Although unions have very limited role at the policy formulation level, they have a larger new role in improving workplace learning. The establishment of the union learning representative is perceived as an innovation of the central union. The role of the representative is to support and motivate workers in taking up workplace learning. The success of workplace learning is evident from the associated facts and figures. As of December 2006, the TUC claims to have trained over 13,000 ULRs.
More than 3000 workplaces have been covered with over 450 union learning projects, while over 67,000 learners benefit from these courses each year. There have also been many cases where Union involvement in workplace learning 5 unions have been in partnership with employers to develop learning and skills acquirement. It is important to note here that employers and employees perceive training and training success in different ways. Employers prefer to develop-specific skills that directly help their business.
Union and employees on the other hand, would want to develop broad transferable skills, which can help in an individual’s employment and career. Unions have had reasonable success in implementing learning programmes directed towards employee needs. The ‘return to Learn’ programme run by Unison, the public sector union is considered as one among the best. Such programmes are very valuable to the employees and sometimes be a life changing experience for many. It helps them to advance their career, while also encouraging them to become more active in the union.
Such success stories need to be seen together with the challenges faced by the unions, in negotiating training and learning agenda with employers. The impact of unions on workplace learning in UK should not be exaggerated. ULRs and the union’s learning programmes are found only in workplaces were unions are present and recognised. It should be noted here that only in 13% of workplaces with over 10 employees, have union representation. Trade unions and ULRs are not present in those sectors where training and skills are desperately required, for instance, in the private sector services in hotels and hospitality, retailing.
Not all rights required for effective functioning, has been accorded to the unions. Currently unions do not have the statutory right to bargain with employers over training. Only in 3% of all workplaces in UK, do employers negotiate with employee representatives over training plans. Another 13% of employers consult employee reps on training plans. In over 75% of UK workplaces, employers don’t even Union involvement in workplace learning 6
inform employee reps of their training plans. Another difficulty which unions face with employers is their resistance to learning agreements. Employers attempt to implement a learning agenda, which are narrowly focussed to meet their specific needs, which the union attempt to resist. Also there is no scope for any impact of unions in workplace learning, in organizations associated with low quality and low price markets. Here only limited skills are required from the workforce and so training cannot make much difference.