Category Archives: Union Organising

Brexit, EU labour migration & worker rights: the story so far

Immigration and restricting EU migrant rights to freedom of movement were core issues in the lead up to the referendum vote, yet agreement on the detail of a new UK immigration policy continues to be a way off, leaving employers, workers and their families in limbo. Researchers based in the Centre for Employment Relations Innovation and Change (CERIC) at LUBS working on labour migration, mobility and changing patterns of work, have been working with different interest groups (business, unions and civil society) in a unique way to enhance understanding of how these groups are coping with the uncertain impacts of the Brexit vote. This exploratory research provides insight into the ongoing challenges of trying to anticipate, respond to and shape migration policy for and on behalf of their members in an uncertain context. This blog sets out the background and how the CERIC team’s research agenda is being shaped by bringing different interest groups together on this emotive and evolving topic.

Current context

After the BREXIT vote in June 2016, UK and EU negotiators signaled that reaching agreement on the rights of EU and UK citizens already living in another member state was a priority. Yet, it was only on 8th of December 2017 that UK and EU negotiators published a joint report outlining principles on the treatment of EEA nationals in the UK and UK nationals in the EU and on 21st June 2018, that the UK government announced details of the ‘settled status[1]’ scheme. Campaign groups point to many ‘unsettled’ questions about this process and the new forms of regulation of EU labour mobility post-Brexit. An immigration bill was announced in January 2017 but was subsequently put on hold until wider Brexit negotiations are progressed. The UK government has indicated EU freedom of movement will end, but migration policy continues to be shaped by the wider negotiations with the EU and ongoing internal political processes and policy analysis. The Home Secretary instructed the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC)[2] to report by September 2018 on the impact of EEA workers on the UK labour market and the Home Affairs Select Committee is undertaking an inquiry into Post-Brexit Migration Policy.[3] Thus, there continues to be both formal and informal spaces for dialogue between different groups of social actors seeking to shape these outcomes.

While these deliberative processes are ongoing, net migration has slowed considerably since the referendum vote. According to the ONS[4], the largest drop in net migration to the UK to occur in decades was experienced in the period June 2016 to June 2017 falling from 336,000 to 230,000: three quarters of this fall was due to the drop in migration from the EU. More recent statistics show that migration from the EU has continued to fall. The ONS reports notes that ‘the numbers of EU citizens coming to the UK looking for work decreased by 58,000 over the year to September 2017, particularly driven by the fall in numbers of citizens from EU15 and EU8[5] countries (24,000 and 18,000 respectively). For the latter, this is the lowest number recorded since accession. Recent polls[6] suggest that the UK general public’s perception of immigration has softened since the Brexit referendum, yet the ONS migration data are indicative of the material effects felt by workers, and by extension employers, of the ongoing uncertainty of how the UK will regulate EU labour mobility post-Brexit.

Employers, legal advisors, trade unions, civil society and faith groups and local, national and international authorities all have concerns around the implications of Brexit for their various constituents and are variously involved in the political debates noted above. The positions and actions of these different interest groups, therefore, have important implications for the changing socio-economic relationship between the UK and the European Union and for the UK’s own social model. Some of these groups seek to be a counterweighing power to social, political and media forces seeking a ‘hard’ Brexit outcome and stricter regulation of EU labour migration to the UK. These groups are also critical in shaping the environment that affects the everyday experience of those that exercised their right to free movement between the UK and the EU. CERIC’s research has been on exploring actions and reactions of these groups within this extraordinary period of uncertainty by asking a set of inter-related questions: How do different social actors imagine the migration landscape post-Brexit? What challenges and consequences of Brexit do they anticipate for labour mobility? How are they formulating policy positions and trying to shape the debate around the new post-Brexit immigration system?

