Do we need something similar to Labor Notes in the UK?

This post will initially summarise the work of US radical labour union education centre Labor Notes. This will be followed by a survey of UK trade union networks and education centres. Finally, it will discuss similar projects to Labor Notes in the UK.

Labor Notes is an education centre in the US focused on rebuilding rank and file trade union power across all unions, so that when the next labour movement upsurge arrives, trade unionists would be much more prepared, organised, radically politicised, networked and experienced.

The founders of Labor Notes identified in the 1970s that this work was not being done and it was a gap that they could fill. It formed in 1979 with three areas of work: research/publications (magazine, the handbooks, a website, blog, weekly email updates, archives, and social media); training courses; and conferences.

Kim Moody recently wrote a summary of Labor Notes history and achievements, which is where the information below about Labor Notes is sourced. Read the article here.

It was important to the founders that it was not a “front group” and therefore needed to be supported by and have input from a broad network of activists. The aim was to create a “centre for discussion and debate as well as analysis and news.” Their experiences informed them that the project “needed a base in an active ‘class struggle’ current within the labor movement to be credible.”

They understood the importance of understanding the pressures that capitalism was putting on working-class lives, and that understanding the labor movement was more immediate. The labor movement and trade unions are multilayered social formations with internal contradictions. Broadly there are two layers – the top level bureaucracy and then the ranks. The ranks can then be divided into the activist layers and the mostly apathetic members. There are also divisions of gender and race.

The Labor Notes magazine reported on what women and African-American workers were doing in unions; how rank and file workers were fighting for union democracy and accountable leadership; and fighting against the new trend of concessions (worker-owner co-operation that is a disguised version of the forced ‘givebacks’ and ‘take-aways’).

Labor Notes also reported on “how the leadership of most unions not only went along with concessions and labor-management cooperation schemes, virtually surrendering the workplace to the employers, but how these became part of the bureaucracy’s failed and costly strategy for survival even to this day.”

Moody describes that one of the most important lessons from the Labor Notes’ experience was that reporting events and trends is not enough; they need to engage with activists and the movement directly – “radicals can do that when they are willing to relate to people’s real concerns and make them aware that others in the movement share those concerns.”

Moody quotes a number of people that are currently or have been previously involved in the project, on its role to bring together grassroots activists and groups in various unions around the country, so that they recognise that they were having a common experience and to build connections. It was also noted that the readers of the Labor Notes are workplace leaders with a dedicated focus on winning power in the workplace. As well as focusing on the rank-and file or the grassroots, one argues that Labor Notes succeeded where others failed because of the focus on class struggle – “that meant building, involving, mobilizing the rank-and-file and giving it control, but it also meant that we appreciated organization and the power of the labor movement, so we struggled for union reform efforts sometimes led by local (or national) union leaders with mixed or contradictory consciousness.”

Labor Notes worked to analyse the causes of union decline, not just in terms of elite class war, trade agreements or technology, but also how the labor movement got itself into the mess it is in. This resulted in the project working with rank-and-file union reform movements to, “inject politics into the discussion,” and in “helping generations of reformers think strategically about how to run for office and win.”

They viewed one of the keys to building rank-and-file power and the success of the magazine was, “action, education, and organization, not sloganeering”. They avoided sectarian language, made it open to anyone with a rank-and-file perspective, focused on trade union issues, and, “always emphasised real-world practicality in its approach to helping workers bring about change in their workplaces and unions.”

Early on those involved in Labor Notes realised that they needed to create a centre to bring people in the labor movement together. Eighteen conferences were held between 1981 and 2016. The core of the conference were, “practical workshops on workplace organizing, union democracy, and many other issues and meetings of activists by industry.”

Labor Notes took on subjects that the mainstream labor movement did not know how to tackle or did not have a rank-and-file perspective. It offered a political understanding of these subjects and practical help on what to do. Issues included: concessions on wages, benefits, and working conditions, the introduction of team working and lean production norms that led to work intensification, the lack of democracy that characterized most unions, and the general failure to encourage strong workplace organization.

Labor Notes produced a number of books. The first was Concessions and How to To Beat Them by Jane Slaughter in 1983. This analysed the extent and underlying causes of concessions and gave examples of how workers were resisting and sometimes defeating them. It identified two rounds of concessions: first wages, then working conditions.

The early 1980’s saw the introduction of Quality of Work Life (QWL) programs, later expanded to Total Quality Management, Employee Participation and more. In response Mike Parker produced three Labor Notes handbooks on the topic of stage-management cooperation and lean production, coining the term “Management-By-Stress” (MBS). These were Inside the Circle: A Union Guide to QWL in 1985, Choosing Sides: Unions and the Team Concept in 1988 and Working Smart: A Union Guide to Participation Programs and Reengineering in 1994.

