NALL Working Paper #07-1999
Learning About Labour in Canada
Derek Briton and
This working paper explores what and how working people
learn about labour organization and activity in Canada. Much of the organized
learning in labour unions (union education courses) can be categorised in adult
education terms as “non-formal adult education.” In addition union members
learn through their union activity in labour organizations and campaigns, what
would be categorised as “informal learning.”
Since the appearance of the Educating Union Canada
article in the Canadian Journal for the Study of Adult Education 1994 there has
been a renewed interest and understanding of labour education as an important
segment of adult education in Canada. With more than 120,000 participants per
year engaging in forms of labour education it is probably Canada’s most
prolific form of non-formal, non-vocational adult education (Spencer, 1994,
1998a). Friesen (1994) has reflected on its historical significance as a
contributor (or otherwise) to developing working class culture. D’Arcy Martin
(1995, 1998) has provided some insights into teaching objectives and the
adoption of popular education methods in labour classrooms -- illustrating the
labour movement’s contemporary contributions to sustaining workers’ culture.
Taylor (1996) has discussed the impact of on-line learning on labour education
and the CASAE/ACCEA edited collection Learning for Life: Canadian Readings in
Adult Education (Scott et. al., 1998) has speculated on the new directions
labour education may go in the twenty-first century (Spencer, 1998b). There are
other studies from OJSE linking education for work with labour education (both
non-formal and informal) and union activism at a local level (Sawchuk, 1997;
Livingstone and Roth, 1997). These studies, and others not listed here, are not
always connected but they do add up to a resurgence of labour education
The problems of defining and describing labour
education were discussed in the 1994 article they will not be revisited here.
For our purposes it is enough to grasp that labour education includes all union
and independently provided education designed to strengthen union
representation, activity and culture. It is not to be confused with “workplace
learning” which is essentially aimed at making workers better (and more
compliant?) human resources. In this article we will be concentrating on
union-provided education and will focus on aspects of labour education that have
become more visible as a result of our ongoing research into prior learning
assessment and recognition (PLAR) of labour education (see appendix). We will
discuss: steward training within the context of overall provision; special
events and schools; literature and readings; who takes part in and who delivers
labour education; objectives and criteria of success.
To date a wide range of materials and responses has
been collected from a large number and variety of sources. These include trade
unions, union locals, employee associations, labour centrals and other
organizations, agencies and consortia. They also include a number of business
and educational institutions that deliver basic labour education to unions and
union members. A “file” has been created in each case, and almost fifty such
files have already been summarised in a spreadsheet, which will form an integral
part of the final Report of the Learning Labour: A PLAR Project.
Steward Training as “Core” Labour Education
A major objective of the field research conducted by
Winston Gereluk from 1997 to 1998 has been to gather material necessary to
provide an overview of the content, nature and extent of labour education in
Canada today. Towards this end, we have begun to summarise a number of the
course and program packages, event brochures, materials, and other data gathered
from a number of individual unions and organizations that have come to us in
various stages of development and articulation. In over 30 cases, these
materials have been matched with face-to-face interviews with education officers
and union leaders.
After examining the material packages collected to date, it is evident
that, of the many courses and educational experiences that unions offer their
membership, steward-training courses tend to be the most well developed and
documented. It is also clear that, while these steward-training courses may be
similar in many respects, they also differ in important ways. This is largely
because steward-training courses tend to be developed with particular needs and
organizational priorities in mind. For instance, many are structured around the
specific collective agreements, other agreements, and legal frameworks under
which shop stewards are expected to function. An examination of course content
revealed a certain number of common themes, of which the following items from
the International Woodworkers, Canadian Division is typical:
I.W.A. Canada Steward Training
Steward Training — Level I
The Steward’s Role
The Tools to do the Job
What’s a Grievance?
Types of Grievances
Investigating the Grievance
Presenting the Grievance
Writing the Grievance
Issues to Consider
Steward Training — Level II
Investigating the Grievance
Checklist for Grievance Investigation
Handling Disciplinary Action
What if the Grievor Won’t Sign the Grievance?
