HeartUnions: the value of union learning in Wales

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There is so much good union work going on that sometimes we forget to stop and point it out. HeartUnions week reminds us to stop and tell people about the real difference trade unions are making to people’s lives every day.

It’s sounds obvious, but HeartUnions week is about celebrating the difference that trade unions make to working people’s lives. Yet sometimes I need a campaign like this to remind me to stop and point it out to others.

A lot of trade union work can often go unnoticed. I think this is because we are often responding to what is missing, the gaps in support or the things that people assume ‘should’ be there for working people. We forget to stop and celebrate what we achieve for working people. Heart Unions is an opportunity to do just that.

Education and learning are things trade unions have been helping working people access since they came into existence. Every year in Wales, the Wales Union Learning Fund (WULF) supports over 7,000 working people into some form of education, the vast majority of whom would not have had the opportunity if it wasn’t for their union.

We know that the COVID pandemic has exacerbated existing inequalities, and the numbers of people needing support from trade unions has sky-rocketed. Union learning has responded swiftly. Since April 2020, we have seen the number of learners supported by trade unions increase by over 40% compared with last year’s figures.

Union learning is infectious. A recent survey of union learners undertaken by Wavehill consultancy highlighted that union learners are more likely to progress on to further learning, with 84% saying they either already have, or are planning to, undertake another course. They are far more likely to encourage others to learn, and over 75% said learning and the support they received from Union Learning Reps (ULRs) improved their work performance.

To what extent did participating in the course funded by WULF encourage you to progress on to further learning?

There are so many great examples from every union. This year, I worked with the GMB union and the charity Breathe UK to develop a WULF-funded programme that provided professional mental health support for front line workers across Wales.

Workers in social care are under so much pressure from being on the front line of COVID, it was clear that they needed a place where they could get help from professionals. It started in November last year and just a few months later, over 100 front line workers have been through this programme, with many more signed up for February and March.

This is an excellent example of something that people would assume ‘should’ exist but didn’t until unions created it.

That is just one example, but there are hundreds of others. All WULF projects have adapted their provision to support workers through a very difficult year. As a result, we have seen new schemes develop at a rapid pace.

There are new courses designed to support people working from home, mini projects looking at decarbonisation and retrofit, mental health advice for NHS workers, and advice and retraining support for people facing redundancy.

Unions are working hard to support people and improve lives and I think that we in the trade union movement need HeartUnions Week. It’s a time to take in the amazing work that unions do, and importantly, remember to tell people about. Look out for more stories and case studies in the coming weeks on our website and social media channels.