Trade unions and training: how to deal with global changes?

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A note from the Secretary General of Eurispes, Marco Ricceri

Do today’s trade unionists have the adequate qualifications and skills to better represent the needs of workers in this time of significant economic and social change? Is a permanent dialogue with workers sufficient to promote appropriate negotiation by trade unionists? These questions are legitimised by the challenges all the development actors face due to the current production system structural changes. Among these actors, trade unions are particularly affected by these challenges because of the impulse of the digital revolution and the strategic choice for a new economic order based on sustainable development. Therefore, the need to find adequate answers to these questions and promote a qualitative step forward in the professional training of trade unionists has given rise in other countries to some highly unusual initiatives that can also provide a stimulus and a reference for the Italian trade union community.

The University of Labour

In April 2021, the ‘University of Labour’ was officially recognised in Frankfurt, Germany, and will start its degree courses next winter. It is a university for trade unionists, representatives of works councils and co-management committees. For those involved in contractual issues and co-management practices, as in the German case, having an adequate level of education is now a must. “The results of negotiations between the company and employee representatives,” explains Tobias Soechtig in Social Europe (2021), “are increasingly determined by the level of professionalism and experience of the negotiating partners. Nowadays, it is a general requirement that business representatives with a high level of university education should be faced with equally well-educated trade union representatives”. The fact is that public universities, for instance, in economics and business departments, do not offer adequate degree courses for those willing to work or already working in trade unions. This has led to the need to promote a specific University of Labour in which both future trade unionists and those already working will study finance, accounting, organisational theory, business management, education science and project management, all with an interdisciplinary approach that links economic, social and political sciences. A fascinating detail is that the courses are organised according to the guiding principle of “work integration”, so that student trade unionists can evaluate their concrete negotiation experiences in the context of several scientific disciplines. The new trade unionists will be required to be graduates with bachelor’s and master’s degrees if they want to improve the effectiveness of their negotiations with companies and actively participate in upgrading economic and production activities: this is the message behind the initiative launched in Frankfurt, Germany.

The platform for information, training, education of Mopo Lukoil

Along similar lines is another original initiative promoted within the industrial union IndustriAll by the Russian union Mopo of Lukoil, one of the world’s largest oil companies, famous, among other things, for its highly advanced system of industrial relations, the value of which is widely recognised internationally. On the occasion of the company’s 30th anniversary, the union held a Board meeting last September, extending it to representatives working in numerous international locations, to define the organisation’s new strategies. Among the various initiatives approved – one of the most important being the one aimed at guaranteeing maximum safety in the workplace – is the approval of the ‘Concept of Information Policy’. Based on this document, Mopo Pjsc Lukoil launched a new information, training, and education system for its union representatives. This resulted in a platform that first and foremost guarantees an interactive flow of “continuous, timely, updated, transparent and reliable” information on company and union activities, which is fundamental for trade union action and in orientating public opinion. “The action in this direction,” said Union Council President Georgy Kiradiev, “must be systematic and proactive and accompanied by continuous monitoring of its effectiveness”. The platform will also be the basis for continuous education of trade unionists, enriching their knowledge and skills. The workforce representatives must be aware of the complexity of the changes in the production system. They must have in-depth knowledge of the new development dynamics. To this end, “it is important to cover all aspects of trade union activities (…) the trade union must be at the forefront of development issues”, according to Nadezdha Ivchenko, Deputy President of the Trade Union Council, who further added: “We are not natural-born union leaders. To become one, it is important to master new extra-professional, scientific, technical and communication skills”.

ETUI specialised and continuous education

The European Trade Union Institute ETUI, which is part of the Brussels-based European Trade Union Confederation CESE-EESC, has also decided to focus on the continuous training of trade unionists by recently promoting refresher courses and the publication of manuals for workers’ representatives sitting on European Works Councils (EWCs). As is widely known, these committees, whose establishment dates back to two European directives of 1994 and 1997, operate in multinational companies with sites in several European and non-European countries, although without carrying out contractual activities, but instead ensuring information exchange, updating on company strategies and plans. Also, in this case, ETUI highlights that to adequately understand the complexity of the innovation processes that companies are increasingly forced to embrace, the traditional culture of trade unionists – based mainly on practical experience – is no longer sufficient. Consequently, it is necessary to promote specialised continuous education that updates and raises their knowledge and skills. The 13 training courses organised by ETUI follow a cross-sectoral matrix and are based on a learning methodology adapted to the different areas of specialisation, organised on a multiannual basis and with a long-term perspective.

These three initiatives at the international level open a new chapter also for the Italian trade union. More precisely, they resume the lessons of expertise that the trade union had already acquired in the past, with its study centres and training schools, when it played a leading role in the economic boom in Italy. In any case, the message is clear: trade unionists need a wealth of knowledge equivalent to a university degree and continuous education to get to the core of the innovative processes underway in economics and society.


This content is also available in: Italian

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