Teachers, Public Education, and Organized Labor

Helping Democracy Thrive

By Fred van Leeuwen

Gdansk shipyard strike in Poland, 1980

When I first became involved in the trade union movement, the world was divided into democracies of varying purity and dictatorships of varying brutality. Elected authoritarians were rare. It was not that dictators had never come to power, directly or indirectly, through elections. After all, that is what happened in places like pre–World War II Italy and Germany, but that was before my time. The closest that I came was with the free election of Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines, who later declared martial law and became a dictator; something that is, once again, a danger with the ascendance of President Rodrigo Duterte to power.

Trade unionists were instrumental in bringing down Marcos and in supporting the democracy that followed. That is part of a long and proud history of organized labor resisting repression. This was the case with WWII in Europe, in particular for transport workers, teachers, and journalists because of their respective strategic positions. The struggle after the war in Central and Eastern Europe against another brand of totalitarianism also often meant intimidation, incarceration, and death. It was only the birth of the Polish trade union Solidarnosc in the strike in the Gdansk shipyards in 1980 that set change in motion. In just a few years, it ended Soviet control as marked by the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

Trade unionists have struggled against dictatorships in all forms and on all continents, from Augusto Pinochet’s Chile to apartheid South Africa and, more recently, in Tunisia, Iran, China, and Brazil, among others, with the resurgence of populist authoritarianism and the election of leaders nostalgic for military rule.

Although the trade union movement as a whole has always been a target of dictators and would-be dictators, there are two professions that are privileged targets: journalists and teachers. Their disproportionate murder, imprisonment, and disappearances are because their professions are so closely linked to democracy, and are, therefore, considered particularly threatening by tyrants.

Today, as in the past, trade unionists are fighting for democracy and risking their lives and freedom in many countries. We know about some of their struggles, but others are shrouded in darkness. Their courage should inspire more than admiration. They should also motivate those of us who already have democracy to hold on to what was won by previous generations, also at a heavy price.

Countries where democracy may be in danger include some of the oldest, most deeply rooted, most stable democracies in the world, like the United States and the United Kingdom.

The election of President Donald Trump was a shock for most Americans. Those shock waves, however, were felt around the world. His victory inspired others, many of whom seem to be using the same playbook: deception, disinformation, nationalism, and fear and hatred.

It is discouraging and disheartening to see so many elected leaders—whether it is through political opportunism or selling out or both—devoted to destruction rather than construction, and to witness the emotional manipulation blinding people to the real issues and diverting them from recognizing and defending their interests, common or individual.

In a 1958 television interview with Mike Wallace, Aldous Huxley, the author of the dystopian novel Brave New World, spoke of the totalitarianism that he and George Orwell had both described, and speculated that the same propaganda techniques, technologically enhanced, might work in democracies and destroy them. He said, “They will do it by bypassing the sort of rational side of man and appealing to his subconscious and his deeper emotions, and his physiology even, and so, making him actually love his slavery. I mean, I think, this is the danger that actually people may be, in some ways, happy under the new regime, but that they will be happy in situations where they oughtn’t to be happy.”

Safeguarding Democracy

When the world’s governments gathered in September 2015 in New York to adopt the Sustainable Development Goals and came together a couple of months later to adopt the Paris Agreement on climate change, there was renewed optimism. It was a commitment toward building not only a sustainable future, but also a future grounded in the vision of shared democratic values. Today, four years later, we are in the middle of a crisis that is challenging the resilience of our public and democratic institutions. A crisis undermining our public schools and our education unions. A crisis also, if you will, of half-truths and outright lies.

Given the historic role of America’s global leadership, Trump’s America First approach has also shaken the international order. A couple of weeks after Trump’s inauguration, the head of a United Nations agency confided in me that the situation within the U.N. system was “politically rudderless.” I felt a bit uneasy, to say the least, when I imagined the heads of the U.N. agencies coming together, sitting around the table, looking at each other in silence, not knowing what to do next. “So?” I asked this person. “Should I start getting worried when you as world leaders are not sure which steps to take?” The person pointed at me and said that the solution ultimately had to be found in what and how we teach our children, and that, therefore, the teaching profession and its representative institutions, Education International and its members, were key.

It reminded me of the words of Franklin D. Roosevelt, who said: “Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education.” By education, Roosevelt was referring to America’s public schools, and he must have meant that the people should be able to make an educated, responsible choice, separate fact from fiction, and distinguish true political leadership from rabble-rousing. Imagine if this was the standard by which we measured the success of our school systems: a citizenry making responsible choices. International rankings would look a lot different.

