Friday, 17 March 2017

The legacy of Chris Wilkes (18/12/57-18/03/16)

Dear Colleagues,
Today marks the one-year anniversary of the tragic, early death of former Ruskin College Principal, Chris Wilkes. Chris was an inspirational leader in many genuine, authentic ways. He was deeply committed to Ruskin's ethos of providing an excellent educational experience to working class adults, and encouraged all ideas/initiatives which were in pursuit of this. Below is the post I added to the blog just after an event at Ruskin last year to celebrate Chris's life. I wanted to post it again in memory of him.

Yesterday at Ruskin College we held a memorial event to celebrate the life of Chris Wilkes, the Principal of Ruskin College who died unexpectedly on 18th March.

The event drew many current staff members, and a diverse body of ex-Ruskin staff from the period of Chris's time at Ruskin, the bulk of which he spent in the role of General Secretary on appointment in 1991.

I left Ruskin College in 1991 and so missed meeting Chris, however, we did meet when I worked at the WEA and Northern College, and it was a great privilege to be under his leadership when I started to work at Ruskin College, first as a visiting tutor, from 2000.

Many people made a contribution yesterday, including Ruth Spelman, Chief Executive of the WEA, and Stephen Yeo, ex-Principal.

The overwhelming sentiment expressed was of a kind, caring, considerate man, with a profound commitment to the development and delivery of education which could transform the lives of working class women and men.

I spent many very happy hours with Chris on a variety of areas of work and always felt his genuine support and care for my role at Ruskin. Chris was also my main encouragement to start my doctorate research and I am aim to dedicate this to him.

I was privileged yesterday to host the memorial event, and this allowed me to introduce speakers, and I concluded by saying that the event marked not the end of the way that we remember Chris's legacy, but just the beginning.

In Solidarity


Wednesday, 1 March 2017

Yours for the Union: Class and Community Struggles in South Africa

Dear Colleagues,

In previous posts I have written of the close association between Ruskin College, the South African liberation movement, and also those books that had a great influence on me during my time as a student at the College.

With this in mind this post is a plug for the re-issue by Zed Books of Baruch Hirson's seminal text on the making of the black working class in South Africa, Yours for the Union: Class and Community Struggles in South Africa:

Whilst the original edition in 1990 came in for some relatively negative critique (like this from Ian Hunter:, Yours for the Union: Class and Community Struggles in South Africa is still recognised as a critically important text in placing in historical context the inability of the black South African left to overcome internal division.

As the promotional Zed text states:

Yours for the Union stands as a landmark history of the making of the black working class in South Africa. Drawing on a wide range of sources, it covers the crucial period of 1930–47, when South Africa's rapid industrialisation led to the dramatic growth of the working class, and uncontrolled urbanisation resulted in vast shanty towns which became a focal point for resistance and protest. Importantly, Hirson was one of the first historians to go beyond the traditional focus on the mines and factory workplaces, broadening his account to include the lesser known community struggles of the urban ghettoes and rural reserves.

I came across Hirson's book not long after I had read key chapters of Ron Ramdin's The Making of the Black Working Class in Britain. Taken together both books provide a powerful insight upon the processes of radicalisation of economically/politically marginalised groups - not least when a key driver for that marginalisation is racism.

You can still get hold of the original (1990) version of Hirson's book, and although weighty in parts, is essential reading for those interested in working class formation and political mobilisation.

For those with feedback/comments on Hirson or Ramdin please post a reply.

In Solidarity


Tuesday, 7 February 2017

Malika Achour @ Ruskin College on 20th February

Dear Colleague,

I am very pleased to say that Malika Achour has agreed to speak at Ruskin College.

Malika is a trade union activist from Tunisia and long-standing member of the UGTT. The event on 20th Feb will provide colleagues with an opportunity to hear from Malika on, amongst other things, the on-going impact of the Arab Spring on Tunisia, and current position of the country's trade union movement.

Full details of the event are below. Please email me to let me know if you are coming.

In Solidarity


Saturday, 4 February 2017

Working the Phones: Control & Resistance in Call Centres

Dear Colleagues,

Many thanks to Jamie Woodcock for agreeing to visit Ruskin to discuss his new book, Working the Phones.

One review helpfully states:

Crikey, talk about “the classical Marxist notion of alienation”. Which is exactly what Jamie Woodcock does in this grim account of the modern-day “chain worker”, goaded to keep pitching to the terminally ill, the weeping bereaved parent, the trade union official who replies by asking about the cold-caller’s union status and, as both quickly switch to code, wishes him luck. The author, a London School of Economics researcher, knows not only his theory but his subject inside out: he researched it by taking a job in the bleak heart of computerised Taylorism. There’s casualisation, cruelty and regimentation, but also subversion, and Woodcock’s focus on employee resistance offers a flicker of hope.

