Worlds of Education

#EI25: “Trade unionism, the teaching profession, and democracy”, interview of EI General Secretary Emeritus Fred van Leeuwen

published 17 December 2018 updated 19 February 2019
written by:

2018 is the 25th anniversary of the creation of Education International. As this anniversary year draws to a close, we are publishing an interview of Fred van Leeuwen who served the organization as General Secretary of EI for its first quarter century. This discussion offers a reflection on the substantial changes in the worlds of trade unions and education in the last half century, a short period of time in historical terms. Much of Fred’s working life has been spent in the fight for democracy. In recent years, the threats to our liberties have intensified. It has become clear that authoritarianism is, once again, on the move. It has become a challenge to educators and trade unionists, and to all democrats. To enrich this discussion on what we can do to support and re-enforce democracy, Van Leeuwen and EI President Susan Hopgood are writing a book on “Education and Democracy”, which will be published by EI in the first part of 2019.

What led to you becoming a passionate educator and trade unionist?

I am not sure that I was a passionate educator. I kind of fell into teaching. It was as simple as that. What helped was that at the time there was a shortage of teachers in The Netherlands and by accepting a teaching job you could avoid conscription.  So the choice put to me: you either join the army or teach kids, was not a very difficult one.

It took a couple of years before I got the hang of it and started appreciating the difference that a teacher can make in the lives of children. Mind you, for a teacher to call him or herself experienced you must have at least 10 thousand teaching hours on your watch, which means 9 to 10 years working in a full-time position. I never reached that point. I did 5 to 6 thousand max. I was teaching two classes, of seventh and eighth grade students. It is an interesting age, 10-12 years. As I had the same students for two years, it was exciting to see them change, develop, and learn. It was creative and rewarding work. There was a high degree of professional autonomy. Today that professional freedom is declining in many countries. More and more time is to be spent on administrative tasks and other work not related to teaching. The ever-growing workload of teachers has reached a point where many colleagues consider leaving the profession.

I joined the union right away. There was no question you wouldn’t. But it took a couple of years before I became an active member. However, I was engaged in a political party from a young age, a pacifist party on the Left, and with only two seats in Parliament we were determined to liberate the oppressed and achieve world peace. I was a fanatic reader, encouraged by my mother to go to the public library twice a week, and there are some books, which I read as a young teenager, that I believe have influenced my thinking. One was a novel by a famous Dutch author, Multatuli, [1] denouncing the colonial abuses in the Dutch East Indies, now Indonesia. He describes the situation in the 19th century in that vast colony that was under the control of the Netherlands for about 500 years, as well as the situation at home in the Netherlands, exposing the hypocrisy in a deeply religious society that much of its income was generated in a very “un-Christian” way by suppressing and exploiting people on the other side of the planet.

Among the other books that has had a major impact on my view of the world was George Orwell’s “1984”.

I ended up leaving that pacifist party when I no longer thought that it made sense to disarm. I then joined the social democratic Dutch Labour Party PvdA, which I have been tempted to leave many times, because, like most other social democratic parties in Europe, they have failed to resist or even supported neo-liberal policies.

How did you get involved in trade union work? How did you make the leap from local and district levels to your national union?

Well, again, I would like to say that it was my initiative, but it was not. Others who were more active than I was, noticed that I was a fairly good writer. I had published some articles, wrote a monthly column in a youth magazine, and had written a children’s musical that was broadcast on tv. So they said, why don’t you come and help us out? Although reluctantly I accepted to run for secretary of the Utrecht local of ABOP.

But my first real contact with the national leadership was prompted by an international issue. I had written to the President of my union expressing concern about the union’s relationship with the Israel Teachers’ Union. That relationship had been somewhat strained by the situation in the Middle East. I had joined my father, who was a captain in the merchant marine, on one of his voyages to Israel. As a young local activist, I was curious about the country’s education union. So I met with its general secretary: Shalom Levin [2]. He was a living legend. And we hit it off despite a big age difference. We remained friends until his death in 1995.