Fading Principles and Understandings

We should ask ourselves whether our school systems are still Roosevelt’s safeguard of democracy, or if they are gradually becoming the safeguard of markets, shaping future consumers rather than active and critical citizens able to assert their rights while respecting the rights of others. Many of the fundamental principles and understandings about the institutions central to democracy seem to be fading or in doubt. This is true globally as well as nationally, and it embraces the entire political spectrum. Among these fundamentals are support for a robust public school system, an independent trade union movement, a vibrant civil society, and a free press. They are almost as essential to democracy as free elections.

For example, we see public authorities in democratic nations increasingly confuse isolated voices expressed in social media with representative organizations. In some cases, they deliberately undermine their country’s representative institutions, especially trade unions.

The minister of education of a Latin American country told me some time ago that he had 50,000 teachers as “followers” on Twitter, suggesting that he did not need to talk to the education trade unions. One conversation would not concern me, but several education unions have reported that their representative role is not being respected and that they are being “replaced” by people who represent nobody or, worse, who act on behalf of private companies and vendors.

Another example is the growth of market obscurantism, where the market and its rules and customs and the prerogatives of market actors are treated as articles of faith rather than subjects for legitimate debate, which is affecting everything, but especially public school systems. Some of the worst “reforms” in education are based on measurement and evaluation techniques developed by the private sector for widgets, not people. More fundamentally, such “reforms” create a stifling intellectual environment. They place low priority on the competencies for life, including participation in democracy, while placing high priority on the supposed needs of the economy.

Market-Style Innovations

Protest of Betsy DeVos' nomination as education secretary, 2017It is telling that in the past three decades, the international education agenda has not been set by the organization that was established for that very purpose, UNESCO, but by the World Bank, the largest source of education loans, and by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, one of the most influential policy bodies providing advice for industrial countries. In other words, not education philosophers but bankers and economists have been guiding education and teacher policy development. Their policy frameworks too often leave little room for our public education systems as the best guarantors of democracies that remain alive and fit.

But it is worse: some of the market-style “innovations” are intrinsically and directly anti-democratic. For example, voucher and so-called school choice programs, regardless of whether they involve private school operators, replace democratic, collective choices with individual decisions by parents. If parents choose schools like they choose laundry soap, citizens are no longer connected to education because there is no collective control. Where is education for democracy? In extreme cases, like Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ home state of Michigan, there is no longer even a “system” of education to grapple with such questions.

The shift to a market, entrepreneurship mentality in education did not strike like a bolt of lightning, and it was not limited to education. Just as the New Deal in the United States and postwar recovery in the 1940s and 1950s influenced generations and affected attitudes about the role of government, the value of public services, and the importance of full employment, social insurance, and fair taxes, a later neoliberal consensus has determined policy and altered attitudes—not only economic and social policy, but on democracy itself. The emergence of this new dogma has had a profound impact on society. The damage it has brought cannot rapidly be undone.

Educators and their trade unions are central to building a future for democracy. So is respect for the profession and its practitioners. If teachers and students are chained to standardized tests and placed under pressure to perform in a limited number of subjects—those that are easily measured—teaching and learning are robbed of their joy and much of their value. Young people coming out of such systems are not likely to creatively and actively participate in life beyond holding down a job. They will not be equipped to shape their futures, their societies, or their governments.

Education Is Not a Commodity

Education International (EI), the world’s largest professional trade union organization, is mobilizing education unions around the world to halt the shift of public schooling to edu-businesses. Studies on for-profit schooling in Africa and Asia show that for-profit providers fall short of meeting educational standards. For example, in Kenya and Uganda, Bridge International Academies, a U.S.-based international education business, runs K–12 schools where they employ unqualified teachers, strictly directing their performance in the classroom through standardized scripts. They have these teachers read text prepared in the United States that appear on screens of tablets. The classroom teachers are not expected to use their own words or to alter or add to the text, and they are instructed to avoid class discussion.

In Western industrialized nations too, public authorities are increasingly tempted to open their national school systems to the market, whether pushed by conservative, free-choice ideologues, blinded by the empty promises of private education entrepreneurs, or influenced by the latest global education fashions.

But education is not a commodity. It is an individual as well as a collective right that can only be protected by governments. Public schooling is one of the few instruments of society to build social cohesion and to achieve equity. It is the first line of defense for nations against attacks on their democratic system, whether coming from outside or from within. Outsourcing that defense system is irresponsible, if not a symptom of being unbalanced.

Throughout history, organized labor has championed free, universal public education. In many countries, including the United States, the labor movement has been its strongest supporter. At its founding meeting in Philadelphia in 1827, the first American intersectoral trade union organization, the Mechanics’ Union of Trade Associations, called for “a system that will fit the children of the poor as well as the rich to become our future legislators, a system that will bring the children of the poor and the rich to mix together as a band of Republican brothers.”

