Education International
Education International

Bulwarks of Democracy:

published 9 November 2012 updated 14 December 2012
written by:

Mobilisation – the Argument of our Force

So, if things are going so well at these levels, why are they going so badly on other levels? It is not enough to blame our powerful opponents or even the failures of our friends. We also need to look in the mirror; to recognise that we still have a long way to go to overcome our own divisions, communicate effectively and coherently, erase the frontiers between national, regional, and global trade unionism, and mobilise.

We are justly proud of our advances, but the challenges facing us are enormous. For EI and its affiliates, wearing both their education and trade union hats, it is necessary to build on and go beyond considerable historical accomplishments to build education and trade unionism that is stronger and more global.

At the Global Unions level, we need to continue to maintain our identities and our special characteristics. But, we also need to learn to combine more effectively the richness of the traditions and experience found across sectors and occupations to give us a collective power beyond that which we possess individually.

However, for all Global Unions, better coordination, as important as it is, is not enough to globalise social justice. We need to combine the force of our argument with the argument of our force. If we are to build a trade union lever that can move the world, it must be constructed through the mobilisation of members of national affiliates. National-international coordination is the only way we can bring about real change on the necessary scale. It is real trade union organising. And, there are no shortcuts, gimmicks, or fluff that can replace it.

We will never have the armies, money or other means of our opponents. But, we are many millions who share values and aspirations. We have that spark of solidarity that is our very nature. And, when that spark is fanned, it will light our path, enlighten others, and bring “bread, peace, and freedom” to our planet.

Trade Unions and Civil Society

The existence of civil society, something that ensures that there are multiple currents of thought and that there are diverse centres of power in society, is one of the strongest guarantees of democracy. And, democracies inside a democracy brings it alive; taking the pages of history and civics books and giving them relief and passion.

Civil society exists at national level, but also at regional and international levels. There are many definitions of civil society, but two elements are central. It should represent the interests and the will of groups of people and it should be independent of the State. There are many organisations that are “non-governmental”. Some of them make quite valuable contributions to public information and debate, but they often fail to meet one or both of those characteristics of civil society.

On the other hand, free trade unions are the most representative and the most independent of civil society organisations. By their nature and through their action, they are, at the same time, part of the economy and of civil society.

In emerging democracies, it is often workers, through their trade unions, by acting independently, that change the balance of power and create the “space” for other elements of civil society to develop. The dramatic changes in Poland and South Africa are but two examples where trade unions facilitated fundamental changes in their societies and made their countries “safe for democracy”.

Teachers and their unions play a special role in the larger trade union movement and in democracy. They are not only the interface between unions and education and linked with democracy (while wearing both hats), but they are often on the cutting edge of struggles for democracy. Despots often understand better than democrats the power and importance of the classroom and its potential. They also understand the “threat” to autocratic rule posed by trade unions, civil society forces and “schools for democracy”.

Teacher unions are often relatively large and in a position to contribute to shaping overall trade union policies. Because of their key role in society and broad experience, leaders of the larger trade union movement are often professional teachers.

Education for Democracy

Education for democracy is a long-term process. It is not a “quick fix”. If new democracies are to develop and public cynicism is to be replaced by both hope and action, democratic values must be nurtured. It may not have much impact in the short run, but as Abraham Lincoln argued, “The philosophy of the school room in one generation will be the philosophy of government in the next.”

Education will not eliminate intolerance, extremism or appeals to the basest of human instincts. But, if people are exposed to values of openness, tolerance and justice and are equipped to reason and to have perspective, they may be more “resistant” to such approaches.

Corruption will not be wiped out by education, but it can help to build understanding of and support for public service values. And, education of students in higher education who will serve in government can help to change habits and ethics.

Education will not overcome “corruption” that comes in the form of the advantages deriving from an avalanche of money in politics (visible or hidden). However, a sound education helps people think beyond “sound bites” and publicity. It may help develop a healthy suspicion of over-simplification and distortion even if it is administered in heavy doses.

Democracy that exists throughout the year, and not only during elections, requires that people are ready, willing, and able to participate in democracy, including defending their own interests and demanding that government responds. Education can contribute to the understanding of the meaning of democracy and the importance of participating in it. And, education unions can show the way by defending both teacher interests and the public interest.

Trade Unionism without borders

“…recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world”, UN Declaration of Human Rights

At the global level, teachers have Education International (EI), their Global Union Federation (GUF). It combines the best of national experience on trade union and education issues and shares it. But it is also the voice of teachers with the global public and with international institutions that play an increasingly important role in the lives of teachers.