 

Brexit roundtable

CERIC BREXIT and labour mobility roundtable
September 2017

By critically exploring the competing visions of what the UK’s new social model might look like and bringing together the voices of different interest groups we are generating new data and promoting dialogue as part of our commitment to developing research that is co-produced: giving different stakeholders a voice in shaping the key research questions and design[7]. The framing of these questions aims to not only understand and amplify these diverse voices but also to bring different actors together to discuss complex questions. To realise this aim CERIC researchers have undertaken scoping interviews and both hosting and participating in roundtable events exploring common concerns and areas of difference with respect to the question of labour mobility around four connected and overlapping themes, employment and legal frameworks; social protection; regulating labour mobility and migration policy. For example, in September 2017, CERIC held a roundtable with employer groups including the Chamber of Commerce and Sector Skills bodies, civil society organisations campaigning for the rights of EU citizens in the UK and trade unions. Members of the CERIC team have also participated in roundtable events hosted by other partners including the Chamber of Commerce and regional migrant support networks and undertaken wider interviews with employment lawyers, faith and community organisations. The following summarises the themes emerging from these discussions and we conclude by setting out the implications for our research agenda.

 

The significance of labour mobility and freedom of movement

The different groups taking part in the research had contrasting positions in advance of the referendum vote. For example, most, but not all, trade unions advocated for ‘remain’ and were generally in favour of continuation of the free movement of workers. Business organisations took a more neutral stance due, in part, to business members being both ‘leave’ and ‘remain’ supporters, reflecting that some sectors such as hospitality, construction and the public sector are much more likely to be adversely affected by restrictions in the movement of EU workers, whereas other parts of their constituency were less likely to employ migrant workers. Unsurprisingly, those campaigning for the rights of EU citizens were in favour of remaining in the EU. Overall there was limited reflection given by employer or worker representatives on the merits or challenges presented by the existing policy of freedom of movement. Much more emphasis was placed on what might come next. There was an acceptance (albeit for some, a very reluctant acceptance) that there will be restrictions placed on future migration from the EU.

The discussion developed more broadly to cover future scenarios for the UK economy informed, in the main, by existing understanding of what had led to pre-Brexit levels of EU worker migration to the UK. These drivers were seen by business and worker representatives as inextricably linked to economic considerations such as UK and EU labour markets, pay and wages, skills supply and demand, levels of employment (and under-employment) and UK trade and investment decisions. Yet, the civil society groups that were campaigning for the rights of EU citizens in the UK reminded us that, while key drivers for migration is often work and employment, there also many social factors that shape labour mobility such as the quest for family re-union or education. In this regard a worrying report by colleagues at the University of Birmingham has been published recently[8], highlighting the legal limbo in which many EU families will find themselves in the field of family re-union. These observations made it problematic to talk about migration policy in isolation and illustrates the need for future migration policy to be developed with reference to wider policy considerations.  Rather than re-thinking the regulation of migration in isolation, remarks from the participants reflect that post-Brexit migration policy needs to be developed in the context of wider economic and social considerations.  This accords for example with the objectives of the current MAC commission on the employment of EEA workers which seeks to ‘aligning the UK immigration system with a modern industrial strategy (p20),’ yet many other aspects of related policy also need to be considered in terms the affect worker rights, labour standards, social and welfare rights.

Visions for EU labour migration under different Brexit scenarios

Different visions of future migration policy were expressed by the various stakeholder groups. Employer organisations taking part in the CERIC research were, over-time, less ardently free market oriented than might have been expected.  Initial positions stated by employer organisations in the months immediately after the referendum strongly expressed the desire for open migration regimes to meet the needs of employers seeking sourcing both high and lower skilled workers[9].  Over time, the tone expressed by some employer groups had shifted slightly to the acceptance of a migration system that may be more restrictive due to the need to be mindful of ‘politically acceptable’ outcomes. FlipchartHowever, umbrella organisations such as the CBI and Chamber have continued to push government for greater certainty on the rights of their EU workers, on hiring from EU countries during the negotiation period and to avoid overly bureaucratic processes for post-Brexit hires. One employer group, the CITB, were hopeful that a case could be made for special conditions to more easily allow recruitment from the EU to address ‘strategically important’ skills shortages. Others, such as the British Hospitality Association (BHA) have suggested a sector-based quota system for hospitality, considering that predicted annual recruitment need is over 100,000 people, assuming zero labour turnover amongst British born workers.[10]  The likely restrictions associated to the terms of residency for workers under these quota systems need however to be considered as part of the wider social implications that migration reform has on migrants’ rights and those of their families.

