Dispute could stimulate revival of interest in industrial past

May 5, 2006

It is a testing time for relations in higher education as academics target students in order to force employers to come up with more money for pay.

But for one group of academics the dispute is generating a mass of new teaching material and opportunities for empirical research.

Labour historians and industrial relations specialists are busy studying the ongoing dispute over pay, extracting valuable information for research and using events, such as the one-day strike on March 7, as teaching aids.

Some in the field think it may even help to revive interest in the study of strikes which, due to the relative paucity of such action in the past decade, has been in the doldrums.

The current state of research into the subject is something that delegates will discuss this month at a conference on the history of strikes, lockouts and general strikes, organised jointly by the Society for the Study of Labour History and the journal Historical Studies in Industrial Relations .

This Saturday's conference will commemorate the 80th anniversary of the British General Strike and miners' lockout of 1926.

Dave Lyddon, senior lecturer in industrial relations at Keele University and editor of the journal Historical Studies in Industrial Relations , highlights a photograph of himself and colleagues on an Association of University Teachers' picket line on March 7.

"It's good teaching material. I can point to this photo and say that's how we did it," he said.

But Dr Lyddon said that today's students were less interested in studying traditional aspects of industrial relations, such as strikes, favouring more management-oriented topics such as human resources.

"In time, if this carries on, there is a strong risk we could lose our expertise in this area of industrial relations," he said. "What will bring the topic back into fashion is a few years of successful strikes. Then people will start to take notice and look at the history."

Jon Murden, co-organiser of the conference and curator of the National Museum of Liverpool, said that while the UK could boast a number of top young academics researching industrial relations and strikes there was a worrying lack of interest among undergraduates.

Dr Murden said: "The current higher education dispute could stimulate interest in this area among young people. They are, after all, experiencing the effects first hand.

"There is also scope for fantastic work to be done on how this dispute has changed attitudes of academics and whether the management have aggravated teaching staff unnecessarily and caused more people to join unions."

Dr Murden also believes that today's trade union leaders could learn valuable lessons from the events of 1926.

"It teaches not to forget the power of organisation," he said. "I would say that the leadership of the AUT and Natfhe could learn a lot about how to organise industrial action from history."

The conference, History of Strikes, Lock-Outs and General Strikes , takes place at Keele University on May 6.

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