Some views from a retired Trade Unionist – and the question of Trade Union Education by Ian Gallagher
We got a tweet from the Blackburn and District Trades Union Council raising the issue of the proposed closure of Blackburn Trade Union/ Health and Safety Education Centre. We thought it might be interesting to ask the Trades Council if they wanted to submit a post to our Blog. We got this piece from former Trades Council Secretary, Ian Gallagher. It wanders a bit wider than we were anticipating, but we thought readers might be interested in his viewpoint. Now retired, Ian has been an undergraduate, a kitchen worker at Brockhall and Calderstones Hospitals and a clerical officer in the Civil Service. He was a lay Trade Union officer in NUPE, UNISON and PCS.
My encounter with the “Working Class Academics Conference” began with a Tweet, and my reaction to it was a little caustic. The Tweet was from Blackburn College and it celebrated the fact that some of its staff were involved with this initiative. It was a bit rich, I thought, given that the same College had just announced it was to close its Trade Union/ Health and Safety Education Centre. This bastion of working-class education clearly had feet of clay.
The reaction was, of course, unfair. One thing isn’t wrong just because another is. The academic staff at Blackburn are not responsible for policy on Trade Union education. And maybe it is also a little bit of a stereotype to expect “working-class academics” to ride instinctively to the aid of the Labour Movement. They are as entitled to be as politically heterogeneous as the rest of us.
When I wondered what the “Working Class Academics Conference” might be about, it struck me that there was quite a wide range of possibilities.
In Britain, at least, there is, around education, an ingrained sense of what Elizabeth Lowry, in a recent “Times Literary Supplement” piece on Thomas Hardy, called “the despair of the working man trying to break free of class”. Or rather, the idea that education is a dangerous territory, deracinating working-class scholars and subjecting them to conflicting gravitational tides. Lowry says that Hardy was sensitive to this issue because he himself was a “builder’s son”, “so keen to display his learning” that he seasons his early work, “Desperate Remedies”, “with sententiae, obscure literary, theological and artistic references, and a good dollop of French and Latin” (TLS: 6108: April 3 2020). I don’t hold in my head a reliable map of this landscape, but it seems to pop up in various guises – from Forster’s “Howards End” to Tom Gallacher’s “Apprentice”. In October 2018 an Oxford student, Molly Innes, wrote in the “Guardian” that “It all leads to a sense of isolation, like I’m not sure where I belong anymore”. The sentiment is not universal (see, apparently, “A review of Education and the Working Class” (1962) by Brian Jackson and Dennis Marsden). But I can well imagine that some contemporary working-class academics feel the need for a measure of mutual support.
Then there are academics who have seen their work as somehow, if broadly, serving to advance the cause of the working-class. In my day, E.P.Thompson, Christopher Hill and Rodney Hilton were obvious examples.
What you might call Bourdieu’s shadow still looms over us, even though there might be dispute over the actual mechanism. A House of Commons Library Standard Note published in June 2010, “Higher education and social class”, found that the position was strongly persistent: “The evidence, as far as it goes, suggests that over the latter half of the 20th century there was little change in the proportion of university students from lower social classes. Their participation in higher education increased, but so did participation from all social classes and the gap that was apparent in the middle of the last century was broadly maintained to the end”. Nick Morrison, writing for “Forbes” about the 2019 “Office for Students” access and participation data, noted that little had changed in the early 21st century: “the figures show that two thirds of providers had gaps in higher education access for students from the least advantaged background, with “substantial” gaps at all higher-tariff institutions, the elite universities that have more selective entry criteria”. Miner’s daughter and Cambridge Professor of Education, Diane Reay, said about her recent book, “Miseducation: Inequality, education and the working classes”, that “This government is making inequality in education worse, not better”.
The “attainment gap”, moreover, is not resolved by University admission. Claire Crawford showed in her 2014 paper for the Institute for Fiscal Studies that those from higher socio-economic backgrounds were still “3.4 percentage points less likely to drop-out, 5.3 percentage points more likely to graduate and 3.7 percentage points more likely to graduate with a first or 2:1 than those from lower socio-economic backgrounds” (“Socio-economic differences in university outcomes in the UK: drop-out, degree completion and degree class”).
Finally, there is the idea that academic culture overall is fatally compromised by being part of the class organisation of society and that all intellectual activity needs to be re-imagined according to new principles. This idea is not all that new. Trotsky, for instance, wrote in his 1927 work “Culture and Socialism”, that: “since culture is a socio-historical phenomenon by its very essence; since historical society was and continues to be class society, then culture unfolds as a fundamental instrument of class oppression. Marx said: ‘The dominant ideas of an epoch are the ideas of the ruling class of the given epoch’. This statement also applies to culture as a whole”: “At every step the most vulgar professorial-socialistic and philistine-populist tendencies burst into our everyday practice from the old ‘treasure-houses’ of knowledge”. People in the past, though, had a more specific view of what the new knowledge entailed. It was to be historical materialism. And Trotsky? Well he said this, but also tried to hedge his bets a little: “we say to the working class: you must master all the culture of the past, otherwise you won’t build socialism”.
