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Many CUPE members look to workplace training as a solution to workload problems. But in some cases, employers do not provide any or it’s only for senior management. In others, experienced workers are asked to train new workers, thus adding to their own workload.

Members who are being trained, assume a ‘learning load’, sometimes without any reduction in their workload. And when they are off the job for training, they’re not always replaced, increasing the pressure on their co-workers. When our employers do provide training, it often does not address the needs of our members as learners.

We’ve all heard about “lifelong learning”. Government and the media would have us believe that any training is “good”. They say that workers who receive training are more skilled, more productive, more efficient and better equipped to contribute to the global economy.

But employer-driven training programs can increase workload by entrenching unrealistic work practices. They can also increase our members’ feelings of loss of control at work, and cut further into family time…and budgets. They can individualize workload issues by targeting and stigmatizing those among us who are struggling with workload – often, for understandable reasons.

We don’t always share the same objectives for workplace training programs with our employers. They are looking for efficiencies and ways to save money, often to respond to government funding cuts. An obvious solution is to find ways to get us to work harder and faster.

On the other hand, as union activists, we’re looking for ways to improve our members’ quality of life and, hopefully, build a stronger union. It’s not surprising that these different agendas would clash in a workplace training program.

How do we see it in our workplaces?

To find out whether a workplace training program will help solve workload problems – or make them worse – we first have to understand what is causing the problem.

Today, when training is an issue in a CUPE workplace – either because it doesn’t exist or because it isn’t helping our members – it is usually tied to a management-driven reorganization of the work.

Work reorganization was traditionally associated with industrial jobs – from “scientific management” in the early 1900s to “continuous improvement” in the past 20 years. Private sector employers have tried a long list of trendy schemes. Their goal has been to make bigger profits by wringing maximum productivity out of workers.

Private sector jobs have been de-skilled and simplified, and management has kept firm control over work practices. Concepts like work teams and quality circles have been introduced to make workers feel they have some control over their work.

Today’s right-wing governments promote tax cuts, privatization and globalization. With that agenda in mind, work reorganization schemes are flooding the public sector, including most CUPE workplaces.

While the language of public sector work reorganization is focused on “efficiency” and “cost savings” rather than “profit”, the schemes are identical and the real goal is still maximizing profit for wealthy investors and cutting taxes for wealthy taxpayers.

These are examples of work reorganization schemes in CUPE workplaces. Each creates its own serious workload problems for our members:

  • Institutional or departmental mergers. Example: health care sector – hospital mergers, departmental mergers and consolidations in areas such as housekeeping and laboratory services.
  • Redesigned job classifications or job tasks. Example: social service case workers face expanded administrative duties because of cuts in clerical staff.
  • Increased monitoring and time studies. Example: clerical and custodial workers timed while they work according to pre-set criteria, to eliminate so-called “wasteful” human effort.
  • Increased emphasis on “productivity and efficiency” rather than “public or client service”. Example: changes in the culture of the workplace, constantly reinforced through verbal and written communication from management
  • Reduction of “unnecessary” staff positions, or replacement of full-time with part-time or casual positions. Examples: health (nursing care and housekeeping), education (school board secretaries and custodians) and library services
  • Contracting out. Examples: bargaining unit work, as with municipal services such as waste disposal or recycling, and management work, with companies like Service Master and private consulting firms like PricewaterhouseCoopers. Both reinforce a shift to “private sector” management thinking and practices.
  • Total Quality Management (TQM). Example: continuous improvement programs promoted as a way to increase worker participation in reorganizing our work.
  • New technology. Examples: computerization of clerical work, new equipment in municipal and education sectors. The goal is often to reduce staff and increase workload; for example, providing personal computers to professional workers to do their own administrative support work.

Effects on CUPE members

Work reorganization – and the work overload it causes – can have a devastating effect on our members. Inadequate training programs can worsen that effect – especially if it’s seen as a “last chance” to keep our job, as it often is. Some of the effects include:

  • Increased physical and mental health problems, including fatigue, illness, stress, substance abuse, deteriorating personal relationships, depression, and apathy on and off the job.
  • Escalating tension between members as conflict erupts over the distribution of work, requirements to train new workers or members being forced to compete against each other in “merit” or “incentive” systems.
  • Decreased work satisfaction and performance as members feel we can’t keep up with the increased tasks (quantitative overload) or gain the skills they need for new tasks (qualitative overload).
  • Increased job fear, a feeling that our jobs are vulnerable and may disappear or that we won’t be able to learn the skills to perform remaining jobs. Many long-term employees accept “voluntary” buy-outs to avoid further stress and job fear.
  • Less senior members are left behind with increased job demands but there are fewer experienced workers to mentor us through difficult new tasks.

