Origins and history

published 16 June 2017 updated 29 April 2021


The history of international teacher organisations goes back to 1912 with the establishment of the International Committee of National Federations of Teachers of Public Schools in Belgium. In 1923, a second organisation, the World Federation of Education Associations (WFEA) was founded in San Francisco. A couple of other organisations, the International Federation of Teacher Associations and the International Trade Secretariat of Teachers were established in 1926. None of these organisations, however, were large given the number of teachers in the world. Membership was concentrated in Europe and North America.

Following the Second World War, the world trade union movement, including teachers’ organisations, re-organised. In the spirit of the war-time cooperation of the Allies, the World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU) was founded in October of 1945 with membership with very different roots and orientations.

However, it rapidly became clear that the organisation was controlled “from above” by the Soviet Communist Party. independent, free trade unions from national centres left the WFTU and, joined by a few that had not been in the WFTU, created the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) in 1949.

The organisations of unions by sector, the International Trade Secretariats (ITS; renamed “Global Union Federations” in 2002), other than the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF), were fairly weak or in hibernation during the War. The ITF refused to give up its autonomy and come under central WFTU control. Its independence also helped those who wished to create a democratic global trade union movement.

Although there were never any organic links between the ICFTU and the ITSs, they shared the same values and cooperated on many issues. The two types of organisations, inter-professional and sectoral/occupational were often referred to as “the ICFTU family”.

A third grouping of international trade union organisations was inspired by Christian social teachings. The International Federation of Christian Trade Unions (IFCTU) was created in 1920 and replaced by the World Confederation of Labour (WCL) in 1968. Although the WCL considered itself spiritually inspired, its membership was no longer limited to Christian organisations.

On the sectoral level, the WFTU had Trade Union Internationals (TUI) that were controlled and an integral part of the WFTU. The Teachers TUI was and is the World Federation of Teachers’ Unions (FISE, based on its French initials). The WCL also had sectoral structures called “Trade Action”. The World Confederation of Teachers (WCT), after being part of a public-sector body became a separate structure for teachers inside the WCL.

In addition to the WFTU FISE and the Christian public-sector body after the war, the WFEA grew and was renamed the World Organisation of the Teaching Profession (WCOTP) in 1946 and, in combination with others, formed the World Confederation of Organisations of the Teaching Profession (WCOTP) in 1951. Also created in 1951, the International Federation of Free Teachers’ Unions (IFFTU) was part of the ICFTU family.

IFFTU, from its inception saw itself as a trade union organisation, defended democracy, and engaged in the struggle of free trade unions against government, employer, political-party, and religious domination. Many of the, at that time much larger WCOTP membership, considered themselves to be professional associations and not trade unions.

As a rule, most of the earliest teachers’ organisations, at national as well as international level, were professional organisations, not trade unions. They did not seek or engage in collective bargaining. However, in most countries in those times, it was not possible under law, for teachers to organise, bargain, or strike.

That situation began to change significantly following the Second World War and many organisations began to engage in collective bargaining including some that once considered themselves to be purely professional organisations.

Organisational rivalry was strong, but there were also areas of cooperation. For example, the different democratic tendencies worked together, often with difficulty, in Europe. As early as 1969, a committee was formed for that purpose called the European Trade Union Committee for Education (ETUCE). Some national trade unions that worked with the ETUCE joined both the WCOTP and IFFTU. There was also some dual affiliation in developing countries.

Preparation for merger

In the United States, where competition between the National Education Association (NEA) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) was a long tradition and where there were clear differences in origin and conception between a professional organisation (NEA) and a trade union (AFT), there were also changes in both organisations that also reflected the growing possibilities for trade union action in education. The NEA became more interested, particularly in certain states, in collective bargaining and the AFT placed relatively greater emphasis on professional issues than they had at their inception.  In some major cities, there were even mergers between the two organisations.

The AFT was a member of IFFTU and its President, Al Shanker was also President of IFFTU while the NEA was a member of the WCOTP and its President, Mary Futrell, was also President of the WCOTP. That, combined with what was happening in Europe and elsewhere, created an environment that changed the nature of discussions and led to unity.

The leadership of the two major American unions agreed that, despite their domestic differences, they should explore the possibilities to create a new organisation at global level. The two Presidents played a major and ongoing role in laying the basis for a successful merger.  There was also a major commitment by the respective General Secretaries of IFFTU and WCOTP, Fred Van Leeuwen and Bob Harris, respectively, to facilitate understanding and good relations and to remove barriers to unification.

The foundation of Education International

On January 26, 1993, the WCOTP and IFFTU merged at a convention in Stockholm, Sweden to form Education International (EI). The President of the AFT, Al Shanker, was elected EI’s Founding President and NEA President Mary Futrell, was elected EI President.IFFTU General Secretary, Fred van Leeuwen, was elected as General Secretary and concentrated initially on building all the structures of the new organisation. WCOTP Secretary General, Bob Harris was elected as Executive Director for Intergovernmental Relations, charged with establishing EI’s role as the spokesperson for the world’s teachers and education employees.

The World Confederation of Teachers (WCT) of the World Confederation of Labour (WCL) did not participate in the creation of EI, but joined in a process that began in 2004 and continued into 2006. That was the same year that the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions and the World Confederation of Labour led the unification of the inter-professional bodies of national centres in the world’s democratic trade union movement to form the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC).

The creation of EI not only created the largest and most powerful international trade union organisation in history, but brought together the two powerful traditions of education trade unions and professional organisations. For nearly a quarter of a century, trade unions have strengthened their contributions to defending and enhancing the profession of teaching and professional excellence and development have increased the reach and influence of trade unions.

The merger brought unity based on a consensus around the idea of free trade unionism and democracy. The united organisation also brought a major advance on the political level. The new organisation made it possible for free quality education for all to become a global policy priority.

As never before, the defence of the right to education has been joined with the defence and exercise of trade union rights to give EI and its member organisations the capacity to better represent all workers in the education sector and a seat at the global education policy table. Bringing together those enabling rights has also boosted the effective promotion by education unions of the culture, process and practice of democracy.