From education to employment

Equality is central to union learning

One of the first questions a Union Learning Representative (ULR) is likely to ask themselves is “does everyone in my workplace have equal access to learning opportunities?”

Equality is absolutely central to the union learning agenda. By being aware of the potential barriers to learning a ULR can look for ways to overcome them, and give everyone the opportunity to gain the skills they need to get on, rather than just get by.

Because they are part of the work force, a ULR can work much closer with workers to see what opportunities people are getting and what opportunities people need to advance. They can also work closely with the other union reps, including those with responsibility for equalities, to ensure they have the whole work force properly mapped out in terms of development need and learning opportunities.

Some of the most important work done by ULRs is in the supporting of those who want to access learning both formally and informally. It could be that they need to ensure that learning information is produced in ways that everyone can access it, for example in Braille or in other languages – particularly important is what is being offered is ESOL learning. It could be in championing a member of staff that doesn’t feel confident enough to ask for training and development themselves, ensuring they get what they are entitled to. I could be simply cheering a learner on through their learning journey, offering encouragement when it is needed and support when it become necessary. Or just tea, biscuits and sympathy!

It is this personal support that makes ULRs so valuable. And not just to the learners they encourage and support, but also to the workplaces that benefit from a high skill, high morale workforce.

Good employers recognise the value of learning, which is why so many have signed learning agreements with their unions. They also know that they benefit from a diverse workforce who all feel they are treated equally and have an important role to play within the organisation. ULRs working in sympathy with other reps and with managers have a vital role to play in making sure that workers feel respected and valued – something that is vital to their well being and productivity.

Equality is at the heart of the union cause. Sometimes this can seem like a focus on unions rightly challenging where discrimination is taking place. But equally, it is about unions working to open up opportunities to everyone. Which is the true joy of being a Union Learning Representative.

Tom Wilson is director of unionlearn, the TUC’s learning and skills organisation

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