In a recent research paper, Carmen Ludwig and Edward Webster examined the role of global unions to contest the use and abuse of digital technology through transnational activism in two African contexts. Action included work with Education International’s Global Response against the privatisation of education.
In Kenya and Uganda, Education International has effectively resisted the de-professionalisation of teachers through the hiring of unqualified teachers by for-profit operator Bridge International Academies (BIA). In parallel, in the transport sector in Uganda, with the help of the International Transport Workers’ Federation, the local transportation union developed its own app to organise and challenge the global tech giants.
Although the power of global capital makes it a deeply unequal contest, global union federations are facilitating the development of unions’ counter power both at the local and global level. At a time when workers across the world are engaged in the struggle to meet the multiple challenges posed by tech giants such as Uber and Amazon, our research  findings stress the important role played by global unions activity, long neglected in labour research.
Global Response against the privatisation of education
The Global Response was born as Education International’s answer to the exponential expansion of for-profit activities in education globally. It was a coordinated and collaborative global, regional and national mobilisation to mount pressure on key stakeholders to address privatisation in and of education at different levels.
Bridge International Academies (BIA), a private for-profit corporation, is a “flagship of creative capitalism”, seeking to increase access to education for the poor, Shannon May, Bridge’s cofounder, told author Joel Bakan (2020: 122). At the centre of its business model is the standardisation of education through digital technology. Concerned with the impact of this McDonaldisation of the learning process, EI conducted studies in Kenya and Uganda where BIA had expanded rapidly. They found, inter alia, that digital technology is used to de-professionalise teachers and to cut costs drastically. BIA, rather than engaging qualified teachers employs unqualified, low-paid personnel who transmit scripted instructions to pupils through ‘teacher-computers’. With this form of low-fee for-profit provision being openly advanced as an alternative to public schools, BIA represents a direct challenge to public education.
Both education unions in Uganda and Kenya agreed that Education International’s Global Response campaign has made an important contribution to the fight against privatisation of education in their countries. As the representative of the Ugandan education union UNATU explained: “It was not only focusing on the fight against Bridge, but it was about looking at education as a whole and as a right, where children of school going age should attain quality education.”
EI’s campaign played an important role in building the capacity of local unions in Kenya and Uganda by facilitating the transfer of knowledge and mutual learning. A representative from the Kenyan education union KNUT highlights that their campaign first “started through cross-border solidarity” when EI organised meetings with other education unions in Liberia, Nigeria and Uganda to learn from their experiences.
In both countries, the campaign engaged with members of parliaments and governments, which both unions found to be responsive. Students’ safety was one important concern: In Kenya, the government’s audit found that about three quarters of BIA schools did not meet the safety and infrastructure standards.
Particularly relevant for the campaign’s success was Education International’s ability to draw on the public, what we call societal power (Schmalz, Ludwig and Webster 2018).  They did this by successfully influencing the public discourse (e.g. through research and protest actions) and by building alliances with civil society organisations. In 2015, and annually since then, civil society organisations wrote an open letter to investors, donor agencies and the World Bank urging them to stop funding BIA and commercial education providers.
As a result of this joint advocacy, in 2020, the World Bank’s private sector arm, the International Financial Corporation (IFC), decided to freeze any investments in private for-profit K-12 schools. This was a major achievement as the World Bank Group’s private sector lending arm IFC had promoted privatisation of education as an important area for its investment policy.
Digital Organising through Union Apps in Uganda
The Amalgamated Transport and General Workers' Union (ATGWU) in Uganda had to tackle two different challenges: first, to respond to increasing informalisation because of privatisation and second, the entrance of multinational platform companies such as Uber and Taxify, which threatened the livelihoods of informal public transport operators.
The ATGWU made the strategic decision to organise large numbers of informal taxi and motorcycle drivers by affiliating their already existing informal associations (Spooner and Mwanika 2018). The union adopted digital tools to provide services to and empower their new members and challenge their exploitation through the multinational platform companies. Together with its associations, ATGWU managed to develop two apps, which are both in operation and an integral part of the union’s organising strategy:
- The KAMBE app aims at serving members and facilitates the collection of union dues for informal workers, the management of members’ database and the exchange among members. Only members of ATGWU have access to the app and to other benefits such as loan facilities and insurance schemes.
- The SOT Boda App is purely a ride hailing app. It can be used by all riders on fair conditions and regardless of union membership. First experiences with the app are encouraging as the numbers of riders and passengers using the app are rising.
The International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) supported its affiliate in Uganda with research, capacity building workshops and resources. The members’ app is in the process of being adapted to the needs of unions in other countries. ITF’s support is primarily aimed at strengthening the associational power not only of its affiliate but within the transport sector, where a large part of the workforce is informal, and the union membership fees are not deducted by employers. It also encouraged experimentation with new avenues for digital organising.
Building (Global) Union Power
Digitalisation confronts the labour movement with a challenge: on the one hand, it deepens the exploitation of labour on a global scale. On the other hand, it can also be used to facilitate new forms of transnational labour activism.
Our research emphasises that, while global unions can reinforce, but not replace activities of the local unions on the ground, they do have an important role to play. Firstly, transnational learning — based on research and exchange of experiences— has been highlighted as particularly relevant for local unions – a process facilitated by both global union federations. Secondly, global unions can strengthen the power resources of their members by connecting different levels of union action.
By navigating between the local and the global, unions have the capacity to better challenge the brutality of global capital and its accumulation strategies.
Bakan, J, (2020) The New Corporation. How “Good” Corporations are Bad for Democracy. New York: Vintage.
Schmalz, S., C. Ludwig and E. Webster (2018) The Power Resources Approach: Developments and Challenges. Global Labour Journal, 9(2): 113–134.
Spooner D. and J. M. Mwanika (2018) Transforming Transport Unions through Mass Organisation of Informal Workers: A Case Study of the ATGWU in Uganda. Global Labour Journal 9(2): 150–166.
Contesting Digital Technology through new forms of transnational activism in Africa, Southern Centre of Inequality Studies, 2021.
The concept of power resources is used as a tool to rebuild labour and to reflect on innovative union practices and revitalization processes (Schmalz, Ludwig and Webster 2018).
The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any official policies or positions of Education International.