Educating for the struggles ahead

Lindsey McDowell explains the big perspective that lies behind the FBU’s educational work.

There’s an old adage that ‘education is not the filling of a pail but the lighting of a fire’. It speaks wisely. Learning should make us full of energy and change us in a way there’s no going back from, not leave us feeling heavier and more difficult to move. So, if education is about lighting fires, where does that place learning in an organisation representing firefighters?

Union education always faces inwards and outwards. We build strength from the inside, growing capacity, providing the means by which our unions can make their objectives a reality. Every strategy, policy and decision in a collective organisation, from recruitment to industrial action to international solidarity, requires people to make it happen. We can support and develop democratic leadership at all levels so that no one is deterred from becoming active and getting others involved, overcoming whatever preconception they have about what a trade unionist looks and sounds like. Through debate and dialogue, we change how activists and reps see themselves and how they understand their own agency, turning latent power of workers into a tangible reality.

Education is also the process through which we start to have an impact on the world around us. A union needs its presence to be felt as widely and deeply as possible to be effective. While public profile and national negotiations are essential, reps and active members can make their presence felt in their workplaces using confidence, knowledge and judgement that’s been explored, tested and shared in an informal collective learning space. Understanding that a rep’s authority comes from having active members and learning that reps have rights in the workplace means poor health and safety practice will be improved, inappropriate conduct challenged, and the employer may think twice before attempting to implement something unreasonable. Add to that recognising every member is a whole worker with a network and community which can be connected to union campaigns through outreach and solidarity, and education is changing not just the reps in the classroom, but members, workplaces and communities.

The landscape of decision-making and bargaining throughout our public services has changed, as a result of formal fragmentation and austerity-imposed local cost saving and corner cutting. Unions may try to accommodate to this by individualising their offer to members, or denying it to maintain their existing structures, but the inevitable impact at local level is that decisions will be made. Either unions are involved – consciously and carefully investing in their reps, supporting them in formal and informal negotiations – or they’re not. We can no longer simply train reps to deliver a defined function that is constant and permanent. Reps in this fragmented context need to be able to speak up, be local leaders, and be conscious – aware of the dynamics at play in work and the ideological and economic forces affecting the service they work in. They need to feel agency and be able to instil a sense of that in their members.

To develop that self-reliance and confidence in reps, we need to offer education which is an on-going learning process, rooted in their lived experience. Activists’ education takes place primarily on the ground, with their learning and support coming from their local officials and/or the equality networks they may belong to, and sometimes from others in the wider movement. Mentoring is a necessity in democratic organisations. Reps get involved in meetings, activity, discussions with members, and interactions with employers, and they learn, ideally carrying on learning for as long as they are involved in their union.

Classroom-based learning is a part of this process, and also separate from it – a union space where he time, environment and fuel for thinking and growing is provided. There is the opportunity to reflect on and evaluate what’s been learned on the ground. We have the opportunity to show our values through our practice in the classroom. Hearing from reps from other workplaces develops solidarity and class consciousness as well as contributing to knowledge and understanding. Engaging in discussion and debate substantiates the democratic principles of our movement. There is a world of experience and theory that we can and must share with every new generation of activists and officials.

As with all organising activities, we have to listen as well as talk. We have to provide spaces in our courses and beyond where reps can talk and listen to each other so that they can teach as they learn. And if we get this right, if we’re listening to reps collectivising their individual lived experiences, then they’re teaching us as well. As educators we learn from every group we facilitate. Done correctly, as learners engaging critically in the world around them, education provides a platform for a union to learn, as reps describe the injustices, challenges and successes of their lived experience in work. They are making suggestions, evaluating the way we’ve always done things, and defying common sense to become active in the union right here and right now.

Classroom-based union education is expensive and time-consuming, but there is no substitute. Unions continue to offer a challenge to our individualised, corporatized existence and education is an inalienable right for all working people. On the occasion of the FBU’s centenary we recognise that collective learning is crucial to passing on our heritage and firing up our newest reps and activists.

Lindsey McDowell is the Head of Education at the Fire Brigades Union. Previously, she worked for the National Union of Teachers as a Training Adviser. Her emphasis is on democratic and facilitated learning and the transformative power of union education. She is a contributor to Trade Union Education: Transforming the World (New Internationalist, 2017).