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General · 7th March 2012
Anne Davis
I recently joined about 250 other union members for an intense week of education at the Canadian Labour Congress Winter School. It was week 5 and we were the last cohort in a total group of about 1200 students, from many different occupations and unions, who had attended week-long courses such as Media Training, Collective Bargaining, Occupational Health and Safety, Women in Leadership, Parliamentary Procedure, Federal Labour Law, Provincial Labour Law, Conflict Resolution, and Young Workers in Action.

This extraordinary school is in its 38th year of existence. Where else will you find loggers, social workers, hotel maids, ultrasonographers, and ferry workers (to name only a few) learning alongside each other, sharing experiences, and building the skills and confidence to represent their co-workers and contribute to their communities?

Union Education comes in many forms. Winter School is only one of those. And there are different models of union education.

In the U.S., most union education is provided by universities, rather than by unions. Most labour educators in the U.S. are academics. There are advantages to that model: more prestige for the programs and more autonomy regarding course content. On the other hand, a top-down model in which education is delivered by professors and academics doesn’t necessarily increase the self confidence of ordinary workers.

In Canada, most union education is delivered by union staff or by union members who have been trained as worker educators and pulled out of the workplace to teach courses, rather than by full time labour educators. This tends to build the self confidence of participants who have role models in the form of other union members who have advanced to the point of delivering courses.

Canadian union education is more likely to be delivered in the form of popular education.
This is a grassroots-up, and very democratic, mode of education where facilitators are sometimes learning as much from attendees as they are imparting.

Paolo Friere developed popular education in Brazil, where he was working with landless peasants. Realizing that they were illiterate, he couldn’t use traditional western teaching techniques (lecturing, reading assignments) and so he proceeded by talking with them, gathering their experiences, respectfully adding to their knowledge base, and learning alongside them.

Rather than the top-down model that too many of us have experienced, popular education uses a spiral model: the facilitator starts with people’s experiences, then gives them new information to go with those experiences, provides an opportunity to process all of this, and then the group comes up with an action plan. The facilitator then asks about their experience with the action, adds information that the group blends with their experience, and then another action is formed.

A good facilitator will find out what participants already know, which will vary from person to person, and will then adjust curriculum depending on participants’ experience and expectations. Participants’ learning styles will also be considered as some learn best by listening, some by watching, and some by doing.

Through this process, critical thinking is developed and ordinary working people gain the self confidence to be engaged in their union and in their community.

The women’s movement taught us that how people are educated is just as important as what they learn. A style of education where knowledge and experience is respected makes people more likely to want to participate and learn.

A couple of interesting examples of popular education were recently shared with me by an experienced union educator.

The first was a Body Mapping exercise in an Occupational Health and Safety course for workers at Canada Post. A big outline of a body was drawn on paper. Each participant was asked to place coloured dots on this, to show where their bodies hurt after a day at work. It quickly became apparent that there were clusters and that those clusters were consistent for particular occupations. Postal clerks who did coding all day had sore wrists, those who loaded mail at the loading docks had sore backs, and letter carriers had sore feet, knees and shoulders. As a group, they talked about the activities they were carrying out that caused the pain and then they talked about what they could do. One solution, for coders, was to develop contract demands for job rotation and hourly breaks. (Experience plus new information, once processed, led to an action.)

A related exercise is Workplace Mapping, in which actual workplaces are mapped and potential hazards are identified and discussed. Participants look for solutions that they can enact through their Health and Safety Committees or through direct action such as the right to refuse unsafe work.

To quote Paolo Friere, “Real liberation is achieved through popular participation. Participation in turn is realized through an educational practice that itself is both liberatory and participatory, that simultaneously creates a new society and involves the people themselves in the creation of their own knowledge.

Participants in union education have goals and the union also has goals; the role of the facilitator is to put those together.

It’s probably fair to say that the overall goal of the union, when it comes to union education, is to have a knowledgeable union membership that is willing and able to act by organizing in the workplace, conducting campaigns, lobbying, and participating effectively in job action and in community action.

So, what difference does all of this make to the community at large?

Unions have forced employers to change attitudes and behaviours through equal pay language in collective agreements, harassment and anti-bullying clauses, equal benefits for same sex couples, paid maternity leave, etc. These changes couldn’t have happened without an educated workforce that was willing to fight for them and these changes have benefited society as a whole.

Educated union members also have knowledge and experience that help them in organizing and carrying out other, community-based, campaigns.

The motto of the labour movement is “What we desire for ourselves, we wish for all.” It takes an educated workforce to achieve a better world.