debateThe TUC and union participants in the CERIC roundtable were more clearly advocating for free movement and for the importance of free trade and the single market as an important mechanism in establishing a ‘level playing field’ making particular reference to the value of the Social Chapter[11] and its benefits for both ‘good’ businesses and for workers. Underpinning this position was a common assumption that withdrawal from the EU would lead to employment protections being weakened, threatening a ‘race to the bottom’ in terms of worker rights and employment practices that also adversely affect those ‘good’ employers. There have been public assurances from the Government that workers’ rights will be maintained and even strengthened but many, including trade unionists, remain skeptical that this will be the case.

Current activity

The current activity of different interest groups could be grouped into three categories: developing more intelligence on labour mobility issues affecting members; developing support and guidance for constituents and looking to shape the political debate. The employer bodies participating in CERIC discussions were trying to improve data and analysis on the use of migrant labour amongst their membership to help assess the potential impact on the future workforce. They were also developing understanding of the potential for and limitations of employers using alternative strategies to make up for any loss of EU worker recruitment[12] through for example more training and development of indigenous workers or investment in new technologies. Yet the employer groups noted that gaps remained in their understanding of patterns of migrant labour demand or the longer term historical drivers that had shaped labour migration in specific sectors and regions. Many unions and employers were using legal services to keep themselves up to date with the negotiations between the UK and the EU, advising EU migrants among their members on how to apply for permanent residence under the current regulation. For example, the BHA is providing materials to help ensure that workers can exercise their rights to certification of permanent residency where applicable. This work also aims to have a positive effect in terms of boosting goodwill with EU workers towards hospitality sector employers. Trade unions were also directly engaging with EU migrant workers and community networks to provide advice to those concerned about their rights during the transition period.

Influencing the debate

CERIC’s initial research involved participants from international, national and regional organisations in order to explore the nature of dialogue at, and between, different levels.  At the international level, UK civil society groups have been campaigning to develop alliances with those leading campaigns promoting the interests of UK citizens in Europe and engaging directly with the EU negotiators to stress that EU labour mobility should be an intrinsic part of integration undertaken by the people of Europe themselves rather than a purely economic matter deriving from the rules of the single market. At the national level, all groups are making representations to government through formal and informal channels including to the relevant parliamentary scrutiny committees of DEXEU and Economic Affairs and the Home Office appointed commission on EEA migration being undertaken by the MAC. Regional groups, perhaps inevitably, made reference to the possibility of regional flexibilities in any migration system, notably to meet particularly localised skills needs. This focus is shaped by broader political tensions around the devolution of powers to the UK nations and regions of the UK including the devolution of budgets around skills training and infrastructure. This view was given focus by an early report by the Institute of Public Policy Research which contained six proposed options for the new immigration policy one of which included the suggestion of sub-state solutions to migration policy[13].

Conflicting and Common issues

Our roundtable discussions included some robust (yet cordial) difference of opinion around:  visions of future policy and the impact of new migration regulations on employers and citizens. In particular we noticed different understandings of what “regulation” means. Employer bodies associated migration policies with the possible risk of increased bureaucracy, notably at the point of recruitment. In contrast, trade union representatives regarded regulation positively in the form of protections of standards for workers. Unions stressed that proposals requiring workers to have employer sponsors could make migrant workers more dependent upon those employers, limiting their voice. An obvious paradox emerges in that employers were highlighting the cost of compliance and unions the cost of non-compliance or regulation that enables the potential for greater exploitation of workers, thereby lowering labour standards.