A Moral Purpose

The shift toward an economic, market purpose for education has, in too many cases, meant that teachers have lost much of their professional autonomy. The standardized testing frenzy is only one example of what keeps them from educating young people in the original sense of the word. Educators are not just instructors.

Being a teacher is about moral purpose, about a commitment to making a positive difference in people’s lives. And that commitment is on display every day around the world. But too often, teachers are boxed in to situations that reduce them to content-delivery agents and test-score attendants rather than educators.

There is a social, human dynamic at the core of quality teaching and learning. Teachers are part of the glue that holds society together. They create bonds within groups and create the bridges across groups and communities. Nation building, but also promoting peace and democracy, are essential mandates and functions for education.

Obviously, this makes teachers vulnerable. Sometimes they are squeezed between political groupings, caught between ethnic, linguistic, and religious rivalries, or targeted by public authorities, like in Turkey, where, since the attempted military coup in 2016, thousands of teachers have been dismissed. At an international education conference in Ottawa in 2017, two high officials of the Turkish education ministry said that teachers were government employees and that public authorities could dismiss them at any time if they were believed not to support government policy. At the beginning of the 2017 school year, the Turkish government decided to remove from the curriculum the teaching of evolution in science classes in all public schools.

Turkey is no longer an anomaly. In Europe, where we thought that there was a shared belief that teacher professionalism and academic freedom are essential to quality teaching and learning, there are jurisdictions, such as Poland and Hungary, that have recently begun restricting that freedom—for example, by imposing one particular history syllabus that glorifies disgraceful chapters of the national heritage. In Japan, “patriotism” has reentered mandatory school programs, while in a number of U.S. schools, the teaching of creationism is allowed or even encouraged. In Brazil, teachers are forbidden to address “political issues” in their classrooms, while the government is trying—unsuccessfully—to erase the renowned education philosopher Paulo Freire from the country’s educational heritage.

Where ideology creeps into the curriculum, where teachers’ professional autonomy is being challenged, democracy is at stake and alarm bells should ring.

Regaining Control of the Teaching Profession

While in some parts of the world, politicians are forcing their way into classrooms and dictating to teachers what and how to teach, in other parts, private enterprises are entering the education sector hoping to make a quick buck in the huge, largely untapped “education market.” Suffice it to say that when and if these two worlds continue to expand, the teaching profession, as we know it, may be crushed between them, which would leave teachers disarmed, stripped from professional freedoms, and unable to deliver meaningful, quality education.

Many teachers in the United States and around the world see their work as being in line with John Dewey’s seminal text, Democracy and Education, where the role of the profession is to ensure that students grow up to be critical-thinking and informed citizens who make decisions based on facts and not on political ideology. They take this responsibility even more seriously in the face of rising populism and moves to undermine or control the free press in some countries. Therefore, teachers and their unions must claim the right to use their professional discretion to interrogate and to reject curricular directives that defy facts, falsify history, or lead to xenophobia and hate. There is a professional and ethical responsibility that may outweigh the authority of education employers, or even of governments, where responsibility for democracy and human rights has been abdicated. Beyond left and right, there is true and false. It is the responsibility of educators to prepare future generations to know the difference.

Consequently, one of the main challenges for Education International and its member unions around the world is to regain control of their profession. Albert Shanker, former president of the AFT and founding president of EI, often reminded us that a strong profession implies that its members—within agreed parameters set by public authorities—determine their own professional standards, like lawyers, architects, and doctors do. Surgeons would never accept politicians or pharmaceutical companies stepping into their operating rooms telling them where and how to cut.

“We Do Not Count Them”

Some time ago, I visited a school in Berlin that, I was told, included many refugee children from Syria. “How many refugee students do you have?” I asked the principal. “I have no idea,” she said somewhat irritably. “We do not count them.” It then occurred to me that this is one of the characteristics, if not the very soul, of the teaching profession—the yearning to build equity—in the classroom, in the school, and, yes, in society at large.

Educators and schools can provide safe, comfortable, and caring places for diverse groups to learn about, understand, and appreciate others. Education enables migrants and refugees to adapt to their new homelands. However, many of our member organizations are discovering that they have to contend not only with the adjustment of those from other cultures, religions, and ethnic groups, but also with a hostile environment in the community.

That antagonistic environment comes, in large part, from the manipulation of voters by irresponsible, destructive leaders. For example, Trump has referred to the arrival of migrants from south of the border, often escaping extreme violence and poverty, as an “invasion.” He has even called out the troops. Is it any wonder that Patrick Crusius, the white supremacist terrorist who attacked the El Paso Walmart, used the same term?

