Education International
Education International

European unionists fight for equality in times of crisis

published 26 March 2012 updated 5 April 2012

EI European region, the European Trade Union Committee for Education (ETUCE), held its annual Equality Standing Committee on 26 March in Brussels, Belgium. Education unionists reaffirmed the importance of equality in unions, education and society, to improve opportunities for sustainable and socially fair economic recovery.

In her introduction, ETUCE Equality Standing Committee Chairperson Kounka Damianova said: “Equality is important. Equality should be a preeminent quality for a progressive society.”

She regretted that equality, which is closely linked to solidarity, is increasingly going amiss. Therefore trade unions should fight for equality.

EI Gender Equality Action Plan

EI Senior Coordinator Dominique Marlet presented the EI Gender Equality Action Plan. She explained that this plan focuses on three main issues: equality for women within trade unions, access and participation of girls in education, and economic empowerment of women.

After the successful first EI World Women’s Conference held in 2011 in Bangkok, Thailand, a second global conference is planned for 2014, she announced. “This will be a crucial period, one year before the next EI World Congress in Ottawa, Canada, and the given deadlines to achieve the Millennium Development Goals.”

Marlet also said EI women’s networks in the different regions will be maintained and reinforced, and a new women’s network set up shortly for Arab countries.

Challenging gender stereotypes

ETUCE policy coordinator Susan Flocken also detailed the ETUCE project for trade union actions challenging gender stereotypes and gender segregation in the labour market. This European Union-funded project started in November 2011 and will end in October 2012. It looks at the link between gender stereotypes in education and gender segregation in the labour market.

“This issue is clearly linked to others in terms of gender equality, such as women’s participation in the labour market, the relevant legislation, imposing gender sensitivity in teaching and adequate training to teachers,” Flocken underlined. “We must trigger a change in students’ future career choices by providing teachers and their unions with the necessary tools to promote a gender-sensitive approach in education and society as a whole.”

She also mentioned the gender aspect of the ETUCE Project on third-party violence in schools and education in general. She invited participants to make sure that their organisation sends input for a survey in the framework of this project by 16 April.

A panel discussion evolved around two presentations.

The first given by Mario Soares, member of the European Economic and Social Committee, addressed the impact of the economic crisis on the political discourse on equality and social cohesion.

He condemned the phenomenon of ‘in-work poverty’ reaching at least 18 million workers in Europe, and mentioned the following consequences of the crisis in education: cuts in education budgets and increasing school drop-out rates.

Education, a solution for economic recovery

“In times of economic crisis, trade unions must reassert that education is a fundamental human right and a public good, which must be guaranteed for all without any kind of discrimination,” he said.

“Investment in education must not be considered as a burden on the national budget, but as a solution for the economic recovery to happen under the best possible conditions. We can exit the economic crisis in a better position than when we entered it due to education.”

Soares affirmed that acquiring basic knowledge not only provides students with a better adaptation capacity, but also allows them to understand current changes.

“In times of economic crisis, those fighting for equality have the duty to oppose all forms of inequality even more firmly,” he added.

The second key speaker, the Confederal Secretary of the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC), Claudia Menne, talked about union strategies to fight for equality in the changing economic climate.

“The situation in Europe is worrying and includes a political crisis,” she declared. “The concept of Europe used to be understood as a guarantee for progress and social cohesion. It is not case nowadays, quite the contrary.”

She said ETUC opposes austerity measures and fiscal compact, and promotes a new deal for Europe to create jobs, involving people and respecting social partners.

“Trade unions can call for strikes to protest in the streets, but we have to come back to the negotiation table,” she said. “That is why ETUC is now coordinating collective bargaining. Do we need tripartite social dialogue or autonomous negotiations between employers and employees? ETUC cannot give a single answer, because of the different national situations.”

Menne further regretted that pensions are now regarded only as an economic factor and a burden to state budgets. She reiterated that a European social model is being restructured, and trade unions must have a say in it.

ETUC concerns about youth unemployment

“When it comes to inequality in employment, I am concerned about youth unemployment,” she added. “It is highly difficult for young people to enter the labour market. We must demand that cuts in public spending do not touch education, otherwise we will create a ‘lost generation’ not adapted to market circumstances.”

She noted a growing discrimination towards those with disabilities in terms of job opportunities, and towards lesbian and gay workers at the workplace. In terms of discrimination, ETUC is closely working with EQUINET, the European Network of Equality Bodies.

ETUCE Director Martin Rømer later introduced the ETUCE framework of action against the economic crisis.

He mentioned that ETUCE completed a survey on the impact of the crisis in education, and ETUCE Committee members will meet MEPs on 28 March to discuss the issue.

Education budgets not cut, but increased

“We must understand that the situation is different between the South and the North, the East and the West of Europe. But education spending must be protected, even increased if possible, everywhere.”

Rømer condemned the fact that less than two per cent of the Greek gross domestic product is dedicated to education. “Most African countries invest more in education than Greece,” he noted.

“Education unions have an obligation to fight against the growing xenophobia, and protect young people from the economic crisis,” he acknowledged.

Participants then split into four breakout groups, discussing the following themes: gender balance in union structures and events, access to quality public education – crisis cuts affecting special programmes, working conditions and economic empowerment of women teachers, and professional needs of teachers working with minorities.