Training the trade unionists: Bradford College’s specialist centre

Bradford College hosts a Trade Union Studies Centre, running TUC courses for union representatives and members, from introductory and short courses to Level 3 Diplomas. Steve Davison runs the Centre, with a small staff of experienced lecturers.

I met up with Steve, to find out about the ethics behind the Centre. Steve himself has an interesting background, steeped in trade union activism.

Steve Davison at the Trade Union Studies Centre, Bradford College

Steve Davison at the Trade Union Studies Centre, Bradford College

Steve’s story:

“I started out in engineering, working in the Bradford District, and I joined an engineers’ union. I became shop steward, then factory convenor, and then I was chair of a group representing some 8,500 workers.

“But I got made redundant. Put on a blacklist, which was common then in engineering and construction and its still in the news today. It meant I went from one short job to another, all over the place.

“And then I got a call from the man running the Trade Union Centre here at Bradford College. I’d never taught before, but in those days what mattered was whether you had the direct experience.  Trade Union Reps need teachers who know what its like, and what are the issues that come up.”

Up to a few years ago, Steve was active at the highest levels in the trade unions. Through a series of mergers, he became president of AMICUS, with 1.2 million members. In that position, he was part of a delegation to create the first global trade union, called Workers Uniting, formed with the American and Canadian trade union, the USW. It has 800,000 members and is still going strong. AMICUS later merged with the TGW to form Unite. It had 1.5 million members, and Steve was Vice President.

Three years ago, he had a heart attack and his family persuaded him to step down national trade union activity. Steve reflects:

“It was great. I met President Morales of Bolivia, I addressed the Venezuelan Parliament. But the thing which has left the greatest impression of all was working in Bangladesh with the ship wreckers.

“The wreckers are men who work along the coast, salvaging debris from boats broken at sea. They get about 20p an hour, and its very dangerous: a worker is killed every week. We were there to help them unionise and through that try to improve working conditions. They were amazing men. I’ll never forget it.”

Trade Union Studies at Bradford College

Steve explains: “Bradford College has been a progressive College from the outset, and it set up the Trade Union Centre in the 1970s. The College is rooted in the community, and Bradford at that time had a large industrial workforce, which was unionised – in textiles, engineering, chemicals and the catalogue trade.”

There are about 70 Trade Union training centres across the UK, with several in Yorkshire. “Our Centre remains popular,” Steve says, “but we don’t have the numbers of students that we used to get. There’s a threefold challenge: the absolute decline of manufacturing, engineering and textiles; the deterioration of Bradford city; and the rise of Leeds as the undisputed centre of West Yorkshire. That all impacts on employment, and has led to a huge decline in union members and therefore union reps.

“There is no longer a national solution, especially to the problems of work and jobs. The decisions about whether people in Bradford work or not are made in the US, Brussels, Delhi and Beijing. So we offer here the practical courses people need to advise and negotiate for their members, to help them gain or maintain a fair wage and decent conditions of work, and we also have a global focus.”

The Union Reps attend on day release. “The right to time off for Union training was established by Harold Wilson in the 1970s,” Steve says, “and it has stuck. No subsequent government has tried to dismantle it. It is in the interests of the employer to have an educated workforce with whom they can dialogue, with an understanding of the legal framework.”

Moreover, the training is free. “The right to this training is important: for labour relations and fair treatment, and also because for some reps it is an opening into education,” Steve adds. He explains that some reps go on to other study in the College, or elsewhere. “You can build up enough level 3 credits on our Diploma to start on a degree if you want. Sometimes there are people – women in particular – who’ve had little education and been out of the workforce, and they come to us and the world of education opens up for them. The College is therefore an important base for us, and it has always been very open, accessible and welcoming to our students.”

Steve2

Steve (on the right) with Trade Union Studies students and lecturers.

The trade union ethic

“An important ethic for us is that of equal treatment,” Steve says. “It’s enshrined in our courses – equal rights, equal opportunities, and the celebration of diversity. The most powerful inequity is that of class, and the aim of the trade union movement is to challenge that by raising its members from poverty.

“At the same time, solidarity with others is a massive issue. Empathy. There’s the old Methodist phrase – you are your brothers’ keeper. You have a responsibility to the workforce and to the community. We encourage people to be active, to be part of communities and causes.

“Our actions have consequences, and that can be very complicated for a Trade Union Rep who has to balance the long and short term interests of the workforce, and decide when to compromise and when to stand firm. That’s why training, and contact with trainers and other Reps, is so important.”

Finishing with a film…

I ask Steve to recommend a film or two for anyone wanting insight into labour relations and trade unionism. He comes up with three:

Sprit of 45   –     Made in Dagenham   –   North Country

It’s a great way to plug a short course coming up in November that any Trade Union member can apply to join. Titled Contemporary Trade Unionism, it will look at how the labour movement changed Britain after World War 2. Its six Tuesdays evenings from 5 November, and maybe they will run it again for those of us busy on a Tuesday.

For more information about any of the Bradford College Trade Union coursesdownload the brochure: 122782 BC TUC Autumn 2013Final-1 or contact farhana Khan on 01274 436115, email f.khan@bradfordcollege.ac.uk

Text and photo: Ruth Wilson. Group photo: Paula Solloway.

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