Trish Lavelle explains the importance of a renewed emphasis on trade union education.
The old post war settlements on education have been rolled back at an alarming rate by previous and current governments and are due to be further undone by a combination of this deeply ideological attack on education as the great leveller in society combined with a the decimation of funding for high quality opportunities for all.
Starved, attacked and fragmented – the crisis for working class education is acute and the impact of this may be felt for years to come as education becomes the preserve of a wealthy elite. However, at a time when the prospects for working class education have never really seemed so bleak, it is important to remain optimistic about our ability to respond to this climate as a class, and to take inspiration from a history of overcoming a lack of access to education and a tradition of developing and delivering our own independent provision.
Trade unions have a particularly powerful role to play in this regard, as organisers of working class education via learning in the workplace and political education for our activists. We have the ability to work at the heart of communities and have a legacy of developing working class leaders. Ironically, the changes to funding for TUC courses has presented unions with an opportunity to look anew at what and how trade union activist education is done, and what we really need. I have been to more events and meetings in the last twelve months than in the whole of the previous decade, where unions have genuinely and critically started to analyse and assess what we can do better, including working together and sharing resources and good practice.
There is a general acceptance that what has served us well for decades in terms of a reliance by the movement on FE funding has also largely depoliticised a lot of what we do, and has in some ways reduced the role of the union rep to the bureaucratic, procedural and legal functions that occupy so much time on an average trade union course. That's not to say that we do not wish to have activists who understand the law or an agreement with the employer, but surely our aim is to create a rounded trade union activist who understands not only how the law functions but why it is configured the way it is, how our limited rights were won over centuries of struggle and how the system is rigged against workers generally and the mass of unorganised workers particularly. The Labour movement have also to recognise that education is not free or cheap, so funding education for our members and our representatives has to be a serious priority over the lean times ahead.
Certainly, in this hostile climate unions will have to ensure that our education is made much more available, accessible and relevant. Part of this will be making far better use of technology that supports distance and online learning. This will also mean designing shorter courses with the flexibility, relevant content and clarity of vision that can appeal not only to the representative in a traditional collective bargaining environment, but also crucially to the young worker in the Amazon type warehouse – bogus self-employed, zero hours, minimum wage, no union to be seen - and yet where injustice burns brightest is precisely where trade unions need to be to educate, agitate and organise. It won’t be cheap and it won’t be easy – but if unions can grasp the opportunity to genuinely develop educational programmes for the next generation of trade union and community organisers, campaigners and leaders, then there is every reason for hope.
This article was first published in the Morning Star.