For teachers and others working for public authorities, common, global interests may be less obvious than for workers employed by multinational companies. Nevertheless, there are very many vital links. Good approaches and bad ones seem to pass from one country to another with ease even if, for some reason, the “viruses” seem to travel more rapidly than the good ideas. Responses must be, therefore, simultaneously, national and international.

Policy decisions taken or advice given by the OECD, the World Bank, the IMF, the ILO, UNESCO, and other international institutions have an impact on teachers and their unions. So do less formal processes such as the G 20 and the G 8, in which EI has managed to gain a voice. They also affect other workers and their trade unions. EI works closely with the Trade Union Advisory Committee to the OECD (TUAC) on education and economic issues. It has provided the chair of its Working Group on Education for many years. It also contributes substantially to Global Unions’ submissions to the other structures under the leadership of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC). EI supports and works closely with the Global Unions’ Office in Washington, DC that is responsible for relations with the IMF and the World Bank. In EI’s extensive work on human and trade union rights, it engages with the ILO, including through the use of its complaints procedures and supervisory mechanisms and works closely with the ITUC and other Global Unions.

EI takes the lead on work with UNESCO. That UN agency not only deals with education issues as part of its mandate, but has special procedures to protect the rights of teachers.

EI, like its affiliates at national level, is special, not just because of its expertise and competence and activity, but because of its representativeness. Just one example of that role, one that could be played by no other private group, is its participation in the two education summits held in March of 2011 and 2012 organised by the US Department of Education, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), EI and its US affiliates, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the National Education Association (NEA). Sitting at a global table with governments which are also employers, while representing millions of teachers, constitutes, in addition to providing a forum for substantive and useful discussion, global union recognition.

In order to improve cooperation at the Global Unions level, the Council of Global Unions (CGU) was established in 2007. EI was not only present at its creation, but its General Secretary, Fred van Leeuwen, could fairly be described as its “midwife” who brought it into the world.  It was his vision and persistence and patience that led to this “structured coordination” initiative; an important step forward for the international trade union movement.

Van Leeuwen was the first chair of the CGU and continues to influence its direction. EI officers participates in CGU meetings and General Secretaries’ meetings, and its secretariat is involved in all of its major working groups (the Communications task force, the Work Relationships Group dealing with precarious work issues, the migration working group, and the group on quality public services).

Teacher Trade Unionism

Fortunately, many teachers have trade unions. They do not have to face all of these challenges alone. And, they benefit from solidarity from other teachers in their schools, in their communities, at country, regional and global levels. And those unions most often have strong ties and coalitions with trade unions representing other occupations and sectors as well as with other elements of civil society.

William Butler Yeats, the Irish poet said, “Education is not the filling of a bucket but the lighting of a fire.” We are now in a period of history where we desperately need the illumination of such fires all over the world. We need it in the class room and in our societies, in order to have healthier democracies.

Education and Democracy

“Education makes a people easy to lead, but difficult to drive: easy to govern, but impossible to enslave”. Peter Brougham (18th century British statesman)

Education transmits and strengthens values and the coherence and solidarity of societies and, because they better understand them, citizens can more easily contribute as well as enjoy life. Education strengthens people’s capacity to be open and creative and to think critically. All of these characteristics are fundamental to the building, reclaiming, and sustaining of democracy. There are a number of problems with democracy where education is particularly relevant.

The experience of a large number of emerging democracies in the 1990’s shows us that democracy is a lot more than periodic free elections. The first elections had very high turn-outs of voters who were excited to exercise their new-found freedom. In subsequent elections, however, that public participation rapidly declined.

Too many elected leaders acted as if, once elected, they could do whatever they pleased. There was also poor governance infrastructure. In many countries, massive privatisation of companies and, in some cases, public services, in a non-transparent environment, led to rampant corruption. In the worst cases, there is an infrastructure of corruption that has become so powerful that it brings successive governments, regardless of party, under its sway.

But weaknesses are not limited to new democracies. Long-established democracies seem increasingly vulnerable to populist and intolerant political forces. Extremists have gained ground and they have influenced the positions of mainstream parties.

The influence of money on elections and on issues, both secret and reported, has a profound effect on political decision-making and democracy itself. Probably the most dramatic example of that influence is the United States, one of the oldest democracies in the world.

Although there have always been problems with dependence on private donors in the political process, the influence of money has steadily grown since the beginning of the 1970’s. The US Supreme Court’s “Citizens’ United” decision opened the floodgates. Basically, the court ruled that money is speech and that companies are “people”. That eliminated restrictions on the use of corporate money in elections and led to the creation of “Super-PACS” with huge resources. These are the same corporate “speech” rights that enable them to engage in anti-union campaigns at the workplace.

