Union Learn is a solid investment – that’s why the North of Tyne is stepping up

Jamie Driscoll

There’s an aspect of trade union activity that has increased Britain’s skills base, developed workers’ careers, boosted workplace productivity, improved job satisfaction and helped people earn more money. Little known to the general public, since 1998 the Union Learning Fund (ULF) built a network of 40,000 volunteers to change working people’s lives.

That network of Union Learning Reps (ULRs) has been able to help learners with few or no qualifications in a way that other – more expensive – interventions can’t. Trade unions are uniquely placed to access the hardest to reach learners and transform their working lives. A more skilled, higher-earning workforce is a benefit to everyone.

Union Learn was formed by the TUC as their learning and skills arm as part of the ULF initiative. It developed a huge network of trade union reps and workplace learning centres. Each year for the past two decades, a quarter of a million people received training and learning opportunities through their trade unions.

But Union Learning isn’t just about workers. Employers benefit through better trained, more motivated staff, while the economy benefits through a wider skills base, as well as greater tax receipts and National Insurance contributions. In fact, a recent research project by the University of Exeter found that for every £1 spent on union-supported learning and training, the economy gets back £12.87.

So, it was a shock last year to find out that the government intended to pull its support and reduce the ULF to zero. There had been rumours over the years that funding might be reduced, but the actual results of Union Learning always tempered the clamour from the anti-union elements of the Conservative Party to cut the lifeline. A campaign launched by the TUC and its affiliate trade unions to save the Union Learning Fund couldn’t change their minds, and in March of this year, all government funding ceased.

I was outraged by the decision – and determined that the government’s cuts would not consign Union Learn to the dustbin of history. I’m a directly-elected mayor, and as a Labour politician in power, I committed to using my remit as mayor and the resources of the North of Tyne Combined Authority to make Union Learn even better. We produced a plan, not just to rescue it, but to transform it for the post-Covid era.

Lifelong learning and workforce development are an integral part of our drive to develop an inclusive economy here in the North of Tyne. I’m a huge supporter of the work that trade unions do in workplaces up and down the country, so it made sense to explore the possibility of working with the Northern TUC to build on the work that Union Learn has done over the years in the region.

There was also a natural fit with our Good Work Pledge, a unique scheme for employers who value their workforce and recognise trade unions, an essential element of which is having opportunities for workplace training and development. Too many in our region are trapped in low-paid roles with few opportunities for progression due to lack of qualifications. Currently, in North of Tyne, 18% of people hold low or no qualifications, and this is reflected by the fact that 23% of our residents in work are paid below the real living wage and experiencing in-work poverty.

Working hand-in-hand with the unions and our Local Authority colleagues, we have now approved £430,000 to develop a two-year Union Learn project, piloting approaches to help even more low-skills workers to develop their skills and qualifications. We will also collaborate closely with employers in the North of Tyne’s key sectors to champion opportunities for workplace learning, identifying gaps and encouraging joint working to fill them.

We know, in the labour movement, that trade unions are much undervalued and derided – partly the result of an outdated and politically jaundiced views of them as ‘wreckers’ of the economy. The reality is very different. Where trade unions are welcomed into workplaces, they are a constructive force. Much of the work they do is hidden and unsung, like Union Learn.

I work closely with the trade unions. I have quarterly meetings with all the regional secretaries. We have trade union representatives on our advisory boards. We have joint projects setting up cooperative supply agencies to combat zero-hours work. We set an example as an employer – I’m proud that my authority has a gender pay gap of zero.

Union Learn is a solid investment. The evidence proves it. From the rubble of the government’s short-sighted decision to pull funding, the North of Tyne Combined Authority has been able to step up and create something positive, concrete and better than before. It is what I am here to do, just like our trade unions.

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