Education International
Education International

Education unions fighting the economic crisis: It’s time for a global and local strategy!

published 22 December 2009 updated 22 December 2009

Whatever good or bad news we may hear about the crisis in the media, education is still suffering from measures taken since the onset of the global financial and economic crisis. This has an impact on teachers and education unions at all levels of education.

Education International has been running a campaign on the crisis since March 2009, and has worked extensively on combating the crisis across all regions of the world. In particular, a high-level seminar held in September for leaders of education unions from Central and Eastern Europe and Central Asia yielded very useful results in the form of a strategy for education unions to fight against the crisis. Although that all elements may not be applicable globally, it is nonetheless useful to help us in our union work in times of crisis. This strategy is only a small part of EI’s “Hands Up for Education” campaign, which includes fact sheets, speaking notes and a press kit, the analysis of two EI surveys on the impact on education of the economic crisis, ongoing global monitoring and international lobbying. All campaign resources are available at www.ei-ie.org/handsup. Background Two days of plenaries and workshops provided good practice examples of negotiating during times of crisis, as well as deep discussions on the impact of the crisis in the region. A draft strategy then was drafted by the EI Secretariat and presented to the seminar participants, who then offered feedback to complete the strategy. This was one of the most concrete outcomes of the Hands Up for Education campaign to date, and one to which the member unions constructively contributed. We believe it will prove to a useful tool for education unions in times of crisis. Why do we need a new strategy? Teaching and learning conditions vary widely across the globe. Poor working conditions and inadequate pay were a daily reality for millions prior to the onset of the current global financial and economic crisis. In different degrees, the situation has now become even more severe. A number of teachers and academics face increased working hours, larger class sizes, salary and pension cuts, reduced social benefits, redundancies and the like. Cuts to education budgets mean that teachers are not the only ones to suffer the impact of this crisis, but that students and future generations will feel the repercussions for years to come. We go about our union work using tried and tested recipes for negotiation and representation of our teachers and academics. So why do we need a new strategy? Because we are facing unprecedented threats. This strategy represents an inward look at the work of education unions. More importantly, it stems from collaboration and sharing of good practice between leaders of education unions. Thus, it can help to stimulate us to think of recipes tried by others and not yet tested by us. This strategy aims to empower teachers and education unions. It aims to protect teachers’ status and rights, and fundamentally defines education as a solution to the crisis. It can prove useful for union work at the international, regional, national and local level, and can be built upon further in any of these contexts. The role of unions The financial crisis was aggravated by an imbalance between the bargaining power of employees and employers, which then led to a broader and more severe economic crisis. Unions therefore need to push for stronger negotiating powers, in order to bridge this imbalance between the two sides. Good practice at the international level needs to be emulated in all levels of our work. In July, the International Labour Organisation agreed on an ILO Tripartite Jobs Pact called Agenda for Global Recovery. This involves governments, unions and employers, and highlights the key role of unions. This should be a key motivator to drive our work forward. Where unions have been involved in designing solutions to the crisis, the social dimension has been included in the resulting political and policy responses. In this respect, our role is clear. Unions have particular strengths. General labour unions have a special view on the social effects of economic policy and have a capacity to make counter-proposals to government measures, based on their own research. As education unions, we have a unique view on the impact of economic policy and are able to tap into the views of members working at the front lines. As unionists, we are able to break down complex concepts into everyday language and we can engage educators in debates about possible solutions to the impact of the crisis. Let’s make it clear to governments what we are fighting for We need to convey a clear message to governments about the goals we are fighting for. Equal access to high quality education is one of these, in connection with greater social justice and decent labour conditions. This goal can be furthered by advocating for well-trained teachers; by combating privatisation of public schools as the answer to the crisis; and by articulating the value of public education. Another goal is enhancing investment in education over the long-term. This goal underpins our argumentation for increasing or at least maintaining teachers’ salaries. This goal also serves as a background for the fight against weakening of pension benefits and the protection of teachers’ pension rights. An additional goal is to raise the priority placed