Interview with Thulas Nxesi, President of EI: We have to make sure that resolutions are matched with action
For EI's President, teachers' unions would gain from building alliances with civil society representatives to advance the cause of quality public education worldwide.
One year ago, you were elected as President, you then considered it both an honour and a challenge. What is your perception today? Allow me first to greet our nearly 30 million members worldwide, 30 million dedicated education personnel who defend social progress and fight for a better future. EI's members are pivotal in the struggle for quality public education – after all, they have to deliver it. And yes, last year in Brazil, the representatives of the teachers and education workers of the world developed policies and strategies to take forward the cause of quality public education and the interests of education workers. They also chose to elect, as President, a candidate from the south. I think it is very important and I thank all EI member organisations for their support. You identified four cross-cutting themes for teachers' unions: the first one was the threat of HIV/AIDS. EI can be very proud of its record on awareness and prevention campaigns. As educators, especially in the developing countries, we are on the front line fighting the pandemic and providing clarity and leadership in this matter. But despite our resolve, we have to double our effort to fight HIV/AIDS. I sometimes get frustrated, in Africa for example, with the lack of national effort to implement programmes. In developing countries, HIV/AIDS undermines social and educational progress. Unions also have to develop strategies and structures to provide care and support to sick colleagues and learners. We have to campaign for appropriate medical treatment and defend the rights of colleagues and learners living with the disease. We have to speak out against prejudice and stigma. What about the struggle for quality public Education For All? Quality education, especially for girls and women, is the most powerful weapon to eradicate poverty, disease, and hunger. Education and training are, as argued by EI, an investment for the future. Governments need to appreciate that resources used for proper training and support of educators is a long-term investment, and not simply a drain on the fiscus. Training and development empower educators to provide a quality service. EI is also a passionate advocator of quality education as a public good. We have highlighted the dangers of privatisation and commercialisation of education which would benefit only the rich and leave our societies more divided than ever. If there is political will, funding can be found. Look at the amounts of money spent on wars which should have been invested in schools and peace education. In developing countries, the EFA goal of providing education to all children by 2015 seems bleak due to the lack of government funding. Teachers often sacrifice themselves by working longer hours with overcrowded classrooms. A lot of money is diverted from education due to corruption, foreign debt payments and policies designed to reduce the role of the state and cut back on public spending. There will be no quality education unless the basic conditions of education workers are addressed. In most developing countries teachers' salaries and working conditions are still very poor. Sometimes teachers receive their salaries late or even have to forgo payments. In these conditions, it is very difficult to talk of quality public education for all. What can teachers' unions do to improve the working conditions of teachers? First, unions have to develop their capacity to negotiate. Not only for conditions of service but also on social and economical issues. Unions need to develop an expertise on complex issues such as commercialisation, otherwise, what will they do once they are being called to the negotiation table? As far as EI is concerned, it must continue to engage with the World Bank in order to stay abreast of the Fast Track Initiative to fund EFA. Where public provision of education is well established, unions have to mobilise to defend it against those who seek to undermine it. Teachers' unions also have to build alliances with NGOs to argue for improved spending on development aid and achieve the target of 0.7% of GDP for development assistance and cooperation. EI affiliates built a successful coalition in the spring with other trade unions and civil society organisations under the Global Call for Action against Poverty. You also mentioned the search for a new global order based on peace, social justice, security and commitment to defend human and trade union rights. EI is part of a global awakening of progressive forces for social change and justice. We can take hope from the resilience of the international labour movement which refuses to lie down in the face of corporate globalisation. We take hope from the emergence of new social movements on the ground representing the dispossessed and oppressed. In some instances, we can also celebrate the democratic election of governments committed to social justice – such as my own government in South Africa. We should not be afraid to support such governments, whilst remaining vigilant in the defence of our members' interests. The EI World Congress brought to the fore issues of world peace and security. War and insecurity render the goals of EFA and social progress unattainable particularly in parts of Africa and the Middle East. We need strong multilateral institutions which can facilitate negotiated settlements, promote good governance and ensure aid is forthcoming to devastated nations. EI is also very clearly expressing its revulsion against terrorism in all its guises whether state terrorism or that carried out by irregular forces. Education should preach peaceful values and conflict resolution to children. EI decisively speaks out on human rights abuses: including political and labour rights, women's rights and the rights of children. Trade unionists who are persecuted, learners that are abused, women educators who face oppression, and those who suffer discrimination of any kind deserve our urgent attention and solidarity. The last theme was building teacher unity to improve the conditions of education workers. The 4th World Congress voted overwhelmingly in favour of the admission into El of our colleagues from the European affiliates of the World Confederation of Teachers. EI has also to engage with teachers' movements in China, in the Middle East, in Cuba. You cannot leave 10 million teachers in China outside. We must accept that we live in a globalised world and we should not be arrogant: the different ideologies should not lead us to leave them in isolation. If we want to attain the unity of the teachers' movement, we should be able to influence the social movement in that part of the world. If investors are now massively moving to China, EI needs to find ways to engage with independent union movements in mainland China. How you then define the formal relations is another question, but EI needs to engage in a dialogue. You are a fervent promoter of alliances with other social groups. Yes, as a South African I know the power of uniting with the student movement and community organisations, as we did to undermine the Apartheid rule in the 1980s. Teachers' unions have to take interest in social and political issues to ensure that we have good governance, especially in democratising societies. Unions need to lobby their governments and influence policies on a daily basis. We need to build alliances with church groups, parents movements, progressive social groups on issues of common interest. We cannot win the battle for quality public education for all on our own. Therefore, the Global Campaign for Education is a good example where EI and the teachers' unions are a leading force, because unions are about mass powers. Let me make myself clear here, some NGOs only represent a handful of activists. As trade unionists our basic philosophy and vision does not change: principles of solidarity, equality, democracy, social progress and worker control are as relevant today as always. But strategy and tactics must always be reviewed and changed to meet new circumstances. What is your vision of EI in 10 years? Our voice must be strengthened. All labour leaders both at the international and at national level have to open an organizational and political debate to analyse exactly where we are now and where we want to be in the medium to longer term. The teachers' movement also faces the challenges of globalisation, neo-liberalism and attacks on public services. We have witnessed major economic restructuring in recent decades accompanied by the growth of new kinds of workers often without a trade union ethos. At the same time older sectors of the economy mining, agriculture and heavy manufacturing – have declined often resulting in declining employment and falling trade union membership. As a movement we have to ask whether we have made the necessary changes to meet these new challenges. It is important for us not to lose sight of the big picture that as trade unionists and educationists in order to win our goals for better conditions and quality education, we have to engage with the wider movement for social progress. Development cooperation also needs to be supported. Northern countries have a duty to support their colleagues from the South. Just to mention my own experience. In the 1980s and 90s when we were building South Africa's first non-racial teacher union, we relied heavily on solidarity and funding from unions in the North. We launched SADTU in 1990 with this kind of support. I am happy to announce that 15 years later the union is self-sufficient. With 220,000 members we make a major contribution to the wider South African labour movement and we export development cooperation aid to unions in the neighbouring countries. Solidarity is also about sharing knowledge, skills, expertise and human resources. The North could learn a lot from the human values of the so-called South. Finally, EI and its member organisations have to make sure that resolutions are matched with action. We cannot keep resolving. We need to act decisively.