Making sense of a world that impacts us all

Below is a short piece by experienced trade union educator and activist Mel Corry on Trademarks political education for trade union activists and staff. For more info on Trademark check out 

“The popular element “feels” but does not always know or understand; the intellectual element “knows” but does not always understand and in particular does not always feel.” Antonio Gramsci 

This quote from Gramsci encapsulates why we at Trademark have been developing more political content for Trade Union education over the last number of years.

As long ago as 2012 we looked at the various education products that were available to workplace reps as soon as they were elected. Some unions had very comprehensive programmes ranging from shop stewards, introduction and advanced stages as well as health and safety stages 1&2. They may also have had the odd equality class built in or a course on pensions. Some unions did not provide any training at all but rather directed their reps towards ICTU programmes.

The common theme that emerged was that in general unions were very good at providing adequate training which gave the rep the skills to be able to carry out the function of the workplace rep but neglected any analysis of the system. It did not deal with fundamental political questions that challenge the balance of power between capital and labour or ask why do we need unions? What is the balance of forces in the Industrial relations arena? Who really benefits from my labour? Why should I pay tax? Crucially it did not seek to develop the organic intellectuals that exist among our membership that enable them to understand, feel and engage in struggle.

We set about providing a course that assumed the participants had enough support to develop their skills but would benefit from an examination of the world around them.  Our earliest attempts were crude and disjointed but we knew we had hit on something by the feedback.  We organised weekend schools in our offices with no paid release from work or union expenses and they were always oversubscribed. This fact alone was enough for us to refine the content and delivery and offer it to unions.

We were lucky to work with Mandate and NIPSA, the public sector union in the North, both unions were at the sharp end of defending members’ terms and conditions and still are.  We believe that if reps are to convince workers of the need to take industrial action then the union should ensure they have the ability to answer the complex questions that will be asked from the membership.

As Unite members we were delighted to play a role in developing this model for community activists as part of the Right2Change campaign and the appetite for political education is as strong among  community activists as it is among trade unionists.

Every group of participants has given us reason to update and refine the course content and along with rapidly changing political circumstances the course today is very different from the first one we delivered.

Many commentators have remarked that the changing political landscape could not have been predicted. Many of those who attended our political education courses have been exposed to the possibility that Trump could become the next president of the USA or that Britain would vote to leave the EU or that the British Labour Party would rediscover its social democratic values and shift to the left. They are also dispelled of the myth that there is no alternative.

We don’t see it as our job to point to an alternative but rather give the workers hope that another type of world is possible indeed essential for our continued existence as a species.

It is our task now to argue for politics to run through all our education processes. We should be asking why is healthy and safety important as well as how do I argue for safety.  Reps should be able to argue with the economic information they’ve been given by the employer during collective bargaining scenarios. As Stevie Nolan has remarked when you cut through trade union education it should be like slicing through Blackpool rock, politics runs right through it.

Modesty dictates that I enclose only a couple of the many positive reviews of our training, check out the rest for yourselves.

Mel Corry.

Great training this weekend thank you it was accessible engaging and interesting. It made sense of a world that impacts on all of us and that we should understand and challenge. I’ve already been sharing points from the course with my neighbour the night I got back and will continue to do what I can for social justice.

An outstanding training, essential for any person who cares about our world, our history, past and present and our future. I was engrossed from the minute it began right to the very end. Thought provoking and emotive. Well done for delivering so well such an insightful couple of days. Thank you!