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This is a chapter from the TUC Workplace Manual. Every rep will find The TUC Workplace Manual invaluable, and every rep will appreciate the wealth of practical advice and knowledge in this book. 

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Unions have always played a leading role in fighting for education and skills to improve the life chances of their members and to strengthen the union voice at work through the effective training of workplace reps and professional officers. Because of its commitment to learning and skills, the TUC set up unionlearn in 2006 to take union commitment to a new level.

Union learning representatives (ULRs)

ULRs are workplace reps that support members with learning and skills. They also work with employers to ensure that their workforce receive the training and support they need. They play unique and hugely important role in tens of thousands of workplaces up and down the country and are pivotal to union learning.

A survey of union activity on learning and skills has also demonstrated that this is becoming a more mainstream union activity. Nearly four fifths (38 per cent) of reps replying to this unionlearn survey were not ULRs but were dedicating significant time and resources to learning and skills.

The union effect

There is a range of robust evidence about the positive impact of unions in supporting greater access to training and development in the workplace. Union members are much more likely to get regular training and development opportunities in the workplace with the latest statistics showing that 37 per cent of them do so compared with only 22 per cent of non-unionised employees. Much of this is down to the role that unions play in negotiating with employers on learning and skills and also the crucial support that union learning reps and other reps provide to widen access to training provided by employers.

There has also been a huge boost to training and development opportunities in the workplace as a result of the union learning agenda. The expanding number of union reps supporting learning and skills in recent years, allied with support from the Union Learning Fund (ULF) and unionlearn, has boosted the number of workers accessing training and development through the union route. The latest survey of people benefitting from learning or training facilitated by union-led ULF projects highlights some clear-cut wins, including the following:

  • Seventy per cent of learners say that they would not have engaged in the learning or training on offer without the support of their union.
  • Nine out of 10 participants gained at least one new skill, nearly two thirds gained a qualification, and one in four gained promotion or greater responsibility in their current job.
  • Each annual round of the ULF is adding £1.65bn to the economy from a boost to jobs, wages and productivity.
  • There is also a very positive impact on union membership, with half of non-members engaging in this union-led learning or training going on to join a union.

Other research on the impact of the union role has shown that in those workplaces where union activity on learning and skills is delivering a “training premium”, the employees in question are also more likely to have higher wages and higher reported levels of job security. In addition, this research has also identified major benefits for the employers, most notably in terms of improvements to overall organisational performance:

  • increased the amount of training for individual colleagues (75 per cent)
  • helped colleagues with little or no experience of learning (81 per cent)
  • improved management/union dialogue on learning (70 per cent).

Unions in action

BFAWU work with Morrisons to support learning

Morrisons Rathbones in Wakefield have been using the learning opportunities offered by BFAWU Learning Services to bring various courses to their site and support the workforce develop their skills.

The range of courses helps staff both in their personal and professional development, and the employer has been supportive in encouraging and releasing staff to attend the courses and classes. BFAWU Project Worker Kamran Ali said: “We have over 30 NCFE Level 2 distance learning courses from Team Leading to Warehousing and Storage, Principles of Dementia, and Children and Young People’s Mental Health.”

“These courses are accredited and fully funded at level 2, which means they are free to the learner and give the learner the freedom to do the course when it suits them. Lots of workers in Morrisons Rathbones have enrolled onto the distance-learning courses.”

The BFAWU have been instrumental in promoting the learning opportunities at the workplace by working with the employer and learning providers. ULR David Ratnik had over 70 colleagues interested in the functional skills English classes and ran assessments to determine levels, supporting shop floor workers with assessments and enrolment paperwork at the classes for the functional skills English courses, and been on hand to answer any questions from workplace learners.

As well as distance learning and classroom-based functional skills classes the union, learning services team and workplace ULR have been keen to support good mental health at work and have arranged a mental health awareness course run on site.

Kamran said: “After attending this course, the site’s general manager wants the rest of the workforce to benefit from the mental health awareness course, and is working with the union to find the best way forward.”

ULR achievements

The latest survey of ULRs and other union reps supporting learning and skills (referred to above) also identified a number of other positive trends. For example, it shows that supporting learning and skills attracts more women into union activity – they accounted for 46 per cent of these reps, which is higher than the overall average proportion of all union reps that are women (43 per cent).

