Frances O’Grady Speech – 2014 Speech at the Unionlearn Conference

Below is the text of the speech made by Frances O’Grady to the 2014 Unionlearn conference.

Thanks Juliette [Alexander] and to everyone for coming.

Welcome to the 2014 unionlearn conference.

As ever, a great opportunity for us:

To celebrate our magnificent achievements in the field of learning and skills

To hear inspirational stories from ordinary workers we have supported

And to reflect on what the future holds for us.

I want to begin by saying thank you.

Thank you to all of our partners for the great support you give us. Thank you to our learning reps for your outstanding work. And thank you to the staff at unionlearn for doing such a great job.

I know the past few months have been incredibly tough. The government’s decision to slash our budget by almost a fifth has had a big impact. I’d be lying if I claimed otherwise.

But it’s thanks to your professionalism and commitment that we’ve still been able to support learners so effectively. This year, there have been 34 successful bids for new workplace projects. Each different. But each making a difference. And that’s what our work is all about.

Touching lives.

Changing lives.

Transforming lives.

A few months ago I travelled up to Stoke to meet workers in the ceramics industry. It’s a city that has borne the brunt of industrial change. Unemployment is higher than average and pay rates are low. But there I saw for myself how our work on learning is giving people hope.

People like David Barker. After leaving school he had a number of short-term jobs. He spent time on the dole. But at the age of 21, things changed for the better. With the support of his union Unity, he became an apprentice at Wedgwood.

A great scheme with employer and union working closely together. And, in the three years since, David has never looked back. He’s now got a highly-skilled job at the company’s visitor centre. And is looking forward to a bright future.

And just a couple of weeks ago I visited the BMW mini plant at Cowley. Thanks to a strong, well-organised site, the company has made a huge investment to secure the future of both Oxford and Swindon.

But the investment isn’t just in new kit and technology. Unite the union have ensured it’s in people too, including a top class apprenticeship programme that is helping young men and young women become the skilled workforce of the future. What’s more those apprentices are all union members.

This is the difference that only union learning can make.

Because we know that the best way to empower individual workers is through collective action. As the old trade union adage goes, together we are stronger.

And if anybody ever doubts that, I say let’s set the record straight. Tell them about the 220,000 workers we helped last year. Tell them about the men and women able to read to their kids for the first time, or speak a foreign language for the first time, or go to university for the first time.

Conference; trades unionism transforms lives.

Our work on learning is our movement at its best.

Positive, progressive, popular.

Focused firmly on the future.

Making our economy stronger and more productive.

Our society fairer and more mobile.

Our country brighter and more hopeful.

But for all the progress we have made, we still have a mountain to climb. In the autumn, the OECD laid bare the scale of the skills challenge facing Britain, how far we have slipped behind our competitors. In a damning report, the international organisation pointed to the huge training divide in our workplaces.

It underlined big skills gaps among young people, older workers and the disadvantaged. Revealed major weaknesses around intermediate and technical skills. And showed how inequality and poor skills are fundamentally and inextricably linked.

As trades unionists, we know we won’t address the former unless we crack the latter. In the long run, democratising education is the only sustainable way to make Britain more equal. Making learning for life, for all, a reality.

And self-evidently, what happens at work will be crucial. Now there are lots of good employers who make a real effort to train all their staff. ut it’s a sad fact that far too many organisations still neglect their responsibilities.

We know that nearly half the UK workforce do not receive training at work.

A national scandal.

And it’s those whose skills needs are most acute – migrant workers; people on zero hours contracts; agency staff – who are losing out the most.

It’s the same old story. The lion’s share of development opportunities going to the privileged few, the privately-educated elite who control so much of our national life. And working-class people all too often passed by. Simply left alone to learn to labour.

Righting this wrong – getting the pendulum swinging the other way – is why everything we do around the learning and skills agenda is so massively important.

And I’m proud that there is so much great work going on as I speak. To mention just a few examples:

We’re working with the National Numeracy charity, employers and education providers to boost numeracy skills.

We’re doing pioneering work to help workers in mid-career, with our joint project with NIACE attracting double the expected take-up.

And we’re making further improvements to trade union education, already recognised as among the best in the world.

TUC Ed is of course a critical part of the unionlearn offer. Last year, we trained 43,000 reps in the classroom and online. With a further 5,000 learning through e-Notes, our web-based service.

Trade union education is education with a purpose and we’re making a big impact in workplaces right across the country.

Let’s be clear: union learning reps are vital. But the success of union learning also depends on having well trained convenors, shop stewards, workplace reps and branch activists too.

Today we are launching a new study – “Still Making a Difference” – which underlines the continuing importance of our work. Copies are available here in the hall and online.

And I want to thank the 2,000-plus reps – including many learning reps – who took the time to give us detailed feedback for the report.

Conference, it doesn’t matter whether it’s Trade Union Education or union learning, we need to set our sights high.

And as the election approaches, I see three areas where can really shape the policy debate.

The first is young people. With youth unemployment still a terrible blight in our communities and nearly a million under-25s out of work, this is a huge challenge for all of us.

And whether it’s facilitating work placements or improving the new traineeships schemes, trade unions are helping our young people gain a foothold in the world of work. Giving lie to the myth that we’re only here to look after people already in a job.

The second area where we can lead from the front is apprenticeships. I’m proud that we’ve led the argument about the quality of schemes, really shaping the political consensus. In place of six-month long sham apprenticeships, we’ve shown that Britain needs proper schemes with good off-the-job training and decent terms and conditions.

And trade unions are in a unique position to make sure that happens. Last year, almost 6,000 apprenticeships were supported by ULF projects – a big increase on the previous figure. From the NHS to McVities, from the Fire & Rescue Service to Heathrow Airport, from Network Rail to Wolverhampton City Council, we’re working with employers in every sector of the economy.

Raising standards.

Raising expectations.

Raising quality.

And we should all be incredibly proud of that work.

Conference, the third area where we can shape the debate is intermediate and higher skills. It would be a big mistake to assume our work on learning was targeted only at lower-skilled workers.

We’re putting a lot of work into continuous professional development, helping workers with intermediate and higher skills move on to the next level. And we’re also addressing Britain’s chronic shortfall of technical skills – especially in science, engineering and technology.

Through our “Technician Pathways” project, we’re promoting the professional standing of technicians. Not just recognising the huge contribution they make to our economic life, but extending career development opportunities to this crucial group of workers.

Conference: tackling youth unemployment; making apprenticeships better; improving our technical and higher skills. These are the some of the huge challenges facing Britain today.

And our movement is showing that we’re a big part of the answer. Ultimately our work on learning and skills is about winning a better deal for working people.

The theme of our conference this year is “Britain needs a pay rise”. But in the long run, we’re not going to get a pay rise without a productivity rise. And we’re not going to get a productivity rise without a skills rise.

That’s why what we do matters so much.

Learning reps, course tutors, project workers, education providers, support staff – together we are helping to deliver the learning revolution Britain needs.

Giving all working people – regardless of class, gender, race, age, ability or background – the chance to fulfil their true potential at work and in life.

A genuinely noble cause.

So my message to you today is simple:

Keep up the good work.

Keep innovating.

And keep changing lives.