Worlds of Education

Learning to live together

published 10 June 2016 updated 10 June 2016

Education unions and the defence of democratic societies

Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, 1938

A spectre is haunting the ramparts of democracy. Whether British voters decide, later in June, to stay in the EU or leave, whether or not Donald Trump gets elected President of the United States in November, regardless of if the right-wing AfD party in Germany manages to secure seats in the Bundestag in the upcoming general elections in autumn 2017 or if a President Le Pen is elected the same year – the messages of populist, jingoistic, and xenophobic forces are resonating with large parts of the electorate.

It is clear that by giving preference to those who promise an easy way out, and who explain today’s complex world in simplistic ways, many frustrated voters feel that they are choosing the only available option to make their voices, their anger and their disillusionment heard.

Many working-class voters have long felt that the economy and leaders have left them behind. More recently, elements of the middle class feel threatened. Rather than offering practical solutions to the real problems of voters, mainstream political parties and elites simply re-heat the same failed free-market mantras that have been force-fed to the public for two generations.

The financial crisis was “treated” with a combination of bail-outs and austerity programmes that have shifted public money to private coffers. That process has expanded inequality and made the victims pay for the complicity and mistakes of financial market actors. This has further alienated the ruled from their rulers.

Is it any wonder that demagogues of the likes of Donald Trump, who promises to make American great again or Nigel Farage, who claims that he will restore the “sovereignty” of the English people, gain support? Both attack the mainstream parties of the Right, Left, and Centre, the political “establishment” and in doing so seem to give a voice to the disenfranchised.

In this situation, civil society, and especially education unions, have a fundamental role to play both as voices of outrage and of reason. They have histories of opposing unfairness and in society and criticising traditional leaders. They can combine that credibility with highlighting the half-truths, distortions, and false appeals of the populists. This also helps fill the vacuum created by many politicians afraid to take on extremists.

But, educators and their organisations also have important contributions to the future to make as professionals. Their mission includes teaching tolerance, understanding, critical thinking and free discussion. People equipped with those capabilities are less likely to be lured by populist siren songs.

Workers in education and their trade unions, when they mobilise, have the strength to have an effect on policy at national, regional and global levels and to promote and help protect human and trade union rights.

There have been many successes. One recent one is due to the active campaigning of Education International’s affiliates from all continents during the negotiations that took place at the United Nations last year on the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals. EI was able to ensure that there was a stand-alone goal on free, quality education (SDG 4) and that it reflected the teaching profession’s views and policies.

This was achieved in spite of considerable resistance from certain organisations under the influence of corporate interests that refused to recognise the critical contributions made by teachers to quality education.

Trade unionists, but particularly trade unionists in education are often targets for repression by governments both because their organisations are relatively powerful and because their profession gives them respect and influence in communities. EI responds on an urgent basis to large numbers of appeals to support teacher activists and organisations whose rights are threatened. EI regularly calls on affiliates to intervene with their own governments and with offending governments on behalf of teachers in need. This, and EI’s work with the United Nations and its International Labour Organisation, is often effective in persuading antagonistic governments and dictatorships to ensure better treatment for detained teacher activists, release them from prison and save lives.

In April of this year, for example, the President of the Bahraini Teachers Organisation was released from prison after having served five years of a ten-year sentence. The judgement listed several reasons for his imprisonment, but they were all trumped up – in reality he was being punished for his trade union activities. Similar practices occur and are far too common on all Continents. We do our utmost to make a difference in such desperate situations.

In addition to intervening on specific cases, EI has, in recent years, developed global policies on education and on human and trade union rights. These are policies arrived at by consensus among all of the member organisations. These policy documents, reflecting the views of the 32 million educators that EI represents, have a strong impact on inter-governmental organisations and UN and other agencies which develop education policies and act on human and trade union rights at global and regional levels.

The capacity of our organisation to garner worldwide support for our views and our ability to mobilise member organisations to advocate our policies and to support individuals and organisations whose rights are not being protected provides compelling evidence of the value of trade unionism in the world of today – a value that is often questioned by neo-liberal thinkers and policy-makers, and derided or dismissed by the new demagogues on the political scene.

Continuing these traditions requires communicating understanding of the value and values of trade unions, including to young colleagues entering the profession. To that end, EI’s World Congress last year in Ottawa, Canada, held a young teachers caucus and adopted a resolution that stressed that the future of the teaching profession – and the quality of education – depend on the professional status of teachers in general, and especially on the support and engagement of young teachers.

The work the Education and Science Union of Russia (ESEUR) is doing in this area is exemplary. For the last five years, the union has organised a yearly, week-long event called the Russian Pedagogical School. It provides a forum for early-stage teachers to exchange experience and opinion, peer learning, professional development and interaction with experts and trade union leaders. It is an excellent way of engaging young members in the work of the union, contributing to their own professional standing, renewing the union, as well as building the collective status of the teaching profession.

EI General Secretary Fred van Leeuwen likes to call this area of union work the “second pillar” of our support – linked with union structures, which are the backbone of democratic representation and decision-making. This second pillar gives a voice and an identity to teachers – professionals, in this case young professionals, with amazing vocations and futures. This building process is clearly expressed by ESEUR via their slogan: “Together to the future!”

Education International is also working to facilitate the future on an international scale. Recently, discussions and planning have begun to establish an international network of teachers, a network that enables professional development and professional exchange, a network by teachers for teachers, helping them to enhance their teaching and bringing classrooms from different continents together for joint projects.

Networks like that already exist: For example, iEARN (the International Education and Resource Network) is a large non-profit global network that enables educators to engage in collaborative educational projects that both enhance learning and make a difference in the world. Established in 1988 as a programme linking teachers and schools in the Soviet Union and the United States, iEARN is now active in more than 30,000 schools in 140 countries.

Education International is not reinventing the wheel, but has partnered with iEarn and a number of other, similar networks to bring all of them together and enlarge their communities for the benefit of all teachers involved and to ally them with the most powerful global teacher trade union organization, EI. In the divisive times in which we live, mutual understanding and cross-border collaboration is even more important than in the past.

In 1996, a UNESCO commission headed by Jacques Delors published a voluminous report entitled “Learning: The treasure within”, a manifesto for a holistic, humanistic approach to education – calling for an education that not only focuses on learning to know and learning to do, but also on learning to be and especially on learning to live together. Nearly twenty years later, another UNESCO report, a follow-up to Delors’ treatise, called for the rethinking of education and highlights the need for education to work towards a global common good.

If, indeed, a spectre haunts democracy and if the very foundations of society seem, at times, to be shaky, solutions to our common problems need to be found. Education unions are well placed to play leadership as well as a catalyst roles and to propose positive solutions. Education trade unions are also in a good position because of their roots in the community and their leadership in the defence of both trade union rights and the right to education, to insist that governments do everything in their power to achieve this global common good.

Our task is to ensure that the societies of today and the citizens of tomorrow are equipped with the knowledge, skills and values they need to face this planet’s challenges and to benefit from a sustainable, peaceful and prosperous future for all. That is an essential element of the mission of education workers. It is also a critical part of the calling of the teaching profession. And, it is a fundamental purpose of their common voice, education trade union organisations.

Based on a speech held on 19th April, 2016 at the ESEUR’s Russian Pedagogical School in Repino, St. Petersburg, Russia. A shorter version was published (in Russian) in ESEUR’s newspaper Moi Profsoyuz, 23 (829), 9 June 2016.

Image: Roosevelt Memorial, National Mall, Washington. Creative Commons image by Jo Goldman via Flicker

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