Worlds of Education

Crédits: Spencer Tweedy (Flickr)
Crédits: Spencer Tweedy (Flickr)

Teacher union renewal: developing the power of the profession

published 1 June 2017 updated 15 June 2017
written by:

The challenges that face teachers often look very similar around the world. Global league tables are often behind the relentless pressure to drive test scores up, whilst the forces of global economic competition explain a race to the bottom on teachers’ working conditions. Teachers experience ever rising workloads, but perhaps even more seriously, they also face the constant undermining of their professional judgement. Increasingly it is politicians who want to tell teachers what to teach, how to teach it and how to measure what is taught.

Teachers rightly, look to their unions, to defend them from these attacks.  Teacher unions not only protect pay and working conditions, but they speak up for teachers as professionals and the values of education as a public good.

However, precisely because teachers are the union, unions are not immune from the same pressures that teachers face. Increased pressures on teachers, individually and collectively, requires increased support from their unions. At the same time unions increasingly have to mobilise major campaigns for adequate funding and to defend public education from the drive to privatisation.

In our research for Education International my colleague Nina Bascia and I argue that teacher unions cannot stand still in the face of these challenges.  Specifically, we argue that unions must build their own capacity to confront the challenges facing teachers, by strengthening the connection between union members and their union. Unions don’t just need to grow their membership, but find new ways to draw members into union activity whilst developing members to be both more confident professionals and more confident union members. The key to union renewal is to build unions from within through growing membership, connecting with members and developing members.

Our study involved looking closely at unions in seven quite different national contexts – Chile, Kenya, New Zealand, Poland, Scotland Turkey and USA. The cases were chosen for their diversity, and as one would expect, the differences are considerable. That said, many of the challenges were common and teachers in Nairobi have much in common with their colleagues in Glasgow, Warsaw and elsewhere. The cases provide fascinating examples of how teacher unions in diverse contexts are facing up to questions of union renewal.  There are no magic solutions, and context matters, but there is also much to be learned from each other.

In Scotland we saw how the Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS) increases professional development opportunities for members by advocating to employers for improved access to professional learning. The union also provides professional learning directly to members. This not only connects members to the union, but helps promote the union’s policies on professional issues. EIS members understand union policy and become advocates of it – helping shape the discourse about education policy in Scotland.

In Kenya and New Zealand we saw how unions were consciously building the skills and capabilities of grassroots union members so that members have active union representation in their own workplace – often intervening to tackle issues before they are allowed to grow. As one union officer said – ‘ we took the union to the staff room’. This is where union members see the union and connect with it.  It is where union identity is formed and where solidarity is built.

In some cases we saw how governments were trying to marginalise teacher unions in order to impose unpopular policies on teachers. This was at its most extreme in Turkey where the teachers’ union, Egitim-Sen, is being attacked for its defence of secular public education and the rights of the Kurdish community in Turkey.  In this case the international solidarity shown by teacher union members in Germany, the Netherlands and the UK highlighted how unions engaged grassroots members in communities with significant migrant Turkish and Kurdish populations to connect teachers and communities.

Across each of the case studies we saw how unions were key to articulating a vision of quality public education for all. Re-framing the narrative so that education debate is focused on public service values and a commitment to social justice was a key objective. The unions in this study mobilised the collective power of their membership in pursuit of these goals. However, they did this in diverse ways, often adopting a range of strategies to connect to members with diverse interests and identities.  Our study shows how unions have developed innovative ways to build members’ connection with their union.  Perhaps above all they developed a ‘union identity’ whereby teachers see engagement with, and involvement in, their union as essential if they are to be the teacher they want to be, working in the education system they aspire to work in.

Our stories of union renewal do not offer any silver bullets. Nor are they all stories of unqualified success.  There is much good news, but there are stories of setbacks too.  In the report we emphasise these are not recipes that can simply be reproduced elsewhere.  However, the case studies offer fascinating examples of how those working in teacher unions are facing up to challenges in creative and innovative ways.  There is much to be learned by better understanding what others are doing, and having collective conversations about what might be usefully and sensitively applied elsewhere.  We hope the study will help stimulate and inform such discussions.

Finally, our study highlighted the value of unions as independent, democratic organisations that represent the collective voice of teachers.  Every union must decide for itself, democratically, what is appropriate given its own context and priorities.  There is however much that can be learned from others and we hope this research will contribute to this process of collective thinking across the global teacher union movement. The threats to public education are global in their form and scale. Teachers and their unions must think and act globally too.

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