A socially-useful university?

Flyer for Lucas Plan 40th Anniversary Conference

Universities could be transformed into “laboratories” for “human-centred” production and become ‘anchor institutions’ for a “different kind of economy”, Hilary Wainwright suggested at a Coventry Trades Union Council (CTUC) meeting on 16 November.

Speaking on the topic of ‘Artificial Intelligence, Robotics and the Future of Work’, Wainwright pointed out that while universities were often the “new drivers” of local economies, the rapid expansion of universities within Tory-led market reform did not so much create a “knowledge economy” but a “property economy driven by finance”.

However, as universities were now central to regional economic regeneration, academic trade unionists had an important part to play in the transformation of the ‘knowledge economy’ – which currently works in the profit-making interests of the few – into a socialised economy that provided for the social needs of the many.

With a left Labour government led by Jeremy Corbyn now an immanent possibility, Wainwright urged activists and trade unionists to start moving beyond the purely oppositional space they have had to occupy during thirty years of neoliberalism and start proposing concrete alternatives.

The workers’ control initiatives of the 1970s – such as the ‘Lucas Plan’ – continue to provide inspiration for today’s trade unionists, she argued, and could provide a model for academic trade unionists who are already questioning the unsustainable corporate plans of rapidly expanding higher education institutions.

“University workers have got leverage [though trade unions] to stop this mad drive for profit and make universities into genuine resources for a different kind of economy,” she argued.

 

Politics of knowledge

Wainwright spoke about the Lucas Aerospace shop steward combine’s ‘Alternative Plan for Socially-Useful Production’. In response to the possibility of mass redundancies – as management looked to shift production overseas – workers proposed 150 “socially-useful” products, including green innovations decades ahead of their time.

Although the Plan was rejected “out of hand” by Lucas Aerospace management, as the published version of the Plan pointed out, its significance lay in the fact that “trade unionists attempted to transcend the narrow economism which has characterised trade union activity in the past and expand out demands to the extent of questioning the products on which we work and the way in which we work upon them.”

For Wainwright, the problem posed by ‘automation’ – which describes the process through which control of decision-making systems become increasingly independent of human intervention – was not just what to do with the time liberated and wealth created through technological advances, but also how far technology is embedded in social use and how much it draws on the intelligence and creativity of those who produce.

“What I learned from the shop stewards at Lucas Aerospace was that technology is not some kind of neutral force that can only go one way and that the question is simply who benefits financially from the results of technological innovation,” she said, “but that actually technology itself is embed with values and choices made at every point.”

“For example, the American Fordist model of production [rationalised in Taylorist management techniques] – the idea that production processes should minimise the involvement of the intelligence of the worker – was designed to eliminate the discretion of the worker in all production jobs and extract the knowledge involved. This knowledge could then be controlled by management, who would instruct the worker to perform according to a brief or framework set by management.”

“Anything codifiable is immediately subject to automation. All you need to do is eliminate the worker, replace them with a robot, and you already have the production framework. Automation just completes the process.”

Wainwright pointed to the work of Mike Cooley – a leading figure in the Lucas Aerospace combine and author of influential book, Architect or Bee? – who proposed an alternative, “human-centred” idea of technology, “which retained the skill and capacity of the craftsperson but used computer-aided design (CAD) and other computer-aided processes to increase productivity in a way that was humanly driven”.

“A lot of thinking about artificial intelligence is based on the idea that knowledge is a set of logical propositions that can be mathematised and turned into computerised language,” Wainwright argued. “Cooley stressed at the combine committees the idea of ‘tacit knowledge’ – which Michael Polanyi defined as “things we know but cannot tell”.

“This idea of tacit knowledge came from observing scientific experiments and recognising that actually science – supposedly the great location of logical thinking – is full of intuition and hunches and collaboration. The idea of tacit knowledge is very much to do with collaboration and working with other people.”

“So once you have this different understanding of knowledge, you actually don’t have to accept the idea of technology as a neutral force”.

For Wainwright, the lesson of the Lucas Plan was that workers – especially skilled workers – have an intimate knowledge of production, and are therefore in a unique position as both producers and users of technology to link production to social need.

“Trade unionists – who are representing the skilled design workers of our industries – have got the power, potentially, to challenge the design choices of new technology and the way this technology is implemented, what the purpose of the introduction of technology is.”

