Lärarförbundet Sweden: International cooperation is union solidarity in practice

published 3 December 2021 updated 16 December 2021

In this interview, the Swedish education union explains how it puts solidarity at the heart of the union movement - from the workplace to the global level.

1. When and how did your organisation decide to get involved in international cooperation?

Solidarity is a core value of the union movement at all levels from the workplace to the global level. This is true for Lärarförbundet as well. International union development cooperation (DC) has been an intrinsic part of Lärarförbundet’s priorities since the organisation was formed in 1991.

We inherited the DC-work priority from the two teachers’ unions, SL and FSL who merged and became Lärarförbundet. They had a long history of international solidarity and DC-work and were active in the formation of the union development cooperation platform created by two of the Swedish confederations (LO and TCO) in 1977. In 2015 the third confederation (SACO) joined the platform, and it took the name Union to Union. This joint platform/organisation channels project proposals from the Swedish unions and its confederations to the Swedish public agency dedicated to international development cooperation, Sida. Long before these national structures came into place Swedish unions collected money from their members and created international solidarity funds. We are also aware of the political and financial support the Swedish union movement received in its’ early years from unions in other countries.

Is there a mechanism in your union to allocate some of the union's funds to international cooperation?

Lärarförbundet’s Congress has repeatedly decided to assign 1.5% of membership dues to international work in general. Half of that may be used for DC-work. The DC-funds are partly used to cover our own contribution in the programme financed by Union to Union/Sida and partly to finance regional and bilateral development projects with sister organisations within EI as well as the Education International's Solidarity Fund.

2. What are your union's priorities in international cooperation work?

The development of strong, independent, democratic teachers’ unions with gender equality, who can further and protect their members´ rights and interests as well as contribute to quality education for all, is our main priority. You can call it organisational development or union renewal. Projects can range from issues such as the establishment of a membership and dues collection system to areas such as developing union training and campaigning based on the presence in the workplace. Specific focus is given to women and youth in order to develop a representative leadership and enable all members to be active in the union.

3. What do international cooperation projects bring to your union?

A sense of being part of both the teaching profession and the union movement at global level. It brings insights regarding how different issues are solved in different contexts and examples we can follow such as ZIMTA's system for calculating membership density in regions as a baseline for organising in South Africa. What we learn about sister unions’ victories e.g., regarding prioritisation of teachers in the COVID-19 campaign, we use in our own advocacy. International cooperation is one way of making the union value of solidarity concrete.

How do you reinvest international cooperation work in your union?

In campaigns during Global Action Week for Education and World Teachers’ Day where we often ask for examples and interview colleagues we have met through international cooperation. We include the issue of international cooperation in many of our union trainings for workplace representatives, local boards and members. In communication with members through blogs and in meetings across our own country and also in dialogue with teachers who we would like to recruit to our union. For some teachers, our international cooperation is a reason to join Lärarförbundet. Teachers who look for union values put into practice; often consider international solidarity as something they want to be part of.

Is your union's international cooperation work something that your union members care about?

As mentioned before, Lärarförbundet’s congress has repeatedly decided that DC work should be part of their union’s priorities and they set aside funds for it to continue. Within our membership there is a group which is engaged in international work in their local branches and regional networks. (Around 35% of local branches have elected a person responsible for international affairs in their board). They sometimes initiate DC-projects of their own, invite speakers to talk and are happy to invite the international unit and on occasions DC-partners to membership meetings and events. There is a larger group who has some knowledge of our international cooperation and think international solidarity is important and are happy that their union is involved. An area of special interest for members is protesting violations of union and other human rights. The other large group does not know about Lärarförbundet’s international cooperation. Communication is a tricky area, and a union has many important tasks that compete for space. Members also choose the issues they like to follow in union communication.

4. Do you have any concrete examples of success stories from a cooperation project?

The most common success stories are those told by participants in projects who come up many years later and talk about how their union together with Lärarförbundet initiated union training/study circles at local level. They participated, became activists, dared to stand for election and become union leaders at local, national or even global level. This is especially true for many women who have participated in Education International regional women’s networks. Unionists who took part in projects, i.e. in the Confederação Nacional dos Trabalhadores em Educação (CNTE)/Brasil and the South African Democratic Teachers' Union (SADTU) in very difficult times believe the projects were important to strengthen their unions in the push for union rights and democracy.

A different type of success story is Persatuan Guru Republik Indonesia (PGRI) who did a project on union renewal which involved administrating dues themselves when they lost the check-off system and at the same time started union activities at work-place level based on their members priorities. They do that together with Utdanningsforbundet (UEN)/Norway, the Australian Education Union (AEU), the Japan Teachers’ Union (JTU) and Lärarförbundet. Evaluations tell us of success both in general terms and at local level.

5. What is the most difficult thing about international cooperation work?

There may often be a sense of inequality based on financial resources or possibilities to act freely as a union in different contexts. Whenever there are funds available it is tricky not to let the money guide the objectives and actions but to listen to the context, listen to the partner organisations' priorities and be realistic about what is feasible. Unions need to be independent and there is always a risk to create dependency through DC-funds. The most difficult thing is often to find the motivation and systems for dues collection and financial independence when there are external funds available. We often work with several organisations together in the same project or sometimes realise that we are several unions financing projects in the same organisation. Transparency, and coordination is not easy but necessary. As we ourselves participate in projects in the European Trade Union Committee for Education (ETUCE), we know how hard it is to find the time and also to figure out who would benefit most and can make the best use of the capacity building within our own union.

6. What advice would you give to a trade union wanting to get involved in international cooperation?

Our experience is that cooperation that is geared towards and included in a union’s strategic plan defined by its congress has the best chance to succeed. Too many add-on projects tend to divert attention from the general vision and mission of a union. Maybe just start by asking yourselves: “What have we planned - in what area could we make good use of a partnership with other unions?” Lärarförbundet as a part of our European regional structure ETUCE benefits from a wide range of capacity building opportunities. We participate in those projects which resonate with where we are as a union. Issues we need to address such as refugees and education, and union renewal are examples of that. Or we participate because we simply need to learn, like in the area of climate change education.

Ask colleagues who are part of a development cooperation partnership what they think has been useful. Give sufficient time to the planning phase, and define objectives, suitable methods, responsible persons and financial and administrative systems from the start. When planning, decide on follow-up, reporting and evaluation of your project from the beginning. Even if you have visionary, long-term outcomes in mind - start small. New ideas will grow out of experience, and you will need to adjust original plans many times. Make sure the project does not depend on a single person (project coordinator, General Secretary). Involving elected representatives and staff in project management makes it less vulnerable. We need to repeat this same advice to ourselves even if we have many years of experience!