NALL Working Paper #31-2001
Workers’ Knowledge: An Untapped Resource in the Labour Movement
D.W. Livingstone and Reuben Roth
Centre for the Study of Education and Work
Paper presented at the International Conference on Union Growth,
Toronto, April 30-May 1, 2001
This paper makes the argument that underestimation of the
current range and depth of workers’ knowledge and skills by union leaders
represents a significant barrier to further growth of the labour movement.
Surveys and case studies conducted by the SSHRC research network on New
Approaches to Lifelong Learning (NALL) have found that unionized and
non-unionized industrial and service workers in Canada are increasingly highly
educated, increasingly participating in adult education courses and devoting
substantial amounts of their time to informal learning activities outside the
purview of organized education and training programs. Working people are
generally engaged collectively and individually in an extensive array of
employment-related and other informal learning activities that are neither
fully recognized by most employers or union leaders nor given prior learning
credit by educational institutions.
This paper will provide an
empirical analysis of the schooling, further adult course participation and
informal learning of organized and unorganized workers in different
occupational classes across Canada and offer some in-depth profiles of
workers’ learning activities based on a case study in a unionized auto plant
with one of the most extensive worker education programs in the country. In
light of the massive amount of informal learning among working people, the
strong popular demand for access to advanced education and training programs,
the increasingly widespread support for use of prior learning assessment and
recognition (PLAR) and the proliferation of accessible forms of information
technology able to facilitate learning networks among workers, it is
imperative for unions to address the growing learning interests of workers
with more responsive and inclusive educational approaches and programs in
order to enhance membership solidarity and attract new members. The major data
sources are the first Canadian national survey of adults’ informal learning
practices (N=1562) conducted in 1998 and field notes and interview transcripts
drawn from participants in the auto plant case study of the Working Class
Learning Strategies project conducted at five union locals in southern Ontario
during the 1995-2000 period.1 Recommendations for future education
programming strategies to facilitate union growth are based on what has worked
most effectively in these locals of differing general organizational strength
and demographic profiles.
The peoples of the Western world are now truly living in learning societies.
Behind the rhetoric about “knowledge-based economies” and “learning
organizations”, there is the reality of extraordinary increases in the
incidence of adult learning activities during the past two generations. Some
indication of the magnitude of these changes is provided by statistics on the
incidence of participation in the three basic dimensions of learning: formal
schooling; non-formal adult education courses; and informal learning.2
Between 1961 and 1998, the proportion of Canadian adults aged 25 to 29 who had
obtained university degrees increased from 4 percent to 26 percent. Between 1971
and 1998, the proportion of this age cohort who had received some form of
university degree or college certificate grew from 25 percent to 58 percent. In
response to rapid economic and environmental changes and the availability of new
information technologies – and in spite of the time crunch of paid employment
and unpaid household and community work pressures – Canadian adults are also
spending much more time in adult education courses, primarily associated with
pursuit of more educational credentials and upgrading employment skills. The
participation rate in adult courses increased from about 4 percent in 1960 to
over 30 percent by the early 1990s. Informal learning activities associated with
paid and unpaid work and their other general interests have always been much
more widespread than participation in organized education programs. But informal
learning activities may also have increased substantially during this period. In
1998, the SSHRC-funded research network on New Approaches to Lifelong Learning
(NALL) conducted the first large-scale survey anywhere in the past generation on
the informal learning activities that adults do outside educational institution
courses. The NALL survey found that Canadians on average are spending about 15
hours per week in informal learning This is significantly more time than the 10
hours a week a prior U.S. national survey and a series of case studies found
adults devoting to informal learning in the early 1970s.3
Table 1 summarizes relevant current learning
profiles of the employed Canadian labour force by occupational class. Long
established class differences persist in both schooling and adult education
course participation. The majority of corporate executives, professionals and
managers have university degrees while less than 10 percent of service and
industrial workers have obtained degrees. Over half of those in the employed
labour force participated in some form of course or workshop in the past year
but corporate executives, professionals and managers were twice as likely to
participate as industrial workers. However, as Table 1 also confirms, there are
no such class differences in the incidence of self-reported employment-related
or general informal learning. Industrial workers are almost as likely to devote
time to employment-related informal learning activities as corporate executives
and spend similar amounts of time engaged in informal learning projects. The
vast majority of workers are actively involved in quite extensive
employment-related learning activities. Indeed, industrial workers are found to
spend more time in employment-related informal learning (an average of nine
hours a week) than occupational classes with higher course participation rates,
perhaps partly to compensate for limited access to organized courses. There is a
massive, more egalitarian informal learning society hidden beneath the pyramidal
class structured forms of schooling and further education courses (see
Livingstone, 1999a, 1999b).
