Published: 3-01-2012, 11:24

Labor Education


For many hundreds of thousands of people around the world, learning through their trade union has been an important, and occasionally, pivotal experience in their development and understanding as workers and citizens. Whether as a form of occupational socialization, selfimprovement, or as a vehicle of social mobility, union education has been and remains, an important albeit uneven feature of trade union activity around the world. While most studies and reports focus on worker education’s engagement with the knowledge, skills, and capabilities seen as necessary to survive within late capitalist economies, other (less-documented) recent experiences can be found of the union learning necessary in the challenge to apartheid regimes (South Africa) and forms of political injustice, authoritarianism, and dictatorship (Central Africa or South Korea). In the case of postcommunist countries, union members are learning once again, to create organizations that defend worker interests within the workplace.

Paradoxically, the nature and organization of this educational activity remains an under-researched and documented area, barely visible within the voluminous literature centered on labor organizations. Few people would disagree with the Croucher (2004) view that ‘‘Education is often viewed as a key instrument for effecting change in trade unions’’ (p. 90). Despite such sentiments, labor education remains as a minority research concern and a marginal policy focus within labor organisations themselves (see, e.g., the recent country studies in the volume Organised Labour in the 21st Century ( Jose, 2002) by the International Labour Office). Other commentators interested in union engagement with neoliberal globalization, such as Novelli (2004: 165), report that while ‘‘education and learning appear crucial . . . they are largely absent in the literature’’. To some extent, this absence is understandable (and prudent) given the formidable conceptual, organizational, and research complexities inherent in any overview of union learning activities. Labor, union, and education, for example, all remain the focus of considerable debate and contestation. Empirically and analytically capturing this education is fraught with difficulties especially in the rapidly changing nature of this provision as unions make and remake themselves in different historical settings and in response to changes in the employment relationship and wider societal context.

Despite these substantial methodological caveats, this article provides a selective flavor of the conceptual schemas and organizational variety of union education in different parts of the world. It is suggested that recent labor education initiatives can be seen as being informed by one or more of three interrelated concerns, namely, the possible contribution of education toward union renewal and revitalization strategies, the emergence of lifelong learning as a key policy focus and third, changes in regulatory regimes resulting from more intensive capitalaccumulation strategies.

The first section situates the peculiarities of worker education. Unlike most other forms of knowing, union education is characterized by its contradictory nature – its simultaneous promotion of resistance and of cooperation. Analytically grasping this tension at the center of worker education has proved difficult and controversial. A brief review of the formulations and conceptual frameworks used commonly in discussions of union education is provided. In contrast to these formulations, it is suggested that in recognizing the nature and extent of worker learning, union education needs to be situated within the wider societal context. This is the focus of the second section in the article. This wider societal approach provides the analytical focus for contexturalizing particular initiatives at particular times in particular circumstances. Examples of concerns within union education are used to illustrate the argument developed in this section. The final part briefly considers the educational implications for unions within at least rhetorically, the information society, knowledge economy, or the post-industrial society.

The Peculiarities of Union Education

Trade unions are best understood as institutions that primarily mediate between their members and opposing social interests such as the state and employers. As a condition of their survival, they are required to navigate the material structural contradictions between capital and labor. In seeking to defend and further the interests of their membership, union relationships and practices are characterized simultaneously not only by struggle and conflict but also by cooperation in the maintenance of an orderly employment environment and favorable societal contexts. The effectiveness of worker ‘‘resistance to capitalism . . . . also makes this resistance more manageable and predictable and can even serve to suppress struggle’’ (Hyman, 1989: 230). It is this key contradictory characteristic of unionism that not only unlocks understandings of unionism but also provides a rich interpretative basis for framing union education. As such, it provides a start to overcoming static institutional categories commonly used in discussion of education in general. Situating union learning within this wider societal context provides the critical dimension intrinsic to this type of education.

