Kevin Rowan is head of organisation, services and skills at the Trades Union Congress. He is also director of Unionlearn, the TUC’s learning and skills organisation; the Union Learning Fund (ULF); and TUC Education – the TUC’s programme of workplace representatives’ training. He represents the TUC on the Regional Skills Partnership, the Regional ERDF Programme Monitoring Committee and is a board member of NORCARE and Equality North East and a member of the North East Economic Forum. Kevin will be a speaker at the Co-operative Education Conference, held in Manchester on 1-2 May.
What does your typical working day involve?
My role at the TUC is fairly broad, so no two days are the same, which is great in one regard, but can make planning a bit difficult. From week to week I will spend some of my time enjoying spending time with key trade unions, talking with officers and reps and understanding the key issues they are dealing with; meeting with civil servants, officials and ministers about a range of policy issues – on learning and skills for sure – but also public spending and public sector pay, transport policy, health and safety or public services reform. I head up a large team at the TUC too, covering the whole of England and Wales, so I travel a lot and it’s important I try to get the right balance of talking with and listening to my colleagues.
How did you get involved in the training and education element of the TUC?
I became a trade union representative at a young age and benefited greatly from a comprehensive trade union education programme. As someone who relied a lot on instinct, having a good trade union education helped to make up for my lack of experience. It was immensely valuable to me. I was then invited by a trade union education unit to train to become a tutor and enjoyed that. Trade union reps are volunteers: they come from a range of backgrounds, but are united in their motivation to help and support their colleagues. Trade union education brings them together in a really positive way. I later became a TUC tutor full time before working for the GMB as a regional education officer and regional manager for Unionlearn at the TUC – I fundamentally believe that the work the TUC does to empower and enable reps to have the skills, knowledge and confidence to be an effective rep in the workplace is one of the most critical functions we have.
Have you worked with co-operatives in the past?
Yes, there’s certainly a number of cross-overs between the TUC and the co-operative movement, largely around worker co-ops and how that can sustain standards for workers, from peripatetic music teachers to groups of care workers. Pressure on local government spending has also driven a number of authorities to consider different service delivery models. For all kinds of reasons we and the co-operative movement have identified a range of problems with straight private sector outsourcing – something that has come to an explosive head with the collapse of Carillion – and co-operatives offer an alternative model to that.
What can co-ops and trade unions learn from each other?
I always end up talking about power. Where there is absolute synergy between the co-operative movement and the TUC is when considering notions of industrial democracy. Both organisations believe fundamentally about a balance of power in the workplace, a participative democracy and voice at work that enables workers to have not just responsibility for the tasks they are given, but ownership of the shape and design of that work too – ultimately a much more productive way of working and one with much healthier outcomes.
Should there be more education within the trade union movement about co-ops, and vice versa?
Values are common across the two organisations and I would hazard a guess that many activists cross both organisations too. As I am of the view that we don’t stop learning, a natural addendum to that is that we don’t stop learning from each other, so yes, of course.
What areas of collaboration between trade unions and co-ops would be fruitful?
There are fewer large institutions in the public and the private sector. The economic and social landscape is arguably more dynamic – it’s certainly more disjointed at a firm level. It’s also much more fragmented at an individual level as the variety of models of employment range from full time and permanent to a gig worker who doesn’t even know who their employer is. Exploring a form of business that is more conducive to a productive enterprise that values workers seems to me to be an area that could be ripe for collaboration.
What would you like to see from a co-operative university?
I think building on the above, really: what does the future of work look like from a co-operative perspective? How can we marry productive economic activity, good quality employment and flexibility and adaptability to enable workers to do well, not just in their current employment, but in future work too?
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