Kevin will be speaking at Unions 21’s annual conference and wrote this blog for them before the event.
For the vast majority of trade union members, the union is personified in the form of the local rep they see and often rely on in their workplace. Those reps are often required not only to be a key source of accurate information about company policy and practice, but ‘experts’ on health and safety and employment law and skilled in representation and negotiation. That’s quite an ask for people who are volunteers, taking on these roles on top of their day job.
How our members therefore see the effectiveness of their trade union is defined by how effective they consider their rep to be; making it critical that the right support is in place to ensure those priceless individuals are as confident, skilled and knowledgeable as they can be, as evidenced in much academic research.
For generations the TUC has worked with unions and through FE to provide a wide range of training for reps, from key skills of representation and negotiation through to more advanced employment law and leadership development, securing paid release for reps to train alongside other reps in local colleges on short courses and 10-day programmes.
Membership decline, increasing workloads and growing pressures on reps across the board have all contributed to a significant and steady decline in participation in trade union training. From a high of 58,321 in 2009 reps attending classroom based trade union education courses has now fallen to around 25,000. We need to turn that around.
As part of the solution the TUC has developed a digital learning offer for union reps, enabling reps to learn about their role, how to do it, where to get support and what the law says – anytime, anywhere, on their ‘phone or on their PC, at work or at home. There’s much to value in this development and a few challenges are thrown up too.
Feedback from reps says they find it really easy to access and complete online training – the systems are really good, user friendly and appeal to them. This ease of access might also be a factor in explaining why more women (45% to 27%) participate in online learning compared to classroom provision and 20% of those learning online are young, despite young workers accounting for less than 10% of all union reps.
Critically, the vast majority of reps said the online training helped them in their role ‘somewhat’ or ‘to a great extent’ and two thirds had applied their learning back in the workplace within a few months, more effective, more confident reps on the front line.
There are challenges too. Around half of all reps didn’t ask for facility time to complete their programme, of those that did ask 80% were given it and some employers provided additional help too. There may be any number of reasons reps don’t ask, but with the pressure already on facility time we do need to find ways to hold what we have. Of course, for those reps without recognition arrangements being able to do reps training in this way can help build the union in those non-organised workplaces.
A significant minority of reps also want to complement online learning with face-to-face contact with other reps. That opportunity to share experiences with peers, to learn from others, as well as to build camaraderie with others in similar situations is a valuable element to any learning and one which adds genuine value to learning outcomes. And a smaller minority of reps also identified confidence in their digital literacy as a barrier too.
There’s no doubt that not only is digital learning here to stay, it’s highly likely to expand and become a much more common education medium, with quality continuing to improve as it does. Being a rep is a human activity and how we make sure we complement the technical and knowledge based activities with experiential learning will be key to ensuring trade union education also builds solidarity amongst our key activists.