From the President: There is power in our Union

My recent experience at the 7th Education International World Congress in Ottawa, Canada, caused me to reflect on some things that we take for granted: not least of which is the meaning of the word union.

In our world, the word union takes on a utilitarian purpose describing our organisation, a thing, an entity. What I heard and experienced during six days of discussions and deliberations at World Congress has led me to believe that we diminish ourselves and our purpose by seeing ourselves in this narrow light.

As reported on page 17 of this Journal, representatives from 400 unions in 170 nations gathered in Ottawa. People like Gastão Da Graça Ferreira, the Secretary General of the SINPRESTEP from Sao Tome and Principe, a small African nation, representing 700 members. A large delegation from the National Education Association of the USA, led by president Lily Eskelsen Garcia (pictured right), representing some 2 million members. Altogether, almost 2,000 people as the collective voice of some 32 million teachers and education support workers across the world. A democratic forum where no one voice was more powerful or more valuable than any other in the debates, which ranged over a wide variety of topics, such as dues payable through to combating child labour and trafficking for sexual exploitation.

Just like the apparent simplicity of the word union, this seemingly mundane gathering of union representatives was so much more. Each day brought strikingly similar stories of struggles and frustrations with maintaining the integrity of the teaching profession and of the education we strive to offer to people across the age spectrum. Each day brought reports of struggles against repressive governments, threats of death and beatings for promoting the education of women and girls, and radical actions to eliminate a union or gag its members to prevent professional teachers and education support workers from exercising their fundamental human rights, especially the right to collective action.

What the word union meant to these teachers and education support workers from all over the world was clear: it is the power to their arm, the provider of meaning through professional identity and the descriptor of our higher purpose.

Our Union and our profession are inextricably bound together. The needs of learners compel us to join together, not out of self interest, but from a need to use the power of the collective to propel us to even greater potential to do good through the provision of education. Our struggles in the classroom are mirrored in the political and social struggles of teachers and learners as a part of the broader community opposing ignorance, poverty, child abuse, racism and discrimination.

What motivates us all is the belief that education has a transformative power. Time and again the Congress heard people exclaim that they willingly suffer personal and professional hardships to ensure that children receive a chance at a better life through education. For me, this is best expressed by a simple quote from Nobel Laureate, Malala Yousafzai: “One child, one teacher, one book and one pen can change the world. Education is the only solution.”

We are part of the solution. There is power in our Union. Together we are so much more than even that “one teacher”, and we can change the world. Let’s continue to do all that we can to honour the nobility of our profession.

Kevin Bates

Queensland Teachers' Journal, Vol 120 No 6, 21 August 2015, p7