In the past few years, the British trade unions have adopted training and learning as an important element of their agenda. This learning agenda is perhaps the fastest growing philosophy of trade union activity, although it is one of the newest. The involvement of unions in learning is a distinct role from its historic activity of organising and agitating. The role of unions in establishing ‘learning agreements’ with employers, creating union learning representative (ULR) and several union learning programs are seen as success stories associated with unions, which even seemed to signal the renewal of unions.
The commitment of the labour government, to develop Britain as a high-skill and knowledge-oriented economy has supported union learning through union learning fund (ULF) and statutory backing for ULRs. Unions have also been provided a stakeholder role in the vocational education and training system (VET). Today, most of the important institutional bodies include a formal representation of unions. Unions are represented in the learning skills council (LSC) and the sector skills council (SSC).
New sector skills agreements and regional skills agreements have been formed in sectors where unions are present. The Trade Union Congress (TUC) has a formal representation on the National Skills Alliance to advice government on the implementation and progress of skills strategy. This approach is seen as the governments’ ‘social partnership’ strategy. The representation and roles of trade unions today, perhaps reflect the exclusion and marginalisation policies of the earlier conservative governments. Union involvement in workplace learning 4
The LSCs and SSCs are primarily conceived as employer-led groups with trade unions offered only one seat, along with the other voluntary organizations. Unions thus have very limited scope to influence the operation of these bodies. The TUC has made it clear that there is a lack of robust social partnership approach to skills and that it wants a better voice in these bodies. In continental Europe, unions have equal representation with employers on the main VET body, and decision-making opportunities are offered to all partners.
However, many people feel that increased union representation in these bodies cannot make much difference as the state has the dominant role. However the effectiveness of using learning and skills, as catalysts for union resurgence is dependent on the union’s ability to establish qualitative and quantitative roles, and in sustaining its network, while being able to have individual employers with it, which is very crucial.