The Last Conference of IFWEA: Precarity or Solidarity?

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Jun 10 2017 03:01
The Last Conference of IFWEA: Precarity or Solidarity?

IFWEA-Conf4L&S080916 Words: c. 7,000 Updated: 100916

An abbreviated draft on which comment would be welcome. Reader Warning: this has been turned down, in possibly other versions, by two respected international labour journals for being too ... err ... personal.

Precarity or Solidarity?

The 22nd Conference of the International Federation of Worker Education Associations,
Lima, December 2015

Peter Waterman

Biographical note

Peter Waterman (London 1936) has experience (as student and teacher) in labour education. He worked as a labour educator for the World Federation of Trade Unions in Communist Prague (1966-9), taught on Third World labour and international social movements at the Institute of Social Studies, The Hague (1972-98). He edited the Newsletter of International Labour Studies in the 1980s. He was early involved in exchanges about social movement unionism, the new labour internationalism and labour and cyberspace. He has been published widely, recently mostly online and copyleft. He is currently a co-editor of Interface: A Journal for and About Social Movements.


This is a critique of the International Federation of Worker Education Associations that begins with its conference, Lima, 2015. It argues that the conference and its Peruvian hosts are locked into models of capitalism, unionism, labour relations and labour education of a Eurocentric and incrementalist mode, outdated by our aggressive, neo-liberalized, globalized and informatized capitalist order. This imprisonment is represented by a conference title which suggests that a labour solidarity (unspecified) of the past is threatened by precarisation. The paper ends with a series of challenges for international labour education relevant to a 21st century capitalism.


Labour, Education, International, Incorporation, Emancipation

As Gramsci noted every ‘revolution has been preceded by an intense
labour of criticism’. (Novelli and Ferus-Comelo, 2010:55)

The pedagogical practices of social movements … have two moments; one to deconstruct and rupture dominant pedagogies of epistemological and ontological denial by appearing as knowing-subjects. The other moment is the affirmative co-construction of becoming otherwise to these logics as communities and subjects. (Motta and Esteves, 2014)

Locked into capitalism and development?

This conference combined the institutional business and elections of the IFWEA with its intellectual concerns. Being there as an observer rather than a representative, I mostly attended to the second. But even more than listening was I provoked to find other resources on labour and/or popular adult education. This because of a growing impression during the conference that - as itself a traditional international labour institution - the IFWEA is still locked into unionism’s ‘Globalized and Informatized Cage of Capitalism and Bureaucracy’ (Waterman, 2014a).

This impression was due to the largely un-(self-)critical nature of the proceedings, whether addressed to the IFWEA itself, or to its pedagogical practices, but particularly to 1) the posing of the conference theme in terms of an opposition (or at least an option?) between solidarity and precarity, as if the one is distinct from or excludes the other, and 2) the conference’s marginal address to this theme. For me it is only in the full recognition of the significance of ‘precarity’ (the long-standing and quasi-universal labour condition outside the North-West, a growing one within) that a 21st century labour solidarity can be constructed.

The absence of the old 20th century ideological/institutional conflict between ‘reformists’ (Social, Liberal or Christian Democratic) and ‘revolutionaries’ (Leninist, Stalinist, Trotskyist, Maoist) at the conference meant, positively, that those attending could pursue their concerns in a spirit of admirable friendliness. But, negatively, it implied the absence of criticism of, or any alternatives to, a shared labour incrementalism. By ‘incrementalism’ here I mean the conviction that one can return to the halting ‘forward march of labour’ under capitalism once we – what? - reverse the present globalized neo-liberal diversion/perversion? And that the IFWEA will then be able to continue providing educational services to an international trade union movement growing in numbers and power.

One US keynote speaker, respected labour and feminist historian, Dorothy Sue Cobble, flashed a table across the screen to demonstrate that - despite widespread belief - unionization has been increasing globally over the decades. Other North Americans referred breezily to their collaboration with major US labour institutions (for national or international purpose), as if these have not been long criticized for their incorporation into US capitalism or involved with the export of its interests and values from the West to the Rest (Fletcher and Gapasin; 2008, Scipes 2010; Bass, 2012). Solidar, a Brussels-based International NGO, represented at the conference by its General Secretary and IFWEA leader, Conny Reuters, distributed a brochure with a ‘social justice’ title but in which the word ‘capitalism’ was only mentioned in its bad ‘financial’ emanation.