 

Danger and opportunity

“We now have an amazing opportunity,” Wainwright stressed, “a bit like we did in the 70s with Tony Benn, but even more so with a Corbyn-led Labour Party that has already set out a different strategy for industry and a plan for public ownership.”

Wainwright mentioned John McDonnell’s speech at the September Labour conference fringe event, ‘The World Transformed’, in which he said that Labour had “laid out a framework for public ownership that is necessary for radical transformation” but that it “wanted the people, the working people, who have the knowledge, to develop alternatives”.

However, while this opportunity is exciting, we must also heed the lessons of the 1970s, Wainwright urged, when Labour last had radical left MPs like Tony Benn and Audrey Wise exploring workers’ control and “nationalisation was on the cards”.

“Public ownership – which is now on the cards – isn’t enough, we need to be thinking about the content and structure of industry and the purpose of technology,” Wainwright urged.

“When Tony Benn invited the Lucas Aerospace shop stewards to come to his office – much to the shock and horror of his civil servants, because they were used to meeting trade union officials – he asked them whether they wanted him to nationalise Lucas Aerospace.”

“They said that they didn’t think nationalisation was enough, that Labour needed to have a plan for what they wanted to do with the nationalised industry. So this then set them out on their alternative corporate plan for socially-useful production.”

“What Benn did has an interesting parallel with what Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell could potentially do. What Benn did in the Department of Industry was make it clear to the shop stewards that he would support them if they developed alternatives, so that’s how the Lucas Plan really arose.”

Similar ideas came from elsewhere, Wainwright pointed out, from Chrysler and Triumph in Coventry, for example. The Institute for Workers’ Control – including Audrey Wise, a Coventry MP in the 1970s and author of Women and the Struggle for Workers’ Control – played a key role nurturing and supporting such initiatives.

“[The Institute for Workers Control] brought together many groups of radical workers that were developing alternatives which weren’t just about public ownership but also about the content and purpose and forms of organisation of production, the nature and direction of technology.”

However, “all this was defeated by pressures from the CBI, the city [of London] and Harold Wilson, who sacked Tony Benn”, Wainwright warned. “All these pressures Jeremy Corbyn will also face – but then he will be prime minister and will have a bit more power than Tony Benn had.”

“After all of this had been defeated, we thought – they can’t just get away with it – so we organised what we grandly called a ‘worker’s inquiry’,” Wainwright added.

“We called it State Intervention in Industry, and in Newcastle, Liverpool, North Tyneside and Coventry, the shops stewards worked with the trades councils to find out what had gone wrong in the different companies and what went wrong in their eyes with government.”

“We had planned a kind of grand conclusion in a grand committee room in the Houses of Parliament, in which the trades councils and the shop stewards would hold a tribunal calling ministers to account for what had gone wrong.”

“Then we wrote it up. The shop stewards documented their experiences, what their fears and hopes were and what actually happened. We ended up with conclusions and recommendations for the future, so it’s an important book that’s worth going back to in thinking about what this would mean now.”

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Working conditions are learning conditions: report from National Unison Higher Education Seminar 2017

Source: Ioana Cerasella Chis

University employee working conditions have an impact on ‘student experience’ and trade union activists need to make this clear to students, was the concluding message of last week’s annual National Unison Higher Education Seminar 2017, according to Ioana Cerasella Chis, joint chair of University of Birmingham Unison, who reported on the Seminar for HE Marketisation.

In one of the three biggest events organised by Unison on an annual basis, more than 100 activist volunteers, officers and reps from all around the UK traveled to Belfast for a series of workshops focusing on topics such as: pensions; developing and supporting union activists; the business case for equality and diversity; unconscious bias; effective political campaigning; campaigning to achieve living wage accreditation; working with student unions; supporting members with mental health conditions; and redundancies – an organising approach.

The first day of the seminar coincided with a national demonstration in London organised by the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts (NCAFC) (HE Marketisation, 15 November 2017). In an important display of solidarity between non-academic staff – a constituency in universities often lost in debates dominated by academics represented by the University and College Union (UCU) – and students, Unison reps took a photo (see above, Ioana far left) to show support for the demonstration and their union’s commitment to free education.