While all CUPE members feel effects like these, some of us face added barriers to coping:

  • Women workers with a triple workload—at work, at home and in the community—might find it impossible to schedule the training they need to improve their working conditions.
  • Workers with limited literacy or French and English language skills often feel vulnerable when new skill requirements such as reading, writing or operating new technologies are introduced. While training appears to be the solution for these workers, it can also intensify their stress and feelings of inadequacy.
  • Immigrant and visible minority workers may experience increased racism, sexism and harassment resulting from escalating workplace tension and job fear. Note that immigrant workers can be ’overqualified’ for their jobs but their foreign credentials are not recognized in Canada.
  • Workers of colour and gay and lesbian workers, for example, can easily become the target of backlash among workers left behind after layoffs.
  • Immigrant, visible minority and women workers may also be more vulnerable to layoff as they tend to be more frequently clustered in part-time and casual jobs.
  • Older workers who have had little opportunity for formal education or job training feel vulnerable because they fear their inability to “keep up” will lead to layoff.

What can we do about it?

  1. Set goals and objectives based on a needs assessment of our membership. Often, the first step is to have a ”vision” and then work backward. For example, a local union might decide it wants to ensure that every member has access to basic skills education, such as English or French as a second language. That’s the vision – how does the union achieve it? Some questions:
  • Why does the union want to do this?
  • Who will be involved in the planning, programs, etc.?
  • How will our members’ training needs be assessed?
  • When will committee meetings and programs take place?
  • Where will committee meetings and programs take place?
  • Who will pay?
  1. Establish a joint committee and guidelines for dealing with the employer. Before agreeing to work on training with the employer, there should be agreement on guidelines. For example:
  • A joint workplace training committee with equal representation and decision-making authority; paid time for union members, including time for caucuses between meetings.
  • Access to on-going training from the union so union representatives can be effective.
  • Recognition by the employer that the union has its own, separate agenda, and will only work on a joint basis where both agendas work together.
  1. Build local union skills and knowledge about training. We need to equip our locals with practical skills and knowledge. We need to identify activists to be on training committees. They need to know how to assess our members’ needs and carry out programs. Our activists need a solid understanding of workplace training issues. Among other things, they need to know:
  • the importance of working with public educators,
  • what needs to be done before starting programs,
  • how programs can be evaluated for success,
  • how to guarantee access, especially for equality seeking groups.
  1. Plan for the long term. Many well-intentioned locals have rushed into training without looking at how to make it sustainable and financially secure in the long term. Once the local builds interest and expectations among the members about good quality training, these expectations need to be met on an on-going basis. How will the union sustain its training programs and services? The main approaches include:
  • Bargaining a workplace training fund, for example, a formula for cents per hour per member or lump sums.
  • Signing voluntary agreements that include a financial formula.
  • Applying or lobbying for government funding. This type of funding needs to be carefully examined because it often comes with strings attached. As well, many good workplace programs have been dismantled once government funding ended.

The employer’s training agenda

Training programs might be included in these work reorganization schemes…or they might not. Often, training is included to meet the employer’s needs and to entrench new work practices. It doesn’t necessarily equip workers to deal with new and increased responsibilities.

If it is provided, training might be on our time and at our own expense. This seriously limits access for many members. Also, it is often limited in time and scope. Usually it is delivered by private for-profit trainers with little grasp of the needs of our members, let alone those who require basic education to be successful in other training courses.

Some examples of training that can make our workload problems worse:

  • Multi-skilling and multi-tasking. Management often portrays multi-skilling as a way of breaking down traditional job classifications so that jobs are more interesting and varied. In reality, most multi-skilling and multi-tasking is designed to make it easier to for management to add more work to existing jobs or to bring in less skilled workers at lower rates of pay.
  • Total Quality Management. TQM programs often include “soft skills training” in concepts like team building, decision making, and action planning. In most cases, the employer’s goal is not to significantly alter power relations, but to obscure them by creating the appearance of more worker control and democracy. In fact, little changes except that the workers are expected to forgo their own legitimate interests in favour of management’s.
  • Competency-based training. Often used when new tasks or new technology is introduced, this approach to training assumes that job tasks can be “scientifically” analyzed and linked to specific performance outcomes. Outcomes are based on management criteria, such as quantity, reducing costs, etc. The problem is that this kind of training ignores workers’ broader needs for job satisfaction and skills that go beyond management-defined requirements. These needs are routinely excluded from either the training “needs analysis” or the performance outcomes.

