Haiti: strengthening trade unionism in times of crisis

published 24 November 2022 updated 1 December 2022

Thanks to considerable effort, the use of new technologies and international support, the education workers’ union, the Union nationale des normaliens/normaliennes et éducateurs/éducatrices d’Haïti (UNNOEH), was able to hold its 4th National Congress as a hybrid event and reaffirmed its determination to fight for quality public education for all in the country.

An adverse climate for organising the Congress

“This hybrid Congress was a success,” said Kensone Delice, the new coordinator of the UNNOEH since the Congress.

For Delice, the union “has broken the myth that all delegates have to come together in one place to hold a Congress. Now, there is no excuse for not organising even more online work sessions. We have also realised that technology is a resource that can help us deal with the serious socio-political and economic crises in the country. Our conviction has been strengthened that the use of technology can boost our dynamism. It has also sent out a signal that there is no excuse for not organising the UNNOEH National Congress on time.”

According to the union’s statutes, this Congress should have been held back in August 2020, but in light of the serious socio-political crises and the Covid-19 pandemic, a decision was taken to postpone the Congress until February 2021. As a result, the national coordination had to extend the mandate of the executive board for a period of six months in accordance with the statutes. At the end of this period, the crisis in the country had worsened and, in the meantime, the Ministry of Education orchestrated a crackdown on trade unions that did not spare the general coordinator of UNNOEH, lamented Delice.

From December 2021 to April 2022, regional congresses were nevertheless held by seven out of eleven regional trade union organisations.

Delice regretted that the country is now in a worse political and economic situation. Despite this difficult context, all the components of the organisation, and especially the provisional national executive board and the national coordination, mobilised to organise the 4th National Congress on 22 and 23 August 2022 at Quisqueya University in Port-au-Prince, with the financial support of Education International. The theme was: “Strengthening combative trade unionism in times of crisis”.

Angeline Cherfils, interim general coordinator of UNNOEH, opened the National Congress with a rousing speech: “This Congress is important for the organisation because it restores the democratic order. This Congress also sends out a message to other civil society and political organisations that always find pretexts for not organising congresses.” In her speech, she also encouraged the union members to engage more fully in building the power of the UNNOEH, which is “the only way to be more effective in the fight for quality public education for all”.

Two key debates: action strategies and position vis-à-vis the government

Delice reported that, in terms of policy, the debates focused on two key elements:

  1. The identification of action strategies to continue the fight for quality public education for all with greater effectiveness. “Some people supported the idea that we should mobilise at the very start of the new school year, at the beginning of September. Others disagreed,” said Delice.
  2. The position UNNOEH should take in relation to the government of the day. Delice noted: “Some people think we should stick to strictly education-related issues, but others think the opposite. The debates were very lively.”

“This Congress sent a very clear message to the authorities and the Minister of National Education and Vocational Training recognised this,” said the UNNOEH leader. Minister Nesmy Manigat addressed the Congress virtually, congratulating the trade unionists “for this great demonstration of democracy within UNNOEH” and recognising that UNNOEH is the union that has been putting a great deal of pressure on his ministry to open a formal dialogue on the proposals and demands the union has submitted to the ministry since he took on the post.

Solidarity of the international teachers’ union movement with their Haitian colleagues

Education International was represented by its coordinator Florian Lascroux who took part in the event online and emphasised that “Education International welcomes the effort dedicated to organising a Congress at such a difficult time. Together with its affiliated organisations, it stands in solidarity with its Haitian affiliates and will continue to support them in a variety of ways.”

This is “a concrete demonstration of democracy in action, which is all the more remarkable in an environment that is not in itself democratic”, he continued.

Asserting that it would be a source of admiration among many teachers around the world, Lascroux underlined that the initiative of holding a hybrid Congress is interesting and that this experience could serve as an inspiration and be replicated in other countries.

Adoption of resolutions

The outgoing national executive board presented a book of resolutions containing eight chapters, with 27 resolutions. It was not possible to discuss and adopt all the resolutions during the Congress, which therefore decided to entrust the next national coordination with the responsibility of approving those remaining.

The debates at the Congress focused on the adoption of the first five chapters of the resolutions document, on the following themes: Building union activism and organising; Finance, administration, documentation and the solidarity economy; Communication, technology and outreach; Individual demands, negotiation and union mobilisation; Vocational training, trade union education and personal development.

In their speeches, the majority of the delegates expressed their firm belief that strengthening the UNNOEH should be one of the new national executive’s top priorities.

Delice emphasised that “for UNNOEH to be strengthened, the focus must clearly be on training. Very few teachers have access to lifelong training. That’s why the idea of setting up a professional training plan for members is part of the four-year action plan. A trade union education and training plan will also be developed, to better equip our members to fight for quality public education for all in Haiti.”

Marie-Anne France Etienne awards

The Congress Committee also took the opportunity to honour a number of key figures for the organisation. A posthumous tribute was paid to Marie-Anne France Etienne for her contributions to the trade union struggle. Tribute was also paid to other important figures such as Georges Wilbert Franck and Louis Pierre Janvier, trade unionists who have made sacrifices to advance the cause of the UNNOEH, and Liliane Pierre Paul, a radio journalist who has always supported the UNNOEH in its battles for quality public education for all in Haiti.

To publicise the event and its organisational success despite the very difficult circumstances, the union held press conferences, aired a commercial and put up posters, Delice explained. This helped the union reach a wide audience, despite the political turmoil capturing much of the public’s attention.

Delice concluded by saying that “for the UNNOEH, the transformation of the Haitian education system can only be achieved through broad mobilisation of the various sectors of society under the enlightened leadership of the trade union movement. And to achieve mobilisation on this scale, we need to build our trade union power.”