Trade Unions & Skills: A new idea?

by @TomWunionlearn

There is nothing harder than a new idea. Many years ago, as a Trade Union officer, I tried to persuade a factory manager that trade unions could help him upskill his workforce. He looked at me suspiciously and asked if I was joking. He said “unions in this place just cause problems, nothing but problems, I try to avoid talking to them. What could they possibly do to help me with training?” Shortly afterwards he went bankrupt and the factory was sold.

The new owners invested in new machines. The factory was soon flourishing. But new machines demand for new new skills. Again we urged the managers to work with the trade unions to organise the retraining. At first, the new managers were equally suspicious. They too did not see how trade unions could help. The difference was that they listened. The unions presented the evidence. The managers accepted the new idea.

Within six months both managers and unions were enthusiastic partners. The union helped organise the training provider and helped ensure the training was well delivered. Workers were keen to take part where before they had been reluctant. Pass rates rose. The cost per learner fell. The union urged that everyone should have a chance to be trained. Upskilling went through the whole factory: customer sales, accounts, HR, and management. For the first time, everyone had the chance to be trained. Productivity soared and absenteeism fell. The new idea had taken hold.

Persuading those new managers took evidence about how unions help skills development. Persuading policy makers and international institutions is not easy either. To do so, TUAC releases a new report which brings together the evidence from around the world.

What the TUAC report on “Trade Unions and Skills” shows is the same story. Training works best when working people want to be trained and the programmes are well organised.

But it is often hard for managers to know what training is needed. Workers rarely admit they have skill needs, for fear it may threaten their job or career. But they certainly talk about their skill needs to their union. The union can then (without breaching confidences) tell managers what training is really needed. Moreover, workers are far more likely to want training if they have been involved in deciding who trains and where and how.

The new report provides detailed evidence from around the world showing exactly how unions support skills. Although it is a Trade Union report it is based on independent evidence compiled by independent organisations such as universities or the @ilo and cites examples of management support for unions and skills.

Of course, the interplay between ‘Trade Unions and Skills’ is not really a new idea. The very first unions in the UK had wonderfully ornate banners, proudly carried in marches and rallies. Those banners often carried the slogan “Educate, Agitate, Organise”. The first of those three aims has always been a major union activity, in the UK and around the world.

In the UK, trade unions have created “Unionlearn”, a central Agency which receives substantial government funding to help over 200,000 workers gain new skills every year ( ). In the US, the recent doubling in apprenticeship numbers has been strongly supported by trade unions, some of which own and manage high quality training colleges, particularly in construction. In the European Nordic countries, trade unions and managers oversee collective funds dedicated to training, they jointly run sectoral training programmes which underpin the economic model of high cost but high value production. The German co-determination vocational skills system is world famous. In France, Italy, Greece and other EU countries there is equally strong support for union/management partnership on skills. Similar structures are now built in Latin America and South Africa. Japan is leading the way in Asia.

The report was compiled with input from every country affiliated to the TUAC. It documents all of these examples but also discusses the challenges for unions. Engaging in skills means building capacity within unions and a readiness to build partnerships with companies. That can mean challenges in how the union is organised and managed. For some union officers too, supporting skills may be a new idea.

Above all, the report shows that trade unions need support to make the most effective contribution. It argues that the OECD should encourage more research and discussion. For example, on how best to support unions? What forms of union engagement in skills ecosystems will work best in different countries? How can trade unions best help young people or the most disadvantaged workers? The OECD has carried out extensive work on building vocational skills systems. It has advised many countries on how best to invest in and optimise skills systems. This report shows that the there are few better investments than helping unions. Even if, to some readers, it may be a new idea.

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