The study-circle method: 100 years young?

The heavily-represented Swedish contingent presented their ‘study circle’ methodology as if there had, in the last 100 years, been little to add to emancipatory pedagogy (for an end-of-that-century overview see here). I have no previous experience with the method. Wikipedia, however, tells me that meeting in study circles is a democratic method of self-education, linked to the movement for working class emancipation.

Bjerkaker (2003) says that

The so-called founder of the Study Circle, the Swede Oscar Olsson, expressed that “The emancipation of the working class should be a task for the workers themselves” [My emphasis. PW] … The close links between the method Study Circle and the tool for democracy Study Circle may also be exemplified with the expression by the former Swedish Prime Minister Olov Palme: ‘Sweden is to a great extent a Study Circle democracy’.

One can accept the value of a methodology repeatedly recommended at the conference, whilst asking whether it has equipped the Nordic working classes for emancipation from (or even effective defence within) a globalising and neo-liberalising Nordic capitalism (for which see Olsson, 2009; Wahl, 2011). As for its hypothetical value, I learned more from a South African video produced by IFWEA people in that country, which strongly suggested its possibilities for individual and collective self-empowerment. There surely remains, however, a problem when the major emancipatory theory/method/strategy within the global labour education movement is a project/gift/export of the West to the Rest. Particularly if accompanied by experts and funding. Occasional references to Paolo Freire carried little weight. And in any case his mention had little effect in advancing the 100-year-old Swedish point of reference.

Other conference presentations, of particular national experiences, were presented and accepted as simple examples of, or contributions to, worker education. And the particular experiences of women workers (waged or unwaged) were taken to suggest the incremental forward march of these (even into US cabinets!), or the gradual expansion of the meaning of ‘the labour movement’ to include them. This hardly revealed, I think, the role of feminism and feminists (working class, socialist or radical) in the continuing struggle to emancipate the global labour movement from its traditional machismo.

The conference’s Southern hosting: also incrementalist

Such a pragmatic limitation of union vision was surely reinforced by its hosting. This was by the major Peruvian labour education centre, PLADES, a title that spells out as ‘Labour and Development Programme’, and which has on its home page the slogan ‘Advancing Decent Work’. Now, both ‘Development’ and ‘Decent Work’ imply endorsement by PLADES of the language and policies of the Eurocentred and Eurocentric unions, national and international, and the equally Eurocentric inter-state labour ‘agency for globalisation’ (Standing, 2008), the UN’s International Labour Organisation (ILO).

The other host – formal or not – was the major Peruvian union confederation, the Confederación General de Trabajadores del Perú (CGTP). So another keynote speaker was its first woman chairperson, Carmela Sifuentes. She considers herself in part a product of PLADES, therefore demonstrating the union-building role of labour education. I seemed to hear her also identifying with a major popular ecological protest movement in Cajamarca (from where she comes) against an ecologically-destructive mining concession. In so far as the CGTP had only a token presence when a massive march of protesters from Cajamarca assembled outside its HQ in central Lima, 2012, this suggests at least a marginal recognition of such non-union movements.

Whilst the CGTP has its own educational operation (also largely dependent on West European union sponsorship), it has long had an intimate relationship with PLADES, recently formalized in their joint development of an online labour education programme. In the meantime one should note that the CGTP has an equally intimate relationship with the historical Communist Party of Peru, and has long had – in the person of Valentin Pacho – the Deputy General Secretaryship of the Communist World Federation of Trade Unions.

None of this should be taken to imply that the hosting had anything Communist about it, neither the CGTP nor PLADES spokespeople making as much as token reference to ‘socialism’, ‘class and mass unionism’ – far less to ‘revolution’ (or the work of criticism that proceeds such). Like the IFWEA itself, the hosts evidently share a pragmatic labourist worldview, which allows the IFWEA, its leaders and its national affiliates to have a close – not to say dependent - relationship with the hegemonic labour relations/labour education bloc in the contemporary world, the Brussels-based International Trade Union Confederation and the Geneva-based International Labour Organisation.

