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Learning Through Unions

By WENDY TERRY - November 17 2010

In the February-March issue of Learning Curves, I did a feature article on Learning through a Professional Association, such as the Canadian Payroll Association. (See for this issue and other related articles.)

In this article, I want to outline the learning opportunities available in a union. The courses are not related to specific vocational skills but to the activity of a member-run organization that negotiates employment contracts and maintains fair working conditions on behalf of its members.

There are formal courses offered by the union to its members. In CUPE courses created by the National Union Development department can be delivered by either a local or the provincial division. Local 4400, representing education workers with the Toronto District School Board, customizes the courses to fit their specific work environment. CUPE Ontario offers week long or weekend schools across the province, providing training for activists. Courses are also offered by the Ontario Federation of Labour through their labour councils. The Canadian Labour Congress also provides training to trade unionists including summer programs at Port Elgin. This is a CAW summer camp on the shores of the Georgian Bay and when you are there on course, you can bring your family with you. The instructors are often union members who have expertise in one or more areas.

These courses help educate and train union members who have volunteered to do union work for their local. Volunteers on a Health and Safety Committee may take courses to help them understand how to inspect a work place for health and safety hazards, to present these concerns to management and to advocate for a resolution to unsafe situations. Part of the learning is through formal learning, but the practical learning is like an apprenticeship, learning from fellow union or committee members who have more experience.

Unions may also support more formal and specialized training. In my union, Local 4400, the practical experience gained by executive members in negotiating contracts has been reinforced by attending n egotiations training at Queen’s University. The Pensions Committee members took specialized training at Humber College since the viability of pensions is a key concerns these days for many Canadians including union members.

Rod Noel, a former President of the WEA, who several years ago helped found this newspaper and gave Learning Curves its name (The WEA publishes Learning Curves) credits much of his union training in choosing his career path. He had been an active union member and a strong Health and Safety Committee activist in his workplace. While recovering from a workrelated injury, he used his union training as a stepping-stone to gain admission to Ryerson’s Occupational Health and Safety Certificate Program. On completing the course, he got a job as a federal Department of Labour Health and Safety Officer. He used all his learning experiences, including his local union training, his workplace Health and Safety Committee activities, and the Ryerson education certificate, to secure his present job.

There are many paths like this that union members can follow, using union experience and training to move to other careers. Any number of work places, hospitals, schools, colleges, manufacturers, construction companies, trucking and mining companies have contracts with their workers. My uncle started out as a union steward with the Rubber Workers’ Union, and then became President of his local, learning how to negotiate a work contract. He then moved on to the Human Resources department of Uniroyal, using his training and experience from the union as the company’s manager of human resources.

Though some union members follow a path to a career outside the union, many more continue their volunteer work year after year representing their fellow members just as others may spend years volunteering for a community agency they are committed to.

Unions may also facilitate vocational training. Right now the move to full day kindergarten at the school boards is changing the credentials needed by educational assistants. So CUPE 4400 is working with Humber College to facilitate access to Early Childhood Education for hundreds of their members.

If you are a union member, you should check out the learning opportunities your union provides.

If you are not a union member, think of a union not as workers who did not pick up your garbage last summer but as members of an association who volunteer many hours learning how to represent their fellow members knowledgeably and skillfully, in accordance with labour laws and legally negotiated employment contracts. Union members learn how to negotiate, provide legal representation, secure safer workplaces and, yes—even how to run a strike. Through their volunteer work and with their training, they help establish and maintain labour standards that make the work place better for all workers whether unionized or not.

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