Levin was the person who strongly encouraged me to become involved in the international trade union movement and asked me to help him create an international committee to combat anti-Semitism, racism, and discrimination. This Committee would later convene two global conferences, one in Amsterdam and one in Tel Aviv, bringing together affiliates from the two main international organizations. In fact, this Committee paved the way for the creation of EI one and a half decades later.

Meanwhile, I had been had been elected to the national Executive Board of ABOP and was, among other things, given responsibility for its international relations, including Europe.

Were there any early international experiences that marked your trade union life?

In December 1978, we had the International Federation of Free Teachers’ Unions (IFFTU) World Congress in Manila, the Philippines. In my intervention on the progress report of the General Secretary, I expressed my surprise that the Congress was being held in a country that had so many thousands of political prisoners. I said that I felt like a “fish out of water” and asked for a delegation to be sent to visit political detainees.

President Marcos had opened the Congress and had not yet left the convention centre when I made my remarks. It created some turmoil. The host organization wanted the Congress to end immediately as I had insulted the President, the people, and the teachers of the Philippines, and it was suggested to me, more or less politely, that I should leave the country.

Delegates from the American AFT, the British NASUWT, the German GEW and the French FEN rallied around me to protect me against abuses from government officials and helped me get in touch with the Dutch ambassador. The first thing he asked me was, “Why would you deliver such a provocative speech? You should have checked with me first.” So, my first visible international venture, in other words, was far from an act of diplomacy.

One and a half year after that moment of fame, I was asked to join the IFFTU Secretariat in Brussels as Assistant General Secretary. Unfortunately, André Braconier, the Belgian General Secretary, died in December of 1980. The IFFTU President at that time, Erich Frister, President also of the German affiliate GEW, asked me to become Acting General Secretary.

Frankly, I was not convinced that I was the right man for the job, I had little experience in international organizations and I did not feel like moving to Brussels where the IFFTU Secretariat was located.

Some pressure was exerted on the ABOP leadership to persuade me to accept the position, combined with the idea of transferring the IFFTU Head Office to the ABOP premises in Amsterdam. I gave in and the IFFTU Executive Board appointed me Acting General Secretary on 13 March 1981 during a meeting at the headquarters of the UFT [3] in New York. I would subsequently be nominated for election at IFFTU’s World Congress that was to be held in Panama later that year.

However, in the course of that year some American colleagues got second thoughts about me being elected General Secretary. It was my personal lifestyle, being in a same sex relationship, that bothered them. I was kindly asked to withdraw. In those years LGBT rights had not yet reached the shores of our trade union movement. But my own union and a number of other European organizations went out on a limb to defend me, perhaps not because they felt so strong about LGBT rights, but because they did not like the idea of America finding something wrong with their European candidate. Not having been eager to become the organization’s General Secretary in the first place, I suddenly found myself at the centre of intercontinental skirmishes around my sexual orientation. I was tempted to withdraw but decided not to give in to prejudices, and I was elected unopposed.

Al Shanker, AFT President, was elected at that same World Congress in Panama President of IFFTU. We closely worked together for twelve years, travelled around the world, and I dare say that he has been of great influence on my view of the world. He was my mentor. Al was a real champion in promoting democratic change, supporting educators resisting authoritarian rule in South Africa, Poland and Chile; he was an authentic thinker who took the lead in the education reform discussions in the US, pleading for education unions elsewhere to do the same, to be pro-active rather than wait for public authorities to impose undesirable reform plans. This also became the focus of IFFTU: democracy, human rights and education reform. My first act as General Secretary was mobilizing our membership against the suppression of members of the Polish trade union Solidarnosc by general Jaruzelski in 1981. We also assisted the first independent education unions of Hungary, PDSZ and TDDSZ, and tried helping teachers in South Africa establish a multi-racial education union. WCOTP was doing the same. When in 1989 I suggested to Al Shanker that we should explore possibilities to merge with our rival International WCOTP, he immediately saw the potential of a new, influential global federation of education unions as a force to promote democracy and human rights and to confront the negative effects of globalization. He played a determining role in the negotiations leading up to the establishment of EI in 1993 and was proud of the result. Al died in 1996. When I was asked to speak at a memorial service at the George Washington University, President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore were sitting right in the front row showing how highly appreciated Al Shanker had been.