This survey also measured the wider impact of the activities that these reps undertake in support of learning and skills, and on this basis highlighted the high proportion of reps reporting positive effects in the following areas:

  • raised awareness of learning amongst colleagues (92 per cent)
  • increased interest in union membership (83 per cent)
  • improved relationships between the union and managers (73 per cent)
  • increased the number of colleagues accessing training (83 per cent)

Engaging with employers

The key to supporting union learning is working in partnership with employers. This involves unions signing learning agreements with employers that set out the rights and roles of ULRs and the rights of employees to get paid time off to train. It also means establishing joint union or employer learning committees to agree on access and providers and to monitor take-up and learner progression. It also involves setting up workplace learning centres.

A survey by Leeds University Business School of over 400 employers involved in union learning has evidenced effective engagement on their part. The findings showed that employers recognised the added value of union learning and were positive about its longer-term future. Four in five felt that union learning benefited individuals taking part and over three in five stated that it benefited the organisation more widely. Four in five were very supportive of the union role in learning, with almost nine in ten stating that they would continue to be involved with unions in such activities

English and maths

Unions and ULRs have a proven track record of reaching and supporting their members, families and friends to address their literacy and numeracy needs. For many adults it isn’t easy to return to these areas where they may feel they have failed at school. Terminology changes and in the past ‘basic skills’ and ‘skills for life’ have been frequently used for these skillsets but we now refer to them as English and maths or literacy and numeracy skills. The union role in support of English and maths learners has been widely recognised as a good practice model and Ofsted has described it as “an outstanding peer support model” for these learners.

ULRs are recognised by government, employers and partners as the most effective people to engage learners through a positive approach based on fairness and recognising potential locked within people. Union experience has been that once adults get re-engaged in developing their English and maths skills their confidence levels soar and they want to do more learning and also become more active in the union and their communities. There are a wide range of English and maths resources on the unionlearn website for union reps who are supporting learners and for learners themselves.

Unions in Action

Unite helps workers build their digital skills

Unite union learning rep Stuart Kinvig is a cleaner and junior caretaker at the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan) in Preston and has been supporting workers at the site improve their digital skills following the signing of a Learning Agreement with the employer.

Stuart recognised that union members on the campus could see learning taking place around them all the time, but often lacked the opportunity to build their own skills. With this in mind, Stuart contacted Unite’s regional learning organiser and agreed that that the best way forward was to ask staff about learning needs.

The feedback was very clear that there was a desire by staff to improve their skills, and Stuart arranged a meeting with the Universities HR manager who shared his enthusiasm for workplace learning.

One area that was identified was digital skills and Stuart, with the support of management and sister unions on the site, set about organising some courses.

Stuart set up a “Computers for the Terrified” course tutored by the university and promoted digital skills though a “Soup and Surf” digital awareness day.

The work around digital skills has resulted in successful discussions with the university about other courses such as maths and English, and has also resulted in members of the local Unite community branch joining in with the union’s course program and having access to their computer suite.

Stuart said: “I want to create a learning environment where learners feel part of our university and can develop their skills and knowledge to join the learning path with everyone else.”

“The fact that they are learning together as work colleagues has helped them. This has given me personal satisfaction when I witness learners enjoying the ICT courses and overcoming their initial fears.”


Learning and organising checklist

Learning and organising are both important in their own right. If members feel that learning is simply being ‘used’ as a recruitment tool, it will be less successful. Every workplace is different, and in planning your learning project remember to value learning for its own sake.

Plan for growth

When planning a workplace learning project, remember to think about how you can:

  • maximise its potential to strengthen workplace organisation or attract new members
  • identify sources of local or regional help, e.g. training for the union. Contact your union or regional TUC for information, help and advice
  • think about the key challenges to union organisation in your workplace – how can your learning project or activity help you meet those challenges; think in terms of new reps and new members
  • develop a learning plan or strategy which reflects what members want, not just what management wants on multi-union sites; aim to have an agreed learning and organising strategy with other unions.
  • make your learning initiatives sustainable – this will mean new members are more likely to stay in the union.

Map your membership

When developing your workplace learning project you will need to find out the specific learning needs and issues of your members or potential members. Think about the particular needs of new groups or members such as young, women, graduate, ethnic minority, contract, agency, shift or casual workers.

Mapping these needs and issues will give you a better understanding of the issues that really matter to your members.

Mainstream learning

Union learning reps can help ensure workplace learning is both union-led and sustainable – and they can also make a massive difference to union organisation in a workplace. Maximise the impact of ULRs by thinking about how best they can work alongside existing reps and stewards, get involved in and support existing workplace or branch structures, and contribute to the wider work of the union. Encourage union reps to take the learning and organising course which is designed for reps who are not ULRs.

Negotiate a learning agreement

Negotiating a learning agreement helps embed learning in the workplace and secures employer commitment to supporting lifelong learning and skills. Working together, union learning reps and stewards can ensure that workplace learning projects and initiatives support the wider work of the union in the workplace, company or organisation.

