Many colleagues will have heard of the recent death of Martin Upchurch, Emeritus Professor of International Employment Relations at Middlesex University Business School. He joins a number of other wonderful labour studies academics who have died recently.
These include John Eldridge, Emeritus Professor of Sociology, University of Glasgow, author of Industrial Disputes (1968), Bad News (1976) and Getting the Message (1993), and Richard Croucher, Professor of Comparative Employment Relations, Middlesex University Business School (and Martin’s work colleague), author of Engineers at War (1982) and We Refuse to Starve in Silence (1987).
Martin, who I got to know and admire over 25 years, was another brilliant academic who made an important and highly insightful contribution to a wide range of topics within or related to our (broadly-defined) field. After attending Letchworth Grammar School in Hertfordshire, he obtained a degree in economic history at Hull University (1969-1972) and MSc in Regional and Urban Studies at Reading University (1972-3).
He then worked as a research assistant for eleven years (1976-1987) for the Civil and Public Servants Association (CPSA), the forerunner of today’s PCS, at a time when civil servants were being drawn for the first time ever into widespread strike action (alongside other white-collar public-sector workers).
In the wake of his participation in anti-Vietnam war protests, the upturn in strike militancy in Britain during the 1970s were also a highly politicising experience, and set the foundation for his contribution to labour and trade union studies.
After studying for a Certificate in Further Education at Thames Polytechnic, he taught at Southall College of Technology (1988-89) and then became a senior lecturer at the London College of Printing (1989-1995), with a year away as a secondary school teacher in Berlin (1993-4).
He then became a senior lecturer at the University of North London (1995-1997), before moving to become a senior lecturer and subsequently reader at Bristol Business School, University of West of England (1997-2002) where he helped to build the much-respected Centre for Employment Studies Research.
This was followed by an appointment as Professor (and then Emeritus Professor) of International Employment Relations at Middlesex University, where he was based for almost 18 years (2005-2023).
During this academic life, Martin contributed numerous journal articles for Industrial Relations Journal, European Journal of Industrial Relations, Work, Employment and Society, Capital and Class, and other journals and periodicals, as well as a series of single-authored and jointly-authored/edited books.
He served on the editorial boards of WES and Capital and Class (as well as the International Socialism journal) and was an active participant in the British Universities Industrial Relations Association, serving for three years on its executive. He was also a contributor to the BUIRA Marxist Group which organised a series of seminars for a number of years, and the broader-based Critical Labour Studies group with its distinct joint academic/practitioner annual symposium.
Significantly, Martin’s academic interests and output were not confined to industrial relations. Swept up in the widespread industrial and political militancy of the early 1970s, he joined the International Socialists (forerunners of the Socialist Workers Party) and remained a revolutionary socialist throughout his life, propagandising and organising around both industrial and broader social movement struggles in Newcastle, London, and Bristol.
This ideological and political viewpoint and activist commitment underpinned his academic work which embraced many facets of the political economy of the capital/labour relationship, and went beyond the traditional limits of academic industrial relations to systematically integrate historical, sociological, political and international comparative dimensions.
At the very core of this Marxist-informed interdisciplinary work was an exploration of the potential and limits of workers’ resistance within the capitalist employment relationship and its expression in varied forms and strategies of trade union organisation and action.
Looking back at his work, there are about six or seven principal thematic areas. No doubt based on his experience of living and working in Berlin in the aftermath of the collapse of so-called ‘communism’, along with a command of the German language, his work for a number of years contributed to documenting and analysing developments with respect to the transformation of work, industrial relations and trade unionism across different post-communist economies.
As well as a number of studies of the crisis of labour relations in post-unification Germany, he also wrote about the state, labour and market (under a ‘wild capitalist’ privatisation process) in Serbia and its strategic dilemmas for trade unionism, notably in his co-authored book Workers and Revolution in Serbia: From Tito to Milosevic and Beyond (2013).
Another thematic area of Martin’s work focused on the nature of globalisation and neoliberalism and its impact on labour in different countries, including an edited book The State and Globalisation: Comparative Studies of Labour and Capital in National Economies (1999).
One prolific area he contributed to was the contradiction between New Labour’s espousal of social partnership and the TUC’s union organising model. Working with a number of colleagues on different aspects, Andy Danford, Stephanie Tailby, Paul Stewart and Mike Richardson, and benefitting from substantial research grants from the Leverhulme Trust and Economic and Social Research Council, Martin helped to produce a series of compellingly critical studies, based on case study research across both private and public sector industries in the south west of England.
Two excellent books followed, Partnership and the High-Performance Workplace: Work and Employment Relations in the Aerospace Industry (2005), and Realties of Partnership at Work (2008).
Undoubtedly the main area of Martin’s research output was focused on the dynamics of trade union organisation and action. Collaborating again with colleagues from the Centre for Employment Studies Research at the University of West of England, he conducted different studies of union workplace representatives and workplace trade union mobilisation, in the process producing another superb co-authored book New Unions, New Workplaces: A Study of Union Resilience in the Restructured Workplace (2003).
