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

Prof Tony Dobbins explains why it is important that people learn about working class history and the origins of their employment rights

Education on workers’ rights and working class history vital for democracy

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, UK workers’ rights could be exposed to stagnation, divergence, and eventual erosion – if the Conservatives win the general election.

More broadly, employment rights are a vital issue affecting working people, so it is important that the public are informed about their rights as workers and how they arose. For instance, it would be interesting to pose the question how many workers who voted for Brexit know 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 vital 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

​Therefore, 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 school kids in the UK are taught conventional ‘elite’ ruling class perspectives of history and patriotism, focusing on Kings and Queens, famous military battles, etc. In contrast, how many kids are taught about the Equal Pay Act, Peterloo, The Chartists, or the 1926 General Strike, for example?; which are vital parts of working class history and struggle. Many people may only be aware about ‘Made in Dagenham’ or ‘Peterloo’ after watching these films.

The market god

This educational deficit often continues for children fortunate enough to attend university, even when they study degrees directly relating to the world of work. Nowadays, seduced and captured by market ideology, too many people management courses in business schools teach students mainly, for instance, about how Human Resource Management policies contribute to better employability and organisational performance, and rhetoric like talent management. Work and performance are reified in deference to the market god. Problematically, this unitarist orthodoxy of people management performativity arguably risks impoverishing HRM both as a field of academic study and professional practice.

Could or Should HR profession do more?

What about workers’ rights and working conditions? What about ethics, fairness and employee voice 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?

Call to action

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.

There should be more academic courses with a critical (realistic) analysis of employment relations. Worryingly, there is a dispute over proposed redundancies and trade union course closures at Ruskin College, 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.

Tony Dobbins

Tony Dobbins

Professor of Employment Relations, Birmingham Business School, University of Birmingham

Tony is Professor of Employment Relations & HR Management at Birmingham Business School. He is part of the Organisation, Work and Employment (OWE) group in the Department of Management. He joined Birmingham Business School in May 2018, from Bangor University. Tony has twenty-five years employment relations experience as an academic, researcher, and journalist in the UK and Republic of Ireland, including eight years working for Industrial Relations News, Dublin.

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