In Italy, Matteo Salvini, the former deputy prime minister and minister of the interior, and his Lega party also refer to desperate migrants, often in danger of drowning in leaky, overcrowded boats, as invaders. The “duty to rescue,” established by international law and a matter of simple decency, is now in conflict with Italian law.

Words can be used to bring people together, or they can be used as weapons to divide and destroy. Restoring the richness of language, including nuances, and the connection with its meaning (as opposed to disinformation and fake news*), and making it compatible with our values, is also part of teaching.

Reducing Hatred and Bigotry

Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia, 2011Trade unionists and educators can and do play a positive role in reducing hatred and bigotry. They can foster understanding, acceptance, and social coherence. They are responsible forces for the nonviolent resolution of conflict and for healing. There are numerous examples.

In Northern Ireland, conflict between Protestants and Catholics had deep roots and generated hatred, fear, and violence, up to and including terrorism. The Northern Ireland Committee of the islandwide Irish Congress of Trade Unions was fully recognized by the government authorities in 1964. Ten years later, its members courageously led a back-to-work march against a Loyalist political strike. Similarly, they opposed religious-based industrial action and violence by the Republicans. The Northern Ireland Committee was a rare organization with both Catholic and Protestant members, and the only representative one. It was a “safe place” for workers to come together on workplace issues before they went home to their separate neighborhoods. They showed that both democracy and peace were possible despite the conflict that was ravaging the region. They did not negotiate the Good Friday peace agreement in 1998, but they paved the way for it by struggling against sectarian violence on the job, breaking down barriers, and providing hope.

In Tunisia, the relatively nonviolent “Jasmine Revolution,” which began in December 2010, led to the Arab Spring. Organized labor was the main and most powerful force behind that revolution. During all the years of repression, which included greater or lesser attacks on union leadership, internal trade union democracy was maintained. Members may not have known political democracy, but they tasted democracy in their trade unions. The trade union umbrella organization, the Tunisian General Labor Union, in which teacher leaders played a major role, was an actor in the economy, was respected by employers, and had a large enough base and power that even autocrats had to negotiate with them. When people went to the streets in Tunisia during the uprising, region by region, they used the union’s infrastructure. This is one of the reasons that change has been more advanced and profound in Tunisia than elsewhere in the region. Later, when liberty was endangered by Islamic fundamentalists, the trade unions, joining with others, were again able to help save democracy. They were recognized for that contribution in 2015 with the Nobel Peace Prize.

American educators and their organizations are facing the urgent challenge of the 2020 elections. They will do everything they possibly can to support a candidate who is a true democrat, someone who has the will and capacity to pull the country together rather than tearing it apart. Organizations elsewhere are facing similar life-and-death struggles. Some have ties to political parties. Some support candidates. Others have a policy of avoiding organizational participation in partisan politics. But all share a strong stake and interest in democracies that function and make this world a freer and fairer and more peaceful place to live and work.

Building new generations who are willing and able to fight for democracy, human rights, and social justice may seem distant. However, winning elections, while important, is only part of constructing more democratic societies, in and out of the voting booth. As John Dewey, the famous American educator and philosopher and proud member of the AFT, wrote: “Democracy has to be born anew every generation, and education is its midwife.”


Fred van Leeuwen is the general secretary emeritus of Education International and the coauthor, with Susan Hopgood, of On Education & Democracy: 25 Lessons from the Teaching Profession.

*For more on helping students with civic reasoning online, see “The Challenge That’s Bigger Than Fake News” in the Fall 2017 issue of American Educator. (back to article)

American Educator, Winter 2019-2020
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By Fred van Leeuwen

25 Lessons from the Teaching Profession

  1. Educate for democracy.
  2. Shape global citizens.
  3. Do not be the obedient servant of the state.
  4. Be aware of the thin lines between patriotism and nationalism.
  5. Stimulate critical thinking.
  6. Build resilience when inequality muffles voices.
  7. Protect education for the common good.
  8. Keep the market at a safe distance.
  9. Don’t let politicians interfere in the classroom.
  10. Question standardized testing.
  11. Keep schools safe sanctuaries of learning.
  12. Refuse to bear arms or wear police badges.
  13. Open the school to the community.
  14. Embrace new technologies with prudence.
  15. Burst Internet bubbles and value privacy.
  16. Oppose segregation.
  17. Fight discrimination on the grounds of gender, religion, race, ethnicity, disability, social background, and sexual orientation.
  18. Do not deny undocumented children access to schools.
  19. Advocate for gender equity, diversity, and inclusive classrooms.
  20. Protect the right to learn in one’s native language.
  21. Stand up for your rights.
  22. Defend and extend your collective bargaining rights.
  23. Protect your democratic organizations and institutions.
  24. Insist on the application of international standards.
  25. Be proud of your profession.