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Partners in Training: The Global Role of Unions

From a global perspective, the role of unions in training is inconsistent. Unions increasingly serve as useful training partners in some nations, but in others their role is minimal.

England is an example of a nation where the role of unions in training is growing stronger. Several new learning initiatives are underway, and the training opportunities available to union members are expanding (Butler 2006; McLellan 2006). For example, the UK’s Trades Union Council has created the position of “training representative,” organized a supporting system of regional training centers and learning brokerages called Union Academy, and instituted a related skill-building program called “unionlearn.” Training representatives are chosen and prepared by the unions, but, through collective bargaining agreements with their employers, they are guaranteed paid workday time to attend to their training duties. Similarly, Scotland is increasing financial support to the Scottish Union Learning Fund’s skill-building and cross-training programs (Meilton 2006). Canada also has growing support for union-sponsored training. The nation recently raised subsidies for apprenticeship programs (“Investing in,” 2006).

Conversely, in Australia government action is reducing the role of unions in training. Early in 2006, Australia enacted restrictions against previously common requirements in workplace agreements (union-employer contracts) that had compelled employers to give their workers time off to attend union-conducted training (Peters and Andrews 2006).

Meanwhile, employer/union training partnerships remain relatively uncommon in the U.S., with the exception of the construction industry (Ip, 2005). But some employers are tapping into union training resources. Mackie Bounds, chief executive of Texas-based Brazos, a masonry contracting company that recently decided to become a union shop specifically for the training support, told the Wall Street Journal: “Many of us [masonry contractors] have started our own apprenticeship school. But we don’t have the money the union has to put toward training” (Ip 2005).

This illustrates a potential benefit of such partnerships, which can help organizations build employee skills while saving in training costs. Professional Engineering, a UK journal, notes, “The trade unions look set to play an important part in bridging the skills gap” ( Butler 2006).

Moreover, some observers believe that working with unions may make training more effective. “Top-down initiatives to bridge the skills gap…often leave workers feeling excluded or resentful of the changes being imposed from on high,” points out UK periodical The Independent, which praises the peer-to-peer approach taken by the union learning representatives of the UK’s Trades Union Council’s new “unionlearn” program. The Independent explains that “the reps can approach their peers with ideas for training and education initiatives in a way that bosses, even with the best intentions in the world, cannot” (McLellan 2006).

An additional factor in union/employer training initiatives is the increasing number of multinational corporations whose workforces are unionized in some but not all of the countries in which they operate (Maher 2006). It will be interesting to see how this affects training and knowledge management initiatives, which may be more difficult to standardize operationwide if employee unions have a role in only some regions. Whether this will eventually lead to changes in global unionization or a region-specific approach to employee development remains to be seen.

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Documents used in the preparation of this article include the following:

Butler, Richard. “Bridging the Skills Gap.” Professional Engineering. ProQuest. April 13, 2006.

“Investing in Apprenticeship Training in Windsor; McGuinty Government Supports Ontarians Who Want to Find Opportunity.” Canada NewsWire. LexisNexis. May 23, 2006.

Ip, Greg. “Union Advances as Key Source of Skilled Labor.” Wall Street Journal. ProQuest. October 4, 2005.

Maher, Kris. “Firms Unionized Overseas Resist U.S. Organizing.” Wall Street Journal (eastern edition). ProQuest. July 19, 2006.

McLellan, Amy. “How to Drive On up the Career Ladder.” The Independent. LexisNexis. August 10, 2006.

Meilton, David. “New Skills Funding for Trade Union Members.” Public Finance. ProQuest. April 21, 2006.

Peters, Dennis, and Kevin Andrews. “Fed: Govt Ducks Questions on Work Choices Union Training Ban.” AAP General News Wire. ProQuest. May 22, 2006.