Another historical tradition of labour education

In a pre-conference search for the ‘labour of criticism’ within labour education, I came across an Independent Working-Class Education Network (IWCEN), founded 2010 in the UK. This bases itself on the class-struggle tradition of the Plebs League. Given that the origin of the Plebs League was a student strike at Ruskin College, 1909, I was more than intrigued. I had, after all, been myself a dissatisfied student at Ruskin, if a half century later. The rebellious students of 1909 saw mainstream higher education as upper-class and enslaving, and considered that worker education should consist of

Marxist economics, industrial history (meaning history from which the actions of workers were not left out); and philosophy (by which they understood the capacity to reason things out for yourself)… (Waugh, 2015: 5).

Colin Waugh, whose major reference is the Plebs League which sprang from this rebellion, distinguishes between ‘training’ or ‘indoctrination’ and meaningful labour education. The latter is intended to include dialogue between those whose initial role is that of elaborating ideas (‘teachers’?) and those whose primary role is that of organising activity (‘students’?). In summary, he says:

By ‘independent working class education’ we mean teaching and learning that aims to make available the whole truth and nothing but the truth in areas of knowledge, understanding and skill that are relevant to class-struggle activity. This would be provided by a group of workers who possess the necessary knowledge, either through life-experience or higher education or both. They will provide it to a group of other workers who are … actual or potential union or community activists. The interaction between these two groups of people will be such that each teaches and learns from the other. This will take place in circumstances which are not under the financial control of other classes and in which ideas which reflect the ideological influence of those other classes can by systematically identified and challenged. (Waugh, 2015:12-13).

Whilst it is important to be reminded of this autonomous tradition in labour education, and whilst I wish the IWCEN all success, I do not think that autonomous labour education in the 21st century can go ‘back to the future’. Waugh pretty much confines himself to the labour-capital relation, sees primarily binary contradictions and tends to set these up in Manichean opposition, of virtue v. vice. He also seems to believe that there is a truth that is known. His source of ideas about alternative adult or worker education is almost entirely confined to the UK and other industrialized capitalist countries.

Labour education as knowledge production

I discovered Globalization, Knowledge and Labour (Novelli and Ferus-Comelo, 2010), whilst sitting at the conference and searching online for emancipatory work on labour education. I then sent a message to two or three conference participants to see whether they knew of it - and am still waiting for a response. In comparison with the positions of the conference and of Colin Waugh, it does seem to me less a small step for 21st century labour education, more a giant leap.

I will refer to this book as GK&L. It represents, to my mind, a dramatic breakthrough in the study of labour education, but an uneven one that requires a more serious review than any summary presentation of it. The authors say:

We believe that the production and dissemination of alternative knowledge
is central to a resurgence of working-class power … Worker education is an indispensable part of the effort of counter-hegemonic labour movements to defend and extend workers’ rights… [T]his book illustrates the importance of knowledge for raising the political consciousness of workers and their allies in the fight for social and economic justice and promoting alternative systems of production capabilities. The book also promotes a wider view of the ‘labour movement’ as consisting not only of traditional trade unions but also community-based workers’ centres and organizations that support workers’ rights (and unemployed workers) … When we began … [w]e wanted to contribute to theoretical debates on the role of knowledge in labour movements… Furthermore, we wanted to link this with the aim of further understanding the relationship between the processes of education and learning within labour and social movements and strategy development in labour struggles. … [W]e felt it necessary to ground this in an understanding of its relationship to processes of globalization … Finally, we wanted to situate these labour-related struggles within the broader global movement for social justice … to provide insights and inspiration for new ways of thinking about labour, learning and strategy development in the new millennium. (Novelli and Ferus-Comelo, 2010: 1)

All those italics are mine and intended to stress precisely the difference between a labourist/workerist vision of the matter and one informed by the newest wave of emancipatory global social movements and social theory. I will not, however, go further into the extensive theoretical sources on which GK&L draws, except to say that these include general theories of social emancipation under/against/beyond neo-liberal globalization, emancipatory theory concerning social movement ‘knowledge production’ (as much wider than ‘education’) and ‘labour geography’, which draws from radical social geography to take into account the varied places, scales and movements of both capitalist production and labour/ community resistance to such (see here GK&L, Chapter 3).

