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Lessons from the global education struggle

Anna Wolmuth talks to US teacher and writer Lois Weiner about what the UK can learn from global education struggles

October 17, 2014
7 min read

lois weiner‘If we fail to make the unions what they should be, most students… will be trained for a life of menial labour, poverty, or imprisonment.’ This is the stark warning given by Lois Weiner in her book The Future of Our Schools. The lifelong teacher union activist, based in New York, believes teachers’ unions have the potential to halt the global assault on education, but only if they are radically transformed.

The attacks on public education in the US are strikingly similar to those we are experiencing in the UK. Weiner, and others working in the field, see them as part of a global project to recast education as a profitable service sector of the economy. According to Weiner, ‘Education is a very lucrative sector, one of the last sectors that isn’t marketised, and they’re after that.’

The increased marketisation of education is not part of a secret agenda, but is openly discussed in business journals, Wall Street and World Bank and IMF documents. Weiner points to a 2002 World Bank report that identified teachers and teachers’ unions as ‘the biggest threat to global prosperity’. ‘When I used to say this people laughed, but nobody laughs now because they realise that teachers have been targeted.’ The thinking is that teachers ‘capture’ government and use their power to block privatising reforms. An essential pillar of the GERM project is to destroy and weaken teacher trade unions as they are ‘potentially the most powerful resistance’.

A different kind of union

Trade unions have clearly not managed to block these reforms, however, and Weiner argues that to do so ‘we need a different kind of union’. The problem with teaching unions in their current form, she suggests, is ‘not just a matter of cowardly or confused union leaders, which is not to say they don’t exist, but it runs deeper than this’. She traces the problem back to after the second world war, when labour in Europe and North America accepted a social contract that gave them significant rights to bargain collectively but forfeited their right to contest power on the shopfloor.

‘When it comes to education workers, collective bargaining legislation almost always rules off-limits the big questions about what we want education to look like – the curriculum, how the school day is organised, what counts as good teaching and what is the role of schools in our communities,’ Weiner says. Add to this the business or service model of trade unionism, in which the role of the unions is to provide services to members, and we have an industrial relations set-up that does nothing to challenge the status quo.

Weiner argues that the answer has to be to form a union that contests what goes on in schools and what we do as teachers. This approach, which has been labelled social movement unionism, involves transforming the union internally, building from the bottom up, like a social movement, and being clear that members are the union, not served by it. Social movement unionism also involves looking at issues broadly, not just as narrow sectional ‘professional’ interests of teachers vis-à-vis employers, but as broader class struggles – for example, the fight for equitable public education, involving the whole community, ‘school by school, neighbourhood by neighbourhood’.

A bigger picture

This model of trade unionism can be seen in the Coalition of Rank-and-File Educators (CORE) and their role in the Chicago teachers’ strike in 2012 (see page 14). Union reform groups are also forming in many other US cities and are, according to Weiner, ‘the embryos of a new kind of teacher unionism’.

Philadelphia teachers, for example, have established a reform caucus within their union that collaborates with parents and students in challenging neoliberal policies, such as standardised testing, and naming racism as a systemic problem in schooling. Weiner met with activists in the group: ‘They are committed to rebuilding the union in the schools, transforming the idea of what a teachers’ union should do to protect kids and public education.’

Partnerships with organised school student groups have also played an important role in education struggles in the US, something that is noticeably absent in the UK. ‘There is a very powerful school students’ union in New Jersey. A few years ago, when Governor Christie announced budget cuts, the students organised a walkout – not the teachers’ union but the students, using social media.’

School students’ unions are missing in the UK. There was huge popular resistance from young people against tuition fees and the abolition of the educational maintenance allowance in 2010. This movement seems to have been short-lived, though, and now, talking to young people, the concern is largely that tuition fees are too high rather than that they exist at all. With its high turnover, the student movement inevitably has a short collective memory and Weiner emphasises that this example ‘really shows the importance of the union because the union is stable. Where were the unions in those demonstrations? If the union had got more involved, this would have been the opportunity to reach out to youth and it’s very possible that from it would have come an invigorated movement among secondary school students.’

Still, Weiner is hopeful. She points to positive examples globally. ‘La Cente [a reform caucus of the Mexican Teachers’ Union] has taken it to the next level by occupying schools and holding congresses with parents and local communities to generate a vision for what they want schools to be. They are looking at restoring projects that were developed in the 1970s and 80s that have been lost – for example, in saving and teaching pre-Hispanic cultures and languages.’

Beyond the strike

In terms of key lessons for the UK’s National Union of Teachers in its current dispute with the government over performance-related pay, pension cuts, increased retirement age and a range of concerns about school funding, the curriculum and testing, Weiner says that ‘the strikes have been very successful, particularly the rolling strikes with the NASUWT. They brought energy and new consciousness to many people involved. But strikes have not been enough to force the government to negotiate seriously.’

One idea she suggests for taking things forward is to have a rolling ‘walk-in’, ‘where you make the schools sites of liberation – test-free zones where everybody is teaching the things they think kids need to know. Parents could be invited in and involved in the conversation,’ as in Mexico.

Another idea is to address the terror of Ofsted. ‘Why not invite parents in on the day that Ofsted comes, like United Nations observers, to change the dynamic? Then force the government to say that parents can’t come in if they are not happy for the process to be observed.’ These ideas, she thinks, could present a political challenge to the government, raising questions about who should control schools and why, and shaking up the collective bargaining framework and service model of trade unionism that have been preventing teachers’ unions from being effective advocates for public education for all.

Anna Wolmuth is an education activist who teaches sociology and citizenship in UK secondary schools

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