on social dialogue. Without it, the human aspect of post-crisis recovery will be lost, and education will be seen as a cost, rather than the solution. This could have a devastating impact across the globe. We therefore need to pressure governments for a clear strategy to emerge from the crisis, and to make education part of the solution. In this respect we must stress that all negative crisis measures (e.g. budget cuts) need to be short-term measures only, and must be compensated by a commitment to future investment and re-instatement of full salaries or compensation for cuts made to teachers’ salaries. We also need to have a clear policy in relation to the democratic values of public education, and government’s wider responsibilities to their youngest citizens. If, as politicians often say, children are our future, and the most valuable assets of society, why do governments look for ever- cheaper ways to educate them? Economic growth in the post-industrial era has to be based on intellect and knowledge, and equal access to education is clearly an essential factor in creating social stability and harmony. As unions, our goals and advocacy work can also go beyond education, dealing with problems such as privatisation and unemployment in other sectors, as part of the public service movement against the crisis. Let’s reevaluate our collective bargaining strategies Let’s rethink the way in which we negotiate without our employers. First, in terms of timespan: We can negotiate for pay rises or compensation to take effect after the crisis, when a certain level of growth has been achieved. Second, in terms of collaboration with other education and labour unions, we need to present a united front across education and labour unions so that governments will not be able to play one union off against another. Third, in terms of positions of influence, union leaders who are members of official government bodies need to use their positions to exert pressure. Fourth, in terms of industrial action, we can use the threat of industrial action without necessarily going on strike. We need to find out what governments want and be clear with our demands. In this context it is important to understand the arguments put forward by governments for cutting public budgets or salaries, and we need to be prepared to counteract each one. Research on related issues could prove invaluable to strengthen our arguments. As education unions we also need to come up with an alternative plans and solid research of our own. In turn, we need to be quick in responding to the changing situations in our respective countries, as events are unfolding rapidly from one day to another. Let’s be smart and politically astute in our planning. We need to choose the right moments to exert pressure, such as just before elections, gaining commitments for positive reforms after the campaign period. We should not take sides. Rather than form political alliances, it is better to stay in the margins of any potential political controversies. We also need to be vigilant to catch governments out if they try to use the crisis as an excuse for their mistakes. Finally, in our negotiations it is crucial to aim for binding results, such as strong collective agreements and legislation with teeth. Let’s use a combination of new and old tactics Many tried and tested measures have proven to work in exerting pressure on governments. We can interact with the public via the use of the media by holding press conferences, issuing communiqués, helping students, parents and other allies to speak out. We can seek international support, lobby systematically at every level, and take part in solidarity strikes with other sectors. We can also try some new tactics such as bilateral or multi-lateral collaboration with unions abroad; working with as many political parties as possible; developing research capabilities with researchers, higher education staff or higher education unions. We can hold large protest demonstrations or participate in general strikes to show our strength in numbers. We can also work very closely with partners such as students’ unions, parents’ associations, general labour unions, school administration and higher education institutions, as well as professional associations and NGOs working on education. In this context however, we need to consider the different aims of strikes that we undertake (such as salary raises, protest to education reforms and budgets cuts, etc.) and we also need to consider the efficacy of holding such strikes. We also need to be vigilant to solutions proposed to governments by others (such as employers) which may be harmful to employees. In turn, we need to inform and involve members in our campaign against crisis. And perhaps, more than anything else – we need to be patient! Positive change takes time to happen, but when it does, the fruit of our work will be evident. Let’s work together globally and act locally! EI’s campaign called “Hands Up for Education” consists of a number of elements, including advocacy at the international level with a view to impacting the local level as well. This is a key element of our work on the 1Goal Campaign to involve football players, students, teachers and civil society in supporting education in advance of the World Cup in South Africa next year. Another useful resource is the EI-ActionAid Toolkit on Education Financing. Let’s be part of a global solution to the crisis together! By Angele Attard and Monique Fouilhoux.

This article was published in Worlds of Education, Issue 32, December 2009.