Friday, 4 April 2014

teaching trade union history in a post-labour age

It's week 11 of my 2nd year undergraduate history module, 'Peace, Power & Prosperity: British Society, 1789-1914'.(1) This week's lecture and seminar were on 19th century trade unions and labour history.

What made this week's session interesting, and perhaps important, because the UCU have called a marking boycott. This has completely riled the students. There has been an awful campaign on twitter #markmywork. and it appears that the student union from my university seems to be leading the campaign. For a good summary of the campaign and a justification of the strike, read this academic's response:

But the history of trade unions can be very hard to teach today.

Teaching labour history to undergraduates, most of whom are aged 19-20, is made difficult because most students have no frame of reference regarding trade unions.

Trade unions just don't figure in their lives or family histories. Many of our students are sons and daughters of the working-class done good during the 80s and 90s - the East End plumbers, electricians and builders who managed to do well, sell their council house, and move out to new-build private housing estates in the Tory heartlands of Essex. The quashing of the power of the trade unions by Thatcher's government, and New Labour's ditching of clause 4 and its move away from its socialist roots, combined with mass de-industrialisation and the rise of unsecure hourly-paid jobs, workfare, etc etc, has created a post-labour age in which unions seem an anomaly to many people.

Many of the students, when asked, have never been in a demonstration before (this also comes through in my other module on the history of popular protest). They have never seen a picket line. It seems historical to them.(2)

So the first thing I do when teaching 19th Century trade union history is ask the students what they think a trade union is and what it stands for. They've no idea, other than trade unions cause 'disruption'.

Note this is just one week in a 12-week module that covers all sorts of topics (empire, leisure, reform, family, urbanisation etc), so there's a lot to pack in. I go through the standard interpretation of what they stood for in the 19thc - defence of skilled (male) labour against free-market laissez-faire economics, unskilled (female/child/non-apprentice/machine) labour. I then chart what now seems like a really old-fashioned timeline of events and people that perhaps would have been bread and butter to the WEA classes that E. P. Thompson used to teach in the 50s and 60s, but are almost forgotten outside the trade union movement today:
  • the Combination Acts of 1799-1800
  • Tolpuddle Martyrs of 1834
  • Robert Owen
  • Plug strikes of 1842 and Chartism
  • new model unions from the 1860s onwards
  • Bryant & May women matchworkers' strike 1888
  • London Dock and Gasworkers' Strike of 1889
  • formation of the ILP and Labour Representation Committee and Keir Hardie
  • 1901 Taff vale case
  • historiography: Webbs and Hammonds, Hobsbawm and Thompson
I explain how these are totems, particular historic points that the trade union movement perhaps exaggerated in terms of significance, but were vital in constructing their shared history and purpose.

But again, this seems somewhat outdated, and I worry that it perpetuates the idea among the students that trade unions are historical and no longer relevant. I also worry that I would appear to be the crazy leftie academic that their parents warned them about, when I'm far from that.

Sample questions from the students this week included, 'what type of people joined up to trade unions?, (answer: um, workers...);
'Trade unions were those things that had loads of power and stopped the country from working. When was it that Margaret Thatcher got rid of their power?' (answer: you're thinking of the miners' strikes of 1984-5).

But there was some light at the end of the tunnel. After looking at Sonya Rose's article, ‘Gender antagonism and class conflict: exclusionary strategies of male trade unionists in nineteenth-century Britain’, Social History, 13: 2 (1988), the seminar discussion moved on to the issue of women's rights and equal pay.

One of the students asked the good question about when did trade unions move away from trying to protect men's interests and start campaigning for equal pay, and the class's interest increased when I suggested not until the 1960s, mentioning the Dagenham women's strike. The film Made in Dagenham had struck a chord with the Essex-based students (and note, the majority of the students taking the module are female).

So finally I convinced them that trade unions are still important and relevant to them in some ways. They were also shocked at the fact that the government only instituted minimum wage legislation in the late 1990s; they thought it was much earlier than that, especially when I had been talking about the weavers' petition for a minimum wage back in 1808.

The issues that seem to matter most to the students were low pay, insecurity, zero-hours contracts, and gender discrimination. They still don't quite see the role that trade unions could play in helping fight these, but perhaps they will soon.

(1) note the title isn't mine - I inherited the module from one of my predecessors, possibly Matthew Cragoe.
(2) a startling memory for me is of a previous UCU strike, when the students driving into campus had no idea what we were doing when we stood across the entrance to the carpark with banners etc. They just had no idea what a picket line was or what it was for.

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

militant particularisms, music and the nature of genius-place

This weekend I did two seemingly unrelated things, which I will attempt to relate here!
  1. Helped with a public history workshop on the 1817 March of the Blanketeers at the Manchester Histories Festival;
  2. Went to see 'Breadcrumb Trail', a documentary about Slint by Lance Bangs (who took a Q & A session afterwards), at the ICA. 

How do I connect them strangely in my head?

Well, I've been thinking a lot recently about Raymond Williams's notion of 'militant particularisms'.  (Bear with me!)

Williams, studying 20th century class politics in Cowley motor works, identified a ‘place-bound politics arising out of the experience of class solidarities and gender relations’ formed in particular places.