When I took office in 1981, there was a cold war, we had an iron curtain, and the international trade union movement was fragmented and aligned on the basis of ideology. There were four teachers’ internationals. My union, ABOP, was a member of IFFTU, the federation associated with the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) with roots in the social democratic movement. The other teacher internationals were: WCT, associated with the Christian democratic labour confederation, the World Confederation of Labour (WCL); FISE, affiliated to the communist labour confederation World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU); and the unaligned WCOTP. IFFTU and WCOTP were fishing in the same pond. In all parts of the world they were competing for membership. Although created as a federation of trade unions focussing on trade union rights, IFFTU had also started increasingly addressing education reform matters and professional issues in the 1980’s, while WCOTP, originally established to serve the professional needs of its affiliates, had begun to take an interest in trade union issues. In other words, the differences between the two internationals were fading, which allowed the General Secretary of WCOTP, Bob Harris, and myself, to start fantasising about merging the two organizations. That was in the mid 1980’s.

IFFTU was an international trade union organisation. It had no ambiguity or confusion as to whether teacher organisations should be trade unions or professional associations. I assume that was your view as a young teacher.

Yes, it was. I personally have always believed that the ideals of the labour movement, such as democracy, social justice and equity, are inherent to the teaching profession. I also thought that if there is a perfect model of a teachers’ ‘organisation, it would be a national trade union that represents the entire education sector and is affiliated to a labour confederation. Well, apart from the education unions in the communist world from before 1989, there are only a few organizations that represent the entire sector. Higher education, early childhood education, education support staff, to give some examples, often have their own organizations. Also, many EI members are not affiliated to national labour centres - for many different reasons. Yet, they all have the characteristics of labour unions with a commitment to the principles of solidarity, independence and democratic governance. All affiliates are professional unions defending both the material and professional interests of educators and promoting the delivery of quality education.

These have also been Education International’s main membership criteria.

Not everybody was enthusiastic about creating a new International. In some countries where IFFTU and WCOTP had competing member unions there was some resistance.  There were also concerns about the future of two international federations, one for primary and one for secondary education, that were associated with WCOTP.  A thorny issue was whether the new International was to be allied with the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU), which some feared would affect the independent character of the International.

In 1991 IFFTU and WCOTP established teams of their Executive Board members to negotiate the objectives, principles and structure of the new International. I think we reached agreement on most issues fairly quickly. The organization should be democratic and independent. It should serve the interests of national unions of teachers, education support staff and others employed in the education sector. Peace, democracy, social justice and publicly funded education for all would be among the general objectives, while the organization and its members would support core labour standards for the entire sector including the right to collective bargaining and to strike. All national education unions supporting those objectives and principles would be eligible for membership, provided they would be democratic, independent and representative organizations.

Obviously, there were also some difficult issues to settle. For example, the question of admitting applicant organizations and how to assess their democratic and independent nature. It was Al Shanker who suggested that such assessment be made by independent experts from outside the International. We found the former prime minister of Australia, Bob Hawke, willing to chair a committee of experts, which he did successfully for about fifteen years.

But there were also other issues. Should there be regional structures? Were we to give a voice to the different education sections? How could we ensure gender equity in the composition of the governing bodies? What would be the role of the Executive Board and what would be the responsibilities of the President and General Secretary? Should there be term limits? How would we determine the voting strength of member unions? On what basis would we establish per capita dues rates? Some colleagues suggested that we should model the governing structure after that of their own national unions. Bob Harris and myself, who had already many years of experience in leading WCOTP and IFFTU, thought that we should build on the strengths of our two Internationals with a governance model reflecting the different trade union cultures. I think that we succeeded to design a solid, balanced and sustainable structure - democratic, transparent and enabling high membership participation at all levels. In 2015, 62% of EI’s total membership was represented on the Executive Board and the Regional Committees!

