I spent yesterday in Belfast speaking with education officers from two of the Irish unions and comparing notes on how the economic situation is impacting on our respective training programmes. It was a really productive and enlightening day. But what was particularly interesting was hearing from our Irish comrades how little time off their activists receive from employers to develop essential union skills, having instead to take courses in the evenings or using their holidays.
In the UK, we have legal rights to reasonable time off with no loss of pay to undertake relevant courses (as long as we are an accredited representative of a recognised trade union). We of course argue frequently about what constitutes reasonable, but for intance in my own union we have paid release for about 80% of our courses. I just started to wonder what the situation is with regard to other countries and access to training for union reps. I'd be interested to hear how it works for the rest of you.
So... a few questions to kick this off.
What do you think?
Before I took on any position in my union I undertook a series of 4 distance learning courses they had organised and this helped get me involved. As a youngster in the middle of nowhere this was invaluable and many of the lessons I learned I still use today.
Without holding any position in the union I would never had had the opportunity to go on a course let alone residential training on release. I strongly believe that distance learning still has a place in our education provision wether that be online or otherwise.
In history of our union (Clinton 1984) set out our long history of provision and notes that as far back as 1928 the UPW began to Organise correspondence courses the most popular being about English composition and grammer. By 1929 they started correspondence courses for Branch officials which continued for many years.
We must always learn from our history but innovate along the way, if paid release for courses drys up then there are always other ways and means.
Combating anti-union propaganda in the media and getting a progressive message out is a serious problem for our union and our members. It is a problem whether your talking about skill training for stewards, actions or general education.
There is no legal right to train in the US. Time off, without pay, must be negotiated for each and every contract. Many contracts do not have lost time in the contract because management resists. And when we do, the union must reimburse the worker/steward/activist for lost wages and benefits. There is paid time off for stewards to investigate and represent fellow workers in grievances and for contract bargaining. Even there, I just had management cut off paid time for contract bargaining to try and force us to settle by raising the costs to the union.
Occasionally, we negotiate a couple of hours a month for elected stewards to have meetings on the clock plus whatever time can be stolen. This forces the union to conserve $ for negotiating committee meetings, leadership training and other key events.
In negotiations, workers will usually not fight for training or paid time off for union activities when management refuses to bargain over it because they are more focused on wages and benefits.
So, we have to ask workers to use their own time which is always in short supply because most of them are working two jobs, have families and other commitments. When workers come they often must bring their families too since there is no child care.
Experiments with internet and web training are going on even though many workers still haven't embraced this medium either because of expense or fear of technology. We use whatever media publicity we can get from events or actions as a teaching and messaging tool. Of course, there is always snail-mail, expensive and not interactive.
Recently, we have started to experiment with on-site, quick presentations. For example, 15 minute power point presentations on the economy or unions with lists of sources if the worker wants to learn more. It's not perfect but it's something.
Despite the difficulties, I try and remember that unions formed without any rights whatsoever and somehow workers found the time to participate and learn in the face of incredible obstacles. If there is a hunger for change then a way will be found.
You can see this in the rise of the populist right, people mortgage their homes for the cause or in the the last presidential election where individuals would open up Obama campaign offices on their credit cards.
Unfortunately, unions generally fail to inspire this type of passion and so fear and uncertainty rule. I have seen more desire for information and participation in low-wage service organizing where there is literally no other way out of poverty.