Labour Movement Education Unshackled – A Conference of trade union educators held at the Marx Memorial Library, 7 September 2016

The British labour movement has been slow to acknowledge the depth of the crisis that is overwhelming its settled mode of educating its cadres. As we’ve pointed out on this site, and others have argued in the Morning Star, the end of government funding and the TUC model of education is forcing a long overdue debate on the movement about what trade union education should be and how it should be organised and funded. It was precisely to address these issues that the Marx Memorial Library and Workers’ School hosted a gathering of trade union reps, officers, and educators on 7 September. There were participants from Unite, UNISON, CWU, RMT, NUT, UCU, ASLEF and other unions besides and Trade Union Futures went along to cover the discussion. Because the conference involved open and frank discussion of the issues facing the movement, it was agreed that the conference proceedings should be anonymised.

Crisis, opportunity and the needs of the hour

The first speaker in the morning session from UNISON talked framed the crisis explicitly as an opportunity to go back to basics and ensure that whatever the movement re-establishes is fit for the challenges we face. It was noted that TUC education has been focused on the narrow training of shop stewards, strongly influenced by what governments would fund. In practice, this has resulted in an education that doesn’t support movement building. TUC training effectively rules out political debate or discussion about how to mobilise and organise within workplaces and communities. The speaker pointed out that at the current moment this was particularly inexcusable. While thousands of people are being mobilised and attending meetings in support of Jeremy Corbyn, unions continue to have small meetings and low participation. Education also has to be reshaped around the reality of people’s working lives today. The challenge is to develop a programme of education supporting collectivism and movement building when you have branches with members in dozens of different companies and when working patterns are fragmented and often part-time. There was recognition that any attempt to reshape trade union education on a common basis across the movement would face resistance from vested interests, including from the TUC.

The crisis of the TUC model – new problem or old?

The second speaker, with experience of TUC education, reminded participants that this is in part a new articulation of an old debate in the movement dating back to 1909 and the Plebs League. It was noted that the TUC model itself was an accommodation to a specific political reality, while the current plight of Trade Union education needed itself to be situated in the context of the wider commodification and destruction of education, particularly Further Education.

Common objectives for trade union education?

Looking to the future, the second speaker argued that we could not debate how this education was to be funded until we have a shared conception of what tis education should be for and what it should look like. The speaker proposed that a commonly shared basis for trade union education might be established on two pillars:

1) the need to politically educate activists to achieve change

2) the need for independent education for advancement

The labour movement must aspire to produce citizens capable of thinking for themselves. For unions, this means less emphasis on reps competent to deal with individualised procedures or use the law, and more stress on knowing how to organise collectively. It is absolutely crucial to start to teach about collectivism and collective power again.

A common resource for the movement

In the discussion that followed, it was broadly agreed that it was important that unions should avoid attempting to solve the problem independently and in silos. This is not a time for ‘circling the wagons’ as one speaker put it, but to shape a new working class education. There are immense benefits to multi-union courses, particularly in cultivating a consciousness of the movement and politics. Some participants shared how their unions were tackling some of the issues, including examples of using ‘workers’ centres as spaces where reps and community activists can meet, learn and organise. There was agreement that it was vital to identify and develop venues, spaces and resources that could be shared across unions.

It was also agreed that preserving member education was important. Participants shared their stories of the popularity of courses that provided education for advancement and made the point that these were vital organising tools as well as sources of popular working class education in themselves.

Collective power vs competent individuals

There was also agreement that the content of education needed to be shifted. If we agree that the objective is to educate citizens to think for themselves and be able to organise the effect change then for unions it is vital to rediscover collective power. Reps must learn to think of themselves as personifying collective power, not individually representing an individual. Even the current form of trade union education, where people are invited to sign up to three day courses, is too passive.

Political education

It was agreed that it was necessary to reach a broadly common understanding of what kind of politicised courses we can agree on as a movement. It was noted that we currently have experienced reps and some political institutions, the ‘remnants of an earlier movement’ that need to be harnessed for the purposes of renewal.  As one participant put it, ‘if we don’t grab this opportunity now it will be harder to build later’. Others pointed to the ways in which they had managed to develop a political dimension to their education courses through evening classes with partner organisations like the MML or by clever badging of courses. This need to make the best use of what we have reinforced the point that a renewed trade union education needs to be a common, multi-union resource, developed through cooperation.

‘If we’re still providing education based on an increasingly imaginary workforce, we will die’

Participants discussed some of the challenges of renewal that arise from the workplace. Participants in public sector unions like the NUT, UNISON and CWU talked about the growing need to develop reps and shop stewards who were also local negotiators, able to mobilise collective muscle around them. Several made reference to the need to be able to reach precarious workers and fragmented workforces with new technology and about the challenges of developing collective forms and content of education for such workforces. One speaker made the point with real force and clarity, arguing that ‘when one third of the workforce are part-time and a large number of those are in some form of bogus self-employment, if we’re still providing education based on an increasingly imaginary workforce in stable employment, we will die’. We have to be honest that we are currently not taking account of the 75% of the workforce who are not in unions, don’t know about collective bargaining or workers’ rights. What would a transformative program look like for real, concrete workers today?

More optimistically, it was also noted that people who do come to unions to be representatives now do not do so for advancement, status or facilities time but because they genuinely want to change things.

The Marx Memorial Library and Workers’ School

On behalf of the host institution, labour historian and educator Mary Davis explained the history of the Marx Memorial Library, making the point that right from its inception, the task of providing independent education for workers through the Workers’ School had been at the heart of its mission. The School had provided lectures and classes on history, the science of society and political economy. Now the Library’s Education Committee is redeveloping the School, providing new online and classroom based courses looking at the crisis of capitalism, austerity, trade unions, class and power and other subjects. New tutors are being recruited and new courses developed. The Library can only be part of the solution, Mary argued, but what it was doing was important to the movement and needs to be in the mix.

Finishing up – and moving forward

The conference closed with a rousing account of the struggle over trade union education in the US from labour historian Paul Mishler. In his wide-ranging and engaging talk Paul pointed to the resonances in the debates at issue between the UK and US contexts but also at the key differences. In particular, Paul pointed to the effects of the destruction of left politics in the unions after the war and the different role played by mass higher education in becoming a key site for the struggle over labour education. Paul finished by pointing to the way in which student movements have interacted with labour organisations as a consequence of this different role. As neoliberal reform has transformed students into workers who study, Paul argued, unions have recognised the need to engage with young people in universities on this terrain.

At the end of a positive day that energised the participants, it was agreed that one outcome of the conference should be further meetings to develop the commonly agreed areas already identified and explore the potential for taking this argument into the wider movement.


For more information on the trade union education provided by the Marx Memorial Library and Workers School see their programme of events here:

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