Global Labour University

GLU Alumni Research Project

Worker's Education and its Role in a Critical Political Consciousness

The research aims to document and analyse Workers' Education (WE) activities in unions, labour associations/groups/NGOs and assess their impact on the critical political consciousness of the workers who participated in those education activities. It also attempts to gain inspiration from best practices to improve further education activities.

about the project


The labour movement not only represents the interests of workers, struggles for workers’ rights or counsels workers, but it also valued education as a means to strengthen workers’ capacities and empower them to transform society. As highlighted by ACTRAV “Unions’ education has always been at the core of union action” (ILO Bureau for Workers’ Activities 2007: 1). Most trade unions and labour associations/NGOs in the world are indeed involved in educational activities. This educational work is sometimes termed Workers’ Education (WE).

Workers’ Education is not a unified concept: it has many forms, contents, and objectives and its focus change over time. It can cover basic literacy education, education for unions’ representatives, education for changes in society (eg education on globalisation, education for social justice, gender education), education for action (empowerment, organising) and many more. Focusing on unions, Spencer identifies 3 areas of ​​core union education:

  • preparing and training lay members to play an active role in the union
  • educating activists and members about union policy and changes in the union environment
  • developing union consciousness, building common goals, and sharing campaigning and organizing experiences. (Spencer 2007: 11)

He points out that “Labour education has a social purpose – to promote and develop the union presence and purposes, to advance the union collectively.” (Spencer 2007: 11)

However, Workers’ Education is not only about advancing the union collectively, it can also be about developing critical political consciousness for fundamental changes in the lives of workers and society at large. As stated by Benítez and Calderón:

The Trade union movement needs upright people with strong critical faculties. Only then will practice having liberating content. Trade union training must generate an attitude of ethical commitment, given the demanding task of achieving the common good. This also implies promoting political awareness among workers, so that they are in a position to judge and question historical contexts and shackling structures (Benítez; Calderón 2007: 79)”.

The Global Labour University (GLU) -which is one education project of the labour movement- is best rusted to conduct case studies on the role of Workers’ Education in various countries: many alumni are involved in Workers’ Education in many different places of the world and the GLU has links to organization and researchers in education (e.g. WITS University/South Africa, Global Labour Institute ) who are interested in cooperating in the research as well as in the research outputs.

Research gap and research question:

Previous research of the Global Labour University “The Quest for Alternatives beyond (neoliberal) Capitalism” has dealt with how workers develop their consciousness through their productive activities and struggles. This research project on Workers’ Education will explore if and how far education can also contribute to changing people’s awareness and consciousness. Bowles, Gintis and Meyer (1999) for example have shown that consciousness is not only reproduced
through the individual’s contact in the production sphere – work and its membership in a particular class – but also through institutions of reproduction like the educational system or the family ( like also Bourdieu reproduction of inequalities in education institutions though cultural capital). While they did not argue if and how, another kind of education, like Workers’ Education, could at least partly break with the status quo in society, Cooper (2007) tried to show that “educators” influence the political consciousness of workers in some Pockets of the labour movement in South Africa. Is the labour movement able to bring about a change in critical political consciousness through education? Which kind of education can fulfil this role? Which practices result from workers’ education? This research will explore these questions.
International studies on Workers’ Education are in short supply (The only comprehensive study has been undertaken by Hopkins in 1985) as well as Literature on if and how Workers’ Education influences a critical political consciousness (eg Cooper 2007); this research group on an education wants to contribute to fill this gap and to specifically answer the research question: What is the meaning, content and aim of WE and (how) does it impact on workers critical political consciousness?


Phases of the research:

Research on Workers’ Education and its role in critical political consciousness imply that in the first phase of education concepts and activities are documented and analyzed and that a set of criteria for critical political consciousness is developed. In a second phase, the impact of these educational activities can then be analyzed.

1. First phase – Objectives:

  • Identifying and assessing the meaning, aim, content and form of Workers’ Education (WE)
  • Identifying the function of WE – how does it complement the other activities (collective bargaining, strikes, organising, counselling, etc.) of the labour movement.
  • Reviewing the literature on workers’ education and political consciousness through education
  • Identifying and assessing the short term (at the end of training/course, etc.) impact of WE

2. Second phase – Objectives:

  • Developing minimum criteria and a method for the analysis of critical political
  • Identifying and assessing the long term impact of WE on workers’ critical political consciousness and its link to practices consciousness and workers’ education
  • Identifying the potential and limits of WE

Benítez C.; Calderón E. R. (2007): “Trade union training and labour education in Latin America – Progress and challenges”, in: Strengthening the trade unions: The key role of labour education”, Labour Education 2007/1-2, no. 146-147: 75-83

Bowles, S.; Gintis, H. and Meyer, P. (1999): “The Long Shadow Of Work: Education the Family, and the reproduction of the Social Division of Labour.”, in: Critical Sociology., 25, Issue 2-3: 286-305

Bridgford, J.; Stirling, J. (2000): Trade union education in Europe, Brussel, European Trade Union College.

Cooper, L. (2007): Workers’ education and political consciousness: a case study from South Africa

Harker, R., (1990): “Education and Cultural Capital”, in: Harker, R., Mahar, C., & Wilkes, C., (eds) An Introduction to the Work of Pierre Bourdieu: the practice of theory, London, Macmillan Press

International Labour Organisation (ILO), Bureau for Workers’ Activities (2007): The role of trade unions in workers’ education: The key to trade union capacity building, Background paper, International Workers’ Symposium, Geneva, 8–12 October 2007

Ryklief, S. (2009): Adult Learning as a Global Challenge, Presentation at the 90th Anniversary Seminar of the Workers’ Educational Association of Finland (TSL), Helsinki, 1st September 2009

Spencer, B. (2007): “The present and future challenges of labour education in the global economy”, in: Strengthening the trade unions: The key role of labour education, Labour Education, 2007/1-2, no. 146-147: 11-17

Spooner. D. (2001): Workers’ Education and Workers in the Informal Economy.

Contact Person

For additional information, please contact:

Project Coordinator:
» Luciole Sauviat

Consent Management Platform by Real Cookie Banner