Creating strong, democratic and independent teacher unions in the Pacific

Opening speech by the Director ILO Office for the South Pacific Island Countries at the Council of Pacific Education (COPE) regional workshop, 19th to 22nd August 2013, Nadi, Fiji.

Statement | Nadi, Fiji Islands | 22 August 2012
Introduction: Democracy and strong social institutions
1. I feel very privileged and honoured to address you today on the theme of “Creating Strong, Democratic and Independent Teacher Unions in The Pacific”. I always appreciated my teachers for what they taught me in my schooling. I started my profession career as a teacher. I got my first housing loan from a Teachers Credit Union. I am therefore very grateful to the teaching profession and of course its unions.
2. Let me start my presentation by first reflecting briefly on the importance of democracies and the need for strong social institutions, of which a trade union is one example.
3. Democracy means people-power or rule by the people. The idea came from the ancient Greeks who combined the words demos (people) and krates (rule) to create the term. The term was coined during a period in Greek history when the city of Athens experimented with a form of government in which all citizens, rather than one king or a small group of wealthy men, made the laws of their state.
4. The term is typically used in the context of a form of government in which all, the citizens have and equal say in the decisions that affect their lives. But of course it also relates to organizations such as your unions. Essential elements in any democracy include the values of freedom, respect for human rights and the principle of holding periodic and genuine elections by universal suffrage.
5. Democracy is not an absolute concept, but it is still an ideal worth aspiring. Democracy no matter, how bad, is better than autocracy. As Sir Winston Churchill said: “No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time”.
6. It is also a widely recognized that a pre-condition for any government democracy is the existence of a vibrant civil-society sector and an independent media that ensures citizens are well informed about the actions and performance of government institutions and officials, and that citizens have the means to freely influence public policies.
7. It is important that a legal and regulatory frameworks exist that provides an enabling environment for civil-society institutions, including trade unions, to develop free from governmental constraints on the fundamental freedoms of association, assembly and expression.
8. Civil-society institutions include human rights and pro-democracy groups, professional associations, religious institutions, think tanks, business associations, student movements and of course, labour unions. It is often said that unions are the most democratic civil-society institutions, because they have elections.

Decent Work as a democratic demands of people everywhere
9. One of the democratic demands of people everywhere, is the opportunity for women and men to obtain decent and productive work, in conditions of freedom, equity, security and human dignity
10. Achieving decent work requires social dialogue between trade unions and employers. Trade unions and employers negotiate pay and working conditions, and, in some countries, they also have a say in social security arrangements or have key roles in other areas. They help government manage the economy, or seek through dialogue to secure good economic and social governance.
11. Social dialogue gives workers, through collective bargaining and consultation, a voice in the decisions affecting them, thus promoting consensus building and democratic involvement at work.
12. There are four key ILO Conventions that are considered important when examining labour relations and social dialogue:

• the Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organise Convention, 1948 (No. 87);
• the Right to Organise and Collective Bargaining Convention, 1949 (No. 98);
• the Labour Relations (Public Service) Convention, 1978 (No. 151); and
• the Collective Bargaining Convention, 1981 (No. 154).
 
13. Conventions No’s 87 and 98 are among those Conventions identified by the ILO’s Governing Body as covering subjects that are considered to be fundamental principles and rights at work. Convention No. 151 covers public service sectors and is therefore of particular relevance to the education sector. Convention No. 154 defines collective bargaining and calls for its promotion in all branches of economic activity, including public service.
14. Approximately half of all Pacific region member States have ratified Conventions No’s 87 and 98 ; none have ratified Conventions No’s 151 and 154.

Social dialogue in the education sector as a vital component in achieving the objective of quality education
15. Now let me turn my attention to the education sector. Within the education sector, social dialogue is a vital component in achieving the objective of quality education for all and the needed improvement of working conditions for teachers. Teachers are the persons most responsible for implementing educational reform and without their full involvement in key aspects of educational objectives and policies, the objectives cannot be obtained or often fall short of their goals.
16. The crucial role of social dialogue in the education sector is further underscored by the importance given in the 1966 Recommendation concerning the Status of Teachers .
17. The guiding principles of the Recommendation are still very relevant today. I would like to highlight these principles (which have been a charter for many educators) in this forum:

• Education from the earliest school years should be directed to the all-round development of the human personality and to the spiritual, moral, social, cultural and economic progress of the community, as well as to the inculcation of the deep respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms; within the framework of these values the utmost importance should be attached to the contribution to be made by education to peace and to understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations and among racial and religious groups;
• It should be recognized that advance in education depends largely on the qualifications and ability of the teaching staff in general and on the human, pedagogical and technical qualities of the individual teachers.
• The status of teachers should be commensurate with the needs of education as assessed in the light of educational aims and objectives; it should be recognized that the proper status of teachers and due public regard for the profession of teaching are of major importance for the full realization of these aims and objectives.
• Teaching should be regarded as a profession: it is a form of public service, which requires of teachers expert knowledge and specialized skills, acquired and maintained through rigorous and continuing study; it calls also for a sense of personal and corporate responsibility for the education and welfare of the pupils in their charge.
• All aspects of the preparation and employment of teachers should be free from any form of discrimination on grounds of race, colour, sex, religion, political opinion, national or social origin, or economic condition.
• Working conditions for teachers should be such as will best promote effective learning and enable teachers to concentrate on their professional tasks.
• Teachers' organizations should be recognized as a force which can contribute greatly to educational advance and which therefore should be associated with the determination of educational policy.

