Research: are ULRs State Agents or Social Partners?

19 Apr

The TUC’s learning and skills agency, unionlearn, has released new research on the role of Union Learning Reps (ULRs).

Union Learning Representatives: State Agents or Social Partners? by Bert Clough, was originally published in Labour and Industry, the journal of the Association of Industrial Relations Academics in Australia and New Zealand.

The paper compares the experience of union learning reps in England and New Zealand, reflects on the limitations of the current model and suggests some areas for development. If you’re interested in the bigger picture, it’s worth a read.

According to the paper, social partnership in vocational education and training is undeveloped in the UK, when compared to other North European countries. This is because of Britain’s fairly unregulated labour market, as well as Thatcher’s policy of removing union influence from skills and training policy. Tripartite bodies – such as industry training boards with skills levies – were largely abolished.

The Thatcher Government took a market driven, voluntarist approach to skills, and attempted to create a training market in which decisions to train would be up to individuals or employers.

Unsurprisingly, this policy failed, and the UK quickly developed skills gaps when compared to similar economies in Europe. These skills gaps have a serious economic impact, and lead the UK to under perform, particularly in manufacturing. This approach is still the norm, and one third of UK employers failed to provide any training at all in the past 12 months.

When Labour was elected in 1997, the new Government attempted to address this market failure by addressing the supply side of learning. Unions were recognised as stakeholders, and a number of initiatives were introduced to encourage employers to train. Specialist skills agencies were created, Sector Skills Councils were licensed, and the Union Learning Fund was created to support union-lead learning in the workplace.

Unions were recognised as being particularly good at engaging “hard to reach, non-traditional learners”.

This approach has been fairly successful, and 24,000 ULRs have been trained. There is evidence to show that they have had a positive impact on learning and skills in the workplace, and a large proportion of managers surveyed agree that union learning has had a positive impact on their company. The research also shows a positive correlation between having learning agreements and negotiating structures, and increased uptake of skills and learning.

However, there are limitations to this voluntarist model: the approach was “all carrot and no stick”, and the Tory’s light touch labour regulation was largely maintained, and few attempts were made to address the demand side of learning, for instance by reintroducing skills levies or compelling employers to train.

The paper argues that in many ways ULRs are “state agents”, because they carry out Government skills policy in the workplace. However, because they are union activists with statutory rights, they also carry out a representative role, and in many instances this supersedes their function as state agents. ULRs respond to members’ needs, and in some cases begin to bargain around skills and learning. This is the case in Unite. We are aware of Government skill’s policy, and we engage constructively with it, but when we design our learning programme it’s important for us to always put our members’ learning needs first.

Our learning programme been most successful in workplaces where we have robust collective bargaining around skills and learning. In addition to providing members with courses to support them, we also negotiate with employers to improve and widen their training offer, and invest in the long term development of their staff.

To create a world class economy in Scotland, industry will need to adopt high-involvement work practices (HIWP). This is a way of working that mobilises employees’ skills and creativity by giving them greater engagement and autonomy.

HIWP are proven to be successful at raising productivity and improving economic performance. The four key principles are giving employees Power, Information, Knowledge and Rewards. To successfully create this kind of economy, we will need to move to more collective bargaining over skills and training, investment in the company, job design and the organisation of work.

For union learning to reach its potential of revitalising both our union and the workplaces we are active in, we need statutory collective bargaining on learning and skills in union recognised workplaces – as is the case with pay and conditions.

Let us know what your views are.


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