“We need to resist divisions between students and workers, and to develop a consciousness that recognises the commonality between students and workers,” commented Ioana.

“In the end, coursework is unpaid work, and during their courses, students are being trained to be future indebted, ‘flexible’ and precarious workers,” she added. “Student support, good relationships with other unions, solidarity and joint collective action with anyone interested in, and affected by particular policies and working conditions are key to social movements’ success, and trade unionism is included in this.”

The session on student unions focused on two aspects: how to work collaboratively with students’ unions, and how to represent and involve more students’ union workers in Unison branches. “Developing activists in students’ unions, offering resources and support, and liaising with student groups/societies/officers and students who sit on relevant committees represent important steps that allow for new possibilities for collective action and trade union education,” Ioana pointed out.

Unison officials reported that a national Unison survey had been circulated to branches and students’ union members on their conditions of work. “Unsurprisingly, the issues faced by students’ union employees reflect and mirror the problems identified across the wider university workforce,” Ioana said. “However, it is often the case that the terms and conditions of contracts in students’ unions are different from those in universities. It is important to have reps who work in unions themselves, to gain the knowledge, facility time and confidence to organise in their departments.”

Consequences of market reform

“Higher education is changing and is affecting all of us,” Ioana observed. One of the most immediate consequences of market reform has been major restructure and mass redundancy at large universities, for example at the University of Manchester.

In particular, it is the absence of consultation that goes with such restructure that is most pernicious and has a negative impact on staff morale. Universities can be very “creative” in the ways that they invent to “avoid following the procedures of consulting us from the very beginning of the process of considering restructures”, Ioana pointed out.

The redundancies seminar discussed: different types of redundancy and ways to represent and consult with union members effectively; how to offer support and encourage others to take ownership of collectively organising around the issues that affect them; the ways in which even small changes to the conditions of employment can have a significant impact upon a worker’s life, often affecting particular groups disproportionately.

Organising opportunities were also discussed: how to gather information about an area affected by redundancies; the importance of liaising with activists and building relationships with potential members; and the need to celebrate successes by, for instance, adding a permanent ‘what went well?’ item on the agenda of union branch committee meetings.

“Writing blog posts and newspaper articles is another good way to celebrate victories,” Ioana pointed out. “The redundancies seminar was fantastic in its clarity and depth of information delivered in such a short time,” she added.

Marketisation and mental health

Another workshop engaged critically with the recent Department of Work and Pensions report, ‘Thriving at Work: A Review of Mental Health and Employers’ – also called ‘The Stevenson/Farmer Report’.

Speaking at the workshop on mental health, Tracey Ayton Harding, head of Health and Safety at Unison said stress at work is due to ineffective management. “University policies on mental health too often restrict themselves to focusing on stress (and ways to relieve it),” she argued, “thus making disability at workplace invisible”.

Harding described how a Unison working group was currently gathering information with regard to four matters related to mental health:

• pre-existing conditions that people may have regardless of the conditions of work

• mental health conditions made worse by work

• working with people who have mental health concerns

• looking at the mental health of our activists, as they are facing a high workload consisting of difficult conversations and emotional labour

“An interesting and contested point raised at the workshop was on mental health first aid courses offered at a number of higher education institutions,” Ioana reported. “Some in Unison argue that the courses should be welcomed and attended by activists and members, as the sessions are informative and equip the attendees with knowledge and skills to support co-workers and members.”

“However, others say that it is not the responsibility of union reps to provide mental health support and to be seen as specialists in this area (when they clearly are not specialists),” she added. “Rather, reps should have the knowledge necessary to adequately signpost members to adequate support, and resources should be in place in the referred organisations and universities to support these members.”

First aid courses reproduced the idea that an individual – after only two days of training – could ‘intervene’ into someone’s life, to quickly ‘fix’ their mental health, Ioana argued. “It puts the onus on the person who is struggling to ‘react appropriately’ and to ‘get well’ soon,” she added. “Thus, if the first aid measures ‘fail’, the struggling person could be seen as if they are not doing enough to make themselves better – as if it is their fault. This contributes further to the stigma of mental ill-health, as if one morally owes to society to feel better, to be more productive, and to follow instructions.”

