Three of Britain's best-known union educators, press the case for a reinvigoration of unions educating activists and helping equip them with progressive ideas.

If you are an active trade unionist reading this - an article first published in the Morning Star - then you might remember the first time you were elected as a union representative or a shop steward. The realisation that you had embarked on something that you weren’t quite sure what you had let yourself in for. How your workmates’ perception of you changed overnight from being just another cog in the organisation into a completely different being — the oracle of all knowledge, a social worker, a welfare rights worker, a shoulder to cry on or the local moaning post. Remember your relief when you discovered that you could go on a course and find all about this new role you had taken on in your life.
Well, for new union representatives that option might not be available for long.
In the swirl of more restrictions on trade union rights and government cuts, you might have missed that your local TUC education unit is under threat as well.
For the last 30-odd years the TUC has run successful education programmes for new union reps, health and safety reps and more recently union learning reps. Thousands of people have been taught how to cope with the demands of representing people in the workplace. This has been funded by the government, first of all by direct grants and then after a funding crisis in the last slim majority Conservative government, through accreditation of courses and drawing money down, similar to other further education provision. As it stands now, full funding for these courses will end in 2016.
The government will only stump up 50 per cent, with the reps or their unions expected to fund the rest. TUC education has had many crises in the past. It was born out of controversial debates about the content and delivery of courses, “liberal versus technical education,” the funding crisis of the early ’90s and the last few years of tighter restrictions on types and length of courses.
There have been a number of recent cuts to adult education budgets, including a 24 per cent cut this year. This has meant that further education colleges — which employ the TUC tutors — have been forced to take decisions over what provision should receive the funding, meaning that some education units have already closed or have reduced staff and capacity to run courses.
TUC education has managed to ride these difficulties through negotiating compromises with different governments and the local units bartering with their local employers for funding and resources. The main aim has always been to continue providing a service to trade unions.
Some of us who work in TUC education now feel that this could be a crisis too far — we don’t have any sympathetic ears in the present government and local FE colleges are hamstrung by their own finances.
However, this might be an opportunity to reinvent TUC education — to build on its strengths of inventive teaching methods and its relationships with local union branches and dedicated tutors. The 10-day course programme was born out of the industrial relations of the Donovan Report of the 1960s and Employment Relations Acts of the ’70s, when 80 per cent of people in work were covered by a collective agreement and the most likely trade unionist was a male skilled manual worker.
The trade union movement needs to have a debate not only about retaining TUC education, but what it should look like in the future. The practical issues of funding need to be sorted — do we rely on government funding or do the unions pay for it? Who employs the tutors? We also need to debate the content and length of the courses? The balance between political education and practical skills? Are the courses representative of a trade union movement predominately female and public sector? Do they deal with the industrial relations of the 21st century? What about the role of human resource management and “flexible workforces”? Or the role of community branches?
This should be discussed with all interested parties — union reps, tutors, the TUC and its affiliated unions. In fact this debate has already started, but it needs co-ordination and direction to ensure an inclusive “worker’s education provision” for the future.UCU, at its further education conference last month, unanimously agreed a motion to stop educational vandalism, seeking to oppose and defeat the cuts in further education in order to allow a “second chance” for adults in education who have been repeatedly failed by the system.
This motion also sought to protect jobs in the sector and ensure that trade union education units can continue to deliver a unified message and high standards of education across the movement.
This article is an attempt to start that debate. We would welcome contributions through the Morning Star, but also in union branches and committees. We would see this as a contribution to a much wider debate about working-class education, because TUC education for many people was a starting point to re-engage themselves with education.
Many union activists have used their reps’ courses as a springboard into adult education, progressing on to Ruskin, Northern College or Coleg Harlech and then to university. With the advent of loans, fees and the commercialisation of the higher education sector, university access has been closed off to many people.
The trade union movement needs to support its activists who want to educate themselves. We need to produce our own intellectuals to respond to the ideological attacks of this new government which has made it clear that it intends to continue its restrictions on the rights for workers to organise. Without the education, we can’t agitate and organise.
Bob Kelly is course co-ordinator at Merseyside Trade Union Education Unit, Vicky Knight is course co-ordinator at Manchester Trade Union Education Unit and Les Doherty is course co-ordinator at South Cheshire TU Education Unit.