These handbooks, “helped Labor Notes expand from its original base among auto, steel, trucking, and other industrial sectors to telecommunications, healthcare, transit, the public sector, and other service industries.”

They realised that they were accumulating a library of stories about workplace and union resistance that could be used to fight bosses on a number of issues. Dan La Botz used them to produce A Troublemaker’s Handbook: How to Fight Back Where You Work — And Win in 1991. Jane Slaughter edited a second Troublemaker’s Handbook II in 2005. Another handbook, Democracy is Power: Rebuilding Unions from the Bottom Up by Mike Parker and Martha Gruelle was released in 1999 on union democracy.

Recent publications include: The Steward’s Toolbox: Skills and Strategies for Winning at Work in 2012, compiled mostly from the Steward’s Corner columns in Labor Notes; How to Jump Start Your Union: Lessons from the Chicago Teachers, Secrets of a Successful Organizer in 2016, and Rebuilding Power in Open-Shop America: A Labor Notes Guide, published in 2018.

Labor Notes have run two rounds of schools. The first was in the early to mid-1990’s to learn and exchange ideas about the new management strategies. These ‘team concept schools’ were “schools of fifty to eighty people from different unions who came for an intensive three days of learning and figuring out, in teams, how to confront that situation.”

Following the publication of Troublemaker’s II in 2005, this was used to run two dozen local Troublemaker’s day schools from 2011 where activists exchanged ideas. These schools benefited from a renewed wave of union reform movements and immigrant workers activity.

Moody sees Labor Notes’ role as bringing together those union activists who want to actively strengthen the labor movement. Moody references the revolutionary syndicalists and Wobblies’s name for this layer from the 1930s and 1940s, the “militant minority”.

Moody refers to this layer as the ‘militant minority;’ the name used by the revolutionary syndicalists and Wobblies in the 1930s and 1940s.

He describes how this layer has been disorganised and depoliticised for decades. He describes the issues with the labor upsurge in the 1960s and 1970s: “the various rank-and-file movements, wildcat strikers, and union dissidents had precious little contact with one another — isolated and confined largely to their own industry, workplace, or union… The radicals of the 1970s who entered industry to play this role were too few, too inexperienced, too late, and often too sectarian to carry it off. It was this fragmentation within the 1960s–1970s upsurge that convinced us that something different was needed.”

There is a growing militant democratic current that emerged more recently in the US labor movement. Labor Notes’ role in this has followed a shared set of operating principles and goals that are broadly a rejection of the norms of bureaucratic business unionism: union democracy and accountable leadership; rejection of labor-management cooperation; strong workplace and stewards’ organizations; direct action and mobilization when needed or possible; racial and gender inclusion and equality; resistance to austerity in society as well as at work; and the realization that the ranks will have to do or win these things themselves.

Not everything that Labor Notes tried worked and they learnt a valuable lesson – trying to set the agenda without actual motion among the workplace activists was not going to work. There was a tension between focusing on either educating in practical strategies and actions, or to advance political education or propaganda. Labor Notes mostly chose the former. Moody believes that this was the correct choice and resulted in the project being as successful as it has been.


Trade union networks and political education in the UK?

A good place to start is a recent episode on the UK podcast Labour Days – a podcast about trade union issues and labour history – episode 16 entitled ‘Education in the labour movement’. An important point is made in this episode – that the current government-sponsored official union learning infrastructure of skills and rep training is nowhere near what we need to change society.

This episode includes a recording of Colin Waugh speaking at the World Transformed conference in September describing the Plebs League, a radical education movement in Britain from the early twentieth century. The aim of the Plebs League education movement was to empower the broader trade union movement to change society.

Colin Waugh is part of the Independent Working Class Education (IWCE) network which aims to learn the lessons of history to inform current class struggle. It is inspired by the Ruskin Students strike of 1909. The IWCE network organise informal discussions, and offer educational materials and contacts. This includes respecting the role of the working class in making history, and in making the future; seeking to offer a diverse range of education materials and approaches for trade union and other working class and progressive movement groups.

In 2017 the Ella Baker School for Transformative Organising formed with the objectives: a) reacquaint organising with politics (and politics with organising); b) develop imaginative training materials for industrial or community organising based on examples of struggle in the UK (and then open source them); c) create a network of trained trainers to deliver this training. The school organised a two day conference in July 2018 on working-class political education and has a number of events planned in 2019.