The book (which I should have said is a compilation of theoretical/strategic reflections by the editors and of case studies from both the Global North and South) ends with this passage on labour education and emancipation:

Our case studies confirm the immense power of workers that can be unleashed if the labour movement could conquer the hopelessness and pessimism about social change that the decline of communism and the crisis of social democracy have generated. Liberating ourselves from the shackles of uni-dimensional capitalist imaginaries is the challenging project that remains unrealized. (229)

Emancipatory knowledge-production beyond both Europe and labour

If GK&L represents a radical attempt to see 21st century labour education in global and emancipatory terms, then ‘Popular Education, Assisting Insurgent Processes and Epistemologies’ (Democracia Global 2015) is one with minimal debts to either the North or to labour. I will refer to this seven-page draft document as DG. Any translation from the Spanish original will be mine, with the customary help of Google (well, actually, vice versa).

The document begins with this provocative quotation:

‘We are what we do to change what we are’

It continues with a fundamental critique of not only the dominant economic or political model but of capitalist civilization in general. With respect to popular education it says:

This requires [that it] regain its political and epistemological radicalism, which … captures … an understanding of the new forms of mobilization and of broad, extended, multiple local and global action to contain and express forms of existence today [of the] social movements in the [G]lobal South. Putting in dialogue these different ways of interpreting the world and feeding transgressive and emancipatory practices has been – is - the challenge of popular education and the dialogues that feed it … They are part of a pedagogical and epistemological project that nurtures and forms part of a range of trends, approaches and emancipatory educational theories of popular education (like the Reflect-Action approach, feminist pedagogy, the ecology of knowledge, etc).

The DG document declares itself in favour of dialogue both in and about popular education (I use the common Spanish term popular rather than translating this, unsatisfactorily, as ‘people’s education’ or ‘education of the poor’). It seems to me a provocative contribution to such. And worthy of a response from those devoted to popular education as addressed solely to labour. Both in Peru and internationally.

Conclusions: business pending, in place and in space

Did we have labour solidarity – national or international - before precarity? If so, of what precise kind(s)? Was it not maybe a solidarity between particular kinds of unions or workers at particular moments, on different axes, in different directions, with different effects at both ‘ends’ or on society/societies more generally? For example, the truly international campaign for the legally limited eight-hour working day never achieved universal application, and this is today in many cases routinely breached. And, in so far as solidarities did exist, before the neo-liberalized, globalized, informatized capitalist (N-LGIC) era, what role did labour education in general or the IFWEA in particular, play?

I am not sure that, in either its contemporary or historical sessions, the conference told us anything much about capitalism - apart from criticizing its neo-liberal and globalized emanation. This could mean that the only horizon (not to speak of a utopia), toward which the IFWEA is oriented is that of an idealized and evidently temporary past. Yet, as Boaventura de Sousa Santos somewhere says, confronted by dystopia, we are condemned to being utopian. Confronting a N-LGIC, with its particularly brutal implications for workers, and the threat of further marginalization of unions – North, South, (old) East and West – is a challenge that labour educators surely need to meet.

Another vital matter that a N-LGIC puts into profound question – only hinted at above - is the appropriate form or forms for collective worker self-articulation (I use this term in preference to ‘organisation’ in so far as it refers to self-expression as well as organisation, and allows for networking). Some such issues are raised in an International Transportworkers Federation educational brochure commissioned from the Global Labour Institute. Whilst a preface does assume that unions can be representative of all transport workers, including the casualized and informal, it also asks whether existing unions are ‘fit for purpose’ and discusses the multiple possible (sometimes problematic) forms that the self-organisation of the presently un-unionized might take. One would have thought, given the inevitable mobility of transport workers and the consequent difficulty of getting them into an organizational place, that this opened up vistas of collective self-articulation online - that is networking, using in the first instance, smartphones.

