ERIC Identifier: ED434247
Publication Date: 1999-00-00
Author: Spence, Janet G.
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on Adult Career and Vocational Education Columbus OH.

Worker-Centered Learning: Labor's Role. ERIC Digest No. 211.

Labor unions have supported education and training for their members since the late 19th century (Hensley 1993). Recent decades have seen a decline in union membership, while at the same time workplace learning has skyrocketed in importance. Drawing on a number of international and national references, this Digest explores the labor movement's new vision for workers' education. This new educational vision of labor unions is based on the belief that worker-centered learning can contribute both to individual development and the economic viability of the organization.


The globalization of the economy and rapid technological innovation challenge today's work force to prepare for continuous change. Due to technological innovation and the restructuring of the workplace, many workers have found that their current technical skills are obsolete. Furthermore, international corporate competitiveness has become more dependent on the problem-solving abilities of the workers. To address these problems, members of the work force must commit themselves to lifelong learning to update their technical skills and develop their problem-solving skills (Inman and Vernon 1997; Payne 1997; Rowden 1996).

Due to a strong mandate from their membership, labor unions have formed partnerships to deliver the necessary worker education (Dowdell 1997; Workers' Education Association 1998a,b). Labor unions are in an excellent position to provide this service since they are in daily contact with workers and have a holistic knowledge of the individual workers' needs (Watts and Ford 1998). However, labor unions must form new partnerships with management, community organizations and statutory bodies to meet the work force's education needs effectively (Workers' Education Association 1998a,b). The success of these partnerships depends on both interpersonal factors such as trust and commitment and on appropriate structures to share the administration of the educational programs. In order to legitimize their right to introduce worker-driven themes into educational programming, labor unions must also be willing to share the costs of the work force's education with management and community organizations (Dassinger 1997).


One of the most dramatic changes in labor union-sponsored work force education is its broad scope. Although traditional applied technical education is still offered, liberal educational programs emphasizing personal development are assuming greater importance (Workers' Education Association 1998b). Many employee development programs now seek to promote workplace learning beyond the narrowly defined business interests of the firm. This trend is in response to the need for autonomous employees in an information-rich production environment. It is a recognition of the symbiotic relationship between personal development, community development, and vocational training (Payne 1997).

This broad-based learning addresses the challenge of turning novices into experts. Contrary to popular opinion, the difference between novices and experts is not their technical knowledge, but the way they approach a problem. Experts may be identified by their ability to categorize problems correctly, compile procedures and chunk concepts, diagnose problems, select effective solution strategies, and monitor problem solutions (Billett 1998). To develop workers' abilities to deal with problems, labor union learning programs must deal with academic, personal management, and teamwork skills (MacKenzie 1997).

Underlying many educational initiatives are literacy issues. Production workers who lack basic skills such as basic reading and writing proficiency are likely to be excluded from the management sponsored skills training programs (Dassinger 1997). In addition, workers who have less than a high school education and speak English as a second language are most severely affected by layoffs (MacKenzie 1997). However, union literacy initiatives are hampered by the stigma currently associated with basic skills training programs. One approach to dealing with this stigma is using different terms such as communications or foundation skills to describe literacy courses. Another approach to dealing with the stigma of literacy education is incorporating basic skills training into more technical educational programs (Dowdell 1997).


Labor-sponsored, worker-centered learning programs are democratic in structure. Studies show that learner involvement increases learning efficiency while enhancing the learner's critical thinking, collaborative skills, and personal development (Jurmo 1992). For this reason, much of the learning takes place through small-group discussion. Within the discussion, questioning by the facilitator and peers helps learners clarify their own thinking process and build basic concepts (Schied et al. 1994).

Discussion facilitators use a wide variety of exercises and activities to encourage participatory learning. For example, in the language experience approach, learners are encouraged to put ideas into their own words. Another teaching technique, student-generated role plays, is designed to help learners bridge the gap between classrooms and real life (Estes 1997). Other techniques to increase learner participation include guided reading and thinking aloud (Schied et al. 1994).


The concept of equity in the workplace is based on the mythical notion of a "level playing field." Most past efforts to ensure equity in the workplace have been procedural rather than substantive. However, ultimately it is not possible to legislate equity completely. It is also necessary to eliminate the barriers to equity, so that educational equity means not only equal access but equal ability to participate (Butler 1998).

Many labor unions are taking a hard line on educational equity issues and focusing on low-paid, low status, or female employees (Lundy 1998; Workers' Education Association 1998b). Training for female union members is of particular concern since training is viewed as a key to breaking the glass ceiling in union leadership (Lundy 1998). Increasing educational access for these union members means eliminating physical barriers to educational participation. Childcare and transportation issues may be handled by providing stipends or services (Estes 1997).