David Harvey understood this to mean a dichotomy between the local-particular-specific place and the national/international-general-abstract space. That is, place-bound political groups cannot achieve their goals (and indeed class consciousness) until they shift from focusing on particular grievances towards uniting with other groups (in space) under more abstract political ideologies.
  • David Harvey and Raymond Williams, ‘Militant particularism and global ambition: the conceptual politics of place, space and environment in the work of Raymond Williams’, Social Text, 42 (1995) 

David Featherstone has argued strongly against this interpretation, drawing from Doreen Massey's notion of place as constantly interacting networks and connections. Featherstone examines the 1768 London port strikes during the Wilkes agitation, which involved specific groups of workers attached to particular areas. He argues that they were connected by ‘different subaltern groups, some like sailors defined by their mobilities, in contesting the material and social orderings of mercantile networks’. He's also examined the London Corresponding Society networks in similar ways, which I find really convicing.
  • David Featherstone, ‘Towards the relational construction of militant particularisms: or why the geographies of past struggles matter for resistance to neoliberal globalisation’, Antipode, 37:2 (2005)
While I've been untangling what all this means, I've been thinking about the nature of attachment to place in other ways. I've been trying to understand what it is precisely about a place that produces a particular type of movement, activity, art or creativity that is distinguishable from elsewhere. I've watched several documentaries recently about bands and the places from where they originated, including the aforementioned Breadcrumb Trail (Slint- Louisville, Kentucky, USA), and also Oil City Confidential (Dr Feelgood - Canvey Island, Essex, UK).

Two things struck me about Breadcrumb Trail: 

1. Serious vs funny

I expected this to be a serious documentary, but it was surprisingly funny. The humour came from the observations and stories from the friends and family of the band. I had expected it to be serious because of the music, and because Slint was built up an enigma of the monochrome picture of the four young men swimming in the quarry, and the refusal to divulge very much in the rare interviews, and the whole tale of them splitting up soon after the recording of Spiderland and thus not touring or promoting the album.

But for every clip of the band seriously practising, and not giving much away in very serious interviews, there were a friend or a producer or the mum and dad of Britt (the real stars of the film!) giving away some hilarious insights into the crazyness of the band's members.(1)

2. Place

The emphasis upon the unusual character of Louisville, Kentucky, and its inhabitants, was evident throughout. The director began the film with a quotation by one of the city's sons, Hunter S Thompson, about the weirdness of the place.
The director explained during the Q & A how residents of Louisville have a particular character that is hard for even Americans to understand.

The cover images of the two albums are imbued with their sense of place. For Tweez, they chose a car parked on their favourite windy lane that they were obsessed with (while their parents couldn't quite understand it, as they thought it was a 'godforsaken' lane in the middle of nowhere). For Spiderland, Will Oldham's stunning photo of the band swimming in a flooded quarry illustrates a quality of their music - in part natural, in part man made, hewn painstakingly and painfully out of larger rock.(2)

The characters of the band came out both in the archive footage and in the interviews. Bangs explained that this was a peculiarity of Louisville residents: an intense introvertedness and quietness occasionally broken by a spurt of crazy eccentricity, boundless energy and sometimes violence. The harshness of life in the city, particularly in the working-class side of town, appeared to underline why the hardcore scene was so popular, while this unique odd but channelled crazyness expressed itself in the silly names that the bands took (and which, as the film explained, the hardcore band 'Squirrel Bait' tried to parody). Where did this particular character come from? We don't know - perhaps it's an odd twisted legacy of KY's slaving history, where inhabitants internalise rather than vocalise the contradictions, complicated social structures, and hidden meanings that such a legacy bestows.

So what has this got to do with the March of the Blanketeers?
Perhaps nothing, but it did make me think further about the nature of place.

Petition of the Blanketeers, HO 42/162, National Archives

William Benbow, Punch

1. humour. 

There's a new article about radical humour in Chartism by Tom Scriven - his main point is that historians forget that radicals had a normal everyday life beside their campaigning and serious effort. They in fact had a sense of humour that perhaps historians miss or misinterpret because we assume that radicals were serious all the time, rather than young lads having a laugh as well as creating new ideas. I suspect this was the case with the postwar radicals of the mass platform too, and I would love to find out more about this (perhaps also see Malcolm Chase, 1820, on radical use of the theatre for alternate meanings).

  • Tom Scriven, 'Humour, Satire and Sexuality in the Culture of Early Chartism', Historical Journal, 57:1 (2014).

2. militant particularisms. 

Movements, scenes, groups, emerge out of a particular set of circumstances shaped by their place. In some places, given the right combination of individuals at the right time, it results in the production of something new - new ideas, connections, creativity, genius. It doesn't come out of nothing, but is moulded by socio-economic circumstances and other influences from elsewhere, and is also a product of hard hard work and graft.

The radicals of the early nineteenth century debated and debated until they worked out a programme. Drawing from their influences (Locke, Cartwright, a bit of Paine), they developed new ideas of universalism, while still very much attached to place (Featherstone's point).

Coming from a tradition of hardcore, and other influences (the director mentioned this was contradictory but some liked for example Neil Young), Slint practised and practised for hours upon hours until they produced sounds like no-one had done before.
They produced something that was very much of its place, but appealed to a small but growing audience worldwide (and inspired thus new scenes in Glasgow, Montreal, etc).

(1) Behind the enigma were goofy photos and footage (and cassette tapes) of them larking around. Their friends and family testified to the fact that here were four (and five) teenagers, larking around and messing with scatalogical humour just like you would expect a group of lads to do. Watching James Murphy (LCD soundsystem) crack up when presented with the forgotten memory of Britt's business endeavour 'Master Bake' cake shop made everyone in the cinema roll in the aisles laughing. How much of the seriousness of Slint was actually a clever joke, taking the piss out of seriousness, is difficult to determine, but it must have been there (notably the infamous cassette of noises that it seems did make it onto the first album Tweez).
(2) I'm starting to sound like Paul Morley here so I'll shut up...