Trade Unions and workers' education

TUC Training College, c. 1968


By Richard Ross, Centre for Trade Union Studies, London Metropolitan University


Trade union education needs to be seen against the backdrop of the wider world of workers' education, itself a part of the even wider world of adult education. Over the past hundred years a variety of organisations have been involved in workers' education in Britain, including universities, technical colleges and colleges of further education, residential colleges, voluntary organisations, political parties and trade unions themselves. This article concentrates on the major providers of trade union education. Readers interested in discovering more about these providers or other organisations will find suggestions for further reading at the end of the article.


Before the Second World War two rival organisations provided workers' education. The Workers' Educational Association (WEA) had been founded in 1903, and the National Council of Labour Colleges (NCLC) which was established following a strike by students at Ruskin College, Oxford in 1909. The WEA and Ruskin were part of the Extension Movement, by which the ancient universities of Oxford and Cambridge extended education beyond their walls with the aim of reaching workers. The question arose as to who should determine and control that education. Was it to be the middle class, bringing enlightenment to the working class, or was it to be workers themselves and their institutions, such as trade unions? Was the purpose of education to fit workers into a capitalist society or to question and help change that society?

This question came into sharp focus at Ruskin College. The College had been founded in 1899 by three wealthy Americans, Walter and Anne Vrooman and Charles Beard. The Vroomans and Beard returned to America and by 1909 Ruskin was influenced very much by Oxford University and received donations from, amongst others, a couple of Dukes and some nine Lords. Oxford University had started to run tutorial classes for workers as part of the Extension movement. In 1908 they set up a permanent committee, made up of University representatives and working people, to run these classes.

The Ruskin students were mainly trade unionists and many of them were aghast at these developments. They now felt that the purpose of the College was to transmit ruling class ideas, particularly in the field of economics. They organised their own classes, formed the Plebs League to put pressure on the College authorities, and in 1909 went on strike following the dismissal of the Principal, Dennis Hird, who had sided with the students. The Plebs League established the Central Labour College, in opposition to Ruskin, as "a declaration of Working Class Independence in Education".

The College struggled to fund itself and in 1915 ownership and control passed to its two greatest funders, the South Wales Miners Federation and the National Union of Railwaymen (NUR). It finally closed in 1929, but by then the baton of independent working class education had been handed to the National Council of Labour Colleges (NCLC).

The Plebs League had organised classes around the UK, classes run in halls and meetings rooms by former Ruskin and then Central Labour College students. In 1921 these classes came together to form the NCLC and from then until 1964 the NCLC was one of the two main providers of workers' education in the UK.


The NCLC had many supporters in the trade union movement. This was a threat to the WEA which, in 1919 set up the Workers' Educational Trade Union Committee (WETUC). On the ground workers attended classes provided by both organisation, and some tutors taught for both. However, at the ideological level the two organisations were poles apart. The NCLC stood for independent working class education, by which they meant education independent of the state and those that controlled it. They refused to take state money, unlike the WEA. The NCLC stood for education aimed at meeting the needs of "workers as a class, and undertaken by the workers themselves independently of, and even in opposition to, the ordinary existing educational channels". The WEA was part of the extension movement, extending the benefits of education and culture to a class that had been denied them. For the NCLC the WEA was a tool of the state, designed to integrate the working class into a common national culture. They ridiculed the WEA's claim to be 'impartial'. Indeed the slogan of the Plebs Journal was, 'I promise to be candid but not impartial'. From the WEA's point of view NCLC education was 'propaganda'. The WEA saw education as enabling workers to think for themselves, rather than to think in any particular way. In sum, whilst the NCLC stood for revolutionary change in society the WEA stood for reformism, a divide that continues to run through education, trade unionism and politics today. In fact the State recognised this divide. It saw the adult education movement and especially the WEA as "a bulwark against revolutionism, a moderating influence and a form of social control". Lord Eustace Percy, the President of the Board of Trade in 1925, understood the importance to the ruling class of supporting the WEA, "100,000 spent annually on this kind of work, properly controlled, would be about the best police expenditure we could indulge in..."


The NCLC's aim of working class education by and for the working class had led to it calling for the TUC to be responsible for trade union education. Attempts had been made in the 1920s and 30s for the TUC to take over workers' education, but these had ended in failure. One such attempt was in 1925. The Countess of Warwick offered her home, Easton Lodge, to the TUC. The aim was for both Ruskin and the Central Labour College to move to Easton Lodge. This scheme was defeated at the 1926 TUC Congress, on the grounds that, following the General Strike, there was little money around for a College that would cater to just a few. A Jack Jones "talked about men who had gone up to Ruskin dressed as workmen 'who have come back with haloes, dressed in plus fours, and immediately wanting to be general secretary of their union'".
However, in 1944, and at the instigation of the NUR, the TUC examined again the possibility of a residential college. This became the plan for a full-time college as a war memorial to trade unionists and resulted in, what became, Congress House, the TUC Memorial Building, containing its non-residential training college. The TUC was also sponsoring students on a three-year evening course at the London School of Economics.