In terms of common threads, there were four areas where there was a convergence of views: firstly, the need to assure security for those EU workers already in the UK and their families; secondly, that student numbers should not be included in migration statistics; and, thirdly, that there was need for greater dialogue between different groups of stakeholders to build a better consensus on the way forward, not just toward Brexit, but after the exit date and beyond. Finally, it was also notable that there was a common view amongst stakeholders that investment in local, indigenous, labour was seen as a possible alternative strategy that could mitigate against the need for migrant labour. This runs counter to an alternative perspective: the  skills and training of indigenous workers could be seen as positively related to the use of migrant labour. This is a theme that the interim MAC report of March 2018 noted,[14] providing illustrations of how the recruitment of skilled European workers contributed to improved training levels. The final report by MAC on EEA workers, due in September 2018, will look specifically at the impact of the employment of EEA workers on the UK resident population, including the impact on training.

Next steps

It remains to be seen how UK government and EU negotiators will re-shape labour migration regulation to adequately address the demands of civic, business and labour organisations in the UK while giving regard to the outcome of the referendum vote. This continues to take place within an uncertain and volatile political environment.  The early stage research undertaken by CERIC researchers has provided insights into the ongoing challenges and activity of different groups trying to anticipate and shape policy appropriately for and on behalf of their members. Key themes emerged for the future directions for research. This includes the need to improve understanding of the regional and sectoral dimensions of the ‘EU workforce’, how patterns of migrant employment have developed and the roles that different institutional actors have played in facilitating these trends and finally, how migration policy will evolve in relation to related (socio-) economic policy such as the UK Industrial Strategy.

This requires taking more historical and sociologically informed perspectives to help move the debate forward. A deeper analysis will help different interest groups anticipate the implications of ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ BREXIT scenarios. The co-production approach has illustrated the willingness of different parties to strengthen and deepen the level of debate, enhance understanding of different positions and provide opportunities to influence debate at the local, national and international levels. Participants recognised the value of exploring policy proposals through joint analysis of tensions and common ground to help unpack the content of proposed policy develop understanding of potential impacts on the rights and responsibilities of different groups helping to move the debate beyond current political narratives focused primarily on annual immigration targets. CERIC researchers will continue to bring these voices together, highlighting points of tensions as well as commonalities, contributing to the development of research informed public debate and policy that will shape the social model of a post-Brexit Britain that will, whatever the outcome of specific migration policy, to continue to be inextricably linked to that of its European neighbours.

[1] https://www.gov.uk/settled-status-eu-citizens-families/applying-for-settled-status

[2] https://www.gov.uk/government/collections/impact-of-eea-and-non-eea-workers-in-uk-labour-market-responses

[3] https://www.parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-a-z/commons-select/home-affairs-committee/inquiries/parliament-2017/inquiry4/

[4] Office for National statistics. Migration Statistics Quarterly Report: February 2018 Available at:  https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/populationandmigration/internationalmigration/bulletins/migrationstatisticsquarterlyreport/february2018#fewer-eu-migrants-coming-to-the-uk-for-work

[5] EU15 country members prior to the 2004 enlargement; EU8 those joining in the 2004 enlargement

[6] YouGov Top Issues Trackers (2017-2018); Ipsos-MORI Issues Index (May2018)

[7] For a discussion of co-production in social science research see for example https://www.n8research.org.uk/view/5163/Final-Report-Co-Production-2016-01-20.pdf

[8] https://eurochildren.info/2018/03/28/a-generation-of-children-of-eu-parents-to-be-lost-in-the-intricacies-of-brexit-research-reveals/

[9] http://www.britishchambers.org.uk/policy-maker/policy-reports-and-publications/business-brexit-priorities.html

[10] http://www.bha.org.uk/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/BHA-Brexit-Consultation-11116.pdf

