Academic journal article McGill Journal of Education (Online)

Worker Education / Labour Learning: Tensions and Lessons

Academic journal article McGill Journal of Education (Online)

Worker Education / Labour Learning: Tensions and Lessons

Article excerpt

This special issue of the McGill Journal of Education attends to labour education and learning in workers' struggles. Non-formal labour education has a long, rich history in many parts of the world, including Canada (Taylor 2001) and yet is often overlooked in scholarly adult education literature. The informal, often incidental learning which takes place in the course of labour organizing, strikes, and campaigns is also under-theorized (Novelli, 2004). Labour educators, organizers and other practitioners in a range of worker education milieus often lack the time to document or articulate their practice. Labour education and learning is also contested terrain. Some unions have extensive education programs and utilize approaches which draw from Freire and other traditions of popular adult education. Yet other programs may obscure or deny conflict and risk among participants, two essential components of deeper learning and understanding (Bleakney & Morrill 2010; Wilmot 2012). The articles in this issue explore and critically theorize approaches to and perspectives on learning and education in trade unions and workers' struggles while calling attention to the educational significance, possibilities, tensions and challenges of such work. This includes discussion of the relationship between education in formal institutions such as universities and learning in trade union settings and the broader labour movement.

In this issue, Salim Vally, Mphutlane wa Bofelo, and John Treat review key moments and dynamics in the trajectory of South African worker education. They contend that the legacy of worker education in South Africa is a rich and proud one from which much can be learned. The authors assert that worker education played a crucial role in the development of the trade union movement in South Africa and in the broader struggle for social transformation, but has suffered a decline in the post-apartheid years. Yet they write that there remains a significant legacy and influence of the traditions of worker education and militant trade unionism in South Africa, which can be drawn upon in reclaiming and re-energizing the rich tradition of South African workers' class-conscious struggle for a better world. The article aims to deepen the historical understanding of these developments in order to strengthen the ability to reach better-informed conclusions and draw salient lessons.

Susan Carter insists that viewing the everyday practices of unions through the lens of learning can both make visible, and more meaningfully intervene in, the everyday individual and collective learning of unions, activists, and workers. Drawing from Canadian union experience and using cultural historical activity theory (CHAT), Carter discusses the grievance procedure as a routine (and central) union practice and a key site of informal learning. While acknowledging that the grievance process is bureaucratic, heavily mediated by rules and division of labour with limited available tools, Carter suggests that it is the primary place where workers bring their experiences of injustice, seeking and expecting resolution / compensation. In concluding, she argues that CHAT also presents a powerful pedagogical tool for educators, leaders and activists.

Linda Cooper, Barbara Jones, Mphutlane Bofelo, Anitha Shah and Kessie Moodley argue that the model of Recognition of Prior Learning (RPL) in use at the Workers' College in South Africa may be seen as a form of "radical pedagogy." Drawing on documentary sources, focus group interviews and observations, the article describes an educational philosophy which aims to build the competencies of activists in labour and community organizations, facilitate their self-affirmation and dignity, and provide an access route to post-school education. It attempts to theorize how this philosophy is enacted in classroom pedagogy, and explores tensions and contradictions encountered. For the authors, education must be seen in the broad context of bringing about change in intellectual understanding, contributing and developing new knowledge and responding creatively to the conditions and realities of society. …

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