The National Shop Stewards Network (NSSN) is another important grouping. The NSSN was set up in 2006/7 by the RMT union and now has support from nine other unions. It runs an annual conference and produces a weekly email bulletin vocally supporting rank and file campaigns and strikes.

The Act Build Change website offers online training in organising and is a place to connect with others organising in workplaces and communities. The network Organise support people that want to start and run campaigns in their workplaces. The Labour Research Department is an independent organisation producing authoritative booklets, magazines, labour research, and workplace reports.

In terms of reporting on UK trade union news, there is Union News, established in 2011 “to report news from the UK’s trade union movement, providing an outlet for workers and their campaigns which is missing from the mainstream media”.

The collective Angry Workers World, produce a newspaper Workers Wild West that they distribute at workplaces in West London. The newspaper, “is a means for us to exchange our experiences about conditions at work and collective steps against stress, long hours and low pay. We have to learn from other workers.” The newspaper aims to report on what is being done, what works and what doesn’t. Angry Workers Brigade are also looking to build a network of workers to support each other. They also run weekly drop-ins and monthly social meetings for workers, are involved in workplace activities, and plan to organise a national gathering in Autumn 2019 about the current situation in the UK.

Workers Liberty produce a regular bulletin called Tubeworker – “a platform for rank-and-file London Underground workers, telling you what the bosses and bureaucrats won’t. Tubeworker reports on workplace issues, puts forward strategies that we think will help workers win, and supports militant, democratic trade unionism. It promotes unity and challenges inequality.” Tubeworker has been produced every 3-4 weeks since the early 1990’s, you can read more info on how it is produced and distributed here.


Labour Notes UK?

In recent years there have been a least three projects similar to Labor Notes, that no longer look to be active.

The Labour Days podcast team interviewed Kim Moody in episode 10 at the start of 2018 about his recent book On New Terrain. During the interview, Kim and his partner Shelia Cohen discuss Shelia’s attempt in the 1990s to launch something similar to Labor Notes in the UK, called Trade Union News, which had several thousand subscriptions and achieved broad reach beyond the traditional left. This publication is now longer being produced.

There is the website Workplace Organising, which has the aim of helping people trying to organise their workplaces through sharing anecdotes and advice of approaches to copy or avoid. It includes appeals of solidarity for workplace struggle and practical advice on workplace mapping and setting up a bank account before a strike. The last post on this website was in 2016 and it is an important resource, with some of those involved having previously being involved in Labor Notes in the US.

There was also Solidarity magazine, which produced a publication, ‘by and for trade union activists in Britain’. The new website for this publication is not functioning so it does not look like this publication is active. It campaigned in unions for: breaking with ‘social partnership’ with employers;  a ‘new unionism,’ which opposes subordination to the global market and campaigns for a practical working class internationalism; opposition to privatisation; radical working class trade unionism; repeal of all anti-union legislation; an end to all bureaucratic privileges and control; and democratisation of the unions under membership control.

On a positive note there is the New Syndicalist, which formed in 2015. It is a source of “source of worker-led, anti-capitalist theory and strategy.” Its aim is to “provide a space for improving the approaches of union organisers. We believe that better educated, equipped and experienced organisers have an important role to play in shifting the balance of power in our workplaces and our communities. In the interests of promoting industrial unity within the workers’ movement New Syndicalist maintains independence from electoral politics and will not publish content related to these concerns.”

There is also Notes from Below, a socialist journal that uses class composition analysis to ground revolutionary politics in the perspective of the working class. It has published online articles and a regular bulletin since the start of 2018 – “Written contributions are divided into four types: ‘Inquiry’ which involves original research into class composition; ‘Bulletins’ written for and by workers and militants; ‘Theory’, perspectives on working class struggle from the most advanced and relevant parts of theoretical debate; and ‘History’, pieces about the historical co-development of class struggle and capitalist exploitation.” This is clearly an important project and I’m excited to see it exists.

To conclude, is there a need in the UK for something similar to Labor Notes that is not currently being filled by others publications, organisations and networks? I do believe we need an education centre that is working to rebuild rank-and-file union power and the “militant minority,” and also to take a step back and analyse the broader situation the UK labour movement is in. We need UK specific practical guides, conferences, workshops and schools on radical workplace organising and union democracy.

However,  before thinking about setting up anything new, I think it would be helpful to find out why recent similar projects such as Trade Union News, Workplace Organising and Solidarity Magazine are no longer active, and to compare their work to the lessons of success from Labor Notes in the US and other projects elsewhere. Has the UK labour movement got the capacity for a project like this? If not, why not, and what can we do to change that? How were previous projects funded, was funding an issue and how would future projects be funded? Answers to these questions should give more clarity on how to move forwards.