[11] https://www.coe.int/en/web/turin-european-social-charter

[12] http://www.britishchambers.org.uk/Business%20Brexit%20Checklist%20BCC.pdf

[13] https://www.ippr.org/research/publications/an-immigration-strategy-for-the-uk

[14] https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/694494/eea-workers-uk-labour-market-interim-update.pdf

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The productivity crisis and the role of trade unions: partnership, productivity and skills in the UK

Bert Clough CERIC

Bert Clough, Visiting Professor, CERIC

As the Nobel Prize winner, Paul Krugman, has stated “productivity isn’t everything but in the long run it is almost everything”. A nation’s ability to improve its standard of living depends almost entirely on its ability to raise its hourly output per worker. That is why increasing productivity should be as important for trade unions as securing the fairer distribution of economic returns of GDP. But productivity has virtually flatlined since the financial crisis in 2008/9. Even more concerning is that the UK has the widest productivity gap with the G7 countries average since the mid-1990s. The General Secretary of the TUC, Frances O’Grady, has warned that the “productivity headache is a self-inflicted wound” resulting from years of cuts and low public investment. The TUC believes that enhanced productivity can only be achieved in investment and embedded in a culture of positive labour relations; with the workforce and their employers becoming “productivity partners”. This requires unions to adopt strategies based on integrative, not just distributive, bargaining.

Can such rhetoric about such social partnership arrangements over productivity be made reality? In 2000, as part of his Productivity Initiative, Gordon Brown asked the TUC and CBI to join forces to identify key priorities and joint recommendations to the Treasury on how to enhance productivity.  One key driver that was identified was that of skills. In a recent research paper, I have sought to assess the effectiveness of the skills strand of the initiative. As part of the Chancellor’s strategy to close the wide productivity gap with UK major competitors by 2010, the aim was for young people and adults to have knowledge and skills that matched the best in the world.

A fragile social partnership over skills had existed during the era of neo-corporatism in the 1970s. But this was ended by the Thatcher government, which abolished tripartite institutions such as the Manpower Services Commission and most of the industry training boards. New Labour was not however about devolving decisions over skills formation to social partners and restoring neo-corporate institutions. Nor was the “Third Way” about reintroducing training levies or establishing statutory collective bargaining over training. The Productivity Initiative was thus constrained by what has been described as a “social-democratic variant of labour market neo-liberalism”. Another constraint was the divergent approaches of the social partners to workforce development. Whereas the TUC has traditionally had a more expansive, employment-focussed approach that supported state intervention, the CBI has had a restrictive employer-focussed approach that cleaved to voluntarism. As a result, the remit of the skills working group under the Productivity Initiative (which was chaired by the then TUC General Secretary – John Monks) was narrow. The remit confined itself to four priorities which conveniently reflected the Government’s vocational education and training (VET) strategy:

  1. increasing the proportion of the adult workforce qualified to Level 2;
  2. tackling the basic skills problems of individuals;
  3. increasing the take-up of Investors in People by small organisations;
  4. improving VET delivery.

The major deficiencies in the exercise was that it was that it confined itself to the supply side as opposed to the demand side. It did not address the key skills components that help drive productivity – their utilisation and higher levels of training such as management and apprentice training which give high economic returns. These were policy areas that the CBI regarded as being subject to employer prerogative and therefore off a social partnership agenda.

The CBI wanted carrots but no sticks. The TUC wanted sticks but realised that it could only realistically press for individual entitlements to training. The working group did recommend carrots for employers to train. This took the form of employer tax credits to incentivise companies to train up to level 2 and basic skills and for small companies to commit to the Investors in People (IiP) standard. The Treasury however favoured a more targeted approach; introducing state subsidies to employers training workers to recognised qualifications through the Employer Training Pilots (ETP) (later universalised as Train to Gain). Direct subsidies were also given to small companies to prepare for IiP accreditation, through the Small Firms Initiative.