Your union’s full-time officer or organiser should be able to help you negotiate a learning agreement, and you can also get support from unionlearn.

Publicise your successes

Union-led initiatives around learning and skills ‘add value’ to the union card and are a great showcase for the positive work that unions do. Make sure that members and non-members alike are aware of your successes, and the role the union has played in delivering your learning project or activity. So publicise what you do:

  • Give union learning a high profile through posters, noticeboards, social media, websites and newsletters.
  • Use successful learners to recruit other new members and learners.
  • Use your union’s logo on all learning materials.

Think about how you can include non-members in learning. Non-members often join the union as a direct result of the union’s positive work on learning– and enthusiastic learners are great advocates for trade unionism.

Encourage members to play an active role

About a third of ULRs are new activists. So you will need to think about how to encourage members who have never been a union rep to become a ULR.

  • Think about how you can use your workplace learning project or activity to encourage more members to get involved.
  •  Publicise and use ULR statutory rights to paid time off for training and work.
  • Encourage members to take on the ULR role, or simply ask people to help with the mapping exercise or distributing publicity or information about the project in their work area.

Lifelong learning can’t be ‘done’ to members – think creatively about how you engage them in your project or activity. And don’t forget that many people who come into union activism via learning then go on to other roles within the union.

Digital skills

Union learning reps and trade union-led learning centres promote the benefits of digital skills and being online. Unions offer a supportive route for people to identify their needs and overcome their fears; deliver opportunities for workers to develop and progress as digital skills become essential in so many workplaces, and widen access to skills development to more people. Access to learning and training online itself is a driving force for people wanting to develop online confidence too.

The speed of technological development has implications for the current and future workforce, and the skills they need, in the UK. And outside of work digital confidence is needed as people need to be online to use services, keep in touch with friends and family, do their banking and shopping, use social media platforms, search and apply for jobs, find information and news and more. Union learning reps play a key role in tackling the divide between those online, and those not, and the potential financial and social consequences that this creates.

Collective Learning Funds

Collective Learning Funds (CLFs) refer to union-led initiatives to stimulate co-investment in the personal development of the workforce to make such learning affordable. They are arrangements where employers might provide cash, loans, time off to study or in-kind provision such as a learning centre and employees might study in some of their own time or contribute to the fees. In some workplaces Learning Agreements are used to specify aspects of these arrangements.


The TUC’s current strategy to drive forward high- quality apprenticeships are focused on the following two fronts:

  • helping unions to build on their acknowledged strengths in negotiating with employers to boost the number of high-quality apprenticeships that are accessible to all and providing resources for union reps to support apprentices on an individual and collective basis
  • pressing government to introduce measures to tackle some key policy challenges, in particular, to ensure fair pay and to improve the quality of training, equality of access and employer demand for all apprentices.

A detailed Apprenticeships Toolkit aimed at union reps is available on the unionlearn website, covering a wide range of negotiating issues including: recruitment, pay, training standards, time off for training, equality and diversity, and health and safety. 

Advanced Learning Loans

In recent years there has been an increasing requirement on adults aged 19+ to take out a form of a student loan – an Advanced Learner Loan – for college courses and other training that is no longer fully subsidised by government.

Adults now have to take out such loans for qualifications at Level 3 or above unless they are aged 19–23 and are taking up their entitlement to attain a first fully-funded Level 3 qualification.

These loans have broadly the same repayment rules as apply to HE student loans and more information is available on the website.

Supporting learners

Union reps help to open up learning opportunities for workers and support them during their learning. They also help to develop a learning culture in the workplace. To access the Supporting Learners section on the unionlearn website.

Union reps support learners by:

  • providing learners with impartial information and advice on their learning needs and options
  • conducting learning needs surveys
  • helping colleagues get funding for learning
  • ensuring that those employees with literacy, numeracy and ESOL needs receive the encouragement and support required to improve those skills
  • helping members to access higher learning
  • encouraging the older workforce to take up ICT courses and other learning opportunities.

Unionlearn has produced a Supporting Learners Guide, which includes information on getting started as a ULR, the skills of ULRs, sources of information and support, personal development for reps, along with lots of useful links and resources. 

Supporting Learners eNotes

eNotes are informative and interactive bite-size briefings for reps. A suite of eNotes to support union reps with their learning and skills work with workers have been developed. These include:

  • Supporting Learners
  • Union Learning Reps: an introduction
  • Supporting Mid-Life Development
  • Supporting Learners into Higher Learning
  • Write Now!
  • Read Now!

To register, or log in to use the eNotes, visit the TUC Education web pages.


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