ARE THE TRADITIONAL ROLES OF TEACHERS’ UNIONS CHANGING?

 

North American and Caribbean dialogue in education takes place across widely different circumstances of means and resources yet it would be misleading and erroneous to apply the conventional First World/ Third World or developed/underdeveloped categorisations. Largely because of our common colonial history both North America and the Caribbean share a similar history of the creation and operation of school systems. There are several schools in the Caribbean that have operated continuously for over 250 years. For example, Combermere in Barbados recently celebrated its 300th anniversary as a school. Wolmers in Jamaica is approaching its 300th anniversary.

At a more fundamental level, North American and Caribbean peoples share similar expectations about educational standards and North American and Caribbean schools share very comparable levels of student achievement. Largely because migration has played such a prominent part in the Caribbean experience, Caribbean education has long been oriented and integrated with the international labour market and not merely to the capacities of local and regional labour markets. Evidence of this is the ease with which Caribbean students move into higher education in North America and satisfy not only the criteria for entry but the exit standards as well. In the dialogue between North American and Caribbean teachers what must be borne in mind is that with respect to education Caribbean countries are First World countries of modest means.

Notwithstanding the common features and similar history, there are differences between North American and Caribbean education. One of these differences, that is very germane to the topic under discussion is the relationship between schools and communities. In the Caribbean, teachers are still community leaders. This is particularly so in rural areas. Teachers are an important segment of the leadership cadre in the church, agricultural organisations, citizens groups, advocacy, and other interest groups. My experience in Jamaica is that hardly a week passes without me receiving some invitation from some community group honouring teachers who have served them. While national recognition may be difficult to obtain community appreciation of teachers abounds largely because of their involvement in the development process at the grassroots.

Another important difference is that Caribbean teachers live and work in smaller and more intimate societies that their North American peers. Social intercourse is conducted over a shorter distance and with more intimate knowledge of each other on the part of the persons involved. While it is true that the same things are done as anywhere else, in the Caribbean people generally know who is doing what and why.

My point of drawing attention to the involvement of Caribbean teachers in the development process at the community level, the appreciation by communities of this involvement, and the more intimate milieu of Caribbean social relations is that Caribbean teachers are not as vulnerable to the assaults of politicians and ideologues as teachers in the developed and more impersonal Northern societies. That is, Caribbean teachers are not without political influence either through their grassroots involvement or through personal contacts.

One must, therefore, be careful, to transpose issues and concerns in North American education to the Caribbean without critical analysis and objective test of appropriateness. For example, Caribbean schools have never operated on the neighbourhood concept. Parents have always had a choice and say about the schools their children attended. In other words, while the circumstances of power and wealth and ideology of advanced society may assume that whatever happens in North America should apply to the rest of the world, including the Caribbean, that assumption may not be valid.

TWO TRADITIONS IN THE REPRESENTATION OF TEACHERS

The question at hand is, Are the Traditional Responsibilities of Teachers’ Unions changing? In attempting to answer this question it must immediately be noted that there has not been a single tradition in the representation of teachers. Therefore, the use of the term traditional in the question needs to be qualified and elaborated. The fact is that there have been two main traditions in the representation of teachers in the Caribbean. These two traditions have been reflected in the names teachers organisations have called themselves. A brief recounting of the Jamaican experience should suffice.

The first teachers’ organisations in Jamaica were established in the 1880s. They were called teachers associations. Their principal concerns and mission were the improvement of the quality of education being offered in schools. They engaged in seminars devoted to the improvement of pedagogical practice, the sharing of materials, the exchange of ideas and keeping abreast of new developments in educational thought. Indeed, Jamaica was one of the ‘civilised countries of the world’ invited to exhibit at the World Congress on Education and Exhibition in Chicago in 1893. It was the teachers’ associations that contributed most of the content of the Jamaica exhibits which received high praise at the Congress.

Following in the replacement of the denominational system of education with the state system of schooling in 1892, and the introduction of free elementary education, the Jamaica Union of Teachers, JUT, was formed in 1894. The issues that led to the creation of the JUT was that the new state system left ministers of religion as managers of schools and the new Code of Regulations gave ministers the right to fire teachers for not doing church work. Teachers were of the view that in a state system of education, the should be no penalty for refusing to do church work. The union defending the rights of teachers replaced associations seeking improvement in the quality of education.