The TUC plans were for a training college running courses on technical industrial relations skills, such as negotiating, trade union administration, accounting and national insurance, together with background studies on trade union history and structures.
While the Memorial Building, now known as Congress House, was being built the TUC courses were run at Maritime House in Clapham, South London. This had been opened as the headquarters of the National Union of Seamen (NUS) on July 23rd 1940. TUC courses began there in April 1947 and continued until 1957. The courses were full-time and at first they lasted for three or four weeks but over time the TUC moved towards shorter courses of one to two weeks.
TUC staff undertook most of the teaching with some contribution from outside lecturers. The students were full-time officials and lay representatives, together with officers of what were then called 'Colonial Trade Unions', some sponsored by the Colonial Office.


Although the TUC had started to run some residential courses the vast majority of trade union education was carried out by the NCLC and WETUC. The majority of trade unions had schemes with one or both of these organisations. By this time the ideological differences between them had all but disappeared. THE NCLC even accepted State funding. Much of this was due to the advent of the Labour Government in 1945. Even before the war the NCLC had become close to the Labour Party, and signs of its early marxist orientation were few and far between. Indeed it sought to become the educational arm of the Labour Party. The key concern of the Labour Government, and the trade union leadership, in 1945 was to increase productivity to enable Britain to recover from the war and export. Thus the courses that were run reflected this preoccupation. In their early days the Labour Colleges had concentrated on economics and history, especially marxist economics. In the changing economic and political environment post 1945 we find a concentration on technical and managerial skills, with courses dealing with subjects such as Industrial Management, Workers' Control and Joint Consultation. WETUC's offering was similar and both organisations ran courses to train shop stewards and branch officials in the skills needed for their roles.

In the days before union representatives had any legal rights to paid release from employment to attend courses, WETUC and the NCLC ran weekend and evening classes. They also both ran residential summer schools and international schools, taking workers from the UK to visit other countries. However, day release courses did exist for well organised workplace where shop stewards could get release.
Both organisations ran correspondence courses. In fact perhaps the biggest part of the NCLC's provision was via its postal courses department. Correspondence courses enabled workers education to be provided to people who could not attend classes. They would receive material and be put in contact with a tutor. A huge range of courses was offered by the NCLC, from Economics to Esperanto, Social History to the Scientific Way of Thinking. The post way changes can be seen in the addition of courses with titles such as, 'Britain's Tasks Today', 'Labour's Achievements and Future Policy', and 'Shop Stewards' Functions'. WETUC had a smaller correspondence course provision which was provided and marked by Ruskin College.


The competition between WETUC and the NCLC was becoming increasingly enervating. Financial difficulties that unions faced after the Second World War led to further calls for the rationalisation of Trade Union Education under the auspices of the TUC. The educational work of unions themselves, as well as the TUC, was growing and the duplication of providers was costly. In 1946 there was a proposal for a TUC scheme of education incorporating both the NCLC and WETUC; later Ruskin College was involved in the discussions. However these proposals came to naught.

A later proposal did bear fruit. Following a motion at the TUC in 1957 a plan was devised to set up a TUC Educational Council to take over the running of trade union education from the existing organisations. Protracted negotiations led in 1964 to the TUC Education scheme coming into being, taking over the NCLC, WETUC and Ruskin College's correspondence course department. The manner in which this happened led to bitterness on the part of the NCLC, as there was no place in the new scheme for the Labour Colleges, the equivalent of WEA Branches. Effectively this was the end of the Labour College Movement, although Plebs' magazine continued for a few more years. WETUC also disappeared but that had always been only a small part of the WEA. Only a few of the NCLC staff transferred to the TUC. These were the district organisers, who became TUC Regional Education Officers.


The post-war years, from 1945 until the end of the 1960s, are commonly described as the Social Democratic period. This was the period when the welfare state expanded, trade union membership grew and a booming economy led to full employment. Shortages of labour led employers to bid up wages above those that had been agree at industry level. As the post war boom came to an end there were increasing economic strains. Trade unions were blamed for many of the problems. In the 1960s there were many unofficial strikes. Concern was expressed at the disorderly nature of industrial relations with shop stewards accused of leading 'wildcat strikes' - walkouts which took place over what employers and the government considered were trivial issues. The Labour Government set up the Donovan Commission to examine Industrial Relations. Its influential report of 1968 led to attempts to reform the law and to incorporate shop stewards into the official structures of unions. This began a series of moves, under both Labour and Conservative governments, to constrain the actions of unions.

The Donovan Commission recommended that the role of shop stewards should be incorporated in union rulebooks, and that their rights and responsibilities should be spelt out. The number of shop stewards, and their influence, had grown with full employment and the downward drift of negotiations to workplace level. Training would bring order back to industrial relations as shop stewards learnt to act in a more responsible fashion. So far as the TUC and unions were concerned, the implications of this were that money should be forthcoming from the government for training and that shop stewards should be given paid release to attend training courses.
Thus from 1968 the TUC Education Service developed a focus on a national shop stewards training scheme. However this did not fully come about until the advent of the Labour Government in 1974.


