As the occasion to celebrate and reaffirm the value and values of trade unions, from which their principles continue to inspire, today must also serve as a lens to carefully examine our societies and institutions.
Making Room for Trade Union Values
Among trade union values is solidarity. But, solidarity is not the private property of trade unions. Human relationships and needs and collective action develop caring societies that work.
The modern worldview filters out solidarity. It only seems to have room for a contest between global market actors, on the one hand, and nationalist populists on the other. That filter is not just for the present, but for the past and for the future.
As educators and as trade unionists we are, by far, the most representative organisations in civil society and democracy runs in our veins. Like all education, reaching out to the general public is not abstract. It needs to take place in every community. Our challenge is not to come up with alternative slogans or facts or marketing, but to reach out and mobilise to address the issues that touch and change lives. We want national governments to be able to regulate and have solidarity policies unlike much of global business, but we are, nevertheless, profoundly international.
The enormous role played by solidarity in over-coming totalitarianism in the 20th century disappears and the key role of trade unions and public education, health care and other public services in bringing prosperity, a measure of justice, and democracy has been filtered out. All that shines through are “free” trade and business corporations.
The future is equally bleak through this filter. The task for humans will be to be more flexible and to docilely serve the market. The notion that the economy might be regulated to serve humanity will be alien. Instead, humans will need to bear greater burdens of risk and sacrifice to ensure that the most powerful among us can be guaranteed security, stability, and wealth.
The national populists temper the atomisation of society not with hope or viable alternatives, but with simple rejection of that model mixed with a healthy dose of bigotry, intolerance, ignorance and division.
Both visions leave out solidarity. Both reject collective solutions for problems that can only be resolved in that way. Both, in their own ways, rend the very fabric of society. And both, based on faith, not real life, are backed up by “alternative facts”.
The trade union vision is based on the dynamics and needs of humanity. It is an alternative to both leading isolated “lives of quiet desperation” and quivering in fear of the unknown, of the “other”.
Neither the cold, faceless market nor the comradery of the lynch mob address material or other profound human needs. They are not about what matters most, including love and friendship, kindness and compassion, decency, dignity, respect, rights and justice.
Solidarity and Education
The missions of trade unionism and of education are inspired by the same values. Both envision collective futures and not purely individual ones. Both reject the idea that the most precious elements of our humanity should be entrusted to those who have calculating machines where their hearts ought to be or to those who confuse education with indoctrination.
Education trade unions unite the solidarity missions of education and trade unions. Their unique position in society and their skills make it possible to reach out, lead and begin to change the “big picture”.
If we review the last century, we see great suffering, tyranny, explosions of nationalism, genocide, racism and unspeakable terror. We see the interests of the public sacrificed to private interests. We see people working for the economy rather than the other way around. But, we also see episodes of progress against bigotry and inequality, improvements in the respect for human rights, the spread of political and industrial democracy, advances in social justice and improvements in public services and social protection. Has solidarity disappeared because it is no longer an option in an integrated global economy leaving us a stark choice between bad and worse?
We may have to find new ways to globalise solidarity, but the principle has not disappeared from the planet even if many have forgotten the key lessons from progress made in the 20th century. As trade unionists and as educators, our roots go too deep to forget history. We have a tradition of struggle. However, we have never indulged in despair.
We have paid a heavy price for failed market-oriented social experiments and from the dangerous reactions to them in this century and the last. Why not try solidarity?