Can we promote a different kind of education for workers?

Submitted by Matthew on 19 August, 2010 - 5:15 Author: Sheila Cohen

Sheila Cohen (NUJ/UCU) discusses the sorry state of trade union studies (courses accredited by the TUC and available at a variety of further education institutions) and what can be done to promote independent working-class education.

Like so many other things during the long New Labour years, trade union studies has become wrapped in an incomprehensible coating of jargon and bureaucratese. The structure and content of Stage One Reps’ courses and others is now dictated almost entirely by something called “accreditation”, ie criteria for awarding the qualification, which itself sits meanly in the midst of the “NVQ” (National Vocational Qualification) nightmare that New Labour has bequeathed to the nation. This system ensures almost no concern for real learning, though its book-length course guides are rife with “Learning Outcomes”.

Basically, if a trade union steward attends the majority of classes and can produce “proof” of her learning in the form of contributions to flipcharts, notes, completed questionnaires and other miscellanea, she is duly awarded the appropriate “Key Stage” recognition. Although discussions within Stage One cover crucial issues such as the reasons for union decline and membership “apathy”, these are dealt with in a superficial “reasons for joining a union, reasons against”, rather than involving any political and historical discussion of what has happened to the trade union movement and how that movement might be renewed.

This dismal state of affairs has been fuelled by three main developments:

• The overwhelming trend towards individual casework fuelled by anaemic “rights”-based legislation from both the European Union and New Labour. Workplace reps will testify that, although this has made for a huge increase in workload, it has done nothing to strengthen basic trade union organisation.

• The development of new forms of workplace representation such as “equality reps”, “environmental reps” and, of course, “learning reps” (see below). This, of course, might be seen as a progressive development, but what it actually does is to dilute the class role of the shop steward.

• “Partnership” and general trade union weakness in the workplace. While partnership approaches have long lost credibility, they and the earlier “Social Contract”-based legislation of the mid-1970s bestowing “rights” on shop stewards have created a bureaucratic emphasis on “training” which again means courses are preoccupied with correct procedures, legalese, and endless “information and consultation” flannel which again adds nothing to the class strength of workplace representatives. (The shop stewards of the 1960s, with their “frontier of control” mentality, certainly didn’t get “trained” in anything other than the workplace-based school of class warfare).

At the same time, the comparative strength of employers means they can prevent time off for stewards who might be interested in some of the more analytical courses still offered by the TUC, such as “Contemporary Trade Unionism”.

In addition to all of these factors, and overwhelmingly influential, is the mushroom-like growth of “Unionlearn”. The value of this programme to employers is evidenced by the fact that the Con-Dem government has made no moves at all to threaten it.

As Labour Research reported just before the election, the Conservative Party’s “trade union envoy” (huh?) — former Labour MEP Richard Balfe — has confirmed that the Conservatives would retain this programme, which, significantly, is amply government-funded.

Balfe’s assurance “echo[ed] the views of skills secretary David Willetts, who told the House of Commons, ‘One thing we like about Unionlearn is that it is very cost-effective...The amount of encouragement and training that one receives for relatively modest sums is very attractive indeed.’ “

Very attractive indeed to employers and neo-liberal politicians, certainly, as demonstrated by the widespread endorsement of Unionlearn by luminaries such as Peter Mandelson and the boss of First Bus. This is because, of course, the objectives and content of Unionlearn courses are to provide a cheap alternative to adequate early-years schooling in providing workers with “basic skills” like literacy and numeracy — a process which has nothing to do with trade union education.

The potential for shop stewards classes and other basic forms of working-class education to raise basic class questions is still evident. Almost any group of reps can produce a lively discussion on issues of organisation and resistance against both employer and trade union bureaucrat — though many stewards have become somewhat stolid and institutionalised under Unison-style “partnership” approaches. Any serious debate, however, becomes difficult when required to spend a whole day discussing, for example, how you would conduct the defence for a member disciplined for talking too long on the phone.

It is in this current context that the need for truly independent forms of working-class education have become pressing. The above analysis has referred mainly to TUC education, but, as many tutors in these areas will attest, the same stifling tendencies are also evident in other forms of working-class education ,from Ruskin to the WEA. However, the difficulties of offering an alternative are considerably more formidable than those of providing a critique.

The environment of explosive rank and file resistance within which the Plebs’ League flourished is today, at least so far, notable absent. Attempts to set up class-wide rank and file links at workplace level have suffered from sectarian rivalries and “party-building”, and any initiative to build independent working-class education from the base would of course encounter parallel difficulties — though this does not make the attempt any less worthwhile.

In this unpromising situation, however, we do have some allies. The conclusion that the class content of trade union education has been, if not neutralised, then fundamentally threatened, has already been arrived at by a large number of trade union tutors interested in discussing independent working-class theory and labour history rather than in teaching the correct way to conduct a “disciplinary”.

The disillusionment of many of these tutors — and no doubt their students — with the increasingly “skills”- and procedures-based agenda in trade union education provides one set of reasons for attempting to provide some alternative form of trade union education rooted in the concerns of workers rather than employers. This would include labour and trade union history as a basic component. It would encourage an understanding of political and economic issues based in a critical — i.e. Marxist — analysis of the capitalist system. It would avoid what the Plebs’ League students so vividly described as the “sandpapering” of their class instincts. It would be rooted in and develop from working-class students’ everyday working-class experience. Most of all, it would bring theory and practice together to shed light on the everyday concerns faced by workplace trade union activists, including crucial questions like internal trade union democracy and class independence from the employer.

As emphasised above, this will not be an easy project. A small group of trade union tutors and activists was set up last year to develop independent working class education (IWCE), but its future is uncertain. Although we could seek support from some of the more active trade union education institutions, like Northern College and Ruskin, such institutional support contains dangers, as it threatens the political independence crucial to this project. How to square the circle?

The experience of the US project Labor Notes suggests one answer — a “building out” from the original grass-roots network of workplace-based activists established by its monthly newsletter and biennial conferences to a programme of day or weekend schools which the same activists have found invaluable in building their own organisation and strength in the workplace. Probably as a result of these “Troublemakers’ Schools”, the 2010 Labor Notes conference was the biggest yet.

My own view is that it is only through building up a similar network of contacts who can be more or less relied on to take an interest in this project that we can move forward. These contacts would include both trade union tutors and workplace activists. Without such a network we would be wise to recognise the very real practical problems surrounding the setting up of a programme for independent working class education — highly desirable though such a project is. If we can build up a reasonably reliable base of this kind, however, we may be able to move forward to some form of independent working-class education-building event within the next year.

The support of socialists committed to rank and file organisation and class-based education will be crucial in this enterprise.

• To obtain more information on IWCE, (and for copies of Colin Waugh’s pamphlet on the Plebs’ League), please email

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