TUTA: The Rise and Fall of a Jewel in the Union Movement’s Crown

Michael Johnston 

The Trade Union Training Authority (TUTA) – a fully funded commonwealth government statutory authority – burst on the scene in 1975 and disappeared without trace in 1996, having served the skill requirements of many thousands of trade unionists for some 21 years.
The trade union movement had not gone to the barricades demanding the establishment of TUTA. Rather, it was the brainchild of Clyde Cameron, Minister for Labour and Immigration in the Whitlam government, who had formerly been Secretary of the South Australian branch of the AWU and possessed a profound knowledge of the trade union movement and the complexities it faced in the modern era. It is fair to say that Cameron was significantly influenced towards union education by Peter Matthews and Bill Ford, both of whom held academic posts, at the University of Sydney and the University of NSW respectively. They jointly edited a book on Australian Trade Unions in 1968 that included material on union education needs. Besides these academic protagonists there were a number of progressive union officials who favoured education over ignorance, and who sought to advance the union movement as a legitimate countervailing power in Australian society.
TUTA had been preceded by many educational initiatives, including by the Workers Education Associations, university extension courses and the conduct of many residential summer schools that had established the need for a proficient, educated and skilled cohort of unionists. The residential summer schools had been conducted largely at the behest of white collar unions in university settings at Canberra’s ANU. Building on this momentum, Cameron managed to gain support for government provision of trade union training at the ALP’s National Conference in 1973. Cameron assiduously worked both sides of the aisle in parliament and convinced the elected representatives (especially former Shadow Minister for Industrial Relations, Malcolm Fraser) of the efficacy of union education. There were obviously some misgivings on the Coalition side, which will be outlined in Phil Drew’s article on TUTA’s legislative background.
Contrary to adult education ‘best practice’, TUTA rapidly undertook a range of training programs in 1975 without the benefit of the much vaunted ‘needs analysis’, primarily due to the high level of union experience and background of the training staff it employed. Courses commenced almost immediately, based upon staffs’ practical experience and borrowing from knowledge of overseas union education developments in the UK, USA and Canada.
Several years after its establishment, TUTA undertook a comprehensive survey through PA Consulting to ascertain the exact size of its potential ‘market’. This 1977 survey had been a recommendation of the Committee of Enquiry into Trade Union Training and the survey had been required by the Coalition government as a condition for future funding.
In the event, the survey established that the union movement’s 300-plus registered trade unions comprised thousands of full-time officials and tens of thousands of part-time or honorary officials. Full time positions included federal secretary, state secretary, organiser, industrial officers, research officers and advocates, amounting to some 2,372 full-time positions. Besides these full-time officials there were 71,462 job representatives and 68,728 other honorary positions identified. Of the latter, most were union councillors or executive members. This survey underlined the need for, and rationale of, TUTA.
Over its lifetime TUTA established training centres in each state capital city as well as Newcastle and Canberra. The jewel in its crown, however, was the construction of the fully residential Clyde Cameron Training College in Albury-Wodonga. This architecturally award-winning initiative will be the subject of a future article. Suffice to say that the Clyde Cameron College Project (initials CCCP) quickly became known in the Wodonga locality as “red square”!
The most frequent course conducted by TUTA was the Shop Stewards or Job Delegates Course. This course was conducted in state training centres and in country towns around Australia and had as its major theme: “Facts win Disputes”. It was usually of three days duration and gave most delegates ‘off the job’ their first introduction to adult education. As such, it was highly learner-centred, with most time devoted to role plays that actively engaged the learner.
It quickly became apparent that the (learner-centered) educational style adopted by TUTA demanded more sophisticated training aids than it possessed and, as a result, TUTA commissioned Film Australia to produce a set of “trigger films” that could be used in the job delegates and full time official courses. The films were produced by Keith Gow, and stood the test of time for TUTA’s whole existence. The major film commissioned was The Claim, which was primarily used in full-time residential courses at the College and focused on the passage of an industrial claim from conception though negotiation to arbitration. Warwick McDonald and Des Hanlon will provide more background to the films and the pedagogy behind them.
There are many stories to accompany the TUTA journey some of which are captured by Mike Newman in his anecdotes. Some students claim their lives were fundamentally changed by the TUTA experience and, for many, the courses they attended were their only exposure to adult education.
Throughout TUTA’s history there was not one incident of administrative malfeasance or financial impropriety. It was a model of financial rectitude. Furthermore, TUTA can lay claim to significant impact on critical issues such as OH & S, superannuation, collective bargaining, the Prices and Incomes Accord, and more constructive relationships in industrial relations. Some dramatic improvements in workplace harmony and productivity owe their origins to improved skill formation and work organisation that emanated from TUTA courses.
While the union movement generally supported TUTA, one of the rationales for the amalgamation process that reduced the previous unwieldy 300-plus registered unions to a more sensible number was the capacity for bigger unions to conduct their own education and training courses. This placed a deal of strain on TUTA, because maintaining a consistent pipeline of students was critical to its continuance.
Some unions, with notable exceptions, were not enamoured at the prospect of feisty, educated delegates or executive members who became empowered by their educational experience and sometimes asked awkward questions about the administration of their unions. Some were motivated to contest a union election! Hence the demise of TUTA, at the behest of John Howard and Peter Reith – who took the Coalition along an ideological path towards the right – was accompanied more by a whimper than a bang by the trade union movement. 
The College, valued at $8m, was sold for a paltry amount and its assets disposed. All state centres were closed and all staff retrenched. There was little or no protest from the trade union movement and little attempt to save the resources developed by TUTA. This prompts, indeed begs, a much wider discussion. One prominent former trade union official and later prominent politician described TUTA as “an historical curiosity”, especially given the context in which it was established: rampant wage demands, rapidly declining union density, oil shocks and ‘the dismissal’. For him, it was nothing short of a miracle that TUTA lasted so long.