Africa: Resilience, diversity, and purpose at heart of union renewal drive

published 25 June 2021 updated 15 July 2021

Attracting, retaining, and energising new and young members in the teacher trade union movement – this key topic was at the heart of a recent webinar organised by Education International’s Africa Region.

Education International’s member organisations in Africa shared strategies for renewing and strengthening unions during the 24 June webinar. This was a valuable opportunity for the unions, as union renewal is a crucial issue given the health, safety, economic, political, and environmental crises faced globally.

Strategies, choices, resilience to create better trade union movement

“We stand together in solidarity to defend democracy, human and trade union rights, in Africa and around the globe, and to make sure we build a strong trade union movement,” said Mugwena Maluleke, General Secretary of SADTU/South Africa and Education International’s Vice-President.

With the COVID-19 pandemic, unions must adapt to today’s challenges, such as austerity measures and collective bargaining issues, he added.

Trade union renewal is about asking what can be done differently, according to Christian Addai-Poku (Ghana), Chairperson of Education International’s Africa regional committee.

“Even in dire circumstances, unions can make strategies and choices. We can be resilient despite challenges, for a better trade union movement,” he acknowledged.

World Congress Resolution on union renewal

Addai-Poku highlighted Education International’s Resolution, ‘Education Union Renewal: the new imperative’, adopted at the 8th World Congress in Bangkok, Thailand, in July 2019.

The Resolution mandates EI and its member organisations to:

  • Identify and facilitate opportunities to share the knowledge, expertise, and reflections of EI affiliates in relation to union building and union renewal
  • Consider establishing a union renewal network across EI affiliates to facilitate the sharing of experiences and maximising opportunities for shared learning
  • Consider the development of a ‘union renewal toolkit’ - a set of flexible resources, able to take account of cultural and contextual differences, which can help affiliates that seek to reflect on current experiences and bring about strategic organisational change

Purpose-driven trade union renewal

“We are trying to deal with a confluence of crises: democracy, climate, labour rights, a surge of violence,” said Education International’s General Secretary, David Edwards.

He emphasised that “renewal is not just innovation and change. It is a process to align this change with our strategies. It is purpose-driven.” These long-term strategies will help union members, he said.

Union renewal is “core to who we are. It is about the values that must continue. We are going to need to mentor others, make space for others for the union to continue to accomplish what is essential for it”.

Edwards paid tribute to his mentor, Mary Hatwood Futrell, founding President of Education International. She “understood renewal very well, as she was always looking for new leaders, and for values and knowledge she could spread”.

He concluded by admitting that, while “no one has the secret recipe for trade union renewal … what we have is solidarity, the will to do better for our students, our unions and our members”.

Young people in leadership roles

Anais Dayamba of Education International’s Africa regional office explained that the regional office uses diverse women's networks, workshops on school-related gender-based violence, leadership workshops, LGBTI programmes on issues related to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people, as well as programmes for young members, to advance union renewal.

“Young people are not only the future of the union, but the present heartbeat of the union. Let's allow them to be in leadership roles so that they can use their full potential,” she said.

While acknowledging the challenging contexts unions operate in, Dayamba also underlined that unions must realise the need to adapt to these contexts quickly. “We have to be bold enough, and recognise that our union culture and programmes must change,” she noted.

Experiences from Asia-Pacific

Anand Singh, Education International’s Asia-Pacific Regional Director, presented the outcomes of research conducted for Education International on trade union renewal in the education sector in Asia-Pacific. He outlined that the 10 unions in eight countries surveyed all had a different understanding of trade union renewal.

For him, trade union renewal is about structures and the engagement with members, he added. And, the experience of unions in his region suggested that unions also need to:

  • Be clear about their purpose as 21st Century organisations
  • Devise a clear narrative about their identity and purpose
  • Select one important policy issue that can be addressed
  • Organise a campaign around this policy issue
  • Use this campaign to mobilise union members, students, parents, communities

Union leadership should reflect union membership, Singh highlighted.

A panel discussion with young teacher unionists from Gambia, Zambia, and Cameroon underlined the need for specific platforms for them to get their voices heard.

Participants then adopted a resolution and outcome statement on trade union renewal in Africa. The resolution was presented by Marième Sakho Dansokho, General Secretary of SYPROS/Senegal and member of Education International’s Executive Board.

Union renewal, a lifeblood and a lifelong endeavour

In his concluding remarks, Education International’s Africa Regional Director, Dennis Sinyolo, stated that “we need to organise and mobilise. We need to get young educators and women into the teacher trade union movement and to give them the space to contribute, to lead and to shine”.

He indicated that a network will be established for young educators to help us respond to present and future challenges and to drive the quest for equitable inclusive quality public education for all in Africa.

“As educators, we lead, and others follow. So, like improving teaching and learning in our classrooms, union renewal should be our lifeblood and a lifelong endeavour. We need to critically examine our structures, operations and practices,” he insisted.

Sinyolo also urged all participants to:

  • Promote the union renewal statement adopted during the webinar
  • Have a serious discussion about renewal in their unions
  • Share any experiences of union renewal and development, so that others can learn and be inspired by them.