Table 1 Occupational Class by Schooling, Course Participation,
Employment-related Informal Learning, and Total Hours of Informal Learning,
Employed Canadian Labour Force, 1998
||University Degree (%)
||Course or Workshop
|Employ.-related Informal learning
|Total informal learning (hrs./week)
Source: Livingstone (2001b). N=951
*Data for Ontario from Livingstone, Hart and Davie, (1999).
For purposes of this paper the most important point
about the changes in profiles of adult learning since the 1960s is that they
pervade all social classes, including the organized and unorganized working
class of industrial and service workers. Table 2 summarizes the basic changes in
formal educational attainments across age cohorts of unionized industrial and
service workers. While the majority of organized workers over 55 have not
completed high school, nearly 90 percent of those under 35 have done so and
nearly half of those under 35 have completed a postsecondary degree or diploma
program. While the proportion of organized workers with university degrees
remains much smaller than in the professional and managerial classes, it is
about nine times greater among the 25-34 age group than in the over 55 age
group. The increases for unorganized workers are similar. Most large workplaces
in Canada now have a workforce that contains a substantial and growing number of
hourly rated employees with advanced formal education, a majority of workers who
are interested in pursuing further education and a vast majority of active
informal learners (see Livingstone, 2001b).
Table 2 Age Group by Formal Educational Attainment, Unionized
Industrial and Service Workers, Canada, 1997
high school completion
|| 48 (9)
|| 41 (5)
|| 38 (4)
|| 27 (1)
|| 40 (5)
Source: 1997 Adult Education and Training Survey Data Archive
In spite of impressive gains in educational
participation and achievement by working class people, their collective skills
and learning capacities continue to be underestimated or ignored by employers,
government agencies and even many labour leaders. For one thing, the prevalence
in schooling of forms of knowledge and language codes most familiar to the
affluent classes continues to obscure the less visible forms of working class
knowledge and competency. Contemporary social researchers have documented these
discriminatory school practices in excruciating detail (e.g. Bourdieu and
Passeron, 1977; Bernstein, 1990; Curtis et al, 1992). But even such “cultural
capital” theorists have been preoccupied with delineating the cultural
reproduction of inequality within fixed educational institutional forms; so they
frequently fail to comprehend the creative cultural practices, independent
education and learning activities or collective cultural agency of the organized
working class (see Livingstone and Sawchuk, 2000).
Most empirical studies of learning and employment
have also probably been conducted from standpoints too closely aligned with the
current objectives of enterprise management to appreciate workers’ repertoire
of learning activities. From a conventional management perspective, virtually
the only relevant learning for employees is job training that can enhance the
productivity or profitability of the company. From this top-down vantage point,
much of the learning that workers do both on and off the job is irrelevant and
effectively non-existent. But recent survey studies have confirmed that most
job-related training is done informally (see Betcherman et al, 1997; Center for
Workforce Development, 1998). Through a combination of initial schooling,
further adult education, and informal learning (including both informal training
and non-taught learning), the vast majority of workers manage to become at least
adequately qualified for their current jobs. Yet the dominant discourse about a
pressing need for creation of “learning organizations” largely ignores or
depreciates these realities of interaction between organized education, informal
learning and job performance, and presumes that the central challenge for
improved enterprise performance is for workers to become more active and
motivated learners. Furthermore, many valuable transfers of knowledge and skill
between these basic forms of learning and among the spheres of paid and unpaid
work are similarly unrecognized or discouraged by the current organization of
paid workplaces (Livingstone, 1999b).
The few Canadian studies that have conducted
comparative empirical assessments of the utilization of knowledge by different
occupational classes have found that they spend similar amounts of time in
employment-related informal learning, but that corporate executives, managers
and professional employees have been much more likely to be enabled to apply
their general work-related learning in their jobs than were industrial and
service workers (Livingstone, 1997). Since adult learning has increased rapidly
while changes in skill and knowledge requirements of the job structure have been
more gradual, many Canadians now find themselves underemployed in the sense that
they are unable to use many of their employment-related skills in their current
jobs. There are multiple dimensions to underemployment (see Livingstone, 1999b
for discussion and documentation). “Credential underemployment” refers to
the proportion who have attained at least one educational credential higher than
is currently required for entry into their job. Estimates based on the NALL
survey indicate that around 30 percent of the current Canadian labour force have
at least one credential higher than required for entry to their current job (see
Livingstone (2001b). As Table 3 summarizes, there are marked differences in
credential underemployment rates between occupational classes. Only around 10
percent of corporate executives, professionals and managers have educational
credentials greater than their jobs require for entry, while about 40 percent of
service workers and industrial workers do. In spite of the relative lack of
access to university education for those from lower socio-economic positions,
there appears to be a massive underutilization of the achieved skills and
knowledge of the Canadian working class in the current job structure.