Trade unions (with the enhanced capacity provided by the Union Learning Fund and trained union learning reps) helped ETP to target workers with low or no qualifications. The union view was that helping their members to obtain basic skills and Level 2 qualifications could minimise social exclusion and lead to possible progression to higher levels, with ultimately higher returns.  Although the primary objective of ETP and its successor Train to Gain was to increase employer demand for workforce training, the incidence of deadweight and substitution indicated that such an objective had not been substantially met and provided the Coalition Government with the excuse to end the scheme.

New Labour had adopted a social-democratic variant of a neo-liberalist approach to interventions in the labour market. The weakness of this approach was that it left the vast bulk of skills policy and practice outside the industrial relations system. This approach together with the absence of robust social partnership institutions to oversee VET from the 1980s to the present day has enabled successive governments to adopt a top- down approach. It has resulted in the churning of supply-side policy initiatives, chasing national qualification targets, which have had little effect on stimulating employer demand or engaging with the long tail of SME “productivity laggards”.

A key factor in enhancing productivity is the utilisation of skills, but that was virtually ignored by the Labour Government and subsequent governments.  A recent government Foresight report “The Future of Skills and Lifelong Learning” has found however that the UK is the second lowest nation in the EU in utilising skills. Moving towards the levels of skills utilisation seen in Germany and France could boost productivity by as much as £5.5 bn.

The daunting challenge facing unions is how to build their capacity to engage with employers on measures to increase productivity through high involvement work practices and to reap the ensuing benefits through collective bargaining over skills. The lessons learnt from New Labour’s Productivity Initiative was that peak-level social partnership within a voluntary system is unable to deliver such objectives. This has been further limited by a significant decline in union learning capacity, as a result of government austerity measures and the economic downturn since 2010.

So, what is required are robust social partnership institutions with devolved regulatory powers. Their objective should be to raise productivity through assisting employers to adopt high performance and high involvement work practices. This would include promoting high utilisation of skills and ensuring a more equal distribution of training opportunities throughout the workforce. This fundamental change will not come about through yet another central government “quick-fix” initiative from above. It needs to come from below and be owned by both employers and unions.

Developing such a progressive culture could best begin in unionised workplaces. This, however, requires a step change for unions:  moving from conflict to cooperation as their main new source of influence. It does require, however, a rebalancing of power between unions and employers. Ensuring that union reps are full partners requires two measures. Firstly, collective bargaining over training and work organisation must become an integral part of union recognition.  Secondly, there needs to be capacity -building initiatives (at possibly sector or Local Enterprise Partnership level) to provide unions as well as employers with the tools to drive this productivity partnership agenda forward. The long-term objective would be more high- performance and high -involvement workplaces, with employees as well as employers sharing the benefits from the increased productivity.

But does the present government’s industrial strategy address this fundamental challenge? It certainly sets out new initiatives such as a National Retraining Scheme and government /industry partnerships to increase productivity in key sectors. In his November Budget, the Chancellor even confirmed that the government would enter into a formal skills partnership with the TUC and CBI, to develop the scheme. The aim of the partnership is to help set the strategic priorities for the scheme and oversee its implementation, working with new Skills Advisory Panels to ensure that local economies’ needs are reflected. But it must not be just a top-down approach.

The litmus test will be how effective the partnership is in persuading the long tail of productivity laggards to increase the utilisation of the skills of their workforce. This requires recognition of the potential of trade unions at sectoral and company level to form productivity partnerships with employers.  This is the key to develop high-performance and high-involvement workplaces, where employees are rewarded for their increased productivity. The short-comings of the 2001 Productivity Initiative must be avoided. History must not be allowed to repeat itself.

Injustice in Post Industrial Communities

By Simon John Duffy, Centre for Welfare Reform (@CforWR).

The Centre for Employment Relations Innovation and Change and Hope Not Hate came together to run an exciting cross-disciplinary event: A Future for Post Industrial Communities? The event, organised by CERIC’s Professor Jane Holgate, was lively, stimulating and wove together a vast array of information, helped by the use of the PechaKucha format, which forced all the presenters to concentrate their presentations to an essential minimum.