Presenting the Grievance
Each Grievance Stands on It’s Own Merits
A Steward’s Checklist for Dealing with Supervisors
When to Bring a Grievor into a Grievance Meeting
What to Remember When Talking to Union Members
Steward courses describe only a small portion of the
labour education which is made available today to members and staff of trade
unions, however. Many of the other courses and experiences which unions
typically configure into their total pattern or program can be seen in the
following schedule. Some of the more typical courses are combined, in this case,
with other courses that reflect the mission, priorities or tendencies of a
B.C. Government & Service Employees’ Union Courses
Basic Shop Stewards
Advanced Shop Stewards
Local Officers’ Training (II Modules)
Assertive Communication in the Workplace — Part 1
Assertive Communication in the Workplace — Part 2
Grievance Handling — Step I and Step 2
Role of Shop Stewards in Effective Handling of
Equality Courses: Valuing Our Diversity
Equality Courses: Employment Equity
Sexual Harassment in the Workplace
Stopping Sexual Harassment in the Workplace
Effective Workplace Communication with Persons with
Trade Union Activists Travelling Alone
A Balancing Act (Sandwich Generation)
Without Fear (Fighting Violence Against Women)
Trade Union Women and Ageing
Union Men and Women Talking
Assistance, Education & Effectiveness Training for
College Board & Education Council Members
How to Run an Effective Committee
Parliamentary Procedure & Public Speaking
Master Agreement Union and Management Joint
Training Program — Steward and Manager Step 2 Designates
Depending on how fully developed and articulated the
program, courses and educational activities are also often layered or graduated.
The following program schedule provided by the Canadian Union of Public
Employees provides an example of a fully developed program:
Canadian Union of Public Employees, Education Program
Part 1 -- Introduction
Part 2 -- Preparation
Part 3 -- Research and Statistics
Part I -- Intensive Study
Face to Face Communication
Part 2 -- Role of Unions
Introduction to Economics
Part 3 -- Specific Concerns
Adult Education Techniques
AIDS in the Workplace
Asbestos in Workplace
Introduction to Health and
Basic Occupational Health and
How to Participate in the
Organizing Pay Equity
Strategies for Equality
Women in the Union
Part 4 -- Other Courses
Guide to Mergers
Basic Human Relations
EI and Workers’ Compensation
This layering affects the members who are admitted or
recruited to attend the next level of union courses and union functions. It is
clear that what is being offered by unions is a sophisticated and integrated
educational experience for their active members.
Special Events and Schools
Our spreadsheets will also show that most unions and
labour organizations round out their educational programs with a number of other
events and supporting activities. Far from being considered peripheral or
“add-on”, these are usually intended to fulfil key objectives. While such
events as “schools” and conferences are sometimes provided by individual
unions, it appears to most often be the case that they tend to look to central
labour bodies, labour councils, federations of labour and the Canadian Labour
Congress to sponsor these. Unions in Saskatchewan, for example, depend to a
great degree on the Saskatchewan Federation of Labour and the Canadian Labour
Congress, Prairie Region for schools and events like the following:
Saskatchewan Federation of Labour/Canadian Labour Congress Annual Spring
1998 Annual Spring School -- May 3-8, 1998
Echo Valley Conference Centre
Fort Qu’Appelle, Saskatchewan
Training for Tomorrow...Meeting Workers’ Needs — A Saskatchewan Labour
March 29,30&31 1998
Delta Bessborough Hotel
601 Spadina Crescent E. Saskatoon, Saskatchewan
The 2nd Annual Prairie School for Union Women
March 15-19, 1998
Echo Valley Conference Centre
Fort Qu’Appelle, Saskatchewan
These events range from modest one or two-day affairs to
weeklong functions, of which the Winter School of the CLC Prairie Region
provides perhaps the leading example. This School is a held annually over four
weeks in January and early February, with about 12 courses offered on average
during each separate week. The tradition of the School has been developed to the
point that individual unions now compete for the opportunity of sponsoring some
of their own courses in conjunction with it, as a way of capitalising on the
opportunity for networking and union solidarity which it provides. Similar
schools are provided in other regions.
We have likewise documented numerous other events and
supporting activities. For example, unions may bring their stewards and officers
together for refreshers, or updates. They also hold one-day or longer
conferences to discuss specific topics such as new legislation or government
The most intensive and advanced labour education is the
four-week (formerly eight-week) Labour College of Canada Residential Program
offered annually by the Canadian Labour Congress in co-operation with the
University of Ottawa. This school is regarded by many as the pinnacle of a
Canadian trade unionist labour education, and students are selected on a wide
range of criteria, such as prior completion of a large number of courses offered
by unions or labour centrals. Union activity, experiences, and a certain level
of competency are also canvassed. A close second, in terms of intensity and
critical education is the autoworkers (CAW) and postal workers (CUPW) four-week
residential membership education courses (for a fuller discussion of these
longer courses see the 1994 article).
