ERIC Identifier: ED259213
Publication Date: 1985-00-00
Author: Naylor, Michele
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on Adult Career and Vocational Education Columbus OH.

Organized Labor Education and Training Programs. Overview. ERIC Digest No. 43.

Despite long and widespread existence in the United States (labor unions currently represent approximately 22 percent of the United States work force), unions are still the subject of misunderstanding. MacKenzie (1984) has discussed the conflicting perceptions of those who view labor unions as an essential means of protecting the interests of workers in the workplace and of those who feel that labor unions are in direct "competition with the business and industrial community for the loyalty of American Workers and in the selection and election of political candidates."

However, the function of the labor union is not limited to assisting its members in collective bargaining efforts, but includes contract administration and arbitration, strikes, political action, legislative activity, union administration, research activities, organization of the unorganized, education, and community activity (MacKenzie 1984).


Most of the functions of labor unions fall into two areas--union administration and representation of member interests. It follows, therefore, that unions have an interest in providing the following types of training programs (MacKenzie 1984):

--Apprenticeship training to prepare skilled workers for the workplace

--Labor education and labor studies to enable union officers and members to perform their institutional and professional functions

--Vocational education to help workers develop new skills or upgrade existing ones

--Self-improvement education to enhance members' abilities in such areas as citizenship, basic skills, or cultural awareness


Among the major types of training sponsored by unions, apprenticeship training is intended as a system to develop skilled workers through a combination of supervised on-the-job training and classroom instruction. Apprenticeship training has been in existence since the Elizabethan Age and has been regulated by the United States government since 1937.

Terms of apprenticeship, class hour requirements, and age limitations vary with individual programs. The average apprenticeship period lasts from three to four years and is supplemented by 144 hours of classroom training. Control of an apprenticeship program can be a joint effort of the employer and labor union or can be either the primary or sole responsibility of either party.

Traditionally, apprenticeship programs were used to train workers for employment in the skilled trades or in crafts occupations. However, recent technological advancement has led to the expansion of apprenticeship training into many occupational areas--particularly medical and computer technology--which were previously considered semi-skilled and for which on-the-job training, as opposed to formal apprenticeship training, had been deemed sufficient.


Labor education and labor studies programs are designed to help union officers and members perform their union-related functions. Although traditionally considered a part of adult education, labor education differs from adult education in its attempts to integrate workers into education through labor unions. Topics commonly addressed in labor programs include the following: workers' institutions; the function of the labor union; workers' responsiblities as citizens of state, nation, and world; issues and problems of the workplace; and laws governing unions and the workplace.

In addition to nondegree labor education programs, credit and degree programs in labor studies have existed in this country since 1967. Originally offered at the master's level, labor studies programs are designed primarily to train professionals for trade unions, for all levels of government, and for private industry.

Labor studies programming focuses on the labor union from the perspective of the social sciences and deals with the scope of bargaining; the relationships between labor, economic, social, and political systems; labor history and the law; the psychology of leadership; and current and future problems facing labor and labor unions.

Because labor education attempts to reach union members through their unions, many universities have begun working with unions within their respective states to establish labor advisory boards to assist and advise labor unions and their labor centers.


According to MacKenzie (1984), 70 percent of the labor education offered in the United States is provided by universities and colleges, and 25 percent is provided by labor unions. Labor education programs can either be cosponsored by the postsecondary education and union sectors or sponsored by one or the other sector.

Colleges and Universities

The development of university labor education programs has evolved through three distinct phases. In the first phase, which lasted until the post-World War ll era, labor education was delivered as a form of adult and continuing education; programs were staffed by professional labor educators using adult education methodologies.

The second phase of university labor education was marked by the creation of industrial relations programs at major universities. Formal recognition of the existence of a body of interdisciplinary knowledge surrounding labor unions and their functions led to the third phase--the beginning of credit labor studies programs.

Community Colleges

The establishment of community colleges in the l960s opened new educational opportunities for workers and especially for union members. Faced with faculty and resource restrictions and the realization that, in many areas, the demand for labor education was already being met by established university-based labor education programs, many community colleges turned their attention to the development of labor studies associate degree programs.

For the most part, these degree programs emphasized introductory courses in labor relations, labor law, union and contract administration, union communications, and the history of unions and their role in the community. Frequently, such programs reflected primary trade union interests and were adapted to the local union and labor force mix.

Early program difficulties such as the quality of available instruction and the lack of basic and supplementary instructional materials were eventually remedied as a result of union support of college budget increases and community colleges' growing ability to work with unions. Community college-sponsored labor education programs are undergoing continuing expansion.


Despite the development of postsecondary programs, barriers to workers' participation in labor education and training still exist.

Although training trust and tuition aid plans are available to workers who want to participate in postsecondary programs, only a relatively small percentage of workers takes advantage of these financial aid plans.

Smith (1982) cites the following factors in an attempt to account for workers' low participation rates: lack of confidence in their ability to succeed in an educational setting, lack of information about available benefits, lack of information about educational opportunities, lack of encouragement, and lack of flexible work schedules.


Based on a survey of workers, unions, and management conducted by the National Institute for Work and Learning (NIWL) and on a number of case studies of successful union-sponsered efforts to increase workers' participation in labor education, MacKenzie (1984) suggests the following strategies for increasing workers' participation in labor education.

--Increasing efforts to disseminate information about educational opportunities and available financial aid

--Providing career and personal counseling to workers contemplating participation in labor education programs

--Improving linkages between the work site and educational providers

--Expanding the notion of job-related courses and programs

--Increasing the availability of tuition prepayment plans

--Devising more flexible work schedules

--Providing incentives for workers to participate in tuition aid programs

--Devoting special attention to the needs of women and minorities


MacKenzie, J. R. ORGANIZED LABOR EDUCATION AND TRAINING PROGRAMS. Information Series No. 286. Columbus, OH: ERIC Clearinghouse on Adult, Career, and Vocational Education, The National Center for Research in Vocational Education, The Ohio State University, 1984. ED 248 387.

Smith, G. TYPES OF WORKERS' EDUCATIONAL BENEFITS. Topic Paper No. 5. Washington, D.C.: Labor Education Advisory Services, l982. ED 263 402.

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