Table 3 Occupational Class by Credential Underemployment,
Canadian Employed Labour Force, 1998
Source: Livingstone (2001b)
Nevertheless, as Table 4 shows, the gap between
current participation in organized education and desired engagement if there
were significant recognition of prior relevant knowledge and skill development
(via prior learning assessment and recognition mechanisms or PLAR) is very
significant for working class people and non-existent for corporate executives,
professionals and managers. Industrial workers and the unemployed would double
their course participation if they could receive recognition for their prior
informal learning experience. The pent up demand for further education that
recognizes already established learning competencies among the working class as
legitimate and assists in developing them may have been almost as much ignored
as extensive informal learning activities per se.
Table 4: Occupational Class by Further Education, Interest in PLAR Credit
and Participation Gap, Active Labour Force, 1998
|(2)Interest in Courses
if PLAR* offer
Source: Livingstone (2001b)
* Prior Learning Assessment and Recognition
The NALL survey also found that unionized workers
generally spend a greater average amount of time in employment-related informal
learning than nonunionized workers (7 hours versus 4.5 hours per week) and that
organized workers’ underemployment rates are somewhat lower than unorganized
workers (Livingstone, 1999b). This suggests the existence of previously
unexplored links between knowledge and power in workers’ learning practices.
In general, the sites where subordinated groups have the greatest control over
their social practices are the places where their own cultural knowledge
reproduction and generation may be most frequent. Where workers have greater job
control, they may more easily apply their prior knowledge. While much of
workers’ general knowledge may be irrelevant from employers’ perspectives
for the immediate objective of enhancing current job performance, it is at least
potentially applicable in negotiations to redesigned jobs to more fully use
workers’ growing repertoire of skills – as well as in other socially useful
and fulfilling household and community work where workers exercise more direct
control. Furthermore, where worker-controlled education programs are readily
available, workers may be more likely in both material and motivational terms to
integrate their further education and informal employment-related learning
Organized workers by definition have the greatest power to produce and apply
their own knowledge.
Our case studies of workers’ learning practices
have been conducted over the 1995-2000 period in southern Ontario in cooperation
with a diverse array of five union locals (see Livingstone, Sawchuk et al,
forthcoming). The research has included consultation with union leaders and key
informants about general work and learning conditions in the workplace, in-depth
semi-structured interviews with representative samples of workers (total N=101)
conducted near the worksite, and a giveback process in which we worked with each
local to identify program gaps and prospects. In general, we have found that
there are both relatively closer links between workers’ informal knowledge and
their participation in further education programs, and also lower levels of
underemployment, in more economically powerful locals. These are large locals
that have relatively extensive worker-run union education programs as well as
co-operative programs with local educational institutions developed in response
to worker demand, all of which are provided with sustainable resource support
through negotiations with employers, national and district union offices, and
government programs. Conversely, small locals with very limited budgets and
often spatially scattered memberships face much more difficult barriers to
generating relevant worker education programs.
But even the leading union education programs suffer
from a failure to recognize many aspects of current workers’ formal and
informal knowledge and skills that could be used within the locals for mutual
support, negotiations with employers, development of more responsive and
creative worker education programs, as well as to aid wider organizing efforts
in the labour movement. We have discovered, for example, that many assembly line
workers in large manufacturing plants have developed informal learning networks
to teach themselves how to use personal computers. Some of these workers have
become competent computer programmers even though they have no employer
encouragement and no immediate opportunities to use these skills in their jobs
and, in some cases, no prior recognition of their skills by union leadership
which could sorely use them (Sawchuk, 1996).
In the next section, we focus on the positive and
negative experiences of some younger, well-educated autoworkers in trying to use
their formal and informal knowledge within a well-endowed union local with
relatively extensive education programs. Even here, there are signs of
underestimation of workers’ rich knowledge bases, the current underuse of
their advanced skills in many jobs and in established union education programs,
and a lack of attention to legitimating and valorizing such prior knowledge
through union-led campaigns with employers for better quality jobs to reduce
underemployment and with educational institutions for PLAR. All this suggests
there is still major untapped potential in workers’ knowledge that can be
mobilized both for internal strengthening and expansive growth of the labour
CAW Case Study
The Southern Ontario manufacturing complex under
study encompasses one of the largest groupings of industrial workers in Canada.