Literature and Readings
Unions and organizations offering labour education usually
publish materials for course use as well as for the continuing use of the
students after they leave the course. Firstly, those who enrol in courses
typically receive a kit and a handbook: e.g., Steward Manuals or Table
Officers’ Handbooks, these are supplemented with periodical publications
intended to further advance their training and to keep stewards, officers and
activists abreast of developments. Education, or learning, is then an on-going
activity for these lay representatives.
Samples of course readings and literature is being
collected as a part of this study. As an example, the following are amongst the
course materials provided for the Intensive Basic Leadership Program offered to
leading union members of the Autoworkers’ Union at the CAW Family Education
Centre in Port Elgin as part of the union’s Paid Educational Leave initiative:
Who Takes Part in Labour Education?
- the Ontario Labour Relations Board Rules of Procedure;
- Bill 7: Facts and Figures, by Judith McCormack, Sack Goldblatt Mitchell;
- ICCHRLA Special Report -- One Step Forward, Three Steps Back -- Human
Rights in Colombia Under the Samper Government, October 1997;
- A Life Threatening Activity” Trade Unionism Under Attack in Colombia:
Report of the Canadian Trade Union Delegation to Colombia.
The measure of these courses is their success in preparing
members and activists to deal with the concrete demands they will face in the
workplace, their union and the community. For example the proof of steward
training is in demonstrated ability of stewards to handle grievance and
arbitration cases, rather than some external standard of competence.
As a consequence, access to steward training courses is
usually restricted to those who have met certain prerequisites; usually related
to this type of work or activity. These can be formal or informal. For example,
before attending a steward’s training course, a union member may be required
to attend other preparatory courses. Or entrance to steward training may be
restricted to those who have “proven” their commitment to the union in any
one of a number of ways: regular attendance of meetings, volunteer work,
picket-line duty, etc.
The Public Service Alliance of Canada, for example,
provides “prerequisites” for registrants in its Steward Advanced Training
Program (SATP) in the following way:
A potential candidate for SATP us a steward or chief
Who delivers labour education?
- Has demonstrated the potential as organizer and problem-solver at the
workplace by applying the basic knowledge and skills acquire on BUS, and
needs to enhance that knowledge and those skills;
- Requires the competence and confidence to carry out the practical work of
- Has demonstrated initiatives in making the union a more effective force in
the workplace in the areas of representation, motivation, communication and
- Has proven interest in and commitment to the basic premise of trade
unionism, which is people helping people.
Just as those who attend steward-training courses must
meet certain prerequisites, so must those who teach them. Again, the
prerequisites are a mixture of formal and informal requirements. Instructors may
have to attend certain educational programs to prepare them for teaching, or may
be required to have served as a steward for a number of years. In addition,
those who teach or attend steward training courses tend to be those who are
acknowledged (either by union leadership or the membership) to possess the
skills and desire to achieve success. Such skills include such things as
“experience in the line-of-fire,” “street smarts,” “practical
wisdom,” and “political savvy.” The differences among the various
steward-training courses all exist for good reasons.
There appears to have been a “back to the locals”
movement in the delivery of labour education during the period from the late
1970’s to the early 1990’s. This was largely intended to replace staff
representatives who had formerly been delivering courses with
Coincidentally (and perhaps by way of explanation),
these years are generally recognized as a time of retrenchment in the Canadian
labour movement, as unions struggled to adapt to changing circumstances imposed
by restructuring of the workplace and work process, globalization, new
management techniques and unfriendly governments. Much of the rhetoric has
supported a style of education delivered by members rather than paid staff,
i.e., an emphasis on popular educational techniques including peer tutoring and
facilitation. In Canada, the United Steelworkers have been prime exponents of
this style, as the following statement from their Program Guide attests:
All US.W.A. courses were designed to be immediately and practically useful to
students. To this end each course was developed jointly by the US.WA.
Education Department and local union members with knowledge and experience in
the specific office or activity covered by (he course. The instructors of the
courses are also local union members, chosen for their expertise and
Whether offered by union staff or members, courses are most often taught in a
participatory, “hands-on,” manner to reinforce their practical application.
Students are shown and made to handle the actual materials and experiences for
which a course is training them. They are also presented with case studies of
actual situations to improve their understanding of the “do’s” and
“don’ts” of a specific task. All courses are taught in a
“student-centred” manner to encourage students to speak frankly, ask
questions and engage in discussions. This allows students’ to influence the
direction and emphasis of a course.
