Teacher (or education) unions are organizations formed to protect and advance the collective interests of teachers and other education workers. What those collective interests entail and how they should be pursued have been and remain active matters for debate.
Due to the ascendency of neo-liberalism, these debates are as critical today as at any time in the history of these organizations. Neoliberalism entails a repudiation of a mixed economy in favour of a more robust “free-market” capitalism, encouraging marketized and international economic and financial arrangements, and reshaping government policies toward these ends. The manifestation of neoliberalism specific to education has been called the global education reform movement or GERM. GERM has promoted, among other things, fiscal discipline in education funding, a focus on the economic role of education, competition, choice, accountability (including through high-stakes testing), corporate-style managerialism, marketization, and privatization.
Several ideal-type models of teacher unionism have been identified, as well as various strategic options that unions might employ.
What various writers have identified as an “industrial model” of teacher unionism prioritizes the improvement of members’ pay and conditions using collective bargaining, industrial campaigning, and strikes, in a manner consistent with other labor unions. A focus on these issues is generally strongly supported by union members. In the second half of the 20th century, a focus on the improvement of members’ pay and conditions using collective bargaining, industrial campaigning, and strikes, in a manner consistent with other labor unions, became a prominent feature of many teacher unions’ activities and in many instances delivered real improvements in teachers’ remuneration, job security, and working conditions. In certain legislative regimes, however, industrial activity is severely constrained, and with the ascendency of neo-liberalism this has become increasingly the case, even in places such as England and the U.S.A. where the industrial model had heretofore been firmly ensconced. Further, this model has been criticized for failing to recognize the professional and “caring” dimensions of teachers’ work and their desire to exercise professional judgment.
“Professional unionism” has been proposed as an alternative to the industrial model. In this model teacher unions engage critically with the education reform movement and champion reforms that improve teaching and schooling. The goal of improving members’ pay and conditions is not abandoned, but the approach shifts from “winner-take-all” to “win-win”. This model, particularly as articulated by Albert Shanker of the American Federation of Teachers and Bob Chase of the National Education Association in the U.S.A. in the 1980s and 1990s, has attracted criticism. Some see it as a ruse to camouflage the industrial goals that remain at the heart of unions’ agendas. Others see it as an expression of weakness, and an accommodation of the neoliberal educational reform agenda. However, a number of unions, in Europe and South America for instance, have arguably developed models of professional teacher unionism which have allowed them to participate actively in the development and implementation of educational policy.
The concept of “social movement unionism” sees unions as part of a broad movement for social progress rather than as merely focused on the self-interest of their members. The key features of social movement unionism are the following: it is locally focused and based; encourages collective actions that go beyond strikes or workplace activities; builds alliances in the community and beyond; embraces emancipatory politics; and develops transformative visions. Unions that have been identified as embracing this model (to a greater or lesser degree) include the National Union of Teachers (NUT) in England, the South African Democratic Teachers Union (SADTU), the British Columbia Teachers’ Federation (BCTF) and the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU). Social movement unionism as a model remains a project in need of considerable further development.
The identification of ideal type models can be misleading. It obscures, for example, differences that exist among unions that might be categorised as of the same “type”. Further, most teacher unions pursue industrial, professional and social objectives.
Carter, Stevenson, and Passy (2010) suggest that teacher union strategies can be classified under three broad headings: rapprochement, resistance, or renewal.
In employing a strategy of rapprochement, a union does not necessarily endorse an educational reform but, rather, is making a pragmatic decision that it is better to “have a seat at the table” where it can exercise some influence on the extent and nature of the reform as it affects members. Teacher unions in Norway, Finland, Belgium, and Sweden, for example, have had ongoing participation in education policy forums.
Resistance occurs where unions actively oppose and reject educational policy and reform, either because of their potentially negative impacts on members’ pay or conditions, or on educational grounds. Unlike in a rapprochement approach, where negotiation is the primary focus of activity, the “repertories of action” utilized by unions that adopt a resistance approach can include various forms of industrial action or legal/judicial challenges to the reforms. The decision of the NUT to stand outside the “social partnership” between some teacher unions and the government in England in the first decade of the 21st century can be said to be an example of the adoption of a strategy of resistance.
Renewal strategies involve unions examining and modifying their own aims, structures, and practices in the light of emerging challenges. For example, a union may seek to take advantage of a decentralization of decision making to empower workplace representatives and to invigorate heretofore bureaucratic modes of operation. Renewal might also entail the proactive development of policy agendas, rather than simply responding to government/employer agendas. Recent research by Bascia and Stevenson (2017) identifies renewal strategies being pursued and the ‘tensions and difficulties’ experienced by unions in a number of national settings.
The strategic orientation of a union is determined by various factors internal and external to the organization that can be ideological, political, and practical. A hostile political climate may render rapprochement strategies unavailable, or, conversely, a climate in which the role of unions is acknowledged and facilitated, and which has delivered benefits to union members, may encourage continued rapprochement between the union and the employer/state (and discourage exploration of other options). Factors such as membership density and dispersion, the union’s financial situation, its history of success and failure, and whether the union competes for members with other unions may be key factors.
Over thirty years of neoliberal social, economic, and educational polity have increased the stakes of debates about the nature and role of teacher unions. The future of teacher unions is by no means assured. Social and economic changes—in particular, industrial and educational changes wrought as a part of the ascendancy of neoliberalism—pose significant challenges. To survive and thrive in the face of these external challenges will demand adept responses and organizational change. There is evidence that at least some unions are now prepared to be far more flexible in adopting a “tapestry” of strategies, to examine their internal organization, to build alliances, and to develop alternative conceptions of the future of education.
Carter, B., Stevenson, H., & Passy, R. (2010). Industrial relations in education: Transforming the school workforce. New York: Routledge.
Bascia, N. and Stevenson, H. (2017) Organising Teaching: Developing the Power of the Profession. Brussels: Education International.
This article summarises sections of: McCollow, J. (2017) Teacher Unions. Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Education ( on line). The full article contains relevant citations and recommendations for further reading.
The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any official policies or positions of Education International.