Tuesday, 20 December 2016

Union Membership Increases: A Great Start for 2017!

Dear Colleagues,

My last post of the year comes on the back of an increase in trade union membership which, although identified formally earlier in the year, has been spurred on by the waves of industrial action across rail, post and air travel.

As Paul Mason reports in today's Guardian, the wave of strike action reflects core concerns of workers including the rise of insecure work, stagnant wages, and the increasing impacts of automation. Whilst strike action is only one remedy in the repertoire of union activity, we know from historical analysis (including Richard Hyman's Strikes) that industrial action can and does have a consciousness raising effect on those involved, and those non-unionised workers observing.

Thus, as Mason suggests, whilst some are criticising striking workers, others are taking a leaf from their book, and deciding that now is the time to collectivise.

As the pace and scale of precarious forms of work increases across the UK, and workers see their wages plunge further in real terms value, it is not surprising that they add 2 and 2, and see trade union membership as part of the answer.

It is not just the broad political and social context of work that is problematic, it is the very nature of work itself. Whether the increased pace of work, or the brutalising effects of poor managerial practices. As Mason states:

We have near full employment yet near wage stagnation. The strikes taking place over Christmas are happening among workers who have not seen a pay rise for years. BA’s onboard customer service managers, for example, have been stripped of their union negotiation rights and had their pay frozen for six years.

One of the most pitiful things about the political class, and the economists who whisper certainties in their ear, is their distance from the actual experience of work. As trade union rights have become eroded throughout the private sector, and large chunks of the public sector become privatised, a culture of coercion has taken root at work.

The full article can be read here: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/dec/19/dont-complain-about-the-strikers-theyre-only-doing-what-we-all-should-in-2017

Formal confirmation of the initial increase in mid-2016 is here: https://www.tuc.org.uk/union-issues/leadership-unions/stronger-unions-blog/tuc-welcomes-increase-trade-union-membership

So, although just a brief post, one at least to end 2016, and introduce 2017, on a highly positive note.

I wish you all the very best for the Christmas period, and look forward to writing my first post of the new year.

In Solidarity


Thursday, 8 December 2016

The Maddest Christmas I Ever Saw (The Leveller Revolution)

Dear Colleagues,

A strange title indeed for one of my last posts of 2017, but this is the title of the first chapter of The Leveller Revolution: Radical Political Organisation in England 1640-1650 by John Rees. Recently published by Verso this is one of the few books, as the title suggests, which argues that the political organisation of the Leveller movement was a central feature of the civil war.

This new, authoritative account of the Levellers explores also an important dimension of modern political/social movement analysis, which is that it is the actions of people, not just new/different ideas, which is central to driving change. As Rees charts particular ideas, like popular sovereignty and republicanism did indeed gain popularity during the 17th century, but this was largely a reflection of the active organisation of popular power in the Leveller’s own structures, and those of the rank and file of the army. Without all that, the ideas would have remained vanishingly marginal.

There is a sound, critical review of the new book in web version of Counterfire by Dominic Alexander. Hopefully I won't get into trouble by copying an extract from this below. The entire review is at:


There is an ideological preference among mainstream historians to prefer to see ideas as leading the way towards actions, but one of the lessons of this account of the revolution is that it was events and activity which paved the way for new ideas to emerge and become popular. Hence, while conventional historiography tends to present the secular radicalism of the Levellers as emerging almost out of nowhere, it makes much more historical sense to root the development of their ideas in the background of longstanding radical activity.

The Levellers were pioneers of revolutionary mass organisation, and if their movement was not a political party in a modern sense, they did at their height have party-like features, such as appointed treasurers and dues-paying members (pp.339-49). It was precisely through such organisation that ideas such as republicanism, which had been a vanishingly fringe notion before the civil war, became popularised and powerful. Many historical accounts over the years have attempted to dismiss the Levellers and their role, and even to claim that they were simply an amorphous collection of differing individuals within a wider, loose radicalism of the late 1640s. John Rees’ highly readable account thoroughly debunks such dismissive conceptions, and puts the Levellers at the centre of the revolution, where they deserve to be.

Please read the full review of the book, and consider it also a well-deserved Christmas present for yourself. My personal recommendation is that, those interested in the analysis of radical political organisation in modern movement practice, have much to learn (as ever) from historical analysis. Rees has helped support that process.

In Solidarity


Monday, 5 December 2016

Fighting the Bosses: 40 Years of In These Times

Dear Colleagues,

I am writing to say Happy Birthday to one of the best sources of insight and journalism on the state of organised labour (and politics more broadly) in the US. In These Times has reached the grand old age of 40, and is already proving to be a key source of information and analysis on the implications of Trump for unions and the working class:


There are a number of articles in its latest print magazine which bring together some analysis of the past 40 years' of analysis. I thought I'd provide the opening paragraph of my favourite article, Fighting the Bosses: 40 Years of In These Times, to help encourage you to read further articles and to read ITT on a regular basis if you don't already.

Fighting the Bosses: 40 Years of In These Times

Without a strong labor movement, there is little hope for socialism—let alone a more humane capitalism. By

Neither a “red diaper” nor a “blue-collar” baby, I came circuitously to be one of In These Times’ original staff writers, covering labor. I grew up on a farm in western Illinois, where my youthful models of alternatives to capitalism owed less to Marx—whom I didn’t seriously study until graduate school—and more to the collective work of putting up hay with neighboring farmers and the cooperative traditions of the farm supply company my father managed.

My first, minor experience of working-class struggle came in high school, on the grueling job of pulling tassels off seed corn. I led a walkout of fellow workers who shared my resistance to slogging through a muddy field rather than waiting for the ground to dry. We won nothing, but we felt good.
As an early ’60s student “radical” I did win some victories in the modest realm of campus politics—and also a week-long expulsion for publishing an “alternative” newspaper. That led to my first full-time job after college, working for Newsweek in Los Angeles. I had the good fortune to cover the beginnings of the United Farm Workers’ organizing drive under Cesar Chavez, and learned important lessons about solidarity, persistence and the flaws of even labor movement saints.

A few years later, I entered graduate school in anthropology at the University of Chicago. Inspired by Marx to see work as central to the creation of human culture, I did fieldwork for my dissertation not in the usual exotic locales but in eastern Ohio, among the young workers engaged in high-profile conflicts with General Motors at a new factory in Lordstown. Contrary to popular belief, workers there were even more interested in control over their work than in increasing their pay.

Please make ITT a favourite of yours and please consider a financial donation to keep their vital, independent journalism alive. Please also consider a subscription to the print magazine.

In Solidarity