At the same time it is clear that this movement toward peer
instructors has by no means resulted in a simplistic “populist” approach to
labour education; i.e., one which is member-delivered or controlled without
reference to broader union goals. Today, in almost every union or labour
central, education is designated the responsibility of a staff specialist or
full-time officer, who is most often extensively qualified to carry out these
duties by a combination of formal education and experience. As a matter of fact,
these were most often the people interviewed in this Project.
The result of the two tendencies has been a variety of
styles or protocols for the delivery of labour education that form a continuum
described by the following examples:
- Unions such as the United Steelworkers who insist on education provided
primarily by rank-and-file;
- Unions such as the Saskatchewan Government Employees Union, which deliver
its courses through an educational officer, with rank-and-file members given
responsibility for facilitating group discussions;
- Unions such as the Canadian Union of Public Employees, in which
“specialists” deliver the majority of courses.
A few other observations may be made here: (1)There is considerable emphasis on
instructor training, for staff and for rank-and-file instructors. This has
already been noted in the statement from the United Steelworkers, and is evident
in most large unions. (2)Even where “rank-and-file” members deliver courses,
they do so under the supervision or direction of “specialists”. The Public
Service Alliance of Canada, for example, has a Member Instructor Program which
….consists of training members who are interested in acting as instructors
within their locals. ... The trained members are asked to organize educational
and training activities within their locals, and set up local education
committees. They are sometimes asked to use this experience during union
conferences or courses offered by Regional Offices.”
(3) Several unions take this a step further. For example, while the
International Association of Machinists delivers first level courses at the
regional level, they provide the bulk of the higher level training at a Training
Centre outside the country (Placid Harbor Education & Technology Center), at
which selected stewards and officers take courses such as the following:
French Leadership I
French Leadership II
French Advanced Leadership
Advanced Collective Bargaining
Comprehensive Training Program
Objectives and Criteria of Success
For the most part, objectives for the courses and programs have been
faithfully provided by the unions and centrals canvassed in this Project. What
had become evident is the extent to which:
- these reflect the broader “mission" or constitutional aims of the
- the broader “affective” domain (e.g., feelings of “union
solidarity”) is represented in these statements.
As indicated in the section above, a prevailing theme in
these statements of objectives will relate to the concrete demands stewards,
officers, and other members face in the workplace, their union and the
While steward training tends to form the central pillar
of most educational programs, what is true of it is true of most areas. However,
individual union courses do not attempt or professes to produce a
“steward-in-general.” Care is needed therefore when measuring any of these
courses against some external standard of “steward training-in-general.” It
may be more profitable to focus in the advanced stages of this Project on a
single, exemplary steward training course -- possibly one of the more fully
developed, tested, and documented -- and identify the criteria that contribute
to its success. Once identified, these criteria can serve as touchstone against
which other steward training courses can be compared and gauged.
This measure will not remain static, however. Whenever
new criteria that contribute to the successful preparation of shop stewards are
identified, they will be incorporated into the touchstone. In this manner, a set
of criteria against which shop steward training courses can be measured can be
induced from existing best practices, rather than deduced from external
standards of educational performance, as they may be applied to steward courses.
Measuring success in achieving these objectives is
another matter. The measure of these courses, the standards of competence that
are applied are not always made explicit, but are nonetheless present in all
cases. Written statements occur in a variety of documents and sources; e.g.,
constitutions, policy papers, resolutions, etc. The following statements
extracted from the Education Policy of the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees
illustrates the manner in which these occur:
3.3 Policy on Grievance Handling for Union Stewards and Union Representatives.
The number of grievances being handled by the Union is steadily increasing. It
is necessary that Union Stewards be involved in this process at the worksite
and promote the Union position of attempting to satisfactorily resolve
complaints and grievances quickly and at the lowest level. The number of
technical challenges on grievances is also increasing and therefore must be a
system set up to prevent unnecessary losses.
1. Union Stewards must be elected by their component (Constitution Article 15%
Only recognized Union Stewards and Union Reps may process grievances.
2. Union Stewards should be properly trained in grievance handling
prior to dealing with grievances.
3. Trained Union Stewards are encouraged to handle grievances at the informal
Discussion Level and the formal Levels prior to arbitration. During the
processing of any grievance, the Steward shall consult regularly with his her
Union Staff Representative to receive guidance. As well, the Steward shall
submit copies of all grievances and related documents to the Union Staff
Representative immediately as they are received.
With the recent rise of jurisdictional objections arising from grievance
wording and processing, it is necessary that, prior to submitting a written
grievance, the Union Steward consult with the Union Staff Representative to
ensure the grievance is properly written and filed.