EI’s structure has passed the test of time. In my lifetime I have been part of many rounds of discussions on the organization’s governing structures searching for the perfect democratic model, which of course does not exist. Some people are quite passionate about tinkering with constitutions and bylaws, and everybody is an expert. I have mixed feelings about the recurring discussions on structures. Although I realize that they are inherent to any democratic organization, I would rather spend our time and energy on political challenges.

25 Years EI – Why did it grow from 18 to 32.5 million?

There was a sense of optimism after the fall of the Berlin Wall. It created a window in time needed to bring all national unions together. Nobody knew how long it would last and whether we would be able to successfully cope with the ideological diversity of our membership. But we did. Free teachers trade unionism became a mainstream concept. Yet political conflict is inherent to our work. So you need to be alert all the time to keep it all together. Unity should never be taken for granted.

Obviously, I am proud that membership of EI grew from 18 million in 1993 to 32.5 million in 2018. Today 90% of teachers organized in education unions are represented by EI. Education unions are increasingly aware of their members being part of a global profession and that many challenges at home are effects of globalization that require global advocacy and action. It is important to remember EI’s recognition by the international community as the voice of the teaching profession is not only because of the impressive numbers we represent, but also because our affiliates are independent organizations – independent from governments, independent from political parties, independent from religious institutions and independent from funding agencies. We do not rely on external financial assistance for the functioning of our organizations.

Our World Congress in Cape Town in 2011 marked a significant moment in EI history, when we completed our vision on the future of education and on the professions we represent. It also laid the basis for the global campaign – United for Quality Education (U4QE) - launched in 2014 which engaged about one third of our membership in getting “quality education” on the UN development agenda.  I believe that the political pressure we were able to exert led to the adoption of SDG 4. We even succeeded to have the UN accept the principle that primary and secondary education should be free.

To get this principle put into practice in all member states is another matter. One of our priority programs today is to confront commercialization of education services, where we combine advocacy aimed at international agencies and national governments, with the exposure of education businesses and boots on the ground.

One of the main challenges for the future is to engage our affiliates’ members and bridge the gap between classroom teachers and their International. We are and will always be an organization of organizations. Our member unions are to stay in the driver’s seat. They determine EI’s course of action at our World Congresses, Regional Conferences and Executive Board meetings. However, for the International to be more effective in carrying out its tasks we must build digital audiences and find ways to engage the classroom teacher in the international conversation about his and her profession.

Highlights from your time at the helm?

We have helped education unions around the world to promote education for all and democratic change in their countries. From Tunisia, Algeria and Egypt to Djibouti, Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen and Bahrain at the time of the Arab Spring.  From Cambodia to Indonesia, from the STAN countries to Turkey to the Balkan, it is a very long list of countries and places where I believe we have made a difference. Member unions in the global south and in central and eastern Europe have benefitted from our development programs, ranging from labour education to professional training. We have assisted them in promoting the status of teachers, public schooling and confronting commercialization and other harmful trends.  Member organizations in some Western countries with the Nordic countries, Canada and Australia as true solidarity champions have made tremendous contributions to this development work.

We have been a main force behind the international efforts to achieve education for all children. In the early nineties we established, together with Oxfam Netherlands, Action Aid and the Global March Against Child Labour, the Global Campaign for Education (GCE), which developed into one of the largest civil society movements. We have continuously and consistently exerted pressure on the intergovernmental agencies and national governments to take their responsibility for education. There were people who frowned at EI working with NGO’s. But is has paid off. In the past 25 years, access to education has improved impressively. More children than ever before have found their way into our classrooms. However, education quality is a problem. In low-income countries class sizes have exploded, while there are serious shortages of qualified teachers everywhere. Education authorities are resorting to the employment of unqualified teachers or are delegating their responsibilities to the private sector.

Our solidarity work, coming to the rescue of affiliates and their members struck by natural disaster has always been close to my heart. For some of our member organizations, particularly those in the global south, EI is the only connection with the international community, and sometimes even their lifeline. Earthquakes, hurricanes, floods, over the years we have collected and distributed substantial funds for humanitarian aid. I myself have visited many places that were hit by disasters. The one that left a deep impression on me was the tsunami hitting Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Thailand in December 2004. Although we will never know for sure, we estimate that some 1500 teachers lost their lives. In addition to humanitarian aid we were able to construct, in partnership with Oxfam-Novib, thirty school buildings in Aceh and in Sri Lanka.

