Interview to Nina Bascia, University of Toronto

published 16 April 2013 updated 17 April 2013

Nina Bascia is a Professor and Director of the Collaborative Educational Policy Program at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. She is the author and editor of seven books and numerous articles on educational change and teachers’ work.

What is the research that you have prepared for EI about?

The research "Teacher Union-Governmental Relations in the context of educational reform"  is about positive relationships between unions and governments. Mostly, we believe that relationships between teachers and unions are always very difficult. This research is intended to provide other kinds of examples.

How can EI affiliates use this research study?

This kind of research study might help people who work for unions, or people who work for governments and want to work with unions, to find ways to coming together.

Are the strategies reflected in the case studies transferable to other contexts?

Cultural background, political background, the economic situation etc. are really powerful, and so it is not just a matter of taking any idea and moving it to another country. What I have tried to do, besides describing the specific cases, is to look across different situations and identify the common factors that make these relationships successful, or not. These are the kinds of lessons that are useful for people in other parts of the world.

Is there one example of national good practice that could be implemented abroad?

In the 1990s, Alberta, in Canada, had very difficult relationships between teachers and education trade unions.  The Alberta Teachers’ Association (ATA) tried to change things by taking on some reform initiatives by themselves. So, no matter what the government did or said, the union was active and proactive.

One of the things ATA did that was very successful was to look at the kind of negative statements that the government was putting out, about how terrible the education system was and how terrible teachers were. And they decided to reframe it, giving teachers and other people a different way of talking about what was good in education, what was working in schools, what kind of support teachers needed…

This finally became the discourse taken up in the media, taken up in a big way and, eventually, helped persuade the government to actually work with education trade unions.

How did they manage to get this ‘counter-narrative’ through to the public opinion?

They provided training at different levels, including school-district level. They taught educators how to present themselves and how to tell positive stories. And so, you ended up having people at all levels in the community saying, ‘H ey, we have a very good story here’, and the media wanting to report on it.

Sometimes, a good relationship between governments and trade unions could mean that unions are not independent.

In the case of Alberta, there is no question that what drives the union are the issues and concerns of teachers. Because of the way that the union is organised, there are many opportunities for teachers to have a voice in what is articulated to the Government, in the kind of initiatives that are sponsored by the union etc. And so, there is no question that the union is speaking for teachers. Therefore, when the union is also communicating well with the Government, it is because it is very clear that they have found a way to act as a kind of bridge. They have a very strong credibility.

On the contrary, I know that in some countries, Mexico for instance, education unions have not a strong credibility, because there is a particular kind of relationship with the Government, but this is not the case here.

How do you see the future of trade unions? Some voices say they will disappear. Do you?

No, I don’t think so. They may disappear for a while, I know that there are some countries that have made them illegal, but they will come back anyway. On the one hand, teachers have a need for education trade unions and, on the other hand, Governments also need trade unions because they need a way, not only to interact with teachers, but to understand what is really going on in schools. And they receive this information from unions. If they don’t have this kind of contact, they don’t have a clear understanding of what is going on.

How can Education International help teachers and education unions around the world?

I think part of the role of EI is to spread useful information about good examples of trade union- government relationships and of the good kind of practices that trade unions are involved in, for other trade unions in other countries to consider them when designing strategies of their own.

That’s at national and local level. Besides, EI deals with international institutions including the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the United Nations. Anybody who operates at that sort of macro level has a very difficult time understanding what is going on on the ground, and EI’s role is to be able to provide that information and that perspective too, which is crucial.