Unions on the Frontlines

published 23 July 2019 updated 25 July 2019

In a well-received speech at Education International’s 8th World Congress, guest speaker Sharan Burrow, General Secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), and former EI Vice-President, argued that education workers’ unions must be involved in the fight for democracy, a new social contract and climate change.

“Unions are on the frontlines because we share a set of values. We stand for hope, not hatred; rights, not oppression; democracy, not dictatorship; freedom, not fascism; solidarity, not division; trust, not despair; fairness, not inequality; courage, not fear. We stand for the 99% not 1%; dignity, not exploitation,” Burrow stressed in front of the 1,400 educators in the audience.

She insisted that “we are prepared to stand up every time we see these values threatened,” and that the solidarity between the global union federations and the ITUC is critical in this regard.

Democracies for people

Burrow addressed the topic of democracy and the challenges it is facing across the world, noting that people needed to have their hope in democracy restored in order to see it as something more than a quest for GDP. People need to know that their governments are taking responsibility for and reporting on living standards and that implies the strengthening of collective bargaining.

“It means quality public services and care, education, health, childcare and aged care. And it means strengthening the human and labour fights of people and engaging them beyond the ballot box,” she noted.

A new social contract

Burrow defined the new social contract as the “the industrial agenda that complements healthy democracies”. She called for the implementation of a Labour Protection Floor as negotiated in the Centenary Declaration of the ILO so that “all workers regardless of the employment arrangements have the guarantee of fundamental labour rights, occupational safety and health, a minimum living wage and maximum hours of work.”

She added that a new social contract must mean that broader rights and the employment relationship are respected, “so work is formalised, collective bargaining is strengthened; quality public education and lifelong learning for all guarantees further education and skills, workers have some control over working time; social protection coverage is universal; mandated due diligence and accountability drive business operations; women’s equality is realised, modern slavery with child labour and forced labour is eradicated; and social dialogue ensures just transition measures including skills for climate, technology and displaced people.”

Burrow also addressed the topic of tech giants, arguing for countries to come together and set competition policies to break tech monopolies. In addition, Burrow called for the creation of a new global body to regulate data, its ownership and value, in order to ensure the protection of privacy. She encouraged the audience to “commit to a human-centered century where technology serves societies and their economies and not the alternative.”

Just transition as the pathway to climate ambition

While “there are no jobs on a dead planet”, the challenge is to maintain full employment and decent work in the transition, Burrow highlighted. The role of educators and their unions in making a just transition happen is essential: “The world needs you more than ever.”

She strongly condemned the fact that, with very few exceptions, governments have found themselves if not complicit then incapable of changing a world where despite global wealth, development, human and labour rights and social justice have been denied to too many. The concentration of wealth has been fueled by a corporate greed that has dire effects on both people and sustainable economic futures. The current model of globalisation has generated a pattern of tax avoidance which deprives governments of the means to implement universal social protection floors and vital public services.

According to Burrow, the challenge for the 21st century lies with us, as it did in 1919, when world leaders decided to rise beyond their national interests and secure a new global architecture – the International Labour Organisation – with the mandate to establish a social floor of rights with the dignity of work as the recipe for peace.

She concluded by acknowledging that “the SDGs and the Paris Climate agreement offer a pathway to a socially just and sustainable world, but it will take all of us. Trade unions are again on the frontlines and your strength provides hope and optimism for the struggles ahead. It has always been education that has provided the enlightenment in troubled times.”