The Nature and Future of Education Unions 

John McCollow


Debates about the nature of education unions are as old as these institutions themselves. While it is agreed that the purpose of these organisations is to protect and advance the collective interests of teachers and other education workers, what those collective interests entail and how they should be pursued have been and remain active matters for debate.

Over thirty years of neoliberal social, economic, and educational polity have increased the stakes of debates about the nature and role of education unions. The future of these unions is by no means assured. Social and economic changes—in particular, industrial and educational changes wrought as a part of the ascendancy of neoliberalism—pose significant challenges. To survive and thrive in the face of these external challenges will demand adept responses and organisational change.

The Legitimacy of Education Unions

The very legitimacy of education unions remains a point of contention. Certain writers (e.g. Lieberman, 1997; Brimelow, 2003; Moe, 2011) characterise the pursuit of educators’ “special interests”, in particular through collective bargaining, as having a malign influence on educational policy and practice. In this view education unions consistently act to slow down, subvert or block necessary schooling reforms, while seeking to maximise workers’ remuneration, conditions and job security. Such a view, which often finds support from conservative and neo-liberal politicians and governments, argues for severe restrictions on, if not the elimination of, education unions.

This negative view of education unions has been vigorously contested. Bascia (2003, p.23), for example, notes: ‘it is both ironic and troubling that teacher unions’ traditional concerns about compensation and working conditions are perceived … as “self-interested” … when these factors are so clearly fundamental to attracting and retaining individuals to teaching careers’. Further, education unions remain amongst the most important defenders of public education. Writers such as Peterson, 1999; Weiner, 2012; and Gindin and Finger, 2013 have argued that these unions have the potential to be encompassing social movements for progressive change.

Factors contributing to – or detracting from – education unions’ perceived legitimacy (and thus to the power and scope of their influence) include: the legal and legislative framework within which they operate, which can range from recognition and even encouragement of their role to severe restrictions on their role and even their outlawing; public, media and government attitudes to them (and to unions generally) and to public education and teachers; union community engagement; the extent and depth of coalitions that the unions have developed with other activist groups; and membership density and activism.

Models of Education Unionism

Several ideal-type models of education unionism have been identified.

An “industrial model” may be said to take as its starting point the proposition that ‘teachers are workers, teaching is work, and the school is a workplace’ (Connell, 1985, p. 69). This model prioritizes the improvement of members’ pay and conditions using collective bargaining, industrial campaigning, and strikes, in a manner consistent with other trade unions. A focus on these issues is generally strongly supported by union members. In certain legislative regimes, however, industrial activity is severely constrained, and this has become increasingly the case with the ascendency of neo-liberalism. Further, this model has been criticized for failing to recognize the professional and “caring” dimensions of educators’ work and their desire to exercise professional judgment.

“Professional unionism” has been proposed as an alternative to the industrial model. In this model teacher unions engage critically with the education reform movement and champion reforms that improve teaching and schooling. The goal of improving members’ pay and conditions is not abandoned, but the approach shifts from “winner-take-all” to “win-win”. This model has attracted criticism. Some see it as a ruse to camouflage the industrial goals that remain at the heart of unions’ agendas (e.g. Moe, 2011). Others see it as an expression of weakness, and an accommodation of the neoliberal educational reform agenda (e.g. Rethinking Schools, 1997). However, a number of unions in Europe and South America, for example, have participated (in some cases over an extended period) in the development and implementation of educational policy.

The concept of “social movement unionism” sees unions as part of a broad movement for social progress rather than as merely focused on the self-interest of their members. The key features of social movement unionism are the following: it is locally focused and based; encourages collective actions that go beyond strikes or workplace activities; builds alliances in the community and beyond; embraces broad emancipatory politics; and develops transformative visions. The degree of grass roots membership support for a broadening of the aims of educational unionism remains uncertain and social movement unionism as a model remains a concept and project in need of considerable further development.

The identification of ideal type models can be misleading. It obscures, for example, differences that exist among unions that might be categorised as of the same “type”. Further, most education unions pursue industrial, professional and social objectives.

Challenges and Strategies

In the Twenty-First Century education workers face reduced public spending, job insecurity, work intensification, privatisation, marketisation, high-stakes testing, and curriculum standardisation. At the same time, attacks on unions’ capacity to organise, social and demographic changes within the profession and broader social, economic and technological changes pose new challenges for them. Member demand for union support has been increasing at the same time as union capacities and resources to meet this demand have become more and more vulnerable.

Carter, Stevenson, and Passy (2010) suggest that union strategies can be classified under three broad headings: rapprochement, resistance, or renewal.

In employing a strategy of rapprochement, a union does not necessarily endorse an educational reform but, rather, is making a pragmatic decision that it is better to “have a seat at the table” where it can exercise some influence on the extent and nature of the reform as it affects members. Resistance occurs where unions actively oppose and reject educational policy and reform, either because of their potentially negative impacts on members’ pay or conditions, or on educational grounds. Unlike in a rapprochement approach, where negotiation is the primary focus of activity, the “repertories of action” utilized by unions that adopt a resistance approach can include various forms of industrial action or legal/judicial challenges to the reforms.

