Last week, a media company tasked by the Conservatives to deliver clear policy messaging for their “Rethink. Reskill. Reboot” campaign posted a graphic which encouragingly described the new job of Fatima, a fictional ballerina, as being in cyber security – though she didn’t know it yet.
The advertisement, which has since been deleted from its creator’s social media channels – and condemned even by 10 Downing Street as “crass” – embodied the government’s lacklustre approach to rescuing the arts and cultural industries from the worst of the crisis.
But whether or not the Tories approved of this particular advert, this dismissiveness towards working people’s life aspirations has been part of the ruling class mindset since the beginning of capitalism. And organised labour has always resisted it: from the Labour Colleges and the Workers Educational Association to Labour’s Open University, the labour movement has always fought for workers’ access to intellectual development out of the belief that knowledge means power.
One small example of this is the Union Learning Fund (ULF). After being brought in by the Labour government in 1998, the ULF engages with around 250,000 workers in every industry each year. Under the tutelage of 40,000 dedicated Union Learning Reps (ULRs), workers train for new skills, gain new qualifications and are able to investigate all aspects of lifelong learning. At the time of writing, the ULF is actively operational in over 700 workplaces.
But all it took was a government briefing to The Sun to wipe this away. Last week, a government source told the Murdoch paper that the “annual taxpayer handout” of £12 million allocated to the ULF had been stopped, gleefully describing how education secretary Gavin Williamson’s decision to cut off 100% of government funds into the ULF had “enraged” union leaders.
In reality, it isn’t The Sun’s harrying caricature of “union chiefs” who will suffer as a result of the ULF’s collapse, but ordinary workers that people like Parminder Kaur works with. As the chief ULR at the Heathrow Worldwide Distribution Centre (HWDC), a 25-acre Royal Mail site that employs thousands of workers to sort out much of the mail entering and leaving Britain, Parminder got involved with the ULF after becoming active in her trade union, the Communication Workers Union (CWU).
After four years of working at HWDC, she passed a European Computer Driving License (ECDL) course, and enjoyed the experience so much that she became immersed in work with the ULF training centre. Parminder’s impact in encouraging people is obvious. In a highly diverse workforce that comprises at least 65 nationalities, ULRs help their workers through courses that allow them to improve literacy, numeracy and ICT skills, and in a completely unintimidating environment.
“Our colleagues like the ULF because they know they never have to worry that education would compromise their employment, or that employment would comprise their education”, another ULR in a large plant tells Tribune. The rep, who preferred to remain anonymous for fear of future repercussions, is eager to emphasise their colleague’s positivity towards ULF. For many of Britain’s most precarious workers – many of whom are immigrants or women – the scheme is their first real chance to access education on their own terms.
In messages seen by Tribune with their authors’ consent, many describe the ULF’s uniqueness in helping adult workers overcome insecurities and hang-ups over their own intelligence and capabilities. Referring to training for an applying an upskilled role that a worker achieved through doing a ULF course, this rep received a text to say they “wouldn’t have ever gone for [the different job] if you hadn’t pushed me and shown me ULF, so I have to thank you forever for that”.
Every trade unionist speaking to Tribune could vouch for the volume of people who sign up to the ULF every year. It is one of the clearest examples of a trade union’s utility in a local workplace, and many active union members feel this is why the government are happy to see it go. “The long and short of it is that there is already a torrid journey you have to make into access learning as an adult”, one ULR said. “We’ve got direct access to workers through the ULF, it’s seen that we do what’s right, and the government hates that it’s our movement that helps people.”
Many are also wondering about what impact the government’s decision will have on existing industrial relations. It seems a given that upskilling and development skills for workers will be affected badly. But there are unknowns over the fate of workers released from work to help as ULRs – will redundancies or workplace victimisation happen? And what will become of existing workplace arrangements such as allowing workers’ representatives to take health and safety courses on company time through the ULF?
Ominous questions like these are why government attacks on the ULF should be taken incredibly seriously. The move against the ULF should be seen as a major government attack on the trade union movement, which still remains – to the evident anger of the Tories – this country’s largest civil society organisation.
They have their reasons for doing this. To the billionaire clique running Britain, aspirations are secondary to graft, and work for the vast majority should involve little more than fulfilling basic economic functions. This year has demonstrated the state’s ability to spend and intervene should the political will existed, but the Tories will never exert real political capital in the interests of ordinary working people without concentrated pressure.
It has to be our party and our movement that does right by our people to exert that energy by defending institutions like the ULF. If we can’t stand up for ourselves and win battles like these, then far worse is yet to come down the line for working people.