The central focus of the two days of discussion was the fate of the many towns and villages across the North, the Midlands, Scotland and Wales where heavy industry or mining had once been dominant. Where once the Labour Party was strong now there was growing support for UKIP and a strong vote for Brexit.

Academic research demonstrated that, contrary to the stereotypes, in these places people work hard and took care of each other, but struggled with low pay, job insecurity, benefit sanctions and growing poverty. Today the UK is the most unequal country in Europe, and these communities are on the wrong end of that inequality.

Many also noted that that these communities also lacked power. The UK is the most centralised welfare state in the world and in these places people have minimal democratic control and minimal representation in London. They seem abandoned by mainstream politics. Moreover social structures, the meeting places, the pubs, churches, working men’s clubs and leisure facilities had all declined. People have few opportunities to meet, organise or advocate for themselves. Poverty has been privatised.

These facts are rarely discussed and the assumption is that these places are now client states, dependent on subsidies from London. The truth is very different. For instance, if you calculate public spending in Barnsley it is £0.84 billion less than what you’d expect if you divided all public spending equally by head of population.

Barnsley Public Spending

The negative consequences of these overlapping injustices are severe and include much lower life expectancy. Yet none of this is inevitable; it was encouraging to hear that in other countries, like Germany, industrial change has not led to these kinds of problems. Communities can be supported to develop and to get back on their feet.

A further concern was that racism can feed off these social injustices. Speakers from Hope Not Hate shared their experiences of successfully over-turning prejudice in local communities where racists had exploited people’s fears and anger. But this also raised the question of what comes first: racism or injustice. And if, as most agreed, injustice comes first, how were we to understand and challenge that injustice.

Over the course of these two days I found my head whirling with competing categories and different understandings of social justice. Victims and perpetrators often seem to change places and people were forced to wear or to shed the group identities that mattered to some theory, but possibly not to people themselves:

– White working class men are seen by some as a threat

– White working class men are seen by others as victims

– But do white working class men really exist?

– Whose interests does this identity serve?

– Probably not the people shoehorned into it

Clearly some identities matter because others have chosen to use those identities for the purpose of scapegoating or vile attack. Categories like race, disability or native country become desperately important if others are using these categories hatefully. Yet we may think that these identities shouldn’t be important. It is injustice itself that has made them relevant.

For some these problems are obviously a function of capitalism. For others they are a function of class and elitism. Others stressed the organisation of power and the dominance of London and the big cities. Others looked back to the securities provided by large or nationalised industries; while some looked forward about to new forms of cooperative enterprise or community action.

What is critical here seems to be our sense of what is that actual reform or action that will reduce injustice. Politicians talk about ‘investment’ in these communities; but, reasonable as this seems, the reality is more complex. Often it amounts to no more than selling off our assets, our industries and our people. In Salford increased investment led to new offices and BBC premises, but local people saw no improvements. Increasingly housing policies has disconnected people from their communities: forcing people to move out just as the money comes in. We cannot assume that places and people are connected if people have no right to stay in their home communities.

Some, but not all, were attracted to the idea that power and money must down to community. Only if people can make their own decisions, shape their communities around their own assets and goals, can communities flourish. Others preferred the idea of national industries and even greater central control. Some were understandably suspicious that governments will exploit localism and asset-based approaches in order to disguise the structural injustices created by their own policies.

Perhaps one telling trend was the agreement across a range of speakers that change must begin by listening to and empowering communities. The Labour Party, trade unions, Citizens UK and Hope Not Hate have all made community organising a central plank of their strategies.

However this reinforces the need for more thinking about devolution in the UK. If we need to listen more now then that suggests that the current system is badly designed. If local communities are given more power, but the financial settlements are unfair, then this will just increase injustice. If devolution means merging large local authorities into even large areas, under the control of one mayor, then the powerlessness of smaller communities will only increase.

