Sunday, 5 June 2016

Making sense of trade union knowledge production: Embodied activism

Dear Colleagues,

I am at a stage where I can share a simple/basic description of how I am framing a key aspect of my thesis findings: the theory of embodied activism. I am going to distribute the link for this post to MA students and alumni (maintaining the spirit of co-production in my methodological approach) and ask them for feedback on how I explain their experience of the MA in international labour and trade union studies (ILTUS) at Ruskin College, Oxford.

The idea for this approach popped into my head yesterday when I attended the first in a series of events, organised by my marvellous colleague Fenella Porter, which have been funded by the Lipman-Miliband Trust:

The Lipman-Miliband series of events at Ruskin fall under the broad theme of the future of organised labour around change
in the political economy of work. The first event kicked off the series in great style with a stellar line up of speakers and great attendance. The event was followed by a focus group discussion with representatives of alternative models of organised labour (mainly IWW comrades attended) as part of a project that Ruskin is a partner to which is examining the potential impact of the Trade Union Bill.

All in all, yesterday was one of those days that epitomised Ruskin at it's very best: at the forefront of discussion and analysis of the future of organised labour.

The flyer lists the speakers and you'll see that Holly Smith (who completed the MA in 2014) joined the panel to discuss her dissertation which compared the outcomes of industrial action at Brighton City council involving refuse workers and the pop-up union at Sussex University.

As can be expected, the discussion during the day concentrated on those issues that debilitate the representative nature of traditional trade union structure, alienating women employed in the informal economy for example. Ultimately though the focus remained positive not least when listening to the experience of IWW comrades who spoke of local mobilisations which resist employer strategies of workplace power and control.

Joining Holly were two MA alumni (pictured) Katia Widlak (of the strategy unit at UNISON) and Jon Bigger (currently completing his PhD (and teaching) at Loughborough Univ). I had a good discussion with Holly, Jon and Katia last night and really enjoyed listening to their response of my findings and the theory of embodied activism.

The Renewal Actor
So, in explaining the findings let me first say that what I uncovered was not what I expected. My thesis is an attempt to locate (a) the experience of the MA and it's impact on an international body of trade unionists who completed the MA between 2006 and 2016 and (b) it's relationship to strategies and practice of trade union renewal. The idea is to examine Mezirow's theory of transformative learning ( and Colin Hay's approach to structure and agency in examining the contribution of activists to movement practice and development ( to determine whether you can generalise on the MA experience and argue that alumni are renewal actors.

That is, the MA experience heightens the sense of agential potential to achieve renewal, and processes of critical reflective practice (bringing together Freire and Gramsci) combined with research opportunities realise praxis.

The findings do, in some way, reveal evidence of increased agency and a sense that praxis (turning theory into practice) is realisable. However, what MA alumni really wanted to talk about was the outcomes of the MA educational experience upon them as trade union activists.

In the spirit of Raymond Williams the key words that arose as themes from the process of coding the interview transcripts and online survey are: confidence, legitimacy, authority and validation.

Renewing Activist Identity
As I haven't yet fully worked through a my theoretical explanation of the findings, let me try and encapsulate my theory of what these key words/themes tell us in simple/clear language. And let me provide a basic argument for the emergent theoretical explanation that I am calling embodied activism.

First, the findings reflect and acknowledge theories of embodied and situated learning i.e. that we learn through physical experience as much as cognitive, and that learning often takes place in certain situations/settings. (read this for an introduction to the theory:

The MA as a community of practice: Current MA students listen
to IWW activist and full-time MA student Matt Hannam
discuss the findings from his dissertation
In this context, whilst trade unionists learn through processes of workplace-based conflict (and sometimes in more street/community-oriented settings) a crisis of confidence emerges in two ways. First, the exposure to intimidation and isolation e.g. caught between the hostility of the employer and on occasion trade union members. Second, a sense of dislocation from agency/power within trade union structures.

It is critically important here to focus specifically on trade union officials also who comprise approximately 50% of alumni. The variant to the explanation above is that the crisis of confidence arises also because of the way in which their own identity as a trade unionist is diminished (for overt or subtle cultural/political reasons) as a result of their employed role.

It is also important to argue that, when looking at the literature on employment relations/trade union renewal, rarely are full-time officers (FTOs) treated as trade unionists in their own right. Instead they are collapsed into a general set of assumptions around trade union bureaucracy.

