Union learning rep Joanna Szmit got a shock when she arrived at a reception in Westminster with John Denham, Secretary of State for Skills and saw a huge banner with her photograph on it waving high above the guests’ heads.
She was surprised and overwhelmed, because Joanna had been chosen to represent 22,000 union learning reps (ULRs) trained by trade unions and unionlearn over a year ahead of schedule. The target was agreed between unions and DIUS and John Denham made no secret of his delight at the result, as he and other MPs met ULRs, learners and learning centre staff.
Joanna is emblematic of a new breed of trade union activists coming into our ranks. She is a young single mother, working shifts as a bus driver, and a Polish migrant. She reflects many of the changes in the profile of union learning reps. However, underneath it all is a rather shy young woman, but one who feels no fear when signposting her fellow garage colleagues towards learning. Joanna is a vital link at her Metroline garage in Perivale to Polish workers, who she helps with their English and translation. However, she also carries out the usual duties of a ULR and helps everyone who wants advice on learning at her garage.
Metroline has a great tradition of workplace learning, organised in conjunction with Unite the union. With a team of dedicated ULRs, it’s not only Metroline staff who are able to benefit from learning, but also their families and that makes for a more holistic approach. Metroline also hold regular awards ceremonies, which sees a range of staff, from recently-arrived migrant workers to men in their fifties getting certificates for the first time in decades and their proud smiles are a badge of their hard work.
There was a great atmosphere in our Westminster venue as we celebrated reaching our target of 22,000 ULRs over a year early. This tremendous success is being reinforced for individuals in workplaces across the country – from Carlisle City Council to a new learning centre opening this week in St Austell, Cornwall and from Newcastle City Council to Brighton City Clean.
Reaching this important goal doesn’t mean the work will stop. Indeed we have another target to break and that’s to get 250,000 people a year into learning through the union route. And we’re well on the way to achieving that target. It will, of course, be made more difficult due to the effects of the recession. But now with the excellent job that ULRs are doing, by reaching even further into workplaces, further into communities, and by encouraging more and more people to venture into education we are sure we’ll get there.
Liz Smith is the director of unionlearn, which helps unions encourage lifelong learning among members
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