Britain's economy was in trouble in the 1970s. Unemployment was rising, the economy was stagnating and inflation was high, leading to what became called 'stagflation'. The Labour Government that came to power in 1974 attempted to deal with this through the 'Social Contract'. In return for trade unions holding down wages the government would pass favourable employment and social legislation. In 1975 the Employment Protection Act introduced the right of shop stewards to get paid release to attend union courses. Health and Safety representatives were granted similar rights. The focus of union representatives' training had already moved from expensive residential courses to day release and these new laws gave a boost to this change.

As significant, was a government grant to the TUC for union training. This started at 400,000 in 1976 and increased annually. These public funds permitted a substantial increase in the number of day release course provided by the TUC and the development of a national scheme. A course development unit was set up at Congress House to develop materials and education methods, and to train tutors. These tutors were not employed by the TUC but by further education colleges, universities and the WEA, the organisations that provided the classes. Unions also received some of these public funds for the use on their own programmes. However, the TUC had now become the dominant body in trade union training.

The establishment of the TUC national scheme was not without conflict. Criticisms came from tutors who disagreed with the control the TUC exercised over tutor selection and training and the curriculum. Some felt that TUC courses had too narrow a focus, concentrating on the skills union representatives needed for their roles, and missing out on wider economic and political issues. However, in general unions and others involved in trade union education supported these moves, feeling that unions, through the TUC, should be the ones determining the content of trade union courses. In this period the priority for most unions was the training in negotiating and representative skills of their shop stewards and health and safety reps. Of course some unions ran weekend and residential courses examining political and economic issues, and other organisations, such as the WEA, the residential colleges and universities provided a wide range of courses on social, economic and political issues.


The election of the Conservative government under Margaret Thatcher in 1979 signalled a decisive break with the post-war Social Democratic consensus. The new consensus was neo-liberalism. This brought the privatisation of state enterprises, the deregulation of finance and an attack on trade union rights. Unemployment soared and trade union membership declined. Union membership had grown during the social democratic period to reach 50% of the workforce by 1979. By 1995 this was down to 32% and still declining.

In this climate the fear was that the government would cut off funding for trade union training. In fact this did not happen. This was not an area where the government sought an early fight with the unions. Instead, during the 1980 and 1990s funding was reduced and strings were attached to the grant. The Tories paid closer control to the content of publically funded courses and materials, to ensure they were free of 'bias'. The right to paid release was limited to collective bargaining issues. The types of courses that would be publically funded (in Adult Education as a whole, not just trade union education) were limited.

Although there had been many debates about the ideology of workers' education, its control and funding, it had generally been seen as designed either to further the emancipation of workers as a class, or, more narrowly, to further the interests of trade unions. In so doing workers' education developed the knowledge and skills of individuals, but its primary purpose was collective, rather than individual. This changed in the 1990s as the government tied funding to the achievement of qualifications. Publically funded trade union representatives' courses would now be accredited and students would receive certificates if they successfully completed the courses. The courses would now be seen as part of vocational training.
This move away from a class based focus to a vocational one was developed even further under the Labour Government led by Tony Blair which took office in 1997. Public funding of union course was directed towards skills qualifications - particularly literacy, numeracy and information technology.


We have come a long way from Independent Working Class Education, as typified by the NCLC in its early days. That tradition still exists in pockets but the thrust of workers' education, and particularly trade union education, has been to narrow its scope and, more recently, to place the bulk of it in the vocational camp. There are a number of reasons for this but funding is perhaps the main key. To be independent means independence from State funding. The choice for unions is whether to fund their own provision, and thus be in control, or to accept State funding with all the strings attached.

Trade union education is not autonomous; it does not stand outside society. Rather it reflects the concerns of the trade unions and their members, which in turn must be seen in the context of the economic and political environment in which they operate. However, the questions that the Ruskin College strikers asked in 1909 are still relevant. What is the purpose of worker's education? Who should control it? Who should provide it? How can Independent Working Class Education be achieved?
The Plebs League wanted "neither crumbs (nor) condescension", but control of their own destiny. That should surely still be the objective.


- For information about the origins of the WEA and the NCLC see Brian Simon (1965) Education and the Labour Movement, Lawrence and Wishart, London

- For an account of the NCLC, written by its longest serving General Secretary, see J.P.M. Millar (1979) The Labour College Movement, NCLC Publishing Society Limited, London.

- For a history of WETUC see A.J. Corfield (1969) Epoch in Workers' Education, The Workers' Educational Association, London

- For an account sympathetic to the TUC see John Holford (1994) Union education in Britain: A TUC Activity, Department of Adult Education, University of Nottingham

- For a discussion of the ideology and politics of workers' education see Roger Fieldhouse, Conformity and Contradiction in English Responsible Body Adult Education, 1925-1950 in S. Westward and J. E Thomas (1991) The Politics of Adult Education, NIACE,

- For more on the Ruskin strike and the Plebs League see Colin Waugh (2009) 'Plebs': The Lost Legacy of Independent Working-Class Education, Post-16 Educator

- For a comprehensive account of the history of adult education see Thomas Kelly (1992) A History of Ault Education in Great Britain, Liverpool University Press