Facing unpalatable facts

June 4, 2009

I was disappointed to see Times Higher Education's record of scholarly reviewing marred by Sian Moore. Her account of Gary Daniels and John McIlroy's edited collection Trade Unions in a Neoliberal World substitutes characterisation of the editors as "grumpy old men" who "should get out more" for evidenced argument (Books, 21 May). Times Higher Education should not tolerate ageist comments.

They flow from what Moore terms "the utter pessimism" of the editors' conclusions, her claim that there is little evocation of union strategy in their work and the assertion that there is inadequate attention to union learning representatives, community and anti-capitalist alliances, and "the transformation of consciousness" through experience and struggle.

I did not recognise the book from her account. Contrary to Moore, union strategies are fully evoked - but critically. Serious scholars of industrial relations will, alas, endorse the editors' "pessimistic" conclusions. Union strategy has enjoyed only limited success and, again contrary to Moore, the other chapters provide little "relief".

Academics are not there to provide uplift or "audacity of hope" but to reach conclusions - whether optimistic or pessimistic - based on assessment of the available evidence. That evidence overwhelmingly suggests that trade unions have been unable to take advantage of the more favourable climate since 1997.

Her view that the recession - with the prospect, according to some analysts, of 3 million to 4 million unemployed - and the probability of a Conservative government provides new opportunities again ignores the evidence. Every recession since the 1920s has significantly weakened the unions. It is no use whistling Things Can Only Get Better. At least Trade Unions in a Neoliberal World faces the facts, however unpalatable they might be.

Alan Campbell, Reader in labour and social history, University of Liverpool.

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