Serious players in learning

Unionised workers are more likely to receive training than others

In the mid-19th century, the Flint Glass Makers' Magazine preached the moral and political worth of education with missionary zeal. "Get intelligence instead of alcohol - it is sweeter and more lasting," it instructed. "If you do not wish to stand as you are and suffer more oppression, we say to you get knowledge, and in getting knowledge you get power."

While the language may have softened, trade unions today are still engaged in a crusade to expand the minds of workers. The goal is not simply to get one over on the bosses, however. More and more employers are seeing the benefits - the necessity, even - of creating a culture of learning at work.

Recent legislation has prioritised the education of young people in schools and universities. And yet, with our ageing population, 70 per cent of the potential 2020 workforce is already in employment, and many more skills than are currently recognised will be required of us by then. As Lord Leitch sloganised in his interim report on skills last year, "We have to address training for today's workers if we are to meet tomorrow's challenges."

Trade unionists have been pressing the point for some time. Marginalised and excluded by Conservative governments, they have played an increasingly important role in Labour's skills agenda since 1997. The promotion of learning has become a core activity for trade unions. The government, realising the potential of a bottom-up approach, has now taken steps to help.

The Union Learning Fund, established by the Department for Education in 1998, has bankrolled around 500 projects in which unions have worked in partnership with employers, local Learning and Skills Councils and providers, such as colleges, to deliver learning opportunities. These have included basic skills, continuing professional development and everything in between. Unions have also made efforts to retrain workers facing redundancy and help them find alternative employment.

Perhaps the fund's most sustainable success, however, has been the training of more than 12,000 union learning representatives. These reps, boosted by the statutory right to paid time off to carry out their duties, identify learning needs, offer information and advice, arrange provision, encourage uptake and consult with employers.

In particular, reps are addressing the huge gap between the educational haves and have-nots, attempting to ensure equal access to learning for hard-to-reach groups, such as low-skilled and part-time workers (often women and minority groups), many of whom were failed by the education system the first time around. Reps are also tackling the persistent digital divide between employees, tapping in to the potential of technology to overcome barriers of time and place. The Trades Union Congress (TUC) report, Logging on to Learning, shows how the internet is being used to train workers, from firefighters in Morpeth to construction workers at Canary Wharf.

There is undoubtedly a "learning premium" to being a union member. Unionised workers are more likely to receive training; investment in this area is higher in recognised workplaces. To build on this success, the TUC has set up Unionlearn - again, with government support. At the launch on 2 May, Gordon Brown applauded the unions' contribution to lifelong learning as the "most successful movement for change in this country at the moment. Nothing we do in the next few months and years is more important than extending trade union learning.

"Why is trade union learning so important?" he asked. "Because I believe that you know first-hand and at the grassroots, more than anyone, the things that people want to learn... more than the government, more than local authorities, more than businesses even themselves."

The government is clearly keen to help trade unionists do the legwork on the ground. But is that enough? The unions' increased capacity under Labour has not been matched by influence. Both the Sector Skills Councils and the Learning and Skills Councils are employer-dominated - odd, given that many employers are failing to pull their weight.

Around 20 per cent of businesses report they have skills gaps, yet more than 30 per cent didn't train any of their staff last year. Where training exists, it tends to be unequally distributed: managers get three times as many training days as everyone else. While managers use e-learning to broaden and deepen their skills, for many shop-floor workers technology remains simply a tool for the job in hand.

Even employers that recognise unions often fail to engage when it comes to training. In over one-third of such workplaces, bosses do not negotiate, consult or inform the union on this issue and more than three-quarters of union learning reps are forced to carry out duties in their own time, despite their statutory rights.

In many cases, the rollout of public funding - through Train to Gain, for example - is used by businesses as an excuse to withdraw their own. At the same time as letting bosses off the hook, the government has failed adult learners further by ending schemes such as the home computer initiative (announced by Brown in this year's budget) and by neglecting further education colleges, where declining courses and rising fees are hardly inviting.

Without the legal right to collective bargaining over training, and an obligation on employers to invest and allow all workers paid time off to study, there is a limit to what trade unionists can achieve. "The working class and the employing class have nothing in common," declared the Industrial Workers of the World, founded in 1905. Perhaps lifelong learning could change that, if only the unions were free to do their bit and the bosses were made to do theirs.