CUPE’s training agenda

An active union strategy for workplace training can be an effective way to challenge management control over work reorganization and, by extension, work overload. It can also help build the union by involving members who have the fewest skills and are traditionally passed over for training. Also, it can be a powerful tool to empower members and build solidarity around a union, not management, agenda.

Here are some key considerations in planning a union training agenda. Training must:

  • Go beyond a particular task or job by helping our members learn how to “think” not just “do”.
  • Be open to everyone at the workplace, not just the youngest and fittest. This demand also becomes an important equity tool for the union.
  • Raise the level of everyone at the workplace, not just selected occupations or areas.
  • Be based on an analysis of worker needs and not just limited to employer needs.
  • Support the development of good, safe, well-paid jobs with adequate working hours – jobs that allow a worker to exercise her or his own reasoning and control and provide on-going opportunities to learn new skills.
  • Be based on the practices of good adult education, respecting the prior knowledge of learners and encouraging questions, discussions and participation.
  • Be offered in conjunction with the public education system; for example, school boards, colleges and universities.

CUPE success stories

About a quarter of CUPE collective agreements have language about training. Clauses include training related to technological change, reimbursement for job specific and general education courses, paid education leave, apprenticeship training and joint training committees.

CUPE 500’s recent deal with the City of Winnipeg says “it is to the mutual benefit of the employer and the employee to improve the educational, training and developmental opportunities of the workforce.” The agreement includes funding, in the form of a $3 million Human Resource Development Fund. A joint committee administers the fund and has started to implement programs including:

  • Problem solving, effective communication and conflict resolution for union stewards and supervisors;
  • Programs to eliminate harassment and discrimination;
  • Organizational requirements of management outlined in previous employer-union studies;
  • Training for CUPE members affected by workplace restructuring;
  • New or expanded training that is in the interests of the employer and CUPE;
  • Methods of selecting candidates for training.

In addition, the language includes details on the composition of a senior steering committee; the requirement for a jointly formulated training plan and ongoing reports to steering committee; a dispute resolution mechanism; and the requirement that certification and accreditation as conditions of employment be reviewed and recommended jointly.

CUPE’s Hospital Employees’ Union (HEU) in British Columbia has worked jointly with employers on a negotiated and voluntary basis to provide job training. It involves training health care workers affected by restructuring, technological change and work reorganization. Training includes nursing and personal care, housekeeping and dietary, clerical, and information technology.

HEU has also negotiated and delivered basic skills training for its members. The HEU basic skills program works closely with the public college system and uses peer tutors to deliver programs.

In New Brunswick, hospital workers negotiated an apprenticeship program to train laid- off clerical workers to be electricians and ventilator system mechanics.

Municipal locals in St. John’s, NF, Bathurst and Moncton, NB, Edmonton and Port Moody, BC, have implemented joint workplace basic skills programs. These cover areas such as communications, writing, numeracy and basic computer skills.

Saskatchewan education locals adopted a policy paper on workplace training at their 1999 bargaining conference. It addressed changes in information technology, the restructuring of workplaces and employer demands for higher qualifications and skill levels.

CUPE 1280 and 1328, representing Toronto Catholic School Board workers, joined with the Metro Labour Education Centre to do a training needs assessment of their members.

University workers in Victoria (CUPE 591) negotiated a career-development fund based on a contribution of $1 per member per month. They also agreed to form a joint committee to “consider and deal with specific funding requests and proposals from individual employees for their career development.”

Education locals across the school board and post-secondary sectors have negotiated paid professional development days. Decisions about content are made jointly, employees attend on the employer’s time and often the union delivers the program.

Many locals are involved in joint training days on issues such as harassment, stress and violence in the workplace. Again, these are paid for by the employer and delivered by the union.

Finally, CUPE’s national literacy project is exploring ways to support locals who want to do more to meet the basic skills needs of our members across the country.


Workplace training programs can help our members deal with workload. They can increase our sense of control over our work, and improve our quality of life – at work and at home. Good programs can even help build solidarity by providing a forum for members to find collective solutions to workplace problems.

But sometimes, workplace training programs can make workload problems worse. Whether a training program is good or bad for our members depends on what the program looks like, how it was set up and who makes the decisions about content and delivery.