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UNITE The Union leading Participatory Research: A reflection

This reflection is based on a presentation by Jim Mowatt, Director of Education and Adrian Judd, Coordinator of participatory research for UNITE the Union, Marjorie Mayo, Professor Emeritus, Goldsmith’s College, University of London facilitated by Budd Hall as part of the SCUTREA UK adult education conference on June 9, 2022.


When Rajesh Tandon and I first began working with the concept of participatory research in the 1970s, we did so with it goal of providing visibility to the knowledge created by ordinary people who together have for thousands of years solved problems of daily lived and survived. Our early work was based on learning from the Tribal peoples of Southern Rajasthan in India in the case of Rajesh Tandon and with rural villagers in Tanzania in Budd’s case. Our early narrative was framed as ‘breaking the monopoly of knowledge production’.  The point that we were making and continue to make is that the knowledge created by academics is a small proportion of the knowledge created in the world. Moreover, that the experiential knowledge of working women and men in their workplaces, in their communities, in their movements for equality and environmental justice and their acting against oppression is understood as having a form of epistemic privilege.

Our early thinking about participatory research was not taken up by academics who denied the knowledge claims of excluded persons.  Our ideas were however taken up by social movements, liberation movements, civil society organizations and international development practitioners.  But by the early 2000s, university-based academics began an interest in various forms of partnership research.  The idea of co-construction of knowledge combining academic modes of production with non-academic knowledge cultures has become acceptable. Community-based research, engaged scholarship, participatory action research and many other words have been used to highlight the possibilities offered by the co-construction of knowledge. But we have never backed away from our original idea of the epistemic privilege of workers, community organisations, movement activists, Indigenous peoples, excluded peoples and their knowledges.

Therefore, when Jim Mowatt and Marjorie Mayo initiated a conversation with us about UNITE the Union taking a lead in the creation of a Knowledge for Change (K4C) Hub, a training structure for younger union and community members to learn about participatory research, we were very supportive.  There is a long history of workers and their organizations taking responsibility for the education of their members and their communities. UNITE the union has a particularly strong record of educational provision. Each year they have 12,000 students, 1000 courses, 60,000 teaching days delivered with the help of 100 accredited UNITE tutors.

Of particular interest to those of us interested in knowledge democracy has been the UNITE History Project.  This project has been a partnership led by the union itself with UNITE regional teams in cooperation with the Marx Memorial Library and Workers School.  The goal of the project is to produce learning materials for political education and organisation building.  It is about collective learning from the past to strengthen UNITE for the future.  The history project has been carried out by union members both active and retired. It has focussed on the themes of collective action and solidarity, struggles for democracy and equalities both within the Trade Union and Labour Movement and beyond, relationships between trade unions, employer and the state as well as recognizing shortcomings and celebrating achievements. The first of an anticipated six volumes of UNITE history have been published covering the years up to 1931.  Recordings of oral histories are already being used in education sessions. The books published by Liverpool University Press offer fascinating insights from the perspectives of workers who themselves have been involved in the full range of union led workplace, community, and social movement initiatives. There are critical explorations of collective struggles for safe and fair workplaces, the meaning of internationalism and the role of trade unions in decolonisation.

The most recent participatory research initiative has been the evolving new Knowledge for Change (K4C) hub, the UNITE led participatory research training hub that is part of our UNESCO Chair’s Knowledge for Change Global Consortium for training in community-based research. The UNITE K4C hub has developed an advanced course for union representatives which is currently in the pilot stage. The course refers to the UN Sustainable Development Goals as well as the UNITE rule book. Its aim is to develop learners participatory research methods to create and sustain communities in workplaces and their localities. The UNITE K4C Hub is both the first hub based in the UK as well as being the first one led by a trade union anywhere in the world. We hope that other hubs centred in trade unions will emerge over time.

For those interested in learning more about UNITE’s educational work or the UNITE history project, these are the links. UNITE History Project     UNITE Education

[1] Budd Hall with contributions from Jim Mowatt, Marjorie Mayo, Adrian Judd
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