Education on Workers’ Rights and Working Class History Vital for Democracy

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By Professor Tony Dobbins, Professor of Employment Relations and HR Management
President of the British Universities Industrial Relations Association

The implications of Brexit for workers’ rights has attracted extensive recent commentary. Facts still matter. Despite government promises, Brexit could herald a rollback of workers’ rights. A recent report on Brexit and Workers’ Rights concludes that once out of the EU, if the Conservatives win the general election UK workers’ rights could be exposed to stagnation, divergence, and eventual erosion.

More broadly, employment rights are a vital issue affecting working people, so it is important that the public are correctly informed about their rights as workers. For instance, are workers who voted for Brexit aware that their minimum 4 weeks’ paid holiday entitlement comes from the European Working Time Directive? How many younger people know about trade unions and their historical origins in the industrial revolution?

There is a need for better general knowledge about the employment relationship and the world of work. This is a critical building block for moving towards a more inclusive pluralist democratic society.

‘Them’ and ‘us’

Work relations in the UK have been historically influenced by an archaic class system instilling a ‘them and us’ cultural mind-set and sharp divide: management (‘them’) have the prerogative to manage and workers (‘us’) are expected to get on with the job. The result has often unsurprisingly been low trust orientations to work, making it challenging to develop positive employment relations. This also reflects itself in how employment legislation is often used in a conflictual way, rather than a springboard for good work relations. The problem is that many workers and managers do not grasp why employment rights have been enshrined in law and how to use the rights and responsibilities for the mutual benefit of worker, manager and organisation.

Teach working class history

Workers’ rights as human rights at work should be core teaching in schools, colleges and universities. Yet workers’ rights and working class history feature in few school curriculums. Most schools in the UK teach the conventional ‘elite’ ruling class perspectives of history, focusing on Kings and Queens, famous military battles etc… Our education curriculum rarely teaches the Equal Pay Act, The Chartists, Peterloo, the 1926 General Strike and more. They are all vital parts of Britain’s working class history. The only form of education people might receive regarding these struggles is through popular culture, such as films.

The Market as God

This educational deficit often continues for students who attend university, even when they study degrees directly relating to the world of work. For instance, too many people management courses in business schools narrowly focus on how Human Resource Management (HRM) policies contribute to better employability and organisational performance, and elitist rhetoric like talent management. As academic scholarship and wider discourse are colonised by market ideology, maximising work performance is reified in deference to the market as god. Market theology of supply and demand has become increasingly normalised and omnipresent in workplaces and beyond. Problematically, the dominant unitarist pro-market orthodoxy of people management performativity arguably risks impoverishing HRM both as a field of academic study and professional practice.

What about workers’ rights and working conditions? What about ethics, diversity and inclusion, fairness, employee voice and a living wage as central planks of the good employer and responsible business? What about the political economy of work – could HRM theory and practice say more about excessive senior executive rewards and exploitative working practices that dehumanize workers?

Colleagues and I in the British Universities Industrial Relations Association (BUIRA) advocate teaching and research on workers’ rights, employee voice and the politics of work, to foment more inclusive democratic workplaces.

Academic courses with a critical (realistic) analysis of employment relations need to be preserved and supported. Worryingly, Ruskin College has been affected by a dispute over proposed redundancies and trade union course closures, which would be disastrous for the future of adult/working class education.

So, this is an emancipatory call for more education about the past, present and future of work and how the collective struggles of the post industrial revolution working class led to the employment rights that the workers of today have.


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