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Education International

Collective bargaining – the real teachers’ voice.

published 22 June 2016 updated 22 June 2016
written by:

Many official policy documents and academic papers make the case for ‘teacher voice’. They highlight the need to develop genuine collaborative cultures in schools where teachers can have a say in making decisions on professional issues. This may be so obvious as to be a ‘common sense’. However, the reality of teachers’ experience is often very different. In many parts of the world teachers experience a huge amount of top-down centralised control that fails to recognise their skills and professionalism. It is almost as though the more the global race in education intensifies the less teachers are trusted and the more they experience policy as imposition from above.

In a recent chapter Alison Gilliland and I wrote for the Education International sponsored book ‘Flip the System’ (see Stevenson and Gilliland, 2015) we argued that teachers’ voice, and the associated concept of ‘teacher agency’ (the ability for teachers to exercise influence and make a difference) need to be thought of both in relation to different dimensions of teachers’ work, and also at different levels of whatever education system a teacher works in. The range of issues that frame teachers’ work include professional and pedagogical ones, teachers’ working conditions (and by implication, students’ learning conditions) and matters relating to the development of professional knowledge (including professional learning). These are not neatly discrete dimensions, but each is intimately woven into the others. Some of these issues are experienced by teachers at the level of their own classroom or school. In other cases however the issue may be framed at some distance from the classroom – at local, national or even supra-national level.

A genuine teacher professionalism means that ‘teacher voice’ is exercised in all these dimensions of teachers’ work, and at all the levels where decisions are made that impact on teachers’ lives.

In research Nina Bascia (OISE, University of Toronto) and I are conducting for Education International (Stevenson and Bascia, 2016) we have become very aware of the centrality of collective bargaining in relation to teachers’ voice and agency.

Collective bargaining is a process whereby defined aspects of teachers’ work (the ‘scope’ of bargaining) are not able to be changed unilaterally by employer imposition, but these issues need to be negotiated with representatives of the workforce as a whole. Collective bargaining emerged from the struggles of workers who realised that when they face their employer as an individual the balance of power is far from even. Individuals are often encouraged to compete against each other in a form of ‘beggar my neighbour’ bargaining in which the success of one is achieved by undercutting another (the ‘race to the bottom’). Where there is collective bargaining the balance of power is made more even and the objective is for both sides to negotiate, and through this, achieve a collective agreement. Where it is not possible to secure an agreement there are often agreed procedures for resolving the dispute such as using mediation or arbitration. In some cases employers may seek to impose their demands and it may be that teachers undertake industrial action in order to assert their collective strength. Critics present collective bargaining as an adversarial system that creates conflict. This fails to recognise that conflict is inherent in the employment relationship and overt conflict is often more common in systems that don’t have a process that recognises and manages these tensions.

In many parts of the world teachers do not have collective bargaining rights. Indeed in some parts of the world, seeking such representation for teachers, is an act of courage that courts victimisation and intimidation. For example, in our research, we saw how in Kenya and Turkey, the EI affiliated unions experience huge challenges in their struggles to assert the rights of teachers. In other parts of the world, we see examples of where collective bargaining is under attack as employers seek to shift the balance of power in their favour, allowing them to impose change without teachers’ agreement (see ETUCE, 2016). However, in those cases where we saw collective bargaining working well we saw how important this process is in providing a real voice for the teaching profession.

In our study this was illustrated in both Scotland and New Zealand where teacher unions and the employers have established procedures for seeking a negotiated agreement in relation to changes to teachers’ pay and conditions. This does not mean an agreement is always reached (secondary school teachers in the Educational Institute of Scotland have just voted 95% ‘Yes’ to undertake industrial action relating to a workload dispute), and collective bargaining is not a magic wand. In both countries, there are significant threats to teachers’ working conditions, and teachers in those jurisdictions will have to assert their collective strength, in order to protect and extend the working conditions they have.

However, what teachers in both countries have is a voice, at the highest level, in which their collective interests can be represented. Collective bargaining is a not an end in itself. It is a means to an end. It is a process which gives teachers a collective voice on a range of issues that are central to teachers being fairly rewarded, and having the working conditions to allow them to do a professional job for their students. Furthermore, what these cases illustrated is that where teachers have collective bargaining rights on employment matters they also have a more significant influence on wider professional issues relating to the curriculum, pedagogy and professional standards. This is partly because so-called ‘professional’ issues almost always have a ‘working conditions’ dimension (as in Scotland where it is the assessment related workload that is the point of the EIS dispute), but also because a teaching profession that has an independent voice in relation to collective bargaining also appears more likely to be respected, and listened to, on a wider range of issues than those included in the relatively narrow scope of collective bargaining agreements. Certainly this is the case in Scotland and New Zealand.

None of this is to suggest that collective bargaining is the answer to all problems. Collective bargaining is not a substitute for collective action, but one (important) manifestation of an activist professionalism. That said, it is precisely because collective bargaining gives teachers an independent and democratic voice, through their collective organisations, that many seek to deny teachers access to collective bargaining. It is also why those who want to break up and fragment public education systems in order to privatise them almost always start by attacking teachers’ collective bargaining rights (see Chile, England, New Orleans – the list is not exhaustive).

A real voice for teachers starts with collective bargaining. Far too many teachers across the world are denied collective bargaining rights, and this is an issue that needs to be addressed. However, where collective bargaining rights exist, they are often under threat and so teachers must always be vigilant about protecting and defending the rights they have. This is not an obligation that can be left to ‘others’, or the entity often referred to as ‘the union’. It is always for teachers, collectively, to mobilise and assert their voice through their union – defending collective bargaining rights is a key way to do it.


ETUCE (2016) New ETUCE survey report rings an alarm bell on the state of funding in education and privatisation trends in Europe.

Stevenson, H. and Bascia, N. (2016) Changing unions in challenging times: International case studies in union renewal. Presented at Education International Research Network. Brussels, 12th May.

Stevenson, H. and A. Gilliland (2015) The teachers’ voice: teacher unions at the heart of a new democratic professionalism. In J. Elvers and R. Kneyber (Eds), Flip the system: changing education from the ground up. London: Routledge.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any official policies or positions of Education International.