2004 was also the year of the largest school massacre ever. On 1 September Chechen separatists occupied School Number One in Beslan, North Ossetia, keeping 2100 people including many children hostages. On 3 September Russian security forces stormed the building. 334 people were killed, including 186 children. Together with the president of the Russian Education Union (ESEUR) we visited the school and families of the teachers who had lost their lives. What a tragedy! I remember the bullet holes and the blood stains on the classroom floors and walls. No EI mission has been as heart-breaking as that one. We established a special fund to provide study grants for the children of those teachers.

In terms of the profession, it is quite clear that today nobody with some sense - except perhaps the World |Bank - would dare argue that teaching is not a profession, that teachers do not need to be highly educated, or that they are not key to the delivery of quality education.

Twenty - twenty five years ago - this was being whispered in some international circles. No longer. I think we changed the narrative. We brought teachers back to the centre of the education debate, we undertook research to substantiate our claims. We were able to get a UNESCO recommendation on the status of higher education personnel, an ILO instrument to protect the rights of teachers in early childhood education, and we manufactured a new international consultation mechanism for union leaders and education ministers. I dare say that organizations like UNESCO and OECD have moved to our side of the aisle;  which does not mean that governments have moved to the other side of the aisle as well. Many are still stuck in the belief that our school systems, first of all, are to improve economic performance, serve the needs of the market, and are willing to neglect the need for equal access, for a broad curriculum, and for more space and time for teaching professionals to make our schools the safeguard of democracy and social cohesion.

What about professional autonomy?

One of the lessons that I have learned is that education unions should step up their role as the custodians of the teaching profession. To promote and protect that profession is as important as, for example, advancing our core labour standards such as the right to collective bargaining and to strike. This is also a struggle for democracy. I am not speaking abstractly. In the massive crackdown on public sector workers after the failed coup attempt in Turkey, 10s of thousands of teachers lost their jobs and others were arrested. It is no coincidence that those attacks were followed by a unilateral action by the President to ban the teaching of evolution in all K-12 schools. In that single case, one sees the linked assault on the profession, trade unions, and democracy.

There is a dangerous trend of politicians moving into the classroom and telling us what and how to teach.  It has been part of the authoritarian drift in Poland, in Hungary, but it has also been a problem in the UK, to just take European examples. In Brazil, teachers are no longer allowed to address “controversial political issues” in their classes.

So, while in some parts of the world politicians are forcing their way into our classrooms dictating to us what and how to teach, in other parts private enterprises are entering the education sector hoping to make a quick buck by introducing scripted teaching, employing unqualified teachers, meanwhile harvesting all the data they can from our students as a supplemental source of profit. Suffice it to say that if these two worlds continue to expand, the teaching profession as we know it will be squeezed out, if not crushed between them, leaving us as de-professionalized, disarmed teachers unable to deliver meaningful quality education.

I believe that we have reached the point in many countries where our member unions should make professional autonomy a top priority. That is critical for teachers, but also for the students and society. Being a profession means that its members determine their own professional standards.  That is as true for teachers as it is for doctors or lawyers. Doctors would not allow governments or the pharmaceutical industry to prescribe medication to their patients. Likewise, we should not allow outsiders to prescribe detailed, mandatory curriculum or teaching methods for our students.

It is of vital importance that educators and their unions re-possess their own profession by setting and monitoring professional standards. We should not allow employers, politicians, not to mention outsiders, to question our member unions’ professional competence and credibility. They are the profession. Our trade union and professional missions are two sides of the same coin. They are not contradictory, they are complementary and intrinsically linked.

In the wake of the latest school shootings in the US, what are your thoughts about the meaning of “safe schools”?

I am, like everybody else, shocked by the school shootings in the US and outraged by the suggestion that schools will be safer when we arm teachers. Over the years there have been incidents, always inflicted by disturbed individuals who should not have had access to firearms in the first place. In some places, like Pakistan and Nigeria, schools have been targets of terrorists, killing many students and teachers.

