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An online union academy made in the Democratic Republic of Congo

By Jacques Taty Mwakupemba and Augustin Tumba Nzuji.

published 1 July 2021 updated 6 July 2021
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The Online Union Academy [Académie Syndicale en Ligne, ASL] project set up by the Congo National Federation of Teachers and Social Educators (FENECO/UNTC) is part of the capacity-building activities of unions working in the education sector in the Democratic Republic of Congo (Primary, Secondary and Technical Education; Higher and University Education; Vocational Training, Arts and Crafts; Social Affairs).

The idea was born from an almost bitter realisation shared in union circles in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Many unionists and a significant number of education personnel do not have initial or even lifelong training on unionism. These shortfalls do not allow unions to fully play their part, whether in internal daily discussions to make responsible decisions and ensure they are respected, or during negotiations with partners. Nor do they help unions blossom, so they can become independent and mature organisations, able to deal with government pressures. Furthermore, this weakens unions, thus rendering them powerless and unable to free themselves from the state corporatism which lies at the heart of their inability to respond.

This weak position is one of the reasons why several negotiations between unions and government have failed. Benefits are poorly negotiated and their implementation ends up either in the bin or in hermetically sealed drawers.

Why train unionists?

Shortfalls, failures and language inconsistencies all stem from the lack of initial and lifelong training. In DR Congo there are people who say they are unionists but who have no notion about the basics of unionism. Some come into the union movement for opportunistic reasons, with the aim of taking advantage of the associated benefits and line their pockets to the detriment of members. An organisation claiming to be a “union” only needs the right connections to be recognised by the government. It is put on an equal footing with the rest of the union landscape as being a serious organisation.

The union movement in DR Congo has become a sort of “business and sounding board for the authorities”, as was emphasised by a senior official who asked to remain anonymous. In order to close these gaps and improve the quality of each person’s contributions, and above all, in order to allow members to identify “union” leaders who work outside of true unionism, FENECO-UNTC decided to get things back on track by organising an online union academy. This training course aims to present the fundamentals of unionism. It is essentially aimed at those who have never received union training so as to improve their skills through lifelong learning.

Rather than always waiting for the means (experts and funds) to fall from the heavens, we also wanted, through this initiative, to use our experience and expertise on the matter, following training and internships that have taken place at national and international level, particularly in the context of trade union development cooperation between unions from different countries carried out by Education International.

A framework for excellence to defend workers’ rights

This training course is first and foremost a framework for excellence on renewing and strengthening capacities to help unions fully play their role, that of defending workers’ rights, especially the rights of teachers in public and private schools in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The Online Union Academy, made in DR Congo, also aims to be a space for in-depth and constructive discussions. This will allow us to improve the national union movement’s negative image and thus is likely to encourage members to make contributions, not only in managing the unions but above all to regularly pay their dues. This framework could also be a space for having discussions with unions from other countries.

This is also matter of providing Congolese teachers with essential information on the education sector rather than always speaking on their behalf, without them understanding the whys and the hows, and being subjected to the position of a group of yes-people who are cut off from the grassroots.

It is precisely in this context that we want to disseminate several legal instruments which teachers do not know about. These include issues linked to recruitment and careers, retirement, assessing education policy, sectoral education strategy, distance teaching, Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), etc.

How does it actually work?

A technical team has been set up to manage on a daily basis the activities of the WhatsApp group through which training is provided. In fact, given that most teachers are able to use the application WhatsApp, it has been chosen as the channel for delivering lessons in audio format. The course syllabus and a certificate are sent (by WhatsApp or email) in PDF and in paper copies at the end of training.

The course facilitator, who must have a certain skill level, summarises each lesson in fifteen minutes, which they refer to the following day for another fifteen minutes. The facilitator sends the lesson at the start of each day, between 1am and 10am. The group is only open to members and the administrators. After 10am, everyone gets the chance to ask questions and receive answers. This can be done as voice messages or in writing and can be done in the group or privately.

For the first edition, each participant had to pay a ten dollar registration fee to join the group. On March 13th, a closing ceremony rounded off the project’s first edition in Kinshasa.

After this first session, an assessment was made so as to identify the strengths and weaknesses of the experience:

Strengths included:

  • Enthusiasm to register for the training course
  • Successful training of a group of unionists
  • Ministry for Primary, Secondary and Technical Education government officials’ participation
  • Well-structured course content in terms of modules, lessons, schedule, etc.
  • Members’ willingness, determination, discipline, mutual respect and commitment
  • Knowledge gained through training, with a certificate as proof, documents and legal texts governing the sub-sector
  • The inclusive nature of the course bringing together unionists of all backgrounds
  • Filing through audio recordings and text messages.

Weaknesses included:

  • Low turnout of unionists at the closing ceremony
  • Rudimentary nature of online technical means
  • Lack of interaction
  • Given that paying the registration fee was not compulsory, fees were not paid
  • Lessons were not secure
  • Low-level participation of women

In short, despite the challenges on some issues, the Online Union Academy allowed unions to fully play their role in terms of training. It was of the upmost importance to perfect the training of union members so as to allow them to really defend their profession. In the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, working remotely has also allowed us to reach and train unionists in the hinterland.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any official policies or positions of Education International.