One minister called the union learning reps (ULRs) the ‘most successful movement for change’. Critics, on the other hand, say that the government has changed unions into ‘lubricants facilitating flexibility and productivity’.
The British union federation TUC has trained 18,000 ULRs who provide their colleagues with advice on learning opportunities. The goal is to have 22,000 ULRs and help 250,000 workers gain access to learning in 2010. The programme is partly funded by the government.
ULRs are not only seen as a way to help workers improve their labour market qualifications; they are also seen as a way to strengthen union presence at the workplace and to reach out to workers who may not feel very comfortable with the ‘traditional’ union image. Case studies suggest that ULRs are successful at reaching minorities, women, part-time and agency workers and workers at the lower end of the labour market.
Academics have begun to critically assess the TUC’s learning strategy. In a recent paper, John McIlroy of Keele University says that claims that learning can contribute to union revitalization ‘appear over-optimistic’, and that there is as yet no systematic evidence that workplace learning contributes to membership and activism.
In fact, there are indications that ULRs may be replacing other activists. Between 1998 and 2004, the number of ULRs rose from zero to 14,000. During the same period, the number of ‘normal’ union workplace representatives declined from 156,000 to 137,000. Another study found that 22% of ULRs were new activists, almost a quarter were women and 5% ethnic minority workers.
According to McIlroy, learning now ‘takes up a substantial amount of TUC resources’. There are concerns that collaboration and dependence on government funding distract unions from organising strategies.
In a recent paper, the TUC acknowledges that organising staff still tend to be somewhat sceptical regarding the impact of union learning on organising, but it also says that there is growing awareness that ULRs must be taught organising and recruitment skills.
Next week: do ULRs have an impact on training and on the equal distribution of training opportunities? Sources: John McIlroy (2008), Ten Years of New Labour: Workplace Learning, Social Partnership and Union Revitalization in Britain. British Journal of Industrial Relations 46: 283-313. Abstract (full version only for subscribers). Unionlearn (2008), The role of trade unions in the formation and distribution of learning and skills.