Academic journal article The Economic and Labour Relations Review : ELRR

Organisational Learning: How Organising Changes Education in Trade Unions

Academic journal article The Economic and Labour Relations Review : ELRR

Organisational Learning: How Organising Changes Education in Trade Unions

Article excerpt


In recent years, much of the attention given to the topic of workplace learning has focused on learning inside corporations or large public sector organisations, and on professional and managerial occupations within those organisations. Less attention has been devoted to how education and learning are organised within community and voluntary membership organisations found in the broader civil society. Similarly, little academic research now focuses on the sort of workplace learning, whether formal or informal, that provides an opportunity for reflection about work relations by the majority of people who are outside managerial or professional layers. This article focuses on a particular form of organisational learning--that education delivered through and by trade unions.

Over the past twenty years, economic rationalist policies have removed public sector support and funding from many community and voluntary organisations, and a number of these voluntary associations have had to restructure, reorganise and reconsider their primary activities, staffing and funding sources. Other organisations, more reliant on their members' financial contributions than on government support, have also had to weather difficult times. Such organisations include trade unions, along with indigenous groups and cultural institutions such as the ABC and universities. Increasingly restrictive legislation has limited the ability of unions to recruit new members and defend existing members' conditions. These restrictions have come on top of significant changes in the structure of the labour market, and shifts in modes of employment. They follow a period of union quiescence under the Hawke and Keating Labor governments, during a period when the labour movement expected its future to be looked after by state institutions.

Since 1996 however, important changes have been taking place in how unions organise their members and in how they organise education about workplace relationships. Partly this is to do with legislation that now restricts unions' rights, and with the steady decline in union membership and density. But it is also connected to the recomposition of the labour market. The past twenty years have produced a reconfigured labour market that has taken the shape of an hourglass, with growth at the top levels of high-skilled, well-rewarded jobs, a hollowing out of middle income jobs, and the biggest growth of employment concentrated at the bottom and based on insecure and poorly paid jobs with few of the conditions associated with employment in the post-war boom. Access to workplace education, including union education, is one of the conditions that have diminished.

This article begins by briefly looking at the rapid growth of low paid jobs--a trend that runs counter to many of the claims about the contours of the new knowledge economy. After discussing the changing role of unions as sites of individual and organisational learning, it examines the way in which one organising union covering low paid workers has been re-organising itself over the past decade. It investigates the educational implications of a shift in trade union focus to a concentration on organising for growth, and reports on emergent educational initiatives aimed at developing capacity and new ways of knowing among officers and activists.

At the heart of this account is a single, seemingly simple question. How, given the contemporary political economy of work, can unions construct education and learning among their staff and members? That question begs another. How is that education, or learning, best facilitated in order to address unions' need for cultural and structural change, and in response to the major changes taking place in the organisation of work and employment? The paper contends that there is a need for critical reflection in developing thinking, agile unions, capable of responding to new and/or unforeseen challenges. …

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