Practical lessons

Trade union branches should identify “sources of power” from within and beyond the university that can influence campaigns and shift opinion in a particular direction, Ioana reported, including “politicians, the media, councillors, community groups, student groups, companies, other trade unions, and other significant individuals, platforms and organisations”.

A good example was the campaign for a ‘living wage’. In the UK, out of 165 publicly funded universities, only 40 are Living Wage Accredited Employers. “We are not being paid what we are worth”, argued Denise Ward, chair of Unison’s Higher Education Service Group.

“The living wage is just a small, initial but very important step towards improving pay and living conditions, especially when a staggering number of 5.5 million people in the UK are being paid below the living wage,” Ioana pointed out. “Also, unpaid student work classed as ‘work experience’ is a concern that unions need to address and fight against.”

Naming and shaming, and campaigning at a more coordinated level cross-campuses, were both put forward by reps as effective strategies for Unison living wage campaigns.

“We need to think about how to change and challenge the conditions of work in higher education,” Ioana urged. “We can do this collectively through engagement, campaigning, protesting, and also casework.”

However, case work “need not define the role of our branches”, Ioana pointed out. Reasonable adjustments, lunch breaks, and facility time – the (paid) work-time that union reps get to do union work, especially time-consuming and emotionally draining casework – were all “definitely important aspects of such branch activity”, Ioana added, but had to be “fought for”.

One Unison university branch, for instance, held a ‘reclaim your lunch’ event to bring people in a common space, Ioana reported.

Contributor: Ioana Cerasella Chis

Ioana is a founding member of the Contemporary Philosophy of Technology Research Group and, as part of the committee, has been an active organiser of seminars and symposia. Ioana is also a member of Birmingham Autonomous University Collective with whom she has recently published a book chapter called ‘Six Theses In, Against, and Beyond the University‘ .

Immediately after graduating with an MA in Social and Political Theory at the University of Birmingham, Ioana joined the Professional Services team in the School of Social Policy. Two months after starting her full-time role, she was elected onto the Unison branch committee. Ioana is currently in the process of applying for a PhD in the Political Science and International Studies department. Her Twitter handle is @CerasellaChis

Millbank, seven years later

5168210963_60affe90a9_b.jpg
Source: Matt Dinnery (CC BY 2.0)

As thousands of young people and students once again march in London to demand an end to tuition fees, author of ‘Student Protest: Voices of the Austerity Generation’ Matt Myers remembers the brief but influential student movement of 2010, which celebrated its seventh anniversary last weekend.

“A major moment in the history of 21st century Britain,” Myers described the 2010 UK student movement, which lasted almost exactly a month from the smashing of Millbank windows in November to the ‘kettling’ of protesters in December.

Speaking at a Warwick for Free Education event on 31 October, Myers linked this short-lived outburst of student revolt to the contemporary emergence of a viable, anti-austerity alternative in the form of the Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour Party, which shocked the nation in the June snap election earlier year by drastically reducing Theresa May’s Tory Party majority in UK Parliament.

“More than anything [the 2010 student movement] fractured the consensus view in British politics that young people were disengaged, apathetic and out of touch with politics,” Myers argued. “[It] showed that it was the politicians who were out of touch with young people.”

“The political class did not listen,” he added, “and now they are suffering the consequences.”

 

Occupations and kettles

The student movement began exactly a week after David Cameron – then Prime Minister of the Lib-Dem-Tory Coalition government – announced at Prime Minster’s Questions on 3 November 2010 that he intended to triple university tuition fees in England to £9000 and cut the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA).

In response, the National Union of Students (NUS) and the University and College Union (UCU) called a national demonstration in Central London, which attracted 50,000 mainly students and lecturers, far more than the 20,000 expected by the Metropolitan Police.

The protest itself did not go quite to plan, as students broke off from the police-approved route that was supposed to take people in an orderly fashion from Whitehall past Downing Street and Parliament Square, ending with a rally at Tate Britain.

“A small group attempted to occupy – against the wishes of the NUS leadership – the headquarters of the Tory Party,” Myers recounted.

Protesters began to gather outside the Conservative Party headquarters at Millbank, with some finding their way into the building and even making their way onto the roof, catching police completely unprepared.