Scholarly attempts to situate analytically, trade union education or more broadly, worker education within the general literature acknowledges the difficulties inherent in such an ambition; there is wisely a strong cautionary element. Hopkins in his international survey of workers’ education, for example, warns of the historical variety and culturally contested understandings of education, workers, and trade unions: there ‘‘are grave dangers of over-simplification and confusion’’ (Hopkins, 1985: 8). Newman agrees and notes that ‘‘the world of union affairs, of workplaces, of industrial relations is a complicated and confusing one. No two unions, no two workplaces are the same. No issues are identical’’ (Newman, 1993: 11). The International Labour Office (ILO) recognizes the complexities and offers a broad understanding. ‘‘Worker’s education’’, it suggests, ‘‘is designed to develop the workers’ understanding of ‘labour problems’ in the broadest sense of these words’’ (ILO, 1976: 10). It ‘‘should always be regarded as a means to useful action. In many cases the education will make clear both the need for action and the best forms the action can take’’ (ILO, 1976: 10). Spencer (2002: 17–18) in his collection on labor education provided by trade unions goes further when distinguishing between tools or role courses (those preparing members for active roles in the union), issue or awareness courses (linking workplace to societal issues such as racism, union campaigns, or new management techniques) and labour studies courses (examining union contexts through historical, economic, and political perspectives). Such a taxonomy – common in the Anglo-Saxon literature – approximates to Hopkins’ longer fivefold classification of the major components of the curricula of worker’ education. These he sees as basic general skills; role skills; economic, social, and political background studies; technical and vocational training; and finally, cultural, scientific, and general education (Hopkins, 1985: 43). The situating of trade union education or workers’ education within perspectives that focus on curricula, program design, and pedagogy (worker-centered) has contributed toward framing important discussions about the particularities of this type of learning. Implicit within many of the discussions are a number of distinguishing features that shape not only the content but also the language, values, pedagogy, relationships, objectives, and nature of the learning experienced in the education. Although not always made explicit in the written learning materials, the examination and linkages between union experience, discussion, knowing, and action in programs occur within a number of sensibilities that are powerfully shaped by notions of social justice. More recent commentators on union education have attempted to move beyond the classificatory approach and explicitly incorporate wider societal concerns within definitions and understandings of union education. Burke and her Canadian union educators, for example, identify a number of threads which ‘‘hold together the fabric of our work: community, democracy, equity, class-consciousness, organisation-building, and the greater good’’ (Burke et al., 2002: 3). Other commentators such as Salt et al. (2000) distinguish between transformatory and accomodatory education in their discussion of worker education and neoliberal globalization (p. 9).

These more recent attempts to adequately capture the complexities of union education have been accompanied by the exploration of understandings of education and learning. In doing so, it has been recognized that becoming a trade unionist involves much more than a consideration of formal educational categories, as any historical account of trade unionism demonstrates. An emphasis solely on curricula considerations risks privileging institutionally driven categories at the expense of cultural and material considerations. An unproblematic view of education emphasizes education as a product to be passively acquired or consumed and transferred. For some trade unions, education assumes this quality of technical rationality, as Schon (1983) puts it. By contrast, more recent approaches to understanding education such as sociocultural approaches (Lave and Wenger, 1991) and activity theory (Engestrom, 2001) stress the contexturalized, mediated, and participative processes of, in this instance, becoming a trade unionist. Livingstone and Sawchuk for example, recognize the extensive and varied circumstances and complex processes within which union learning occurs. ‘‘Studies of adult education’’, they argue ‘‘have often ignored the actual array of learning activities of working people and generally implied inferior learning capacity’’ (Livingstone and Sawchuk, 2003b: 111). Studies by these authors have focused on union activity at the local workplace in different occupational settings in Canada in the exploration and documentation of ‘‘distinctive working-class learning practices across multiple spheres of activity, including paid employment, housework, both union-based and community volunteer work as well as private learning concerned with general interests’’. Using a conception of learning informed by a cultural– historical perspective, the authors analytically distinguish between formal education, continuing education, and informal learning (see also Sawchuk, 2003; Livingstone and Sawchuk, 2003b).

Novelli’s (2004) study of social movement learning shares a similar concern with exploring and developing expanded understandings of worker education and learning. His analysis of the public service trade union SINTRAECALI in the south west of Colombia outlines the recent successful campaigns against privatization of public utilities. Employing the notion of strategic learning, Novelli portrays the transformation of the union from a narrow corporate trade union focused on the defense of members’ particular interests, to a social movement union that linked workers and local communities in the defence of public services (Novelli, 2004: 161). The union’s occupation of the company’s 17th-floor administrative building in Cali is conceptualized as an educational outcome which resulted from several years of ‘‘strategic learning through social action’’ (Novelli, 2004: 162–163). The study illustrates the benefits of questioning dominant understandings of education and of situating these understandings within a particular material and societal context.