A search for these standards or criteria will form part of the mission of the
current phase of the Learning Labour -- PLAR Project. Where they cannot be found
in written form, they will be adduced through interviews and observation of
specific educational experiences.
It is clear that labour education in Canada today prepares
members and activists to better participate in union and community affairs. It
is not the intention of the union movement to provide formal qualifications or
vocational skills by this labour education (some unions are directly involved in
vocational training, outside or alongside of the unions’ labour education
program). But nonetheless members are learning a variety of skills and are being
introduced to knowledge that could be recognized by the formal education system.
In our view labour education and the learning that is associated with union
activity deserves recognition within the formal system.
Friesen, G. (1994). Adult education and union education: Aspects of English
Canadian cultural history in the 20th century. Labour le Travail 34,
Livingstone, D. and Roth, R. (1997). Building a social movement community:
Oshawa autoworkers. CASAE conference proceedings, 125-137.
Martin, D. (1995). Thinking union: Activism and education in Canada’s
labour movement. Toronto: Between the Lines.
Martin, D. (1998). Contributions to Selman, G. et al. The foundations of
adult education in Canada. Toronto: Thompson Educational Publishing.
Sawchuk, P. (1997) Factory workers informal computer learning: Some
observations on the effects of progressive unionism. SCUTREA conference
Spencer, B. (1994). Educating union Canada. Canadian Journal for the Study
Education 8(2), 45-64.
Spencer, B. (1998a). The purposes of adult education: A guide for students.
Thompson Educational Publishing.
Spencer, B. (1998b). Workers education for the twenty-first century, in
Scott, S et al eds. Learning for Life: Canadian readings in adult education.
Toronto: Thompson Educational Publishing, 164-177.
Taylor, J (1996). The continental classroom: Teaching labour studies on-line.
Labor Studies Journal 21 (1), 19-38.
Appendix: Learning Labour: A PLAR Project
Team Leader: Bruce Spencer, Chair, Centre for Work and Community Studies
Researchers: Derek Briton, Graduate Student, University of Alberta and Acting
Coordinator, Labour Studies, Athabasca University.
Winston Gereluk, Officer, AUPE.
Advisers: Ken Collier, Director, Centre for Learning Accreditation, Athabasca
Jeff Taylor, Labour Studies Coordinator, Athabasca University (part-time
sevondnient to CLC).
This is a four-year research project; it began as part of
the New Approaches to Lifelong Learning (NALL) network headed up by David
Livingstone OISE. This particular project is in its second full year and has
received additional funding from Athabasca University and Human Resources
Development Canada (HRDC).
The project is investigating the learning that takes place
within labour organizations. The intention is to recognize the non-formal and
informal learning associated with activity in labour unions and relate that to
credits within the formal educational system, in particular to labour studies
and labour relations courses in colleges and universities.
Labour education spans a range of “tools”, issues and
“labour studies” courses (Spencer, 1994; 1998a) which have few linkages to
college and university credit courses (limited exceptions include George Brown
College, Capilano College and Athabasca University). Put simply labour education
programs (and the learning of the union members) are not generally recognized by
the formal educational system.
In addition to labour education for activists and
representatives labour offers a range of other workplace-based courses for
members, ranging across basic education and language training, health and safety
and vocational issues which may also be investigated.
A further area of inquiry will be the informal learning
associated with union activity such as knowledge about: running meetings,
advocacy, representation, leadership and democratic processes and the insights
gained into understanding such concepts as “incorporation” and
"independence,, as the apply to labour relations.
The intention is to achieve a very practical outcome: a
schema suggesting a method of linking “learning labour” to college and
university credits. This would act as an encouragement to working people to
engage in credit courses which may benefit themselves and their organizations.
It would grant credit -- a form of advanced standing — which acknowledges what
they have learned from their experience and from their labour education is
valuable, important knowledge recognized as such by the academy.
The project relies on co-operation from individual
unions and labour centrals. Unions such as CEP, Steelworkers, CAW, CUPE, PSAC,
and AUPE, and labour centrals at provincial (e.g. OFL, ALF) and national level
(e.g. CLC) can be expected to co-operate (the Ontario region of CEP was the
first to endorse this proposal). The project could also be linked to the work of
the Labour College of Canada and the new CLC training initiative (AU has some
links with all of these labour organizations). Data is being collected from all
participating unions; data relating to the range, nature and duration of labour
education courses and programs and to informal learning within those
Other information will be gathered from colleges and
universities offering labour studies and labour relations courses.
Eventually a matrix or schema will be suggested for linking
learning labour to credit. This schema will be discussed with all the