Events seemed to take a turn for the worse as one protester – Edward Woolard – appeared with a fire extinguisher, which he then threw at the police below. The move was countered with instant disapproval by the crowd watching on, who were eventually ‘kettled’ by the Territorial Support Group called in to help the overwhelmed police.

Kettling is a police tactic for controlling large crowds during demonstrations or protests which involves the formation of large cordons of police, who then move to contain a crowd within a limited area. Protesters are left only one choice of exit or are completely prevented from leaving, with the effect of denying the protesters access to food, water and toilet facilities for an arbitrary period determined by the police.

This tactic came under fire at the later 9 November demonstration, when protesters again descended on Parliament Square as Parliament voted on the tuition fee rise, and were promptly kettled by the police for most of the day. Eventually police moved protesters onto Westminster Bridge where adults and children stood in the freezing cold for over two hours.

During the protest, police also hit demonstrators on the head with batons, resulting in tens of people being treated in a St John’s Ambulance ‘field hospital’. One protester – Alfie Meadows – had to go to hospital after being hit, requiring emergency brain surgery.

 

Oh, Jeremy Corbyn

Myers pointed out that, following the 9 November demonstration, Theresa May – at the time Home Secretary – praised in a speech to Parliament the “great bravery and professionalism” of the Metropolitan Police “in the face of violence and provocation”.

Theresa May also claimed that while “a cordon was placed around Parliament Square”, those “who remained peaceful and wished to leave” were able to do so. This claimed was later contradicted by journalists who has also been part of the police kettled by police.

“Some students behaved disgracefully” May went on, adding that “the protests were infiltrated by organised groups of hardcore activists and street gangs bent on violence”.

“I want to be absolutely clear: the blame for the violence lies squarely and solely with those who carried it out,” May concluded. “The idea – that some have advanced – that police tactics were to blame when people came armed with sticks, flares, fireworks, stones and snooker balls, is as ridiculous as it is unfair.”

In contrast, both John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn defended the actions of students, arguing that the protests had been a legitimate response to a series of inhumane and irrational policy decisions made by the Coalition government under the banner of ‘austerity’.

It is not surprising that young people today trust Corbyn, Myers pointed out, as he was “the only person in Parliament who raised his voice to speak for the students and question Theresa May”.

“There is something about 2010 that shows there is a major generational cleavage that is ripping the heart of British politics open,” he concluded.

 

Past, present and future

Myers is currently travelling the country promoting his book ‘Student Protest: Voices of the Austerity Generation’, which is available now from Pluto Press.

His intention in writing his book on the student movement was, on the one hand, to “create a document that would allow [the experiences of those involved” not to be lost to oblivion” and, on the other, to create both a “tradition” a “tool” for “new generations of students” in their struggles for free education and change in society.

The demo in London today was organised by key players in the 2010 student movement, the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts, which is calling  “for an end to tuition fees, for living grants, and for an education system that serves people not profit”.

EVENT: ‘Free Education’ co-hosted by Birmingham UCU and Socialist Students

Bham event

‘Free Education’ co-hosted by Birmingham UCU on Wednesday the 1st Nov, 6pm, in the Arts Main Lecture Theatre (120) at Birmingham University

Outline of the event
This year, for the first time since their introduction in 1998, a major political party campaigned to abolish tuition fees in the general election. A pledge that seems to have contributed to unprecedented turnout among students and young people. With the pledge of ‘Free Education’ now an immediate demand on the mainstream political agenda this talk introduces the issues of free education, but also places them within the context of wider HE reforms (the ‘REF’ and the ‘TEF’), industrial issues of casualisation and redundancies, and the changing nature of our curriculums. The session will involve short introductions to key issues followed by Q&A discussion.   
 
Speakers
– David Ridley, UCU national executive officer, Secretary, Coventry University UCU, Vice-chair West Midlands UCU and Editor of the ‘Marketisation of Higher Education’ blog
– Dr Justin Cruickshank, senior lecturer in the Department of Social Policy and author of ‘Putting Business at the Heart of Higher Education: On Neoliberal Interventionism and Audit Culture in UK Universities’ 
– Dr. David Bailey, Senior lecturer in Political Science and Branch Secretary of BUCU
– Anti-casualisation working group, BUCU
– Socialist Students, Guild of Students