Situating Union Education

Uncovering the significance of the learning experienced by union members or educational participants then, can be helped through the contexturalizing of the learning within the particular political, cultural, and societal circumstances at a particular time and in particular parts of the world. Stirling (2002) uses such an approach in his survey of union education in Europe. In the Nordic countries, Germany and the UK for example, the settlements with social democratic governments provide the basis for historically understanding the comparatively extensive provision, institutional and financial support for union education. In other European countries such as Belgium and Netherlands, these settlements and support have been riven by cultural, linguistic, and religious divisions resulting in marked ideological differences to the education of the rival centers. In these instances where rival confederations are characterized by their socialist, catholic, or communist perspectives, ‘‘education programs are needed to reinforce the identity of particular Confederations as against others and to transmit an ideology to leading cadres’’ (Stirling, 2002: 27).

Situating union education and the unions themselves within this wider political context helps in addressing issues of significance, relevance, and purpose of the learning. Ost (2002) uses the example of unions in Poland to rebuke gently, Western commentators for reaching generalizations about union development and education based on their own particular circumstances, concerns, and frameworks. As he points out, in a number of countries, the new eastern-European unions energetically campaigned for the creation of a capitalist system and played an important role in educating workers about their responsibilities and obligations as wage employees. The early years of Solidarity in Poland in the 1980s, for example, were almost exclusively concerned with large successful mobilizations around societal issues to the exclusion of workplace concerns. The success of these Solidarity activities in Poland led to other unions, for example, in Bulgaria and Hungary, seeking to replicate this model. However, the lack of attention given to the workplace by Solidarity resulted in dramatic membership losses in the 1990s. Withdrawal by Solidarity from the governing coalition in 2001 together with a greater emphasis on old-fashioned workplace unionism (recruitment, education courses, employer agreements, and workplace representation) is expected to reverse the period of decline experienced in the 1990s.

Unions, where possible, have always engaged educationally with employability concerns such as occupational training and apprenticeships. Although such role courses have not figured significantly in Anglo-American discussions of union education due to the frequent involvement of employers and state agencies, Lopez’s account of the Brazil unions’ struggle and development for the Programa Integrar (the integration program) is illustrative. Occupational training is used to include wider cultural and societal concerns by the national unions in the struggle against neoliberal initiatives. Civil society involvement and alternative economic plans are pursued through the establishment of local development forums (Lopez, 2002). In other instances such as Eastern Europe, mainstream educational courses have been designed and used to effect fundamental qualitative change (Croucher, 2004: 92) within the unions themselves. Focusing on particular trade unions in Moldova, Ukraine, and Belarus, Croucher reports on educational initiatives to assist union development in the move from Soviet-style organizations to organizations able to meet new demands in new circumstances.

The continuous search by unions through negotiation, struggle, and industrial and civil conflict for a possible and politically acceptable settlement with the state and employer agencies provides a constant tension not only within unions themselves but also in the available educational opportunities. Cooper (2002) illustrates these ambiguities in her evaluation of the Development Institute for Training, Support and Education for Labour (Ditsela) from its launch in 1996 in post-apartheid South Africa. Ditsela, as she reports (Cooper, 2002: 37), was created by the congress of the South African Trade Unions (COSATU) as a solution to ‘‘rebuilding the labour movement’s capacity to respond to the major changes underway in the country . . . . There was a strong belief that a major educational initiative was required to build COSATU’s capacity to play a proactive role in the new, democratic South Africa’’.

In many other countries, political accommodation is not possible. In many countries, the absence of pluralistic political cultures or the existence of repressive state regimes excludes often violently, recognition and legitimization of union practices. In parts of Africa and South America, such conditions characterize a number of countries; being a trade unionist can be very dangerous. Alexander’s personal evaluation of ‘‘the courage and dedication of so many educators’’ in confronting ‘‘the brutal application of neo-liberalism and imposed structural adjustment programmes’’ in Zambia and Zimbabwe over a number of decades, provides a stark reminder of circumstances inmuch of theworld (Alexander, 2006: 595). In such volatile political contexts, union education has been continued and aided through external sympathetic agencies.The CommonwealthTrade Union Council, for example, in 2002, was involved in supporting Sierra Leone trade unionists in a civil society program with a strong focus on HIV/AIDS, campaigning against child labor in collaboration with unions in Botswana, Mozambique, Namibia, and Tanzania, and in encouraging women participation in Bangladesh. Similarly, financial support was provided to the Ghanaian trade unions educational work from the Netherlands, the Commonwealth TUC, and from the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU). The Trades Union Congress in Ghana has prioritized the education of members as an important part of its difficult struggle against structural adjustment policies. Training at the Labour College covers three broad areas: union organizational issues including health and safety, trade union history, and finally, special programs. In Niger, the ILO since 1999 has been supporting the two national union confederations in the provision of worker’s education in the informal sector and the French trade unions are involved in the development of a health insurance project. Maruatona’s study of adult education and trade union development in Botswana is situated against a background of significant constraints imposed by the state. Education he suggests, is an important vehicle in ‘‘helping address the worker’s problems’’ (Maruatona, 1999: 476).

