Education International
Education International

Strong teachers’ unions

published 9 November 2012 updated 20 November 2012
written by:

Teachers’ trade unionism is crucial

More than 90 per cent of teachers in Finland are members of the union, Opetusalan Ammattijärjestö(OAJ). At the same time, Finland is ranked as one of the most successful countries in education achievement levels and with the highest regard for teachers’ status. The teachers’ unity gives them a strong influential role in society and in education, as well as active participation in education policy decision-making processes.

In countries where the majority of teachers are trade union members, political decision-makers cannot ignore them when deciding on education policy. It is obvious that, in those circumstances, a strong teachers´ union is significant in shaping the course of society.

We must act on all levels to ensure that teachers´ unions are established in all countries and that all teachers become active members. We must also learn to work more effectively together. If teachers are split into several small groups, unions and associations, their influence will be significantly weaker. In these cases, there are lots of union leaders but few actively involved members of unions.

Advantages of trade union unity

In Finland, we currently have only one trade union for teachers. But it has not always been so. In the early 1980s, there were several teachers’ unions in Finland. These unions wasted money and energy trying to appear to be better than each other. Unions were competing against each other, instead of focusing mainly on education policy or defending teachers’ rights, salaries, and working conditions. Our process of achieving unity was not easy. It took time, but it was really worth it!

Finland experienced a deep recession in the early 1990s. We survived these very difficult times and managed to limit the unavoidable cuts in education, teacher layoffs, and school closures only because there was one union, one teachers’ voice. Today, we are suffering from the effects of the global economic crisis, more or less, like all other countries in the EU. Once again, the strong unity of teachers in defending education spending is needed and put to the test.

In Finland, the membership rate of teachers is high at the moment, with, as mentioned earlier, more than 90 per cent of Finland’s teachers being union members. Nonetheless, we in the OAJ have initiated a special project to attract that missing 10 per cent of teachers into joining the trade union.

OAJ membership recruitment campaign

OAJ on the Road is the slogan of the membership recruitment campaign. In this campaign, the trade union leaders meet local teachers, education personnel and OAJ members from preschool level to universities. The OAJ President, a key person, gives a face to this campaign by visiting all campaign sites. He and other OAJ leaders listen to teachers’ problems and ideas, and encourage them to lobby for better education and stronger safeguarding of teachers’ interests. OAJ is on the road - OAJ is there, where paying members and potential new members are to be found, in the field.

The campaign “travels” through six cities, with an OAJ tent, centrally located in lively business areas and open to everyone. This OAJ tent, with colourful flags and slogans, invites local decision-makers, parents and passers-by to discuss and meet trade union activists. OAJ has also invited a VIP to each event, who may have left an actual teaching job, but has a prominent position in society, i.e. in politics, art, music or sport. Also, locally or nationally, well-known persons speak about their own experience of teachers’ impact on their lives and careers. In this campaign, OAJ is on the road making its work, aims and worries visible for everyone.

Investing in teacher students and young unionists

Many trade unions inside EI, in Europe and outside Europe, are concerned about the current generation of young teachers. In many countries, young people are interested in working in different kinds of non-government organisations (NGOs) and other activities, but not in trade unions.

Experienced teacher unionists must plan activities to encourage and recruit new young members. Otherwise, we will not have a successful future. Who will defend education in the future, if not an education unionist?

In Finland, most of the student teachers “grow up” in the expectation of being trade union members. Inside OAJ, as a part of OAJ’s organisation, we have a student-teachers’ association. This association, SOOL, works quite independently. It has its own activities, training programmes, magazine and recreation activities, planned for its membership. However, one of the main aims is to gather together all student teachers under the OAJ umbrella. OAJ sponsors these activities, but student teachers also pay membership dues to their own student-teacher organisation. So, when these students graduate and get their first job as teachers, they are already acquainted with trade union mechanisms and on the way to becoming a trade union member.

We have to educate our young teachers and student teachers to value trade union membership. It is essential that we welcome young teachers, and also give them opportunities to be actively involved. We must use and respect their enthusiasm and competences. We, old hands, must yield space to the young, support them in their union activities, and mentor them. We believe this to be one of the best ways to ensure the future success of trade union work.

An effective trade union needs both experienced and young activists – both learn from each other to the benefit of the union. Let’s remember that diverse and combined knowledge creates success!