So, next, to the virtual - a space I call Cyberia. Whilst it is clear that the IFWEA has been using this for publicity and organizational purposes, and whilst it is (belatedly) developing such use for teaching/learning purposes, various issues remain.

There is a difference between use of and engagement with/in what is an increasingly heterogeneous and increasingly disputed terrain. What Naomi Klein says of the climate crisis is equally true of informatisation, this changes everything. Information and communication technology (ICT) is, obviously, the technology that did not exist when Marx mistakenly imagined that the contradictions of industrial production would create a class desirous of, motivated and qualified to lead to the surpassing of capitalism. Hardt and Negri (2000) consider that informatisation raises for labour and society the possibility and necessity not of ‘socialism’ (in either its Social Democratic or Communist sense) but of ‘the commons’. And this was before current exchanges on the implications of three-dimensional computer production and ‘the factory on the kitchen table’ (Söderberg, 2011). The current, ongoing and increasing disputes around the internet, between hegemonic forces (capitalist, statist, militarist, racist, patriarchal, fundamentalist, etc) and socially-emancipatory movements and thinkers demonstrate both the threats to and possibilities for socially emancipatory projects. This is, surely, the increasingly central terrain of dispute for an emancipatory labour movement (Dencik and Wilkin, 2015) .

Whilst the traditional international labour organisations, of which the IFWEA is one, may be trying to catch up with both the threats and opportunities provided by ICT, there are a series of marginal or experimental projects occurring, these often overlapping with or taking advantage of advances made by more recent social movements. Here I can only give a brief and superficial introduction to some such, that does not attempt to evaluate their relevance or viability. The Union Solidarity Network (USI) in the UK argues that ‘every technology has an ideology’ and has set up an online Organising Network intended to protect and advance the ICT of labour. This is itself dependent on (or networks with?) May First/People Link which, on a quick examination, seems to embody radically-democratic norms but to lack any union presence on its committee! NetwOrg is one of several sites created by Netherlands-based Turkish activist, Orsan Senalp, which provides links to his various others.

And, finally, to work itself.

Apologies for not having raised this earlier whilst criticising labourism/workerism. But I had only recently been alerted to the online version of the Kathi Weeks (2011) book criticising the naturalization of work amongst the left, the right and the feminists. In so far as this is a dense work of political theory, let me introduce it by its puff:

Kathi Weeks boldly challenges the presupposition that work, or waged labor, is inherently a social and political good. While progressive political movements, including the Marxist and feminist movements, have fought for equal pay, better work conditions, and the recognition of unpaid work as a valued form of labor, even they have tended to accept work as a naturalized or inevitable activity. Weeks argues that in taking work as a given, we have ‘depoliticized’ it, or removed it from the realm of political critique.

Whilst I am both familiar with and identify with this argument, I welcome its specification in such systematic terms. I also recognize the challenge it presents to all those mentioned above (including Waterman 2014a)! But Weeks goes further in challenging the century-old division between the labourist Social-Democrats and the workerist Marxists, and the continuing division between, well, the incrementalists and the transformation-ists. She is not the only one who challenges such Manicheanisms but she does it terms of a utopianism that both of those tendencies tend to forget:

As reformist projects with revolutionary aspirations, utopian demands can point in the direction of broader horizons of change, open up new avenues for critical thought and social imagination, and assist in the construction of political subjects who may be better able to think and to want something different. Although the demands for basic income and shorter hours may be proposals for concrete reform rather than systematic transformation, conceiving such demands in relation to the aspirational trajectories and ontological effects confounds facile distinctions between reformist and revolutionary change. (Weeks, 2011: 229).

I might have added to her ‘basic income and shorter hours’ the creation of new commons-informed self-managed enterprises, which the World Social Forum has been discussing (see here) These are made increasingly possible by the internet (see here).

But I would like to hope that I have said here enough to inspire emancipatory thought and action amongst labour educators, more than enough to provoke at least some of them to an exchange. And then, hopefully, less in the mode of Debate (war by verbal means), or even Discussion (listening to the other) than of Dialogue (learning from the other). An open global dialogue about labour education, national or international, is well overdue. We are, after all, what we do to change what we are. And this applies as much to the labour educators as to those they are teaching - and hopefully learning - from.


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