This two day conference did not resolve these issues, but it was certainly one of the richest discussions that I’ve been involved in. Brexit seems an unfortunate backwards step for the UK; but if it forces us to pay more attention to the deep and underlying injustices in the UK today then it will have at least one positive consequence.

No shortcuts, organising for power

 

jane-mcalevey
Jane McAlevey

No shortcuts, organising for power
By Jane Holgate

On Tuesday 14 February 2017, Valentine’s Day, there was a large gathering at Congress House in London––the home of the UK’s Trade Union Congress. Over 150 people had forsaken candlelit dinners, wine and roses, instead choosing to attend a talk by Dr Jane McAlevey, whose new book, ‘No Shortcuts, organising for power in the new Gilded Age’, was being launched in the UK.  Professor Jane Holgate, from the Centre for Employment Relations, Innovation and Change, whose research work is around trade unions and organising strategies, was one of the organisers of this event. The room was filled with young (and old) trade unionists, community organisers, and people just interested in hearing what needs to be done to organise our communities to challenge the unequal power in society that has left many people either without jobs, or in low wage work that barely pays a living wage.

Dr McAlevey, a long-standing organiser in unions, and wider civil society, has recently completed a PhD on what is wrong with much of the ‘organising’ that is taking place today in many organisations­­––and particularly in unions. In conversation with the regional secretary of the South and Eastern TUC, who was hosting the event in conjunction with the charity Hope not Hate, she explained the crux of her argument­­––there is too great a focus on mobilising rather than organising: ‘most unions and social-change groups will say they’re organizing. I’m arguing that most are not—which is part of why we’re losing. The core difference to me is: what’s the role of the workers in the actual effort? Are the workers central to their own liberation? Are they central to the strategy to win a change in their workplace and in their communities? Or are they one teeny piece of a really complicated puzzle in which the workers’ voice and opinions are actually not decisive?’

The process of mobilizing tends to avoid involving rank and file workers, or the wider community––instead, she argues, that it tends to rely on pulling out the same already committed activists to protest, and thus is doing little to build a movement from the bottom up: ‘mobilizing is an activist-driven approach. Activists are the already converted who are not full-time professionals, or it could be full-time professionals in the movement—either one—but it’s people who are already with us. They already agree that Wall Street’s a problem; they already think that climate [change] is a problem; they already think that racism is a problem. They’re already standing with Black Lives Matter.’

Instead what is needed is deep organizing where people are expanding the base, where workers are central in organizing around their own issues that really matter to them, and where they are able to bring people along, either from their workplace, or their lived communities. What is also missing, she explained, is a proper understanding of power and how to challenge this. Dr McAlevey repeated said during the evening conversation that ‘life is a structure test’ by which she meant that there is a need to continually undertake power structure analysis when organizing to understand your opponent’s power and to assess the power there is within the communities in which you are organizing.  Only then, are you able to challenge that power and win concessions.

The problem with many trade unions campaigns today, she argued, is that they are top-down, where workers, if they come in at all, are pulled in at the end: ‘They are used as symbolic actors. They’re the face of the campaign. They’re trotted out to make testimony at the legislature about their bad boss, but they’re not actually central to the strategy. That’s the fundamental difference. The agency for change in the organizing model rests with ordinary people.’

The conversation with Dr McAlevey lasted two hours, but the evening of Valentine’s day wasn’t entirely without some reference to love. At the close, the audience was given paper hearts where they were asked to reflect on how they might organize differently reflecting on what they had heard. These hearts were put in sealed envelopes with the writer’s name and address and will be sent via post in a month’s time as a reminder of what they committed to this Valentine’s day.

‘No Shortcuts. Organising for Power in the new Gilded Age ‘can be bought from the publisher at Oxford University Press:

https://global.oup.com/academic/product/no-shortcuts-9780190624712?cc=gb&lang=en&