In addition, Martin produced a report for the Unite union, Creating a Sustainable Work Environment in British Airways (2010) that highlighted BA’s ‘climate of fear’ during the 2009-11 cabin crew dispute. He developed the notion of ‘political congruence’ to conceptualise the potential relationship which can develop between left wing trade union leaders, activists and a critical mass of members that can be crucial to encouraging collective participation and mobilisation in both historical and contemporary settings.
He also (with Andy Mathers and Graham Taylor) wrote extensively on different trade union strategic orientations, with a book The Crisis of Social Democratic Trade Unionism in Western Europe (2009) which identified emerging alternatives, including a minority ‘radicalised political unionism’ among some unions in different countries.
Another research interest for Martin was the broad area of digitalisation, automation, robots and AI, in which he explored the intensification of employer dominance over labour, but also the way resistance to the imperatives of capital over technology is part and parcel of the structured antagonism of the workplace and struggle over the control of work under capitalism.
In the process, he co-edited (with Phoebe Moore and Xanthe Whittaker) the book Humans and Machines at Work: Monitoring, Surveillance and Automation in Contemporary Capitalism (2017), and also wrote about the potential of social media for mobilising social movements in labour conflicts and beyond.
Finally, there was a range of other innovative work that Martin produced which demonstrated his broad-based interests. For example, in the context of the accelerating neoliberal transformation of universities and the challenge posed by Human Resource Management, he conducted a major survey on the teaching of industrial relations in British universities for the BUIRA-sponsored conference ‘In Defence of Critical Social Science: The Continuing Value of Industrial Relations’ that was published in my edited book What’s the Point of Industrial Relations? (2009).
He wrote some wonderful articles on the subject of the history of tea breaks in British workplaces, underlining the way such apparently superficial issues are also symbolic of the much larger battle over basic rights and the ability of organised workers, most often through their trade unions, to push back employer power at work.
And in a highly thoughtful article he wrote about whether there is a new ‘extractive capitalism’ – involving the mining and extraction of metals, minerals and oil from the earth – and on the growth of agribusinesses which produce food as a traded commodity, assessing the significance of such developments for understanding contemporary capitalism.
On a personal note, I’ve such fond memories of Martin’s wonderfully sharp intellect and warm personality. It was always a pleasure to meet up and often collaborate together at both academic seminars/conferences and political events, notably in recent years on the subjects of the rank-and-file/trade union official interplay and radical political unionism.
According to a number of people who knew him, confirmed by my own experience over many years, Martin was always intellectually curious and willing to discuss, debate and learn from others, even those he did not agree with. And he was extremely supportive and generous to others, not only to early career scholars, but also to other well-established academics like myself in reading and commenting on draft scripts.
Both my Radical Unionism and Labour Revolt in Britain 1910-14 books, as well as a number of journal articles, hugely benefited from his feedback. And such generosity was combined with an unassuming personality that never sought recognition for his efforts.
Of crucial significance is that, despite being a sharp intellectual figure who utilised and developed an array of analytical and conceptual tools to frame his studies, Martin was also in every respect a socially and politically engaged academic with an underlying passionate commitment to wanting to change the world. In this respect, he was not just an ‘academic Marxist’, but also a revolutionary Marxist activist who over 50 years agitated in support of workers’ struggles and many different social movement campaigns and for a radical transformation of society.
I’ll never forget the twinkle in his eye when he took me, my partner and my daughter on a guided walking tour of Bristol, his home city for many years, and showed us where the statue of the city’s leading slave trader Edward Colston had been torn down, and then dragged and flung into the river by anti-racist protesters.
The Black Lives Matter and Stand Up to Racism movements were actively supported by Martin, just as much as campaigns in defence of trade unionism and in support of workers’ strikes.
Just a few days before he died, heavily sedated but in occasionally lucid reflective tone, he asked for this message to be sent out to his friends:
Our changed world is not too divorced from each other’s.
In my life I remember little bubbles of people trying to change the world.
The bubbles never work. We need to be open.
We need to talk to people we haven’t spoken to before.
The Revolution needs not the young white man with the same haircut (or the crusty academic professor), but a green-eyed black woman.
In his last days it was reported he was inspired by the solidarity of Match of the Day presenters with Gary Lineker’s stance in support of asylum seekers, and the huge strikes and demonstrations across the country over the cost of living crisis.
He died comfortably in bed, in the living room at the heart of his house, with his family all around him, knowing he had made an important and lasting academic contribution and made a difference to many struggles and people’s lives. He was much loved and will be sorely missed. Rest in Power Martin. Condolences to his family, friends and comrades.
Ralph Darlington, Emeritus Professor of Employment Relations, University of Salford [email protected]