By John Park
The economic and political challenges faced by the Labour Party right now are certainly the most difficult for a generation. With these challenges come opportunities – it is clear that there is a mood for social democratic solutions to the recession and the labour and trade union movement can play a central role in helping rebuild prosperity.
You just have to look at trade union led learning in the workplace to see what can be achieved. It has been one of the real success stories for the wider movement over the last 12 years. It was dubbed the silent revolution by the TUC in its early stages and that is clearly what is has become. In the last two weeks I have attended union learning representative events organised by the Scottish TUC and Unite and have genuinely been impressed at the numbers of activists who attend and participate in these gatherings.
That other areas of the trade union movement can, on a regular basis, pull together large numbers of members, from a range of sectors, across a region, to talk about workplace issues? Although the issues have moved on, and the attendees much more diverse (thankfully), the turnout at these meetings is reminiscent of Confederation of Engineering and Shipbuilding Unions of an era long gone.
Developing trade union activity has been as difficult as growing membership because of nature of work in a post-industrial UK – particularly in the private sector. And in some ways trade unions have become a victim of their own success – driving up standards in the workplace through legislation not just workplace organising – a right to paid holidays, increased maternity and paternity rights and the national minimum wage. The big question for unions is how to stay relevant and add value to the union card – that’s why the learning agenda is not only important for the workers who benefit from support but for trade union organising as well.
In the current economic climate job security concerns workers the most and skills are key to job security and employment prospects. That is why trade union led learning is blossoming because it is relevance to concerns that workers have today. Learning representatives across the country are helping their members gain new qualifications, negotiating training opportunities for fellow workers with learning providers and holding employers to account on workforce development and apprenticeships.
But trade union education isn’t only about workplace lifelong learning or training more learning representatives, it is vital to developing a new generation of activists – shop stewards, health and safety representatives and future Labour politicians. I know this from firsthand experience. Without the opportunity to attend negotiating courses run by the AEEU at Cudham Hall in my early days as a shop steward at Rosyth there is no way that I could have even began to contemplate representing people in national politics. I know of many shop stewards who have went to have successful careers as full time union officials, health and safety officers, councillors and even HR directors whose first steps were on a course run by their union or the local TUC Education Department. It’s not just what you learn in these types of environments, but the contacts you make, the experiences you share and above all the confidence you gain.
The recent debate about selecting Labour Party candidates is one I followed closely. I think there is one undeniable factor – if we are going to have a responsive and relevant party then we need more people with real life experience representing us at all levels. And that is why I want to see more people from a trade union background involved in public life. I believe the movement must do more to harness the talent and experience of our own because I know the Labour Party will be better for it.
We should be proud of what trade union education and workplace learning has achieved in recent years. It has the potential to do so much more – for workers, the economy and the relevance of politics.