 
18. Much of the guiding principles in the 1966 Recommendation have been incorporated into the Pacific Education Development Framework 2009-2015 , although two cross cutting themes in the Framework should be emphasised here:
19. Cross-cutting Theme 7 on Youth notes that out-of-school youth has become a growing marginalised group across the Pacific education and training systems, with countries struggling to respond to this challenge. Issues arising from students not completing secondary education include violence, substance abuse, alienation, crime, teenage pregnancies and so forth. The Framework states that this is symptomatic of more serious concerns about the quality and relevance of programmes provided in schools.
20. Cross-cutting Theme 8 on the growing incidence of poverty suggest strategies such as review of school fees policies, development of integrated cross-sectoral approaches to address food security, health and housing issues (employment/ decent work should also be included here); and for consideration to be given to the context of education in National Poverty Reduction Strategies. It highlights also that new and different strategies need to be developed to reach out to the poor, stating that it is increasingly recognised that the excluded will not adapt to mainstream systems.
21. The justification for teachers unions is straightforward. The magic of education happens in the classroom. It is all about teachers and students. No citations, research, or position statements are necessary to confirm that teachers and the work they do in the classroom are paramount.
22. The input of teachers is needed to build or strengthen any education system. Many issues arise when discussing the important agenda of improving access to quality education- schools need more funding; competitive salaries are needed to attract top talent and keep quality teachers in the classroom, and so forth. The role of the teachers unions and progress of quality education is indivisible. The influence of teachers unions is undeniable as teachers themselves, are the most important in-school influence on student learning. Teachers know what works and what doesn’t.

 What can be done to strengthen the role of the teachers unions in the region
23. Finally, let me address some ideas of what can be done to strengthen the role of the teachers unions in the region? Firstly and it goes without saying that we should make sure our organizations are democratic. Broaden your membership, strengthen member solidarity, communicate with your members, hold elections, etc. Some other steps that you can take to build stronger and better teacher unions, include.
Let us make “improving teaching effectiveness and relevance of what we teach” part of your union agenda
24. There are examples internationally of initiatives overseen by joint union and management governing board where skilled teachers provide intensive support to less experienced colleagues and then evaluate their performance. Improving teaching effectiveness to improve student learning is union work. The International Summits on the Teaching Profession (2011-2013) - a unique gathering of ministers of education and teacher union leaders convened annually since 2011- developed a consensus that achieving a high-quality teaching profession is critical to education systems as they face the increasingly ambitious demands of the 21st century. They found that the highest performing countries are successful because they take a comprehensive approach to recruiting, preparing, supporting, and retaining talented teachers and school leaders.
25. Improving teaching effectiveness is only part of what is needed. Equally important is the relevance of what we teach. One major difficulty faced today is that educators are heavily tasked with the demands of providing education for all and become forced into a single-minded focus on standardized testing, rather than fostering creativity and critical thinking, and more effectively preparing students for the world of work. In this regard there is much to do as a common concern expressed by employers is the irrelevance of the quality of education with employment requirements. For example, a new World Bank report, Skills for Solomon Islands: Opening New Opportunities, reported that the demand for skills in current job opportunities in Solomon Islands and finds a mismatch with skills supplied in the labour force. It says that local firms reported they could add over 50 per cent more jobs, given the availability of employees with the right skills, yet by one measure only about 20 per cent of 15–24 year old Solomon Islanders are employed, and over 40 per cent of youth are inactive.
26. Also designing more pro-active responses to the social issues facing many of your students and teachers are needed. A good example of this would be the work undertaken by the Fiji Teachers Union to prevent over 450 children from dropping out of school in 2012-2013 and conducting school as well as family outreach campaigns to create awareness on child labour and provisions of the Fiji labour law. Similar examples can be found in HIV/AIDs prevention awareness and Non-Communicable Diseases (NCDs).
Let us makes sure we know our membership to make sure you remain relevant to their needs
27. Unionism begins with a moral imperative to provide a voice for those who don’t have one. Your students benefit when you use your collective teacher voices as a union to fight for quality education for the students you service and working conditions that teachers deserve. To remain effective at this, teachers unions must listen to and organize more colleagues, parents, and communities in this mission.
28. Who are the teachers in your unions? In general the average teacher in the past had taught for at least 15 years. Now it’s fewer than 10 years. This is a different teacher population. They may want a different kind of union, one that helps them do their job better and other services. In this regard the initiatives of some of your unions to establish credit unions, insurance and other services are noteworthy.
Let us teach your students about Democratic Citizenship
29. Democracies are built on the belief that people should be free, should have choices and opportunities, and should work together to make each other's lives better. If we want to maintain our democratic society, we must teach our children to be good citizens – which goes beyond teaching them to obey the laws of the land. We must also teach them about how their freedoms began and how they're maintained. We must teach them that they can make a difference.
Let us review your engagement and negotiating strategies
30. Is it better to have a siege approach, that is bunker down in the face of attacks, or should you ally with management to counter attacks on public education? How should union and management act as partners? In some instances, this may be a challenge to long-held traditions and assumptions.
31. There is a need for teachers to work with administrators and parents to focus curriculum and professional development to improve student learning and working conditions of teachers. Changes are needed in education, and teachers unions should continue to work with parents and others in the school community to ensure that kids come first in that debate.

Closing
32. In closing, I hope that I have highlighted the importance of creating strong, democratic and independent teacher unions. I believed that such institutions will contribute to:
• improved education outcomes for students through better teacher effectiveness and relevance of what they teach, and
• better and more rewarding working condition for teachers and education workers.
33. I also hope that I provided some ideas that you may consider in your future deliberations. I thank you for the invitation once again and wish you all the best in your deliberations in the coming few days. And I am very proud to declare this regional workshop open.