Other reviews are here, and a YouTube clip of Jamie at a book launch event. I'll try and write a comment on the event at Ruskin with Jamie.

In Solidarity


Wednesday, 18 January 2017

What does a union for the 21st Century look like?

Dear Colleagues,

Next week my colleague Fenella Porter and I will be speaking at a collaborative event with researchers from the universities of Leeds and Bradford. We have come together around a project that has sought to explore the implications for organised labour of the Trade Union Act, and as an aspect of this, also examined how differing movement organisations have responsed.
The event (poster below) is in Bradford and anyone with an interest in the future of organised labour is welcome to attend. The official invite blurb reads:
As the Trade Union Act passed through parliament in 2016, a research team from Ruskin College, the University of Bradford and the University of Leeds asked union leaders, activists, officials and politicians for their thoughts on what the Act means for the union movement.
There is no doubt the Trade Union Act is an attack on the labour movement – but how should we respond?
What kind of movement do we need to be in a changing world?
 We invite you to a free talk and discussion on this important issue. We will share some of our findings from the research, and then open up for some discussion.
All welcome – refreshments included.
Please email for more information.

Saturday, 14 January 2017

The Right to Diconnect

Dear Colleagues,

There has been so much to write/post about over the period leading up to the end of 2016, and as we head into the new year.

On the domestic front the good news is around trade union growth, both in the form of density, but also (as my last post revealed) in small unions. Gloom remains however, (in the UK and nationally) around the structural permanence of low/poor pay and precarious work (

From a personal perspective a concern has remained around those social and occupational factors precipitating mental health illness. At Ruskin College this week the College counsellor, Wendy Robertson, delivered a thoughtful session on mental health illness amongst students, and also how teaching staff may also protect their own well-being. It is not alarmist to say that on the domestic front, and globally, mental health illness is of epidemic proportions (

Even Teresa May has been moved to underline this week the government's commitment to improving mental health service ( What I have witnessed in a teaching career principally working with and for public sector trade unions, and in particular since 2010 and the aggressive attack on public sector services under the guise of 'austerity. is the steady rise of mental health illness, that catalyses ill health and thus generates arguable capability/competency questions.

Many public sector workers now find themselves exposed to significant harm as a result of 'workplace restructuring', redundancy, privatisation, out sourcing. The resources developed by unions like UNISON ( and the TUC ( are valuable, but in reality are largely remedial in tackling effect, but not cause. As the Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development (CIPD - the professional body for HR staff) reports, work-related sickness absence remains stubbornly high, as does the issue of 'presenteeism', that is workers who are ill being at work ( I would contend that the growth of presenteeism is a perverse representation of the pressure that unwell workers face.

And so we come to the topic of the post. This is the decision by the French government to allow employees of enterprises with 50+ workers to have the right to 'disconnect' from the workplace once they are outside of working hours. Specifically, this means the right not to be forced to read email, respond to 'phone call, texts etc., when you are not being paid to. (

Invariably the right-wing press has attacked this legislative development, suggesting that it is a mixture of zealous red-tape and a Luddite attempt to hold back the tide of technological change. In defending this development both government, and many employers, have welcomed an attempt to maintain a cultural hold on the quality of family life, as well maintain employee well-being.

It is early days for this new right, and no penalties have been included within the statute for firms that ignore to tackle those workers who continue to email, Skype etc. once they have left work. It represents however, a major development in the responding to the global epidemic of work-related sickness, and in particular mental health illness, and I am sure will be followed closely for its effect and impact over the next 12-24 months.

As we remain unlikely to see such a development from the UK government, regardless of the suggestion by May that the government is reviewing mental health services, we can at least maintain a focus on how tackle this issue. Please follow the link to the TU resources on tackling mental health illness in the workplace, and respond to this post with thoughts/comments on how to keep challenging employers (and other organisations) on this.

In Solidarity


Tuesday, 3 January 2017

Forming New Unions (Tuesday 17 January 2017)


Just a brief post to start the new year (another to follow asap) and which follows nicely on the heels of my last post for 2016 - which announced an increase in TU membership - with a plug for the History Acts series of workshops, and the focus on the formation of new trade unions.

All the details you need are contained in the flyer below, and there is no need to book. Please get along if you can as the discussion/debate following the sessions will. no doubt, be fascinating.

In Solidarity