Trade union renewal in Asia-Pacific to advance educators’ conditions and representation

published 3 June 2021 updated 2 July 2021

Education International’s Asia-Pacific office has launched new research “Union Renewal in the Education Sector: Prospects for the Asia-Pacific report”. This has provided an opportunity to reflect on the need for education unions to overcome challenges, embrace renewal, and seize opportunities offered by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Revitalising, strengthening, and enriching the work of teacher unions

Introducing the “comprehensive and insightful” report by Professor Michele Ford and Dr. Kristy Ward, Education International’s President, Susan Hopgood, recalled that “we at Education International have learnt from long experience how vital teacher unions are to the welfare and advancement of not just the education system, but of the nation and the society as a whole”.

She stressed that teachers also perform an important social and civic role, often undertaking tasks on behalf of the government, and disseminating knowledge and ideas that orient the larger society in a specific direction of progress.

By giving teachers “a voice and a responsible role in matters of social policy and governance, the roots of democracy are strengthened. The best way to utilise their wisdom and make them part of national projects is to let them organise and speak in a coherent, representative voice.”

In the Asia-Pacific region, Hopgood noted, teacher unions face both opportunities and challenges. In some places, unions are struggling, in others they are innovating.

For Hopgood, the report suggests strategies and provide examples of how unions can renew or transform with the times to overcome the challenges and seize opportunities. “We hope that this report will stimulate new thinking and discussion on the larger project of union renewal, and lead to more effective interventions on the ground that revitalise, strengthen, and enrich the work of teacher unions worldwide,” she said.

Education unions to reflect on their purpose as 21st century organisations

Presenting their research, authors Professor Michele Ford and Dr. Kristy Ward recommended that, for union renewal, it is vital to:

  • Increase union membership and participation
  • Develop members' skills as professionals and unionists
  • Bring together teachers' professional and union identities

They outlined strategic orientations for union renewal, i.e., mutual aid, labour relations, and teachers as professionals and as social justice actors.

They also insisted that the strategic choice must be informed by the local context. Ultimately, a teacher union’s role is a political one, given the nature and visibility of education as a public good and the relationships with governments being a source of social policy – opening some doors, closing others.

Their recommendations for union renewal included:

  • Unions to reflect on and clearly articulate their purpose as 21st Century organisations via a structured process of reflection at the school level and via social media.
  • Unions to use the results of this reflective exercise to: formulate a clear narrative about their identity and purpose, rank specific policy issues identified by members in terms of their feasibility and potential impact on social policy and teachers’ industrial and professional well-being, and identify what success would look like for highly ranked issues.
  • Having consulted further with members, unions to select one policy issue that is both important and able to be addressed and develop a targeted and time-bound campaign with clearly identified outcomes to be prioritised at all levels of the union.
  • Unions to use this campaign as a laboratory to identify aspects of union structure and processes that could be improved, new ways to engage with external interlocutors (including but not limited to government), apply these insights across the day-to-day work of the union and repeat the process.

Union renewal inspired by social movement unionism

Angelo Gavrielatos, President of the New South Wales Teachers Federation (NSWTF) and former leader of Education International’s Global Response to the privatisation and commercialisation of and in education campaign, also shared experiences drawn from that campaign and how it can be one of the effective tools for union renewal.

“Beyond description and analysis, we can define the broader union movement in two categories: economistic unionism, focusing on salary and conditions, and social justice or social movement unionism,” he said.

It is important to consider union renewal in terms of social justice or social movement unionism, as it caters to the interests of members more broadly, as citizens, and looks at policy development in a broad societal sense, he said.

Speaking about Education International’s Global Response campaign, Gavrielatos stressed that it “seeks to work with unions on the ground to fight the privatisation and commercialisation of education and build activism and solidarity in and across unions”.

The campaign’s narrative is an understanding that privatisation and commercialisation of education is not in anyone’s interest: students, parents, and educators. It is therefore a broad campaign to strengthen quality public education for all and needs the involvement of everyone, Gavrielatos said.

Education unions “need to fulfil a leadership role in building social justice unionism, because we work with others in society to achieve sound social education policy. We all learn from each other as we challenge each other.”

ACT: A Filipino union made of practicing teachers and organisers

Sharing experiences regarding engagement with the renewal process, Ruby Ana Bernardo, Regional Secretary of the Alliance of Concerned Teachers (ACT) in the Philippines insisted that “a strength of our union is that we are practicing teachers and organisers”.

The union head office is the centre of campaigns, and organisers also give guidance to educators in the 17 ACT regions.

The ACT values young educators, women leadership, sharing of experiences, the democratic process, and inclusive consultations, Bernardo explained.

She also underlined that, during the COVID-19 pandemic, despite the lack of government support for teachers and students, long lockdowns and school closure, ACT found ways to train members or to provide them with personal protective equipment.

The meeting was then divided into sub-regional and DC partner breakout groups. The groups later reported to the plenary.

Unions ensuring that they are relevant to their members

In his concluding remarks, Education International’s General Secretary, David Edwards, highlighted that “the social justice angle is critical. That is what we see during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

He noted that the Resolution “Education Union Renewal: The New Imperative”, adopted at Education International 8th World Congress held in Bangkok, Thailand, in July 2019, did not plan the public health situation we know today. This resolution, however, mandates Education International’s Executive Board “to identify and facilitate opportunities to share the knowledge, expertise and reflections of EI affiliates in relation to union building and union renewal”.

“That is what we are built for as unions, how we are relevant to members, to help them flourish and not oppressed. Standing still is not an option,” Edwards insisted.