Renewal strategies involve unions examining and modifying their own aims, structures, and practices in the light of emerging challenges. For example, a union may seek to take advantage of a decentralization of decision making to empower workplace representatives and to invigorate heretofore bureaucratic modes of operation. Renewal might also entail the proactive development of policy agendas, rather than simply responding to government/employer agendas. Bascia and Stevenson (2017, p. 8) argue that the magnitude of the challenges faced by education unions in the Twenty-First Century demand that these organisations must ‘themselves change in response to changing conditions’.

The strategic orientation of a union is determined by various factors internal and external to the organisation that can be ideological, political, and practical. A hostile political climate may render rapprochement strategies unavailable, or, conversely, a climate in which the role of unions is acknowledged and facilitated, and which has delivered benefits to union members, may encourage continued rapprochement between the union and the employer/state (and discourage exploration of other options). Factors such as membership density and dispersion, the union’s financial situation, its history of success and failure, and whether the union competes for members with other unions may be key factors.

Bascia and Stevenson (2017) identify seven key strategic themes/challenges for education unions:

Organise around ideas:
Attacks on working conditions derive from an ideology which seeks to establish itself as the dominant discourse by which problems and their solutions are defined. It is vital that unions develop, communicate and mobilise around an alternative narrative based on the value of public education.

Connect the industrial and professional:
A union that insists on a solely industrial role cuts off an important channel of communicating with and representing members – and plays into the hands of union antagonists. Bascia and Stevenson note that ‘the sharp end of the attack on teachers is increasingly focused on what might be referred to as “professional issues”’; unions need to speak to their members ‘as the educators they are’ (p. 57).

Working in, and against:
Where unions and governments/employers can work in collaborative partnership it can result in better policy and practice. However, the danger of co-option is real. Developing a working relationship with employers/governments and then balancing the need to work simultaneously with and against the system is a major and ongoing test for unions.

Building at the base:
It is vital for unions to develop a strong voice at the state/system level and to engage (where possible) in institutional structures such as collective bargaining. However, it is also vital to support and sustain membership activism at the grass-roots level.

Build democratic engagement, formal and informal:
Unions need to recognise that the diversity of members’ backgrounds and interests may mean that not all will find traditional union structures or modes of communication inviting. Bascia and Stevenson identify various non-traditional ways that unions have sought to engage members, for example, by facilitating groups organised around identities (LGBTQI, Indigenous, women, disability), issues (refugees, peace, poverty), or professional interests (maths, early childhood). Another example of non-traditional engagement is the use of social media.

Connect the profession, horizontally and vertically:
Education unionism is marked by “splits” and potential splits that governments and employers seek to exploit. In some cases, unions compete with each other for members; in others, unions are differentiated by sector or job category (e.g. primary/secondary; public/private; teachers/support staff/principals). Bascia and Stevenson argue that ‘education unions should … resist division and work in ways that speak for the whole profession’ (p. 61).

Create broader alliances:
Alliance-building with other unions, civil society organisations, community groups, parents, students, and the community generally needs to be an important and ongoing feature of union work.

The term “unionateness” has been used in the academic literature to refer to the degree to which a union exhibits the features traditionally associated with trade unions (e.g. participation in collective bargaining, use of strikes and other industrial tactics), but Bascia and Stevenson use it in relation to education unions to refer to the degree to which a union has established itself and its activities as an important feature of its members’ professional identities: ‘put another way, engagement with the union is considered indispensable in order for any teacher to be the teacher they want to be’ (p. 9). This is a goal to which all education unions should aspire.

Implications for Australia

Bascia and Stevenson use case studies from seven different countries (not including Australia) to illustrate the common (or global) nature of the challenges facing education unions, but also to show how local history and context shape these challenges in important ways, thus ‘there can be no easy importing and exporting of ideas’ (p. 11). The union work described is incomplete and ongoing – ‘long, slow and often difficult’ (p.3) – and its success is far from assured. None of the unions studied by these authors had embraced change and renewal across all of the areas identified above, but there was evidence that they were prepared to explore a variety of strategies, to examine their internal organisation, to build alliances, and to develop alternative conceptions of the future of education.

An assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of, and the opportunities and threats facing Australian education unions is beyond the scope of this paper – though undertaking such an exercise for each of the themes/challenges identified above would be worthwhile for each AEU branch. High membership density, long experience working with and against governments, involvement in broader social justice coalitions, an ongoing schools funding campaign that creates a counter-narrative to neo-liberalism and engages the community in general – these and other things mean that Australian education unions are relatively well-placed by international standards to deal with the challenges confronting them. But there is no room for complacency. Attacks on the working conditions of members and on unions’ capacity to organise will continue, and unions will need to ask themselves hard questions about their goals, their strategies and their modes of operating.


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Dr John McCollow, now retired, was a research officer with the Queensland Teachers’ Union. He is a life member of the AEU and QTU. His research interests include Indigenous education, industrial relations, and vocational education and training.

This article appears in Professional Voice 12.2 The improvement factor.

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