Additional incentives to participate in educational programs may be provided by making them apply toward some long-term goal by granting credits toward a degree or continuing education credits (Lundy 1998). In the future, to equalize educational access unions must negotiate employee education development funds and paid educational leave for ordinary workers into labor contracts (Spencer 1996). Also, increased use of technology for individualized studies will take learning to a more geographically and socioeconomically diverse population (Lundy 1998; Spencer 1996; Workers' Education Association 1998a).


Labor unions have increased their commitment to work force education in response to workplace and societal demands. The new broad-based approach to labor union worker education is expected to have a positive impact on both the workers' personal lives as well as the economic success of the company. By taking a broader perspective on worker education, union educational programs are no longer involved solely in vocational education, but have expanded to include transformational education for their members. This transformational education supports the underpinnings of our civil society (Workers' Education Association 1998c).


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Boud, D. "A New Focus on Workplace Learning Research." In Current Issues and New Agendas in Workplace Learning, edited by David Boud, pp. 10-14. Leabrook, Australia: National Centre for Vocational Education Research, 1998. (ED 422 519)

Butler, E. "Equity and Workplace Learning: Emerging Discourses and Conditions of Possibility." In Current Issues and New Agendas in Workplace Learning, edited by David Boud, pp. 89-107. Leabrook, Australia: National Centre for Vocational Education Research, 1998. (ED 422 519)

Dassinger, J. "Training for Employability and Citizenship: Making an Essential Linkage." In Workplace Education: The Changing Landscape, edited by Maurice C. Taylor, pp. 71-89. Toronto, Ontario: Culture Concepts, 1997. (ED 404 573)

Dowdell, G.H. "Strengthening Labour Roles in Basic Skills Programming." In Workplace Education: The Changing Landscape, edited by Maurice C. Taylor, pp. 387-401. Toronto, Ontario: Culture Concepts, 1997. (ED 404 573)

Estes, F. Partners in Progress. A Monograph on the Worker Education Program of Northeastern Illinois University. Chicago, IL: Chicago Teachers' Center, Northeastern Illinois University, 1997. (ED 426 268)

Hensley, S. M. "Union Roles in Workplace Literacy." Community Services Catalyst 23, no. 3 (Summer 1993): 14-18. (EJ 489 857)

Inman, P. L., and Vernon S. "Assessing Workplace Learning: New Trends and Possibilities." In New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education no. 75, edited by Amy D. Rose and Meredyth A. Leahy, pp. 75-85. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1997. (EJ 555 056)

Jurmo, P. "Participatory Literacy Education: An Update." Paper presented at an adult education colloquium, Ohio State University, Columbus, OH, October 12, 1992. (ED 354 298)

Lundy, C. M. "Women's Career Development in Trade Unions: The Need for a Holistic Approach." In New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education no. 80, edited by Laura Bierema, pp. 73-81. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1998. (EJ 555 056)

MacKenzie, S. "Workplace Learning Programs in the Changing 1990s." In Workplace Education: The Changing Landscape, edited by Maurice C. Taylor, pp. 179-188. Toronto, Ontario: Culture Concepts, 1997. (ED 404 573)

Payne, J. "Workers as Learners and Learners as Workers: Exploring the Boundaries of Workplace Learning." In Crossing Borders, Breaking Boundaries. Research in the Education of Adults. Proceedings of the Annual SCUTREA Conference, London, England, July 1997. Standing Conference on University Teaching and Research in the Education of Adults, 1997. (ED 409 438)

Rowden R. W. "Current Realities and Future Challenges." In New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education no. 72, edited by Robert W. Rowden, pp. 3-10. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1996. (EJ 542 233)

Schied, F. M. et al. "Worker-Centered Learning: Developing a Basic Skills Curriculum and Materials in a Union Setting." Harrisburg: Bureau of Adult Basic and Literacy Education, Pennsylvania State Department of Education, 1994. (ED 376 369)

Spencer, B. "Labour Education for 2001." In 37th Annual Adult Education Research Conference Proceedings, compiled by H. Reno and M. Witte. Tampa: University of South Florida, May 1996. (ED 419 087)

Watts, T., and Ford G. Trade Unions and Lifelong Guidance. NICEC TUC Briefing. Cambridge, England: Trade Union Congress; National Institute for Careers Education and Counseling, 1998. (ED 419 173)

Workers' Education Association. Bringing Down the Barriers. First WEA Submission to "The Learning Age" Consultation. London, England: Workers' Education Association, 1998a. (ED 423 388)

Workers' Education Association. Realising the Vision. Second WEA Submission to "The Learning Age" Consultation. London, England: Workers' Education Association, 1998b. (ED 423 389)

Workers' Education Association. Workers' Education, Civil Society and International Development. London, England: Workers' Education Association, 1998c. (ED 423 385)

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