Union learning representatives profiled

Statutory rights for 'union learning representatives' came into force in the UK in April 2003. This feature reviews the latest evidence on the spread, activities and impact of this new kind of workplace representative.

Where trade unions are recognised by employers, the Employment Act 2002 (UK0210103F) provides a statutory right to paid time off work for appropriately trained 'union learning representatives' (ULRs) to carry out a range of duties. These include:

  • analysing members’ learning or training needs;
  • advising members about learning or training matters;
  • arranging learning or training;
  • promoting the value of learning or training;
  • consulting the employer about these issues; and
  • undergoing training relevant to their functions.

The new statutory provisions came into force in April 2003 (UK0305102F), as did a revised Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (Acas) code of practice on time off for trade union duties and activities, which includes guidance on the practical application of ULRs’ time-off rights.

Following this statutory recognition of their role, the number of ULRs present in British workplaces has grown rapidly. This feature reviews the latest evidence on their profile, activities and impact.

TUC survey

According to a survey survey commissioned by the Trades Union Congress (TUC), published in November 2003, there has been an increase in the number of trained ULRs from 2,000 in 2000 to 6,500 in 2003. The TUC has set an ambitious target of 22,000 ULRs by 2010.

With regard to the demographic profile of ULRs:

  • there are currently far more men than women (62.5% and 37.5% respectively);
  • over half are aged over 45;
  • only 6% are from minority ethnic groups; and
  • just under 10% have a disability.

There has been a large growth since 2000 in ULRs in the public sector, where just over half are employed. Almost one-fifth of ULRs work in small to medium-sized organisations (with less than 250 employees).

It is also significant that the survey found that 28% of ULRs carried out no union functions before becoming a learning representative, compared with just 9% in 2000. The majority (59%) of the new activist ULRs were women.

The survey also reveals an increase in ULR activities:

  • 81% are involved in promoting the value of learning;
  • 82% in offering advice and guidance on learning;
  • 77% in getting information on learning opportunities;
  • 54% in negotiating learning with employers; and
  • 55% in developing on-site learning resources.

On average, ULRs spend 7.5 hours per month on ULR activities and over half have undertaken a 'learning needs assessment' at their workplace. In 51% of responses, URLs indicated that a learning agreement existed. In nearly half of these cases ULRs reported that the learning agreement was part of a wider partnership agreement, whilst around one-third said it was a stand-alone agreement.

The TUC and the government have been encouraged by the results of the 2003 survey. TUC general secretary Brendan Barber said in a statement: 'With 2,000 more reps out there pushing the learning agenda forward, unions are making a valuable contribution towards improving the skills of UK workers.' The government education secretary, Charles Clarke, commented: 'Their [ULRs’] work is vital to our productivity and underpins our drive to close the skills gaps holding back our competitiveness.'

Case studies of ULR activity

With the rapid spread of ULRs through both the public and private sectors, there are now many organisations held up as exemplars of the potential of union-employer learning agreements to create 'lifelong learning' opportunities for employees, often utilising the government’s Union Learning Fund. Leading examples from different industries include the following:

  • four years ago, brake pad manufacturer TMD Friction UK was trying to develop a new culture of lifelong learning as it moved towards cell-based manufacturing, which required employees to learn new skills to adapt to the new technology. The company also wanted employees to take on new tasks beyond their traditional semi-skilled and craft worker roles. In order to facilitate the changes the company embarked on a two-year project in partnership with the Transport and General Workers’ Union (TGWU) and Amicus. This involved training existing shop stewards and creating 36 ULRs to assist with identifying employees’ learning needs and finding suitable courses for them (reported by Incomes Data Services);
  • Metroline Buses has worked with the TGWU to provide employee training opportunities beyond basic skills. The company/union training partnership began by providing courses such as English as a second language, and has now grown into the provision of a 'learning bus', providing access to a dozen PCs for staff to use for non-work-related learning activities at the company’s garages. According to the company, drivers, engineers, cleaners and some management and administrative staff use the bus (reported by Personnel Today);
  • at British Bakeries, a learning centre for the company’s 280 employees has been established in partnership with the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers’ Union and a ULR has been seconded from the shopfloor to manage the centre on a full-time basis;
  • Gloucester City Services has worked with ULRs to support basic skills training among its predominantly manual workforce through a dedicated classroom containing 10 computers, plus access to a tutor, offering individual support for employees who want to develop their skills up to and beyond basic literacy and numeracy standards;
  • the Cleansing and Highways Department of the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham established a project with the GMB union to spread basic skills training, which takes place during work time, through the workforce. The borough is in the bottom five nationally in terms of literacy and numeracy and often has to recruit from beyond its boundaries to fill job vacancies; and
  • supermarket chain Sainsbury’s is another employer allowing learning to take place in work time under a project with the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers. Sainsbury’s now has 73 ULRs and its courses are geared towards basic skills, including English as a second language (reported in People Management, 26 June 2003).


The general message appears to be that the concepts of ULRs and 'lifelong learning' are perceived as positive by the three main industrial relations actors - government, employers and unions.

One of the arguments in favour of involving union representatives in learning is that it encourages a more 'bottom-up' approach to its development. The organisation, and by extension the economy, benefits because employees are more likely to be frank about their basic skill needs to a peer (ie their union representative) than they are to a manager. Addressing basic skill needs should help employers with staff recruitment and retention, as well as improve individual and organisational performance. From this perspective, we can see why employers and the government have taken such an interest in the concept of ULRs. However, it is also likely that not all employers are persuaded by the supposed merits of the presence of ULRs. The chief executive of the Employers’ Forum on Statute and Practice is reportedly concerned that 'companies will find themselves saddled with a new union official, and little idea of how to relate to them'.

From the union point of view, what is to be gained from partnership agreements generally, and learning agreements specifically? This is a very controversial question. Some academic commentators argue that the concept of union-employer partnership undermines the traditional union goal of improving members’ basic terms and conditions and redirects union efforts towards employer goals. Certainly, from the case studies of learning agreements it appears that employers are most interested in improving basic work-related skills, and although these might be 'sold' to employees as being developmental, there is a question mark surrounding whether and how the individual gains.

Why then are unions so interested in expanding ULR numbers? One reason is that basic skills training could provide an opportunity for low-skilled manual workers and others who left the state education system with few skills or qualifications to step onto a 'learning ladder', which could be enormously beneficial for individuals. Any union training course has some such individuals and providing educational opportunities to working class people is a longstanding aim of the trade union movement. Another reason is that it is widely believed that the concept of ULRs helps unions to create new agendas which might engage previously under-represented groups, such as women, part-time workers, manual workers and ethnic minority workers. With the changing demographic composition of the workforce, if the existence of ULRs assists the unions in reinventing themselves to appeal to a broader base of working people, they are likely to continue to have the backing of the union hierarchy. (Gill Kirton, Queen Mary, University of London)

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