The public indignation over shootings in schools, more than in malls or post offices, is because schools are supposed to be safe sanctuaries of learning, like churches and mosques are safe sanctuaries for worshipping.  Safe schools also mean being free from bullying and other forms of harassment, including abuse through social networks. They are also the sanctuaries from racism or other forms of bigotry.

The school are also a safe place as compared with the streets or unstable and violent home environments. I remember kids who were so happy to come to school just to get away from the place that they called home, but where mum and dad were fighting all the time.

Free public schools were high priorities for early trade unions already in the 19th century. They were providing opportunities for the children of workers that had not been available to their parents. How do you see that equality role of education in more recent generations?

Our public school systems are probably the most successful public enterprise in history. They have brought more equality and better opportunities for all children. In many countries they have also been an important factor in eliminating the discrimination against girls and the abolition of child labour. And above all, more people are better educated than ever before. Our public school systems have been and still are key to our prosperity, to economic growth, democratic development and social cohesion. It is difficult to understand why in some places that precious tool is undervalued, neglected, and deprived of adequate funding.

I have been startled by the irresponsible behaviour of politicians selling out parts of their public school systems to private companies. We have been one of the few international organizations confronting harmful commercialization trends and exposing for profit enterprises when they are employing unqualified teachers and deliver poor quality schooling. But it is spreading like wildfire. It is incomprehensible that the largest education lending agency, the World Bank, is encouraging governments in the global south to support some of these private initiatives, which destroy public school systems.

I have sometimes been accused of being “ideological” when defending our public school systems and the opportunities that they provide. I do not believe that having good publicly funded schools for all students should be a divisive, partisan issue.

I strongly believe in education as a means to impart democratic values. It is one of the core assignments of our  public school systems. However, in most education reforms that  important role is not sufficiently recognized, if not ignored. The right to education is both an individual right and a collective right. Some education reforms have been taken out of that rights context. Parents and students have become customers and consumers of education as if schooling is a commodity, a product that can be supplied by the market.

What we seem to forget is that our schools are the first line of defence of our democracies and of decent societies.  Delegating education to private entrepreneurs is as irresponsible as turning our armies over to ISS or G4S.

A myth has developed about the private sector. Many people have been persuaded that the market must be superior to public services. It has almost become an article of faith. And, as with all questions of faith, facts and experience have become irrelevant.

How do you explain the fact that teachers, like journalists, seem to be the privileged targets of authoritarians, not just the most oppressive who torture, imprison and murder, but also those who have “softer” ways of violating rights?

Governments understand what Abraham Lincoln said, “The philosophy of the schoolroom in one generation becomes the philosophy of government in the next”.

Teachers are vulnerable. They are seen and rightly so as having more impact on the future of our societies than most other professions. And, perhaps educators have certain stubborn characteristics. Perhaps, they like to distinguish fact from opinion. Perhaps they prefer teaching to indoctrination. And, they are often highly respected members of the community with standing that makes their views count.

In some developing countries, as used to be true in industrialised countries, a teacher may be the only educated person in a remote village or town. I remember in Columbia and in Nepal, rebel groups put tremendous pressure on  the local teachers to have the village join their  side. A refusal sometimes meant a death sentence.  In Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria, educators who were teaching girls have been targets of Moslem extremists who believe that the schooling of girls is not in accordance with the rules of the Koran. Many colleagues have demonstrated incredible courage by not giving in to these groups. Or have stood up against immoral demands by their public authorities.

In the 1990’s the teachers in Kosovo defied the prohibition by the Serbian government to use their native Albanian language as the language of instruction in their schools. They created a parallel education system rather than submitting to the dictates of the State. Teachers should not be the obedient servants of the state. They have a moral purpose that may outweigh ideological objectives pursued by the public authorities. During the Second World War teachers in Poland defied the Nazi rule that Slavic children be excluded from secondary education. In Norway, teachers resisted political indoctrination.

Democracy is collective. How do you see this in connection with some modern education “reforms” focused on the individual? What does that mean for the collective, public, community sense of education?