Although still quite large by most standards, its employment base and membership
size have dwindled greatly over the past 15 years.4 The newest
employees at this complex were hired in 1985 and the average age of workers in
the mostly-male workforce is approximately forty-five. These employees are
represented by the Canadian Auto Workers union (CAW), the largest private sector
union in the country, with the most extensive collection of worker education
programs in the Canadian labour movement (see Yates 1993; Friesen, 1994;
Spencer, 1994; Taylor, 2001). Since the breakaway from the Detroit-based United
Auto Workers union and the inception of the CAW in 1985, these programs have
been both deepened and widened substantially.5
The CAW’s internal education programs (CAW Canada
Website, 1997) generally follow one of two paths. First, local union education
committees design and deliver ‘tool-based’ weekend or evening courses
covering committeeperson (or steward) training, grievance procedures, collective
bargaining, workers’ compensation and the like. Second, there are programs
which seek to develop a social union cadre, including: Workplace Change and
Competitiveness, Unions and Politics, Human Rights, Empowering Workers of Colour,
Womens’ Activism, Political Science, Environmental Awareness, Family Law,
Labour and the Internet, Globalization and Democracy and the CAW National’s
Paid Educational Leave (PEL) program (see Table 5 below). The PEL program is a
four-week, adult education course which was first negotiated in 1977 by the
UAW’s Canadian Region. Paid Education Leave is a residential program which
takes place at the CAW’s Family Education Centre, located in Port Elgin,
Ontario. The PEL curriculum includes subject areas such as labour history,
sociology, political science and economy as well as public speaking,
communications and media literacy (Gindin, 1995). This program’s goal is to
build leadership within the ranks and to cultivate activists with a commitment
both to the union and to social transformation. Anti-racist education and
critiques of the excesses of capitalism are prime features of PEL and other CAW
programs (Sugiman, 1994). Lastly, the affiliated CAW Family Education program,
which also takes place at the Port Elgin educational facilities, brings social
union principles to the member’s family and community (Roth, 1997).
The motivations for undertaking educational programs
vary widely among members of this union local. While many pursue courses which
address their current job insecurity and search for ‘something to fall back
on’ during times of structural unemployment (Milkman, 1997), others feel that
union-sponsored courses provide a necessary – though unofficial –
qualification for elected office.
Workers here have fertile educational opportunities.
For example, while many industrial workplaces have a provision whereby an
employer will fund training related directly to the workplace, these employees
have negotiated a broad-based program which encompasses an extended range of
subjects outside of the workplace. In a traditional training allowance program,
those employees who wish to earn, for example, a welding, electrical or
carpentry certificate will often see some form of financial redress via an
employer-run ‘training allowance’ program, but there must generally be some
connection to the operations performed in the workplace. However, this local has
an added feature not generally found in most union agreements: a joint
union-employer sponsored initiative in which the employer reimburses employees
for a broad variety of formal and nonformal (course-based continuing education)
programs, whether these are directly related to the job or not. This initiative
is one of the most diversified joint management-labour programs which allows
workers here the opportunity to undertake educational courses at area community
colleges, school boards and universities, with tuition and books paid for by the
Table 5: CAW Local Union, Provincial/National Labour and Joint
|Local Union Seminars
||Paid Education Leave (PEL)
|Health and Safety
|Workplace Change, Globalization and Democracy
||Health and Safety
||WHMIS (Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System)
||CAW/McMaster Labour Study Certificate
|Workers’ Compensation (WSIB)
||Workers’ Health and Safety Centre
||Ontario Federation of Labour (OFL)
||Canadian Labour Congress (CLC)
|Human Rights (I-III)
||District Labour Council
|Labour Law, Family Law
Sources: CAW National office, local union sources.
Although its original comprehensive mandate has been
narrowed in recent years, this program has allowed workers to pursue
postsecondary programs in areas as diverse as museum studies and sociology, as
well as golf club repair, computer animation and more traditional trades such as
pipefitting and tool-and-die making. In short, these programs and courses
provide great opportunities for members to participate in courses and programs
on nearly any subject of interest. It is hard to deny that there is a
comparatively rich array of nonformal learning opportunities which exist for CAW
members at this site.
Table 6: Nonformal Education in Five Union Locals
Source: Livingstone, Sawchuk and contributors (forthcoming).
|| Average course
hours per week
|5.5 (225 hrs/yr)
As Table 6 shows, the relatively rich opportunities for course participation
is reflected in the average hours of course-based learning at this CAW site when
compared with the other four union locals we studied. The CAW members spend
almost three times as much time on organized courses as the next highest local
and far more than those in the other smaller and poorer locals. (Livingstone,
Sawchuk and contributors, forthcoming).
Informal Learning Among Autoworkers
But as adult educators know, organized courses are only
the tip of the iceberg of adult learning (Tough, 1979). Like most adults,
industrial workers do most of their learning informally in their everyday
activities. It is the informal learning that workers do within their own
workplace communities that provide the most basic knowledge ingredients. For
production workers there is scant chance of advancement on the assembly line and
therefore little advantage in demonstrating their work-related knowledge. But,
among one’s peers within the workplace or union, the multiple opportunities to
deepen and display one’s knowledge underlines the social fact that this is a
‘community of learners’. As Table 1 has shown, the NALL survey found that
industrial workers spend virtually as much time in work-related and general
interest informal learning activities as corporate executives and professionals
Workers here commented on how they use other
people’s lived experience as a source of informal, transferable knowledge. One
respondent touches on his rich experiences and refers to a union official’s
source of knowledge as the equivalent of a ‘library’ to him:
Like it’s hard to believe, there’s a lot of time spent ...
It’s almost like a library if you need something, you have to go to a
library, you seek it out, without taking a course. And that’s what life is
generally like if you’re trying to do anything, I guess, because you have to
seek out who knows.
Table 7 confirms that members of this CAW local have a significantly higher
incidence of informal learning than those at the other sites we studied.
Table 7: Informal Learning Across Five Union Locals
|11.4 (600 hrs/yr)
Source: Livingstone, Sawchuk and contributors (forthcoming).
There is a vast array of informal learning practices among the local union
activists we interviewed. As this worker put it:
I take anything I learn in the labour movement as being
educational ... period. Newspapers, past courses I’ve dug up for article
research for as far as writing something in [the local union newsletter],
other people’s collective agreements to see what we need for our locals. I
mean, all of that’s kind of informal, I guess, learning.
With zeal and a level of commitment some scholars suggest can be found only
within the ranks of career professionals and executives (Senge, 1990; Reich,
1991), workers’ collective involvement can take them into intensive informal
[we] can go sit down and have a beer, but we could be
discussing union stuff and learning ... [we] were supposed...to watch a
hockey game once, with some buddies ... [but] we never talked hockey [instead]
we talked union issues and labour problems ... right from eight to one in the
morning. I’m listening, I’m learning ... all coming into my mind. The
whole time I did learn. ... [A]fter a union hall meeting, often we go out and
talk about stuff and it’s work-related.
Irrespective of the many inspiring gains in educational participation and
attainment achieved by the workers documented here, their growing skills and
abilities continue to be underestimated and neglected by both employers and
their unions. A substantive illustration of an employer – not only disavowing
but – filching a worker’s knowledge can be found in the experience of the
... they [management] found out that I had computer knowledge,
my group leader ... gave me a stack of papers, he said “you know, I only
need these two pages ... can you just print them for me?” So I just created
a spreadsheet [and] printed them out ... [but on] only one page ... . He went
to the meeting ..[where] everybody had this stack [of paper] .. and everybody
said “where’d you get it [the ability to condense to one sheet]?” ...
“I have a friend who does it..he’s on the floor, he’s working with
us.” ... They said “well, we need somebody who can do all this work” ...
during the pilot [test stage of production]. I measured all these cars in a
specific area. ... gathered all that information, put it on a spreadsheet,
charts and by the end of the pilot had it ready for the engineer to hand it in
for presentation ... the engineer he took my name [off] and he put his name on
After this bitter experience — and several like it — this worker has decided
that he will no longer share his knowledge of computers with management,
although he does concede that he gratefully receives several hours per week away
from his assembly job in order to “help” his supervisor keep up-to-date
records of overtime on his computer — a task his supervisor should in fact be
performing. This learner reports that since this incident took place, his
familiarity with computers has been exploited by his employer many times, with
no recognition for his efforts other than time away from the drudgery of his
usual assembly work. Since his skills have not been recognized by plant
management in a concrete manner, he has refocused his learning efforts away from
his employer and has concentrated on a community college certificate in computer
graphics. In other words, this worker has surrendered the possibility that his
employer might one day reward him for his learning and proffer him employment
which is commensurate with his knowledge. After several attempts at advancement
within his workplace he acknowledges that his education is “wasted” there.
The overexploitation of this workers’ knowledge and skill has not been
addressed by the union, nor has he volunteered or been encouraged to apply his
talents to aid union-based program development.
Two Workers’ Learning Profiles
The two workers highlighted here are examples of
comparatively well-educated trade union activists. Both workers are under
forty-five and share progressive perspectives on trade unionism and
working-class education. But they differ greatly with respect to their personal
experiences of the formal education system, their trade union education and
their unions’ responsiveness to their own knowledge.
We will call the first worker “Pete Jones.” Pete is in
his early thirties and has worked on the assembly line for most of his adult
life. His parents were both union members in other industries. He is of European
ancestry and his relatives have lived in Canada for many generations. Pete is
very active in his union local and he has participated heavily in his union’s
The second worker, using the pseudonym “Bob English,”
is in his early forties. Bob and his family emigrated to Canada from the British
Isles when he was eight years old. He has worked for his current employer for
about twenty years. Bob’s parents currently maintain the same blue-collar jobs
they held previous to their move to Canada. He describes a childhood of profound
impoverishment and has a very strong working-class self-identification.
While Pete’s educational background includes some
postsecondary college experience, Bob has completed a Bachelor’s Degree in the
Social Sciences, paid for courtesy of the joint negotiated ‘training
allowance’ benefit. Bob has effectively been excluded from positions within
his union. Pete sees the union from the insider’s perspective, while Bob feels
shut out of his union local and retains the view of an outsider who combines his
own working class experience, street smarts and university level critical
analysis of class relations.
The early school experiences of Pete Jones provide a
good illustration of how working class kids’ creative abilities have been
ignored or even denigrated by the established school system. Although Pete had
an active and creative childhood, at least some of his teachers saw him as just
another working class kid with limited prospects. Although Pete completed his
high school diploma, he found his school career an unsavory experience:
In school I was a bad student, a horrible student....It was
always a struggle. I either had teachers who understood or ones that didn’t,
but if I liked something I’d get right into it. ... In grade eight, the
guidance counselor told me that I should take basic English ... mainly because
my spelling was bad.... When you got to high school, all of a sudden they
assume you could read and once I had to read books, like Shakespeare or
whatever, guess what? They’re interesting ... it was easy. So that guidance
counselor in grade eight? There are kids that need a little different
attention.... Then I had a math teacher who said “why don’t you just skip
if you have no interest in participating?” ... As soon as I could get out of
high school, I did.
On the other hand, Bob English had a much more positive school experience and
found himself returning to formal education repeatedly. But Bob was not always
open to attaining a formal education. His early school experiences were typical
of many working-class kids:
I resisted education all through my life and now I realize, I
mean, I feared it too, and now I realize there was nothing to fear. That, er,
if I had it sooner I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing now.
Bob is also an assembler in the same plant who had completed high school, but
found that he wanted to move away from the production line and pursue a skilled
trade. However after several years of pursuing the necessary education to follow
this path, Bob found his original plans had shifted radically:
They [human resources] said “you got all your academics,
where’s your practical?” So, okay, so I signed up ...did all the practical
stuff ...[then] they cancelled the program, the apprenticeship program.
Finding himself left with an array of college courses and nowhere to apply them,
Bob went back to his employer with his dilemma:
I went down to personnel ... I said “well I’m frustrated,
help me out with this. What am I going to do? Do I continue at ... college
with my practical work and getting as much practical experience with my tools
and trade or do I go to university?” He says: “go to university.” I
thought fine. Then it clicked. I’m never going to let [my employer] control
my future again. Never. So I thought university’s the way to go.
Bob found his attempts to obtain the prerequisites to begin a tradesperson’s
career an instructive life experience. Although he had conformed to the
requirements of his employer’s apprenticeship program at every turn, he was
still left out in the cold. He resolved that he would continue his education
independently, taking advantage of the employer’s training allowance:
I started with one [university] course, just to see if I was
going to be successful, if I was cut out for it, and I liked it. I got a lot
of stimulation from it and from that point, on my next course, after I took a
science course ... I did relatively well at it, and I decided to continue.
[...] and I took a Soc[iology] course and I fell in love with Soc. It was
just, it just showed me where I fit into the big picture. ... going into Soc
it really showed me there’s a place for me somewhere in this, and I kind of
Thus Bob had found his calling not only within the formal school system, but in
a discipline that helped him to interpret his own life experiences. Conversely,
Pete Jones takes the view of an unstructured, informal learner with a keen sense
of curiosity and enthusiasm
If there’s a piece of legislation coming, you know, I’ll
look at a copy at the library where they have all the pieces of legislation,
and I’ll look up legal language on the Internet. ... There’s always
something new going on, on the Internet, you know. ...With the computer,
there’s a little bit of a struggle involved and you’ll make a mistake [or]
something bad happens, but when you figure out how to do it, there’s more of
a sense of achievement than if you just read it.
Pete also pursues his learning through projects of a sharply political nature,
an admitted passion of his. At times his union provides the fundamentals of his
instruction via nonformal, continuing course-based education:
I’ll spend time learning anything to be better, music,
computers, but the union is the big passion for me, like I feel like that’s
the thing where I can have the most opportunity to do things. For me, it’s
like that’s what I want to do, you know. I’d love to play music too, but
realistically, if I had to choose, I’d have to take the union because you
can always listen to music and you can always play it, and it doesn’t matter
whether people know who you are or not. But with the union, there’s so much
potential to change and to do things.
Bob English is emphatic as to why more working-class people,
and especially trade union activists, should get a university education. Bob
feels that the understanding of larger societal forces is information that is
hoarded by those in the upper classes, and shared only within the confines of a
I mean, if you want to fight the beast you have to think like
the beast. You have to know how the beast is going to move, you have to know
how the beast is going to react. ... You have to know ... where they’re
going to come at you from. And if they’re gonna use one set mode of
thinking, we’re as predictable as they are. And I think predictability is ..
Moreover, Bob keenly feels his contradictory position. He is caught between his
credentialed status, paid for via a contract clause which was negotiated by his
own union local, and the rejection of his schooled talents by the same local:
[I]f formal education is so terrible and to be feared, why are
all these guys I work with putting their kids through university? ... Why did
this union negotiate formal education and a rebate for their kids? Why? If
it’s to be feared – there’s part of my frustration right there, it’s a
contradiction. Why have they negotiated formal training for me and for my kids
if they’re not going to respect it [once you get the degree]?
Understandably, given his lack of a credentialed background,
Pete Jones feels differently about the advantages provided by a formal
postsecondary education. He feels that knowledge can be obtained informally,
outside of established educational institutions. Pete cites the case of Bob
White, the former President of the CAW and the Canadian Labour Congress:
You can be intelligent and not be an engineer or a lawyer, you
know. Take the case of Bob White, you know, a grade eight education took him
to the top of the labour movement and you’d be hard pressed to find somebody
that’s more qualified to speak for workers and to negotiate their issues
against a group of lawyers from Detroit or the captains of industry. So, I
think that’s proof enough. We have people that have succeeded in the labour
movement, specifically in the Canadian Auto Workers, that have limited formal
education. We have other ones that are highly educated. The bottom line is
that intelligence can’t be proven simply by a piece of paper saying that
you’ve successfully complete grade 8, grade 12, [or] university.
But Bob English goes further than simply advocating a program of postsecondary
education for his working-class peers. He acknowledges the fact that many of his
co-workers on the assembly line are equipped with real talents, although few
recognized credentials. Bob advocates that his union blend those who have
credentials with workers who possess experiential knowledge.
You know ... I felt that, my education [was not] being used in
a positive way towards real working class advancement. ... And it’s like
your own people kicking you in the teeth and saying “you’re not one of
us.” You know, “you’re not playing by the old rules.” Well, it’s a
new world. The rules have changed. So we have to change. And we have to ...
attract the best that we have within our own working-class people. To compete
with management, with the so-called upper class. We have to adapt. ... I
don’t have aspirations of leaving the CAW. I mean, my aspirations are
advancing the working-class cause.
Overall, Pete Jones’ learning interests are directly
linked to his own view of social justice within a clearly defined set of social
and political principles. These he learned, at least in part, at the knee of the
CAW’s educational programs:
I believe in social unionism 100 percent. I believe I’m a
social democrat. I believe that there should be a certain form of socialism
that at its root is very democratic. It is the only way to be fair. There has
to be a democracy. There is no democracy when people aren’t informed on
issues. How do you do that, how do you make them all aware? You can’t force
them into education camps or re-educate people. You can’t force them to
learn. You can’t force them to understand or even agree with what you’re
talking about, but there’s a lot of information that only a few people know
about and they’re driving the whole agenda. They’re not telling the public
what the issues are and there’s no room for debate.
Note that Bob English possesses no less a working-class loyalty than Pete Jones.
He attributes this view to his impoverished youth:
I think we should use everything available to us to advance the
working cause, the working-class cause. And I don’t think that it’s all
... I know the strike is a blunt instrument that works very effectively. Well,
against [Ontario Premier Mike] Harris’ government, it’s not working at
all. They’re going back to work, and you’re going back for sixty hours of
it. So where is unionism taking us? Where is it going? It’s not taking us
ahead, not against guys like Mike Harris. And that’s where, that’s where
formally educated workers come in. I’m a worker. I’ll never forget my
roots, because my roots are even more deeply rooted than the working-class
people I work with ... because I’ve come from nothing.
When asked whether he believes there are blue-collar workers with talents right
on the line, Bob English loudly declared: “No doubt in my mind, no doubt in my
mind.” But when asked whether the union was putting these people to use he
Absolutely not. ... I think it’s politics, it’s pure
[factional] politics. ... You’ve got people in the union they’re in there
for different reasons. ... Myself [I come] from an attitude of working-class
advancement – and there’s guys that may feel that, but they also want to
get off the line. You know there’s various reasons, you know, for people
wanting to get off the line or go into the union movement. I mean, I’m not
saying that ... I’m just, saying we have to be aware of what’s going on.
Finally, it is worth noting that both workers’
sentiments with reference to the underutilization of workers’ capacities and
the future direction their union should support are basically analogous. And
both agree that their own capacities, and those of their coworkers, are
underutilized. As Bob English says:
[I]f you’re gonna go ahead you’ve got to have the best
tools to get the job done. I mean I’m not in the Indy 500 with a stock Monte
Carlo [automobile]. Why are they hiring all the best guys doing the son of a
gun up, making it as scientifically aerodynamic as possible, you know, why are
they doing that? You know … are we not trying to advance the working class
cause through an old methodology, and I say yes. ... My first [goal] would be
to negotiate a minimum of forty hours education every calendar year for every
member of the CAW.
