-health workers are exposed to is managed (in my experience) through arbitrary and punitive management of the disciplinary and capability procedures.

Recognise that some of the basic theories of accruing trade union/workers' power has not changed. In his seminal book, The Frontier of Control, Carter Goodrich focuses on those staples of disruption and solidarity. In his attempt to 'modernise' Goodrich, Gregor Gall draws on Eric Bastone to argue, correctly in my view, that an acknowledgement of the influences of market and society (what I've suggested are the vertical and horizontal linkages to the workplace) and the relationship between capital and labour is critical to understanding how to effect change at work, and in society more broadly.

Read Gall's article on sources of union power here:

MA ILTUS students attend Levellers' Day 2015
So much of trade union work feels isolated and disparate. Thus, I see the approach to pedagogy in trade union education as providing a means of (a) connecting the local to the global so that (b) the politics of globalisation and neo-liberalism can be made real and understood in order that (c) workers' experience (locally and globally) can be seen as part and parcel of developing strategy to challenge exploitation at work and in society more broadly.

This 'nutshell' perspective on my approach to teaching and learning with trade union learners is predicated also on the simple view that I am (always) a learner too.

As ever comments/thoughts are very welcome.

In Solidarity


Friday, 6 May 2016

Thank you David Beresford

Dear Colleagues,

This is just a brief/short piece as I am now on sabbatical leave attempting to complete key parts/stage of my doctoral thesis. But I need to comment on my deep appreciation for the journalism of the Guardian journalist, David Beresford, who died on 22nd April in Johannesburg.

Here is the link to Beresford's obituary:

Although I was going to skip this post because of workload, it was reading Gary Young's beautiful, reflective piece on his relationship with Beresford that moved to writing a few words. Here is a link to that article:

David Beresford: "An eloquence that defined his humanity".
As a young, black trade unionist in Manchester in the mid 1980's it was the journalism of David Beresford and John Carlin of The Independent that helped me develop a critically important grasp of the politics of South Africa, and of how the apartheid regime reflected a political ideology manifest in a variety of ways in the political economy of the UK under Thatcher, the US under Reagan and elsewhere

This body of journalism supplemented a radically important, formative period of my life as a trade union representative for what was then the CPSA (now PCS) and as a member of what was then Labour Party Young Socialists. The experience of, for example, campaigning against Thatcher's ban on trade unions at GCHQ (tiny URL), of working with LGBT organisations against Section 28 of the Local Government Act and experiencing the gradual industrial decline on Manchester, all needed to be understood within a wider, political framework. Beresford's consistent, sharp analysis was a constant source of help and understanding.

The political and social backdrop to my life then though wasn't just events in South Africa, it was those closer to home in Northern Ireland. Although I didn't read it immediately on publication (instead waiting until it arrived in Manchester Central Library many months later) Beresford's seminal book Ten Men Dead is considered to be one of the best exposes of those factors behind the 1981 hunger strikes which led to the deaths of Bobby Sands, Francis Hughes, Raymond McCreesh and Patsy O'Hara, Joe McDonnell, Martin Hurson, Kevin Lynch, Keiran Doherty, Thomas McElwee and Michael Devine.

The period known as The Troubles in Northern Ireland, and the era of Apartheid were slowly, subtly and irrevocably unmasked, and ultimately diminished by a combination of political protest and the unstinting determination of people like David Beresford to speak truth to power.

You can still track down examples of Beresford's journalism online and in various archives and libraries. If the politics of South Africa interest you, and you'd like an insight into his writing at its very best, critical and sharpest, I wholeheartedly recommend his 2010 book Truth is a Strange Fruit, which can still be purchased from the original publishers:
Despite the best intentions of apartheid to separate groups by racial category this book reveals that, above all else, South African history was never as easy to understand as the difference between black and white. Here, for example Beresford unmasks the perverse collaboration between the apartheid regime and the Israeli state, as well as the more sinister activity of the ANC in exile as it sought to maintain power whilst in waiting.

The book, alongside Beresford's journalism is a profound legacy, that I hope finds its way into the curriculum of students of politics, history, journalism etc. It is purposed, political writing at its very best. I'd like to think of myself as a student of David Beresford and that somehow my own teaching encourages student to engage, critique and write in the same way and for the same purpose that he did.

In Solidarity