Whether in Africa or elsewhere, labor organizations endeavor to ensure the initiation and reproduction of union leadership together with the necessary membership skills and capacities necessary to enter or maintain participation in the labor market. The employability agenda historically remains an important educational focus. The contexts and possibilities within which such agendas are pursued, however, differ significantly. In those regions of the world with strong repressive regimes, small formal economic sectors, and small union membership, worker learning is more likely to occur through forms of popular education (Kane, 2001), social action (Folley, 1999), or through participation in nongovernmental activity as Prieto and Quinteros’ (2004) study of women’s organizations and trade unions collaboration in the free-trade zones of Central America illustrates.

Union Learning in the Knowledge Economy

Today, it seems trade unions everywhere are in crisis. Whether in the Northern or Southern countries, falling membership, loss of bargaining power, new management strategies, or the need for new workers in the new workplaces, labor organizations are seen as less relevant or significant than previously. Post-Fordism, post-industrial, new-information age, the knowledge economy, or post- Taylorist is but a selection of the formulations used to distinguish the new from the old. Globalization, however, is the dominant framework that usually uncritically is used theoretically to legitimate these formulations. Simply put, globalization has resulted in the international crisis of labor organizations. This was and is not a universal experience as recent struggles for basic democratic rights in, for example, South Africa, Brazil, and Korea illustrate (Kelly, 2002). However, while such deeply contested perspectives are beyond the focus of this article, there is a widespread consensus that particular worker organizations are struggling to successfully engage with the implications of the massively increased international mobility of capital.

Froma trade union perspective, an important dimension to recent union revival or renewal discussion is the increased importance given to the education function. An extensive body of evidence, for example, is beginning to emerge in the UK around recent attempts to refocus trade unions as centers of learning (Healy and Engel, 2003). Learning to organize through the training and networked organization of workplace, union learning representatives (ULRs), and the creation of workplace learning centers are seen for British unions, as an important feature of engagement with the new employment agenda and with membership growth. Similarly, training for worker representation on the European Works Councils or the creation of new training academies or institutes in Australia, the USA, and Britain (Spencer, 2002) is illustrative of the increased importance being given by unions to the training function.

The rise rhetorically at least, of human resource strategies with the accompanying focus on knowledge management then, has resulted in the exploration of fresh educational developments as a means of accommodating to, or contesting with, the new circumstances. The increasing influence in employer (and international agencies such as the World Bank and International Monetary Funds) thinking and practices of human capital theory has resulted in a greater emphasis on employer–union partnership educational initiatives. Time, financial resources, and encouragement from employers are available in joint union educational initiatives that focus on strengthening employee corporate commitment, the promotion of soft social skills, and enhanced vocational training opportunities. At a regional level, there is usually an emphasis on union education that addresses more macro-, policyinformed subject areas. The educational provision of the European Trade Union Confederation, for example, has courses on foreign languages, freedom of movement of labor and work regeneration as well as more traditional union organization, recruitment, and leadership courses.

From a different perspective, there have been important recent international discussions and developments around what has been termed the new internationalism and social movement unionism (Moody, 1997; Munck, 2002). As Novelli (2004: 166) notes, ‘‘education is a key process for contestation in the struggle to develop an (alternative) movement and incorporate new allies.’’ There is a need, she continues, to move beyond instrumental understandings of education and training toward conceptions and practices that situate research, investigation, and learning in the formulation of alternative strategies that are seen as part of a wider political project. Such sentiments historically have formed the basis of a consistent critical perspective in the understanding, discussion, and evaluation of union education and learning. The current defensiveness of trade unions internationally in the face of the neoliberal offensive not only reinforces the search for alternatives and new allies, but also increases the pressure for more instrumental educational solutions. It is likely that this contradictory dynamic will continue to shape union learning in the period ahead.


As most commentators recognize, analysis and understandings of union learning need to be contexturalized within the changing nature of the unions themselves and the wider societal circumstances within which unions make and remake themselves in differing historical settings and in different parts of the world. However, irrespective of the particular place or forms that this learning might take, it remains true that for many people this learning provides an important (and sometime the only) means for an understanding of, and participation in, collective activities against social, economic, and political injustices. Despite the current difficult political circumstances, the increased attention in recent years to conceptualizing and documenting the ubiquitous nature of everyday learning incurred as a trade unionist, woman worker, or street trader has enhanced the importance and resources givento education by many union organizations.

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