When secondary and technical teachers organised as well as lecturers at the tertiary level they formed associations which combined both the defense of teachers rights and negotiation of salaries with concerns for the quality of education. So did headmasters and headmistresses. When the five teachers organisations merged in 1964 to unify the representation of teachers in Jamaica, they formed the Jamaica Teachers Association, JTA. The JUT, which was the largest single organisation, yielded its union identity and became part of the Association.

Went divisions arose in the ranks of the JTA in the 1970s a small group of teachers split from the Association and formed the National Union of Democratic Teachers, the NUDT. For a time both Association and Union battled to represent teachers in Jamaica. In the 1990s the Association stands alone and the organisation representing Jamaican teachers.

The Jamaican experience highlights the two traditions that have prevailed in the presentation of teachers and that have informed the basis on which teachers have organised themselves. It is instructive to look at the sources of these traditions.

The source of the union tradition has been the trade union movement and its mission to defend and advance the rights of workers through the collective bargaining process. In this regard, collective bargaining and negotiated agreements with respect to salaries and conditions of service have been central mechanisms of union representation.

The source of the association tradition has been the professional association premised on voluntary relationships between individual practicing a particular profession utilizing a specialised body of knowledge and guided by and consistent with the ethics appropriate to the service being delivered. In this regard comparisons, the teaching profession with the medical and legal professions are constantly made.

One of the perennial arguments among teachers has been what type of organisation best suits the representation of teachers. Trade unions are rooted in the representation of blue-collar workers while teachers are white collar workers. At the same time, teachers as professional are mainly employees albeit mostly in the public sector. As such issues of collective bargaining cannot be disregarded or dismissed.

The fact is that whether teachers organisations in the Caribbean have called themselves unions or associations, they have invariably embodied both traditions within their modus operandi. Unions have engaged in professional development and associations have entered into collective bargaining agreements. This suggests that it is impractical to attempt to juxtapose the union and association traditions as mutually exclusive choices that teachers have to make.

Constructive Tension

While organisations representing teachers must embody these two traditions, it has to be recognised that tension exists between them. A professional union is a bit of a contradiction. Further, any attempt to resolve the tension must of necessity lead to the realisation that the solution named union cannot be dissolved in the solvent called association. It is not possible to resolve the contradiction and paradox embedded in the essence of these two traditions.

At the same time, it is impractical to attempt to represent teachers without practicing both traditions. Indeed, the effectiveness of the organisation in carrying out the union function appears to me to be directly proportional to the extent to which the organisation can be effective in mounting and executing professional activities. Teachers organisations that are ineffective in defending teachers who are unfairly dismissed or cannot negotiate salary agreements that are acceptable to the vast majority of its members are unlikely to command the voluntary participation of its members in professional activities. The converse is also true.

The point is that organisations representing teachers must hold in constructive tension and balance both the union and association traditions. The maturity and effectiveness of any teachers organisation can be judged in relation to how successfully it has held these traditions in constructive tension and balance.

TEACHERS ORGANISATIONS AND SOCIETY

An important consideration in how teachers represent themselves by emphasizing one or the other of the two traditions, has been the prevailing ideology within the wider society. In those periods of history, and in those countries, in which socialist thinking informed political and other forms of social organisations it was not unusual for teachers organisation to present themselves as unions. Similarly, in times and places where conservative ideologies have prevailed, it has not been unusual for teachers organisations to represent themselves as associations.

In the present circumstances in which social and cultural conservatism and neo-liberal economics have reigned supreme unions have been generally perceived as hindrances and even anachronistic. The primacy of market forces, increasing globalization, the imperatives of comparative advantage and the superiority of private enterprise all seem to conspire to suggest that union representation is an obstacle to productivity and flexibility in the creation and delivery of goods and services. In these circumstances, the association tradition appears more palatable by virtue of its assumed mission to improve quality.

There are signs, however, that in the medