Union Education Never Stops

By: Don Taylor, University of Wisconsin School for Workers

You have probably heard the expression “knowledge is power.” So, it makes sense to assume that more knowledge means more power. The more we know, the better-equipped we are to take on the issues and challenges we face. In addition, these issues and challenges are constantly changing, so our knowledge needs to change as well. For these reasons, union leaders and activists at every level embrace ongoing training and education – because it equips them with the tools they need to face tomorrow’s challenges from a position of strength.

I was thinking about this when I taught recent a steward training class, because union stewards are a good example of why “continuing education” is so important. The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) recently announced a more heavy-handed approach to enforcing the “Duty of Fair Representation” (DFR), and this will have a direct bearing on the work union stewards do in the workplace every day. Without additional training, stewards would not be up-to-date on the law and could make significant errors in DFR situations.

This particular stewards’ class is one I teach in the same city every year, and some people come over and over again. In this year’s class, there were eleven people who had been stewards for more than two years, four of whom had been stewards for more than ten years. All had attended steward training before. I asked them – Why come back?

“You get stuck in your own ways, your own thinking,” one said. “Coming back helps you think outside your own box.”

“When I went for training twelve years ago, I was a new steward,” commented another. “Now I’ve been elected chief steward, and I need to upgrade my skill set.”

“Last year, I’d only been a steward for twelve days,” said a third. “After a year on the job, coming back helps fortify what I learned before, and reinforces what I’ve learned in the shop.”

Clearly, people have many reasons for pursuing ongoing union education. Whether you are a local president, recording secretary, negotiating committee member, or any other role one might hold in a union, these ideas about training apply the same way. A longtime local union president can become a better leader by studying labor history or attending a union-building workshop. An experienced negotiator can learn a new tactic from a story told by a classmate from another union. A treasurer or trustee can learn new bookkeeping rules and policies, and a member-organizer can learn how another union got their members involved and won a major victory. All of these possibilities result from the simple practice of ongoing union education and training – like the education and training provided by the University of Wisconsin School for Workers.

“The conversations are different every time,” one of my steward class participants pointed out. “I would learn something from this class no matter how many times I attended.”