Learning with Trade Unions: A Contemporary Agenda in Employment Relations

Joanna Karmowska (Oxford Brookes University, Oxford, UK)

Personnel Review

ISSN: 0048-3486

Article publication date: 1 August 2008




Karmowska, J. (2008), "Learning with Trade Unions: A Contemporary Agenda in Employment Relations", Personnel Review, Vol. 37 No. 5, pp. 583-586. https://doi.org/10.1108/00483480810891691



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2008, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

On first glance, this book did not engender that feeling of excitement that often accompanies opening a new book for the first time. However, after an initial cursory browse, my interest was stimulated sufficiently to turn browsing into the beginning of in‐depth study. What came to so fascinate me about this well edited book is that not only does it explore various aspects of learning agendas within trade unions, but it also presents them within well defined social, economical and political contexts, whilst also delving into areas of related interest such as distance‐learning. All this also, of course, significantly widens the book's scope of interest and the diversity of its potential audience.

At a time of declining membership and overall general influence of trade unions, it is especially valuable that the book surfaces learning as a potential key cornerstone of a strategy for union revival. Elsewhere in the book, various aspects of union learning are debated, such as the relative roles to be played by the historical “educational”, and more contemporary, “learning”, approaches. Economic and political impacts of trade unions’ learning agendas and the position of learning in overall union strategies are also discussed and special attention devoted to the distinctiveness of unions learning in various contexts as well as on its significance in contemporary service and organising practices.

The book's 14 chapters are divided into a logical sequence of four parts, each of which gives an insight into different aspects of learning within unions. In the introductory part, union learning is presented within historical, political and international perspectives. The second section comprises a theoretically grounded analysis of a series of illustrative case studies containing reflection on the outcomes and usefulness of various initiatives, as well as new interpretations of union learning. Section three provides more case studies and places union learning in the wider context of union renewal. Finally, we are presented with a stimulating discussion on future agendas for union learning and suggestions for future research within the area.

An introductory chapter by the editors, whilst highlighting the book's main aims and features, also seeks to place union learning within contemporary parameters, probing the nature of learning itself, as well as giving consideration to the wider political and economic scene. In chapter 2, Moira Calveley leads us through the historical process of trade union involvement in education and workplace learning, presenting how broad and complex approaches to education and learning developed from original initiatives aimed at supporting the rise of workers' self‐consciousness and the lobbying of Parliament with regard to educational policymaking. Even before unions engaged in the vocational education of workers, we learn, for example, that they provided training for their workplace representatives to enable them to more effectively engage in negotiations with management. Meanwhile, since the election of the Blair government in 1997, trade unions have, it is noted, been empowered to influence policy decisions with regard to workplace learning and training and to place these issues at the forefront of bargaining agendas. This fascinating phenomenon is described in greater detail in subsequent chapters.

The next chapter of the book presents an international perspective on trade union learning which helps to contextualise British policies and practices within the wider global economy. The chapter focuses on five countries: Australia, France, Germany, Japan and the USA, and systematically describes issues such as trade union positioning within the employment relations system of each country and the roles played within national educational systems as well as workplace learning and activist development practices. Perhaps an omission from the book here is that it does not deal more comprehensively with issues arising in this regard from Britain's European Union membership, although many references to these can be found in further parts of the book.

Caroline Lloyd and Jonathan Payne, in chapter 4, discuss whether unions can make a difference by tackling the UK skills issue. They frame their argument around the role played by unions in the development of British “high skills society” and provide interesting examples from the UK as well as international comparisons. On the basis of their analysis, these authors conclude that there is noticeable weak employer demand for high skills and ask about the role of unions in engaging government and employers into changing this situation.

The first four chapters, taken together, provide a very valuable introduction to the book and a platform for the more empirically based ones that follow. By this approach the editors have done a good job in bringing together theory and research relating to the varied contexts of learning in the workplace. The set of chapters based on case studies and other empirical research analysing various aspects of union learning strategies and their outcomes is grouped in two sections: section II dealing with learning actions and outcomes, and section III on learning and union renewal. Section two starts with Anne McBride and Stephen Mustchin's case study of union involvement in skills development in the NHS which focuses mainly on the process of learning through unions and its outcomes for learners. This is followed by three illustrative case studies by David Wray focusing on learning under the Union Learning Fund (ULF) set among “hard to reach” specific groups. The focus of these engaging case studies are, respectively, school kitchen staff; language classes for female Asian factory workers, and a learning project for residents of a women's refuge. Each of the three initiatives, maybe surprisingly, share much in common. They also not only show how the “unreachable” can be reached, but highlight the key importance of an individual in initiating the project, although, in the final analysis, it is the end‐users who create and decide the success or failure of the project.

The following two chapters are devoted to an analysis of the nature of union learning, with particular focus on socio‐cultural and political dimensions. Here, Steve Shelley explores the nature of learning within public‐funded ULF learning centres along with the supporting work of Union Learning Representatives (ULRs). He seeks to interpret “distinctiveness” and “usefulness” of outcomes from union learning through an analysis of the wider learning environment within which are included materials and methods, access, trainers, physical environment, as well as the benefits, reasons and purposes of the learning.

Keith Forrester's chapter 8 of the book is what I regard as the real star of this reading exercise. In this, he manages that which is often attempted but rarely achieved, namely locating successfully a practical experience approach to learning, where education is about “getting people to think about why things happen … ” (p. 132), within a wider theoretical framework that encompasses societal relationships and activity. This all serves to put a new light on the role of trade unionism.

Within section 3, union learning is discussed in relation to union organisation and renewal. The many case studies presented here provide the foundation for the application of theoretical frameworks to the better understanding of the phenomena of union engagement with learning in the workplace. Writing in this section, Mark Stuart and Emma Wallis explore how union engagement with workplace learning relates to traditional structures of industrial relations. Moving on to chapter 10, Gill Kirton introduces the gender issue and shares the results of research on women organising through women‐only courses in two British male‐dominated trade unions. The last chapter of the section is provided by Steve Shelley and focuses on the problems of partnership within the learning and skills agenda. Specifically drawing from case study material, it describes a complex set of multiple partnerships involving a variety of players, including partnerships within the community. The main challenge for unions is cast as taking advantage of partnership opportunities in learning provision, while retaining the distinctiveness and independence necessary for sustainable long term continuity.

The final section draws the book to a close by presenting an open agenda for further work and research. Here, two different yet complementary perspectives are presented, the first by John Stirling who writes about the new challenges that trade union learning faces in response to globalisation. This is followed by a chapter presented by Liz Rees who details new initiatives undertaken by the TUC aimed at facing the new opportunities and challenges for union learning in modern‐day Britain.

The final chapter, compiled by the editors, is much more than merely a summary and conclusions in that it identifies, in concise and inspiring terms, the range of challenges and opportunities to be faced‐up to by practitioners and researchers in the field of union learning. A feature that highlights how both groups are likely to discover inspiration for new initiatives as well as valuable answers to contemporary questions about the role of unions in learning and skills development.

It would be a bad mistake, however, to recommend this book only to people only directly involved in trade union learning. The range of topics and variety of perspectives presented make it a valuable reading for a wide audience interested in the theory and practice of education, employment relations and societal development as a whole.

The conclusion that “union learning has potential to make significant contribution to individuals, trade unions, employment and society” (p. 251) seems to me much more convincing after reading the book. It is my belief, that anybody interested in these issues will find confronting their views with those of the authors of this book an exciting and enriching experience.

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