I wonder whether we live in the end time of representative democracy. Political parties and trade unions, both products of our democratic systems, seem to struggle to attract young members. I hear some people say that the traditional democratic mechanisms we apply, including electing persons who will speak for you, who will represent your views, are outdated. They view Facebook, Twitter and other social media, as a better, more effective way to organize, to get your views across and to exert political pressure.

Among some politicians, who should know better, the notion is fading that an independent trade union movement and its representative institutions are as essential to democracy as free elections and a free press are. In Europe, but also elsewhere, governments do not always understand the unique and special value of social dialogue. They sometimes treat dealing with a representative union as if it were no different than talking to selected teachers or others who claim, but without legitimacy, to speak for the profession. I remember talking to one Minister of Education who did not see the value of talking to teacher unions because he had 50,000 followers on Twitter.

Not talking to unions is one thing, trying to destroy them is another. Throughout modern history we have seen repression of union members and attacks on trade unions. It was one of my very first acts as General Secretary in 1981 to send a message of protest to the head of the socialist republic of Poland at that time, General Jaruzelski, to stop the suppression of members of Solidarnosc and allow the creation of independent trade unions. Education unions have always been favourite targets. They represent well educated people, many of them politically perceptive, and you do not want them to be your adversary.

Once, in Davos, I shared an elevator with two captains of industry who were discussing the competitiveness of their country, the USA. You know what is wrong with America? one said to the other. It is the teachers’ unions. They protect bad teachers and are responsible for the poor performance of our schools. We should go after them! Well, we see it happening today. It is appalling. The Koch Brothers who are funding campaigns to have members of NEA and AFT leave their unions and join Micky Mouse outfits instead. In some states, our member unions are denied basic trade union rights. The decline of democracy in America is a very painful and dangerous development, which should concern all of us. At my last Executive Board meeting in January, during a discussion on democracy, I drew attention to the new motto of the Washington Post: “Democracy dies in darkness”.

In some countries education seems to have become the last frontier to defend democracy and public service values.

Any last reflections on retirement?

It is important to distinguish between the job and the movement. I am leaving a job that I enjoyed and where I could contribute to the profession and to teacher trade unionism, but I am still a trade unionist and I am still an educator. Those are not what you do, but what you are.

I will complete the work on the “Education and Democracy” book that we are writing. After that, I will do some work on the history of EI, but even after that is completed, one never retires from trade unionism. In this new chapter of my life, I will have more leisure, but will remain committed to democracy, social justice and quality education for all.

Note: As part of EI’s 25th anniversary activities, a first interview of Fred van Leeuwen, focusing on the merger of the International Federation of Free Teachers’ Unions (IFFTU) and the World Organisation of the Teaching Profession (WCOTP) was published earlier this year.

[1] Multatuli was the pen name of Eduard Douwes Dekker (2 March 1820 – 19 February 1887). His best-known book was a satirical novel, “Max Havelaar”.

[2] Sholom Levin, in addition to an officer of the Israel Teachers’ Union, was President of the International Federation of Teachers’ Associations from 1963 to 1968, an organisation that was founded in 1926 and one of the small organisations that, through amalgamations eventually became part of EI. He was also a member of the Knesset, the Israeli Parliament. Levin was an official of the Mapai Party (Workers’ Party of the Land of Israel) that later merged to create the Labour Party. Levin was born in a small town near Minsk, one of the parts of the Russian Empire (now Belarus) where pogroms had taken place. Levin left his town on foot for Jerusalem in Palestine in 1937.

[3] The United Federation of Teachers (UFT) was and is the New York City organisation of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT).

On 26 January 1993, Education International was founded through the merger of the International Federation of Free Teachers’ Unions (IFFTU) and the World Organisation of the Teaching Profession (WCOTP). On the occasion of the 25th anniversary, a special series of blogs #EI25, will be published throughout the year, bringing together voices and thoughts of unionists, education activists, partner organisations and friends, reflecting on past struggles and accomplishments, from which the organisation has drawn strength and inspiration to address current and future challenges facing education and the teaching profession. If you want to contribute to the series, please write to Sonia.grigt@ei-ie.org.

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