Taking these findings together, the themes of legitimacy, authority and validation appear when students discuss what the processes of critical reflective practice and research/writing mean to them in renewing/solidifying their primary identity as trade unionists.

Thus the MA outcomes renew a sense of power and identity within organised labour. Additionally, it is important to say that alumni see the MA experience as a community of practice. They argue that the MA provides a space/site for critical analysis/interpretation of one another's experience of activism/employment within the labour movement and of the labour movement.

Embodied Activism
Inspired by the work of Tracey Ollis in particular (e.g. the theory of embodied activism how I am shaping the findings and arguing as an original contribution to knowledge in the field of activist education and knowledge production.

In a nutshell: The sense of activism is living and embodied, but diminished over time. The MA experience renews trade union identity and agential purpose.

In this context I am also framing this theory in the context of some long-standing concerns I have always had about the nature and practice of mainstream trade union education.

This concern is best expressed when comparing models and modes of trade union education with that for allied social movements (read this by my colleague Laurence Cox and Christina Flesher Fominaya for a sense of my argument here: Social movement (whether those directly allied to organised labour, ecological, feminist etc.) practice acknowledges and respects that activists generate and produce knowledge as a direct result of their activism.

This knowledge production process is seen as the most critical component of movement critique and development. It doesn't always work fluidly and smoothly, but my point is that those at the coalface of the movement are acknowledged for their insight and expertise. Communities of practice structure and relay that experience in organic ways to aid and foster movement growth and renewal.

This edited book by Aziz Choudry and Dip Kapoor illustrates this process working across a variety of movements internationally:

Trade Union Knowledge Production
A key concern of mine is that significant elements of mainstream trade union education either consciously or unwittingly loses the potential for insight gained from knowledge gained and produced by trade unionists on a daily basis. Additionally, the lack of a critique of political economy in trade union education can weaken the ways in which trade unionists make vertical links to the commonality of issues to workers and trade unionists globally, and horizontal links to other trade unions as well as other movements.

There is good practice that I come across both in the UK and internationally, but it is true to say that large segments of trade union education distil information which revolves around the role of the representative, rather than the activist. This, in my view, is where some of the dilemma starts.

We needn't be pessimistic however as there are those who seek to critically explore the political purpose and values of trade union education.

For example, on September 7 at the Marx Memorial Library (MML) there is an event titled Labour Movement Education Unshackled: Problems, Ideas and Opportunities. Speakers include those who I know from personal experience are committed to the work of the ILTUS team at Ruskin as well as an on-going analysis of the purpose of educational strategy in the context of trade union renewal particularly, Roger McKenzie (UNISON), Trish Lavelle, (CWU) and Wilf Sullivan (TUC).

The event is not yet advertised on the  MML website, but keep an eye on the events page:

I should also give a plug for the MML series of courses for trade unionists, themed Trade Unions and Power, which better reflect, I feel, the kind of political education needed to inspire trade unionists:

Ruskin College of course will continue, I hope, to play a considerable role here nationally and internationally, in working with trade unions to develop programmes of education that strengthen trade union organisation.

In that vein I must give a plug for the summer school organised by my colleague Colm Bryce, tutor at Ruskin and current student of the MA ILTUS, who like Fenella has brought together a wholly impressive roster of speakers for an event which reflects the radical education spirit of Ruskin - see flyer pictured.

Please come along - it will be worth it.

End Note
I am very much looking forward to writing up my thesis, not least to pay respect to the MA students, but also colleagues at Ruskin who encouraged and motivated me during the early stages of my doctorate and are now covering for me during my sabbatical period. But let me say a massive thanks now to Tracy Walsh, Fenella Porter, Caroline Holmes, Peter Dwyer and many others.

I also look forward (somehow, not worked through yet how to do it) to recognising my prime political and cultural influences and who have shaped my approach to teaching also, Primo Levi and Miles Davies. This may seem like an odd combination, but they aren't really when you examine what political and social forces each were responding to, and lessons we can draw from their music and writing when teaching trade unionists and other social justice activists.

I welcome also the opportunity to frame my positionality as wholly positive about the future of organised labour in the UK, and the role that trade union education can play, particularly in sharing experience and practice with other movements.

Please do comment/feedback on my findings from the thesis, and the theory of embodied activism.

I shall write more about the findings/outcomes and next steps as part of the process of writing up.

In Solidarity


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