Credits: pxhere.com
Credits: pxhere.com

Social and policy dialogue, a key to union renewal?

published 13 February 2023 updated 14 February 2023

Education International member organisation Union of Education Norway is exploring new ways of structuring development cooperation (DC) projects and ensuring that the educators’ voice is heard when decisions are made concerning educational issues and the teaching profession.

It stressed that, through membership in the International Labour Organization (ILO), most of the world’s countries are committed to core labour standers and the understanding that unions have a legitimate and essential part to play when decisions affecting workers in their sectors are made. Teacher trade unions should, therefore have “a seat at the table”. The world’s largest financial fund for education, the Global Partnership for Education (GPE), also has structures which should include teacher trade unions in the decision-making process.

Education International and UEN are exploring together ways in which these ILO and GPE structures can be used as starting points for development cooperation projects and union renewal.

Reasons to focus on social and policy dialogue in new DC projects

According to UEN senior advisor Ole Otterstad, “looking back, UEN have always had this as a core understanding of DC projects. The difference now is that it is explicitly stated and embedded in the whole approach to our new pilot projects”.

When COVID hit, he explained, it coincided with several of our DC projects being finalised, and it naturally reduced the union’s physical participation in ongoing projects. “This opened up possibilities for us to work on new ideas and approaches.”

UEN reflected on the core reasons for teacher trade unions to exist and keep on existing, which it found to be twofold:

  1. Unions must have clear policies on relevant issues.
  2. Unions must be able to influence policymakers.

“We started to look for existing structures which could be of use in operationalising our two answers, and we found an opening for how unions potentially can increase their influence,” Otterstad said.

He went on to recall that 187 countries are members of the ILO and the GPE has Local Education Groups (LEGs) in the countries they operate.

He was therefore determined that, “through the ILO and the GPE, teacher trade unions should have a seat at ‘the table’ – even though we of course know that this is far from the truth many places. The next step for the unions is then to have something relevant to say when sitting at ‘the table’.”

To be relevant during the discussions, unions often need to develop policies through both internal and external processes. “The internal processes are handled through organisational structures and the external are often the ones we call policy dialogue.”

Otterstad also remarked that, “while policy dialogue is at times confounded with social dialogue, it is essentially different. Social dialogue is defined as collaboration between government, employers’ organisations, and employee’s organisations as well as between employer and worker organisations. Policy dialogue can be defined as a process which brings together two or more parties to discuss, and possibly reach consensus on policy and programming decisions.”

For unions, he insisted, this means to also engage with other stakeholders than governments and employers’ organisations, e.g. students or parents’ organisations, to develop policies on quality education and to broaden their influence.

Bringing about union renewal

And UEN believes that this type of new DC projects has the potential to lead to union renewal, he stressed.

“Take for example the development of union policies: for unions to be able to be relevant and have vibrant policies, they must first have democratic structures and good dialogue with their members. Unions policies must be member- and reality-based to be relevant for both members and policy makers,” he explained.

“The development of policies is also directly connected to unions sustainability because, if members over time don’t recognise their own priorities in the union policies, they will stop being members. They will also stop being members if their union can’t show any results. Also, who will join an organisation that does not reflect one’s views and can’t show results?”

Independence and internal democracy are extremely important for unions to develop their policies, Otterstad also underlined, adding that structures for communication, membership democracy, union representatives etc. must be in place, which requires organisational capacity and reliable funding through dues.

He said: “When internal and independent discussions are well grounded in a union, it is also easier to collaborate with others. Policy dialogue and potential alliances with others then becomes a strategic possibility to increase the unions’ influence.”

Implementation of the pilot projects

UEN always works closely with Education International, so before starting anything, the Norwegian education union meets with EI, both at global and regional levels. For Otterstad, “this is a great help, and we further developed this idea together”.

Welcoming the fact that Education International regional offices in Asia-Pacific, Africa and Arab countries suggested to UEN two countries each where such social and policy dialogue projects could be piloted, he explained that, “to have a better understanding of the countries, we commissioned background reports in each country by external consultants The foci of these reports are the history of social dialogue, the structures for social dialogue, how unions have been able to use social dialogue and recommendations on how to potentially be more successful when engaging in social dialogue. These reports have been the starting point for our direct contacts with the unions through validation workshops. The reports and our joint Education International-UEN project idea have then been discussed. And only after this can the unions decide if they want to engage in a DC project with us or not. This has been very important for us from the start.”

Due to diverse circumstances, only three validation workshops have been held so far, and the unions have not formally decided if they want to work with UEN or not, he said, which is the reason why Education International and UEN have not specifically name the countries yet.

Experience drawn from the pilot projects

Asked what his union’s most important experiences with these project pilots are, he reported several important issues. One of them is an early connection with EI and discuss and develop ideas together. It is also very interesting to have the same project theme tried out in three different regions.

The background reports have benefited because the history and understanding of social dialogue differs quite a lot both between and within countries. We hope the reports will be valuable for the unions even if the project pilots do not continue.

The reports have also taken much longer to develop than we imagined. This is useful when potentially commissioning other background reports in the future.

As for these pilot projects’ sustainability, Otterstad stressed that, “from the start we have been very clear on what these are and that there is a real potential for them to not become long-term projects. This was built into our logic from the start. We selected six countries, and we knew that we would not have the resources to have projects in more than three or four of them, even if all would want to get involved. This was of course clearly communicated from the start to EI at all levels, as well as to the potentially participating unions.”