By August 2016 government funding for trade union education via the TUC will be slashed by half. By August 2017 all the funding will probably have gone. The government says that if trade unions wish to educate their members, it is their responsibility to fund and organise the training. And on this, the government is right.
It is time to grasp the nettle in the trade unions. For decades trade union education officers and social democratic thinkers have believed if we went cap in hand and whined enough about fairness, we could squeeze a few tears out of the employers. Everything would be hunky dory if we just ignored class – if we were part of the shiny corporate machine where class was replaced by training, partnership, equality experts and diplomas in trade union studies or international trade union studies or human resources.
There is a whole industry of educating trade unionists, predominantly staffed by ex-trade union leaders at every level, and it was created to oil the wheels of social democratic thinking. Without government support much of it might go bankrupt, but then it’s been ideologically bankrupt for decades: living with capitalism doesn’t work.
Time off for trade union education, training to be a steward, is guaranteed by statute. But you can only get the time off if it suits the employer’s operational needs. The government is astute enough not to attack the law or International Labour Organisation statutes but it attacks us at our weakest: in the workplace.
‘Lip service nationally – and an unrelenting attack locally.’
Many union recognition agreements exist at a national level but lack recognised organisation or effectiveness at a contract or workplace level. While employers give lip service to training, they conduct a systematic, unrelenting attack locally.
In our own time
In response, the TUC is considering a modern-day version of correspondence courses: online training. Workers have to reflect that a great deal of getting organised is and always will be in our own time – and that it works best when workers get together to talk, rather than stare in isolation at a computer screen.
Instead, we need to revisit what we mean by education. It should cover the wages system. How the employer, the capitalist, exploits our labour time. Why we need to build 100 per cent trade union density. Why inter-union rivalry works only for the employer.
The workplace should be our classroom, the place where we educate ourselves in dealing with the challenges which take up a third of our lives: knowing how to beat the boss in the university of life.