Consider Pete Jones’ views on workers’ control of production mindful of the
fact that these views have been nurtured almost exclusively through his informal
and course-based learning activities within his labour union:
There should be greater worker control in the workplace in
order to allow employees to make fuller use of their knowledge. Look at Algoma
Steel [Canada’s third largest steel company, now worker-owned]. The workers
turned it around. The company lost money for what, a decade, or whatever it
was. The workers took control of the company. The union took control of the
company. They hired a new board, they set out to specialize. The workers knew
what they could do the best, the union had a good idea and the people that
they brought in weren’t driven by a straight profit ideology. ... You know,
anybody will say utilizing people is the most important part of the success of
a corporation, of a union, of any kind of organization, fully utilizing
people, you know (out emphasis). We can argue about the tools that fully
utilize, whether they’re adding more work or not, but to fully allow people
to participate using their skills is I think a dream for most people, to be
able to do what you do best or want to do and to be able to do it and function
and perform in society I think.
Unfortunately the comprehensive range of workers’ employment-related informal
learning and knowledge generally remains unacknowledged by both employers and
unions. Even in the most advanced unions, with the most extensive and
wide-ranging education programs, there is still much untapped potential for
critical education. Moreover there is room for union educators like Bob English
who has critically appropriated university education without committing the
equivalent of ‘class suicide’ and Pete Jones, who applies his experiential
informal knowledge base.
As acknowledged by both Pete and Bob, there are many
more untapped resources in the unrecognized informal knowledge and tacit skills
of the general membership of this union local. Our research shows that workers
train each other in the informal skills actually required to do their
work-related tasks. Older, more experienced workers are often found training
their younger peers. These unionists and workers should be recognized for these
activities and encouraged to share their knowledge more fully with others by
both their union and management. Moreover this should be carried out without the
expectation that workers give up control of this knowledge. Many workers have
“the talent,” as Bob says, to teach others many interesting and valuable
things; from political analysis to their work-related duties. Much of this
knowledge can empower and expand the organized labour movement and enrich many
more workers’ quality of life.
The Canadian working class is increasingly highly educated in formal terms,
increasingly engaged in course-based adult education and much more widespread
informal learning activities. The CAW local which is the focus of this paper has
among the most extensive organized education programs in Canada. The gap between
workers’ actually existing knowledge and skills and the provision of worker-centred
education programs is probably much greater at the other union locals we
studied, as well as at most other paid workplaces in the country.
As long as the extent of working peoples’ useful
knowledge continues to be underestimated by leaders in the labour movement, it
will continue to be depreciated by educational institutions and over-exploited
by employers. Unions could quite easily further document the levels of formal
and informal knowledge of their existing members, through participatory research
which could be conducted quickly and at low cost largely by the members
themselves (e.g. Livingstone, Sawchuk et al, forthcoming; Lior and Martin,
1998). This information could then be used as a pivotal strategic resource in
campaigns with employers to negotiate better working conditions for workers to
apply their skills, and with educational institutions to provide more accessible
prior learning assessment and recognition (PLAR) processes and more relevant
curricular content related to working class experience. In the growing reality
of a learning society, there is very sizable pent-up demand among working people
generally to link their extensive informal knowledge with more equitable formal
educational access and recognition, and with more discretionary control of their
jobs commensurate with their existing knowledge.
The fuller documentation and recognition of members’
actually existing knowledge can provide a sound basis for:
- building more extensive education programs;
- recruiting now uninvolved, highly knowledgeable brothers and sisters to
lead new union education programs;
- making concerted demands for workplace democratization to design better
quality jobs; and
- demonstrating the capacity of unions to enhance learning and work
This is probably the most strategically effective way to recruit other currently
unorganized,6 but increasingly highly-educated, workers. As Bob English says:
We don’t have to hire the best [union lawyers, negotiators,
educators, etc.], we’ve got the best within our own ranks, we do, and I
firmly believe that. There’s more of us than there is [sic] of them.
...We’ve got the talent, no doubt in my mind. I know, I work with them. I
know we’ve got the talent. I see it.
- The Working-Class Learning Strategies study focused on unionized
workers in auto, garment, steel, petrochemical and public sector industries
in Southern Ontario. The unions representing these five sectors are as
follows: Canadian Auto Workers (CAW), International Ladies’ Garment
Workers’ Union (ILGWU) now UNITE, United Steelworkers of America (USWA),
Communication, Energy and Paperworkers Union (CEP) and the Ontario Public
Service Employees Union (OPSEU). For further details see Livingstone,
Sawchuk and contributors, (forthcoming).
- For definitions of these three dimensions of adult learning and a review
of the research literature on informal learning, see Livingstone (2001a).
- Documentation of all of these survey findings on schooling, adult course
participation and informal learning may be found in Livingstone (2001b).
- Despite a steadily shrinking employment base, this employer and CAW union
local still dominate this medium-sized Ontario Community.
- The CAW also has an extended body of organized education and action
programs around issues of politics and social and economic justice.
- Statistics Canada notes an incremental rise in the unionization rate from
30% to 30.4%. However the increase occurred entirely within the private
sector, while the public sector share fell slightly (Akyeampong, 2000).
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