Teacher Unions, Many Countries, Common Challenges

Published on Wednesday, 14 December 2016
Teacher Unions, Many Countries, Common Challenges Chris Beckett via flickr

El Colegio de Profesores de Chile; Poland’s Zwiazek Nauczycielstwa Polskiego, or ZNP; The Educational Institute of Scotland; The American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association in the United States. These disparate teacher unions face significant challenges to their purview and their very existence in countries across the globe. A year-long study by Nina Bascia and Howard Stevenson, commissioned by Education International, will be released in 2017, detailing how teacher unions respond to challenging educational times in these and other countries, including Kenya, New Zealand and Turkey.

Teachers are at the centre of many current educational reform efforts. As a result of neo-liberal reform, teachers experience workload intensification, curriculum and testing reform, privatisation, a lack of resources, de-professionalization, and reductions in pay and benefits. As teachers’ organizations, unions must work hard to militate against losses in the quality of teachers’ work. At the same time, teacher unions face many challenges themselves. In the EI study, teacher unions are confronted by a number of difficult issues. At the same time, the teacher organizations in the study have not suffered setbacks easily: all of the unions are engaged in efforts to maintain and extend their viability.

Attacks on collective bargaining. In Chile, a voucher system established during the days of the dictatorship has resulted in massive movements of students from public to private sector schools, a situation that not only exacerbates differences in educational quality along social class lines but also enables well over half the schools in the country to hire teachers who have no recourse to union representation. In the United States, teachers who work in charter schools may similarly lack access to collective bargaining. And in some states where collective bargaining has been a fact of educational life for many years its elimination has been sudden, and others are under threat. In both countries, the teacher unions have responded by investing resources in organizing teachers where they work – at the school level, and in local school-community alliances.

Marginalisation by stealth. In Poland, the ZNP, as the country’s largest teacher union, long enjoyed a special advisory role with the government, with the union acting as a medium for teacher expertise. A change in government has meant a reduction in the extent to which teachers can provide contributions to the formation of educational reform. The ZNP has maintained its relevance by continuing to work publicly on the intersection of social and educational issues. In Chile, the Colegio de profesores’ role as respectful opposition to the national government’s educational reforms was compromised by an alliance between the government and union leadership. However, in response, a faction within the union mobilized to challenge the reforms and was able to persuade the government to modify its plans on its “teacher career” initiative.

Weakening of traditional union loyalties. Many countries, including Scotland, have experienced massive generational turnover of teachers in the past few decades. The newer generation often lacks the experience with teacher unions fighting, and winning, battles with employers and governments. With the intensification of teaching, teachers are less likely to find the time and mental space to engage in union activities. The notion of effective collective action may be outside of their own experience, and teachers’ perceptions of their union may be reduced to an individualistic calculation of “What’s in it for me?” In Scotland, New Zealand and the United States, unions are investing in finding out what newer teachers’ occupational needs are (such as professional development) and working to fulfill them.

Opening up of new “activist” spaces. Media, such as the press, but also social media, provide platforms for groups of teachers who challenge the union status quo to articulate and broadcast new discourses. In Chile, some teachers have resorted to social media in order to interact with each other outside regular union communication channels; media coverage of this group of teachers’ role in a national protest swayed public sentiments about the plight of public education. Similar uprisings have occurred in some urban school districts in the United States as a new generation of union-active teachers has worked to re-energize their organizations by forming alliances with parents and community members.

These are some of the challenges facing unions around the world as they work to support teachers and public education more generally. The important lesson we may take away from this research is that teacher unions are resilient organizations: despite the magnitude of the challenge, they do what is necessary to provide a counterpoint to prevailing trends, whether in relation to outside forces or to their own members.

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Nina Bascia

Nina Bascia is Professor and Director of the Collaborative Program in Educational Policy at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education in Toronto, Canada.  She has been researching about teacher unions for twenty-five years and is the author of numerous reports and articles.

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