Judging from the Blog and the Conference themes, a problem with the “Working Class Academics Conference” is that all these themes seem to be struggling for attention at the same time, without any great sense of definition or structure. This lot, I thought, need a Standing Orders Committee.
I am not a working-class academic. I am a failed working-class academic. My teenage ambition was to be an academic. I had my chance to be an academic. And I blew it, big style. Much as one might like to cite a social trend in one’s defence, it is still experienced as failure.
Failure is not the best of platforms from which to offer an opinion. Fortunately, I have not got anything comprehensive in mind. I will spare you the explanation of why I’m not with Trotsky and just put forward two points.
Picking up on one of the bloggers on the conference website which commented that “the most exciting subjects are made lacklustre and boring by people who do not enjoy what they are doing”, I suggest that there is nothing wrong in seeing academic activity as a pleasant way of life. I don’t expect it to make a major difference, but it can’t do any harm for young people to see academics enjoying learning as much as footballers enjoy football. Even when you think about the purpose and influence of your craft it is acceptable, at least some of the time, for it to be simply entertaining.
I do also hope that I can encourage support from within “the Academy” not just for Trade Union Education, but for Trade Union Education sitting alongside other disciplines. It is tempting to try and sell Trade Union Education to academics by presenting it as a sort of “gateway drug”, and it is part of a wider fabric of working-class institutions that can lead some into a more formal environment.
It is also the case that local Trade Union representatives are more likely to take their skills into the wider community. Gregor Gall (“Unions in the Community” (2009)) found that Trade Union representatives are eight times more likely than the general population to engage in voluntary work and give time to community organisations. It no doubt benefits the projection of working-class learning in general to have, out and about, people who have engaged positively with it and its institutions.
Our bottom line, however, is that Trade Union Education is an answer to our own needs. It is learning for a purpose. It is done so that we might do better the things that we do. Whilst these things now include, through the development of “Learning Representatives”, advocating a positive appreciation of later-life education, the principal applications remain constant. Various studies have found that Unions continue to be the most effective mechanisms for representing worker interests, and that workers in enterprises where Unions are present are likely to have greater capacity to assert their rights and improve their conditions beyond the statutory minimum (eg. Heery, Edmund (2010) ‘Worker representation in a multiform system: A framework for evaluation’, Journal of Industrial Relations, 52(5) 543-559); Brown, William, Simon Deakin, David Nash and Sarah Oxenbridge (2000) ‘The employment contract: From collective procedures to individual rights’, British Journal of Industrial Relations, 38(4): 611-629; Colling, Trevor (2006) ‘What space for unions on the floor of rights? Trade unions and the enforcement of statutory individual employment rights’, Industrial Law Journal, 35(2): 140-160). According to the TUC (www.tuc.org.uk/research-analysis/reports/union-safety-reps): “Evidence shows that workplaces with union safety reps and joint union-management safety committees have major injury rates less than half of those without”.
The background paper for the ILO International Workers’ Symposium in 2007, “The role of trade unions in workers’ education: The key to trade union capacity building”, came up with a clear affirmation of this: “Union education is not impartial. It is aimed resolutely at the strengthening of unions as they struggle for better working and living conditions for all working people. It is education for political and workplace action with its aims set by members or affiliates”. An ICFTU (now ITUC) Education Conference in 1952 was even more forceful: “trade union education is not an end in itself, but one of the steps in the advance towards emancipation of mankind. The goal would be reached only when the broad masses of the workers and those representing them are in possession of all the knowledge and experience necessary to change the structures of society and banish want and fear forever”. The language strikes us now as somewhat overblown and old-fashioned, but you couldn’t accuse it of being mealy-mouthed.
We do not ask for a place within the public education system, we claim it. Although Trade Union education has a distinctive pedagogy it is still concerned with the basics of discussing and articulating new information. It is also a means of securing a variety of skills – knowing how to research issues, how to communicate with groups, how to resolve and articulate a group viewpoint, how to weigh information, how to represent and how to negotiate.
There should be some degree of recognition by public institutions of the benefits Trade Unions bring to society. In respect of Blackburn College, which ultimately acts in my name and serves my community, I want it to show that it appreciates the role of Trade Unions and that it is committed to helping our local Trade Union Representatives deliver fair work, access to opportunities, and safe and healthy working conditions.
I hope this is something that the “Working Class Academics Conference” can support.