Thursday, August 30, 2012

Learning with the General Council

"Learning and Skills" is the title of the sixth chapter of the report from the General Council of the TUC to next month's Congress.

This deals both with the traditional training of union representatives (of which more below) and with the learning agenda (a more recent development given that legal recognition of union learning representatives (ULRs) is a twenty first century development).

Apparently, 10% of all union activity is now about learning, which is double the figure ten years ago. However, half of this activity (the whole of the increase) is funded from the Union Learning Fund.

The TUC is therefore worried about the lack of commitment to a "social partnership" approach in the UK, to the extent that we took a Government Minister to Germany, leading (at a "follow-up dinner with the Minister" no less) to a commitment to joint working on policy development.

We have been lobbying for more and better apprenticeships, and to protect the rights of apprentices, and generally for employers to offer more training and engage with trade unions as we do.

Four senior officials (including our own General Secretary) are trade union commissioners on the UK Commission for Employment and Skills (UKCES which - as befits a twenty-first century tripartite body - describes itself as a "social partnership.")

UKCES has overseen a competitive funding process for Sector Skills Councils (so that their funding depends upon the success of their bids rather than any objective assessment of need, which seems a bit daft).

This chapter of the report, more than any other, struggles to be "balanced" and to find things of which it approves in Government policy - but reality keeps intruding, as with the reference to the withdrawal of funding for ESOL (English for speakers of other languages) at work, or to the destruction of the Connexions service.

Unionlearn, which administers the Union Learning Fund (once again we say we are involved as a "social partner") is the recipient and administrator of the public funding which underpins half of our activity in this area. Since there are 230,000 learners involved, this is clearly an area of significance to many members and rank and file experience is that attention to the learning agenda can benefit members and the Union (as long as you ignore all the "social partnership" nonsense - or leave that to those forced to dine with Government Ministers in the interests of our class!)

Of the activist training which would traditionally have taken up the whole of this chapter of the General Council report, there is a less happy tale to tell. The total number of students on TUC training courses fell by a sixth between 2010 and 2011, wiping out an increase which had been driven by increasing attendance on short courses through the second half of the past decade.

As the report rightly observes this decline (predominantly in attendance on the topic specific short courses) reflects the need for unions to "prioritise industrial matters" - but it also reflects the greater difficulty in obtaining paid time off for training in a harsher political climate (and in which many of us are dealing with a lot of job losses).

In this cold climate it's positive to have a trade union centre to offer core and higher level training, including to "union professionals" (though I'm not sure I quite approve of that definition of paid officials if it suggests that we lay activists are amateurs!)

Given the massive decline in industrial action over recent decades, and the trend for unions to use solicitors rather than officials in tribunals, we have a cohort of younger (and some not so much younger) paid officials with some significant training needs just now and trade unions as employers could do with heeding the words we express to employers generally.

Overall, this chapter captures once more the slightly awkward relationship between a traditional focus on training representatives (to represent the interests of workers independently from, and often in opposition to, those of employers) and attention to a learning agenda our work on which relies considerably on public funds (and in connection with which we tend therefore to go on about "social partnership" however much our "social partners" in the UK show us that they're just not that interested in us...)

This reflects an enduring tension at the heart of the TUC which can't decide whether its function is primarily to coordinate an independent trade union movement or to act as an intermediary with the state.

I'm just glad (speaking as a union amateur) that I don't have to dine with Ministers!

Sent using BlackBerry® from Orange

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