It is wrong to think that education by itself, and, in particular, teachers and schools, can possibly resolve all of the problems of democracy any more that it provides the “magic bullet” for other problems of society, however, it is relevant to them.

A “Liberal Education”

If, however, one considers human beings to be more than simple factors of production, a broader approach to people as complex and multidimensional beings who are members of families and society, and citizens as well as producers, is necessary. And, there is no better expression of that approach than the system of public education at its best. As English writer G.K. Chesterson wrote, “Education is simply the soul of a society as it passes from one generation to another.”

It is important to ensure that what is passed on is not “soulless”. Industry needs trained employees and workers should have the opportunity to learn skills and develop them throughout their lives. However, education should never be reduced or limited to that. A good education can add immensely to one’s quality of life; which is one reason why it is wrong to think that music and other cultural education is a waste of time and money. Education should stimulate curiosity and enquiry, independent thinking, creativity, and excitement. And to do that, it has to do a lot more than transmit information. And, in fact, industry, even if it may not always realise it, also needs workers who are adaptable, thoughtful, and innovative, in other words, equipped with a good, well-rounded education.

Unfortunately, there are modern methods, many borrowed from the private sector, that go against what has traditionally been considered to be a “liberal education” (” Liberal Education is an approach to learning that empowers individuals and prepares them to deal with complexity, diversity, and change. It provides students with broad knowledge of the wider world (e.g. science, culture, and society) as well as in-depth study in a specific area of interest”. Part of a definition of the Association of American Colleges and Universities. The full text can be found in: What is a 21st Century Liberal Education?). By over-emphasising things that can be measured, many of the most important aspects of education, which are less easily measured, may be neglected. Much of what is central to a happy and “successful” life simply cannot be counted or “standardised”.

The Market – A New Doctrine?

In recent decades, the market seems to have been elevated to the level of a religion or, at least, a dogma, rather than a mechanism to organise the exchange of goods and services. Treating the market as the “Almighty” gives society a one-dimensional perspective. And, it moves ideas that should be seriously discussed into the “off-limits” category of “Faith”.

The market, in fact, is a powerful force that needs to be limited and constrained, so that it will contribute to the public good and human progress. The fundamental question is whether we work for the economy or whether the economy works for us?

The first principle of the ILO Declaration of Philadelphia, adopted in 1944 is that “labour is not a commodity”.  We have seen a trend in recent decades for workers in nearly all sectors to be treated as if they are commodities. Some of this regression has been “mandated”, by globalisation, it is argued, but it has developed a life of its own. Some “flexibility” concepts are spilling over into sectors, including the public sector, not subject to global competition.

Precarious work, where workers often have indirect, confused or disguised employment relationships, shifts risk from the employer onto the worker. It is one compelling example of the re-commodification of workers. In many sectors and occupations, fixed-term contracts have replaced open-ended ones. This vulnerability and insecurity comes from economic pressure and has great social impact. It is, among other things, an important cause of the increase in stress-related illnesses.

Education and the Economy

The financial and economic crisis in much of the world has proven to be a handicap to reflection on the role and future of education. Although there was a fleeting moment when world leaders seemed to recognise that public education was a crucial means to overcome the crisis and to put societies on a path of sustainable growth, the pendulum has swung to austerity, cuts and assaults, not just on the idea of quality public services, but on teachers, their acquired rights and their trade unions.

A climate of conflict is not ideal for rational thinking on the future of education. In some countries, teachers’ have to fight for their survival and governments, correctly or incorrectly, panic when facing pressure from financial markets (for example, in the form of notation agencies) and intergovernmental institutions to cut budgets. As the Irish philosopher and statesman Edmund Burke wrote, "No passion so effectually robs the mind of all its powers of acting and reasoning as fear."   In far too many countries, the space for intelligent discussions and even civil communication on the future is being crowded out by fear. So, one challenge in the current climate is to restore civilised and substantial dialogue on education.

The crisis is much more than economic and it did not begin with the collapse of financial markets. Indeed, it is related to a long-standing crisis of values that affects a lot more than education. It includes, on the political level, some dangerous and irresponsible trends like the preponderant role of private sector actors in making and influencing public policy. The availability of immense sums to save irresponsible financial actors juxtaposed with the paucity of resources available for public interest expenditures, is shocking. But it is the logical consequence of a tendency over several decades to favour powerful private interests over the public good.