A Solid Investment in Good Work

Much of the work trade unions do is hidden and unsung.  Such as providing workplace learning opportunities through the Union Learn programme. The view of trade unions as “the enemy within” and wreckers of the economy is obsolete.  It’s a far cry from the reality.  When employers work with trade unions, whether in the public or private sector, it’s a constructive partnership. 

Little known to the general public, since 1998 the trade unions have built a network of 40,000 volunteer Union Learning Reps (ULRs).  It’s a national scheme, with public funding.  Workplace reps talk workers through opportunities for training and adult education courses.  Too often, people don’t realise they have unfulfilled potential.  Or just aren’t aware of the possibilities on offer.  Sometimes they think their boss won’t support them to skill-up. 

The Union Learning Reps help overcome all these problems.  Because they’re in the workplace, known and trusted by co-workers, the ULRs can help some of those hardest to reach.  People in “left behind” places and unglamorous jobs have transformed their working lives.  Over the past 23 years the ULRs guided over 200,000 workers to gain qualifications in English, maths and IT skills.  Often their first ever qualification.  It put them on the path to further learning and on a route to a better paid career. 

ULRs are volunteers.  That network of 40,000 reps helping their co-workers depends on the back-up of full-time support workers.  In March this year, Government axed the funding.  Union Learn was to end.  The volunteers abandoned, the scheme binned.  It was a crass decision, even by the standards we’ve seen.  And short-sighted.  Recovery from Covid requires a skilled workforce.

But it’s not my style to idly fulminate at the Government.  Rather than shout from the sidelines, I used my remit as Mayor to make Union Learn even better and transform it for the post-Covid era.

In the North of Tyne, 18% of our residents hold low or no qualifications.  Trapped in low paid roles and denied opportunities for progression.  It’s no accident, then, that 23% of our working population earn less than the Real Living Wage. 

Union Learn isn’t just about the workers. Employers benefit.  Better trained staff are more and productive.  The economy benefits.  Greater tax receipts and national insurance contributions.  A higher skilled workforce supports more productive businesses.  Research from the University of Exeter showed that £1 invested in Union Learn creates £12.87 economic benefit.  A win-win all round. 

So although most of the country will be losing Union Learn, last week I launched our initial two-year replacement.   We’ve partnered with the Northern TUC and our local authority colleagues. Backed by £430,000 from our Investment Fund, the TUC-administered project will employ a regional Union Learn coordinator and three full-time Union Learn reps.  This is stronger than before.  They’ll work with employers in our key sectors to champion opportunities for workplace learning.  They’ll pilot new ways to help more workers skill-up, in a wider range of workplaces. It will transform more lives.

I value the role our trade unions play in creating a fairer and greener economy.  I’ve worked with them since becoming Mayor. I have trade union representation on our advisory boards and regular dialogue through our forum with regional union secretaries. We’re working with the teaching unions to set up a cooperative supply agency to combat zero-hours working. And for accreditation to the advanced level of our Good Work Pledge, employers need to have a trade union recognition agreement in place.  Unionised workplaces are more productive, safer, and have lower staff turnover. 

Our Union Learn Project exemplifies what we can achieve through collaboration.  It’s a solid investment in good work and building a fairer economy.  Best of all, it’ll make a concrete difference to low-paid workers’ lives.  Building confidence and putting money in their pockets.

It’s also an example of how agile the North of Tyne Combined Authority is.  Rather than distant targets or “aspirations”, we’ve fixed a problem within a few months.  That’s why I went into politics.  We’ve created a tangible outcome to improve people’s lives in the here and now.  It’s what I’m here to do, just like our ethical businesses, and just like our trade unions. 

*Originally published in the Journal and Evening Chronicle 16 August 2021