Constructing solidarities at work: Relationality and the methods of emancipatory education.

AuthorCotton, Elizabeth


Taking as its starting point the decline of ideological and class identifications in the United Kingdom, this article presents the case for reviving a model of emancipatory education to develop solidaristic relationships at work. The central argument of this article is that emancipatory education methods offer useful tools to build relationality that can act as a basis for mobilising solidarity in the UK context. In order to analyse the psychological and political impact of emancipatory education methods, this article explores the conceptual and methodological parallels between emancipatory education and psychoanalysis, namely, their capacities to build relationality between people through consciousness raising and collective problem solving using dialogic methods. This article goes on to argue that in the absence of class identity or shared ideology, emancipatory education practices offer realistic opportunities for working people to formulate conceptions of common interests and build solidaristic relationships sufficient to mobilise collective organisation and action.


class, emancipatory education, political capital, psychoanalysis, relationality, social capital, solidarity, trade union education


The central organising principle for trade union activity is solidarity, the value of common action and support of others as well as identification of one's own interests with theirs (Hyman 1997). Traditionally, the practice of solidarity presupposes a shared collective identity, broadly based on class and professional identities. Although the working class has grown on a worldwide scale (Martinez Lucio 2011), the identities of working people are increasingly diverse and, with the decline in class consciousness combined with the fragmentation and flexibilisation of work (Charlwood & Forth 2009; Doogan 2009), the existence of workplace identities cannot be assumed.

Although organised solidarity action has historically been underpinned by class identification and relatively clear collective interests, trade unions have always had to navigate a diversity of interests, including class interests. In Hyman's seminal writings about solidarity, he outlines three ideological bases for trade union organisation in Europe; their role in regulating work (market), role in promoting social justice issues (society), and role in mobilising class struggle (class). The decline in 'market-class' (Hyman 1997) unionism in the United Kingdom, where solidarity is mobilised around labour market issues such as collective bargaining and class identification, is a reality that trade unions have attempted to address through organising and renewal strategies over the last three decades (Simms & Holgate 2010). This re-orientation raises the question about how solidarity can be constructed in a context where both labour market and class dimensions are weakened.

Trade union organising programmes have grown steadily over the last two decades, often championing a new 'organising model', promoted through the systematic organising work of the US Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and the United Kingdom's Organising Academy. The realities of trade union organising in the United Kingdom is a little more mundane in that, like the majority of trade union organising activities internationally, they are predominantly based on tried and tested educational methods and techniques used by trade unions over the last century. Although the drive to focus on organising new members, particularly 'atypical' workers, is a clear development in the United Kingdom, the literature about the educational methods that have formed the basis of this work remains relatively small. Despite the centrality of emancipatory education methods to organising, they are consistently undervalued within trade unions, a reality that is reflected in the lack of funding and executive power that trade union education (TUE) structures have within trade unions and the relative lack of status of trade union educators (Croucher & Cotton 2011).

Since the 1970s, emancipatory education has been one of the dominant models of TUE internationally, adopted by unions in most parts of the world principally through the work of international trade union structures such as the Global Union Federations (GUFs) and also the International Labour Organization (ILO) (Cotton & Royle 2014; Croucher 2004; Croucher & Cotton 2011). Millions of Euro are raised and spent annually to disseminate these education methods to national and local trade union structures in a conscious attempt to build trade union capacities and international solidaristic networks.

Emancipatory education is essentially a problem posing education where both teachers and students are 'critical co-investors in dialogue' (Freire 1970: 62), what Freire calls 'co-intentional education' (p. 22) where the knowledge and content of the education process is based on the experience of the participants of the group. Emancipatory education methods are a form of radical learning which have an explicit aim of social change (Shelley 2007), that can be formulated as the objective to create both social and political capital in the workplace.

These methods provide a consistent framework made up of essentially three connected stages of learning; problem identification, getting information particularly identifying what resources are available and planning concrete next steps. In the Trades Union Congress (TUC) education system, this became known as the PIP framework; Problems, Information and Planning. Additionally, education programmes provide important opportunities to widen the pool of collective experience and to learn from diverse strategies and union responses to workplace problems (Cotton & Royle 2014).

Emancipatory education is underpinned by a number of principles, including confidentiality and solidarity, and activities aim to provide a safe space for expressing and processing diverse and often difficult workplace experiences. Although some TUE programmes focus on 'political education' such as the long traditions of political education courses in the mining sector (Croucher & Cotton 2011), there is an inherently political aspect to emancipatory education methods themselves because of the principles and practices they involve. Because the methods open up debate they can, if used well, support inherently political processes of consciousness raising and collective planning, which serve to identify and mobilise collective interests, forming the basis of solidarity in action.

In order to analyse the impact of emancipatory education methods on building solidarities, this article will look in detail at emancipatory education practices and draw out the developmental 'parallelism' (Armstrong 2005) between this model of education and psychoanalytic processes. Although emancipatory education is not a therapeutic practice per se, it shares important developmental concepts with psychoanalysis, including its emancipatory aims, the emphasis on understanding internal and external realities and building ego strength, using dynamic and dialogic processes and providing a containing framework for building relationality between people. The central argument is that emancipatory education provides a safe space to establish strong emotional ties sufficient to build a sense of identification and therefore altruism (Freud 1930) and reinforce an often deep understanding of the importance of collectivism where 'solidarity is un-self-conscious' (Olmsted 1959).

In the UK context where class and ideological identification cannot be assumed, the premise of this article is that solidarity is something that needs to be constructed or 're-imagined' (Simms 2011) precisely because of the need to 'reconcile differences of situation and interest' (Hyman 2011: 251), that exist within union memberships and more broadly in the labour force (Martinez Lucio 2011). The central argument of this article is that emancipatory education is a model that has potential for building 'effective participation' (Hyman 1997) in workplace settings in articulating collective interests and constructing the solidarities that come out of them. The article will argue that these emancipatory education methods allow for a high level of mobilisation (Kelly 1998) around workplace issues because of their capacity to formulate a conception of collective interests, strong relational ties sufficient to create some form of collective, including temporary, organisation and the identification of opportunities to improve working conditions.


The material for this article is based on the authors work as a trade union educator during the period 1999-2007, as Head of Education and Programmes for Industrial^ previously the International Federation for Chemical, Energy, Mining and General Workers Unions (ICEM). The author was responsible for designing and running education programmes internationally in developing and transition economy contexts in the extractive industries, chemicals, pharmaceutical and other industrial sectors. In addition to working as a trade union educator, the author has trained and worked as an adult psychotherapist in the National Health Service (NHS) and continues to carry out workplace education using emancipatory education and psychodynamic frameworks, particularly focussing on the healthcare sector. In addition to carrying out academic research, in 2012 the author set up Surviving Work, an educational resource aimed to build mental health and solidarity and to explore the methods of building relationality at work. This article draws on both the author's academic research and practitioner experience of how working people are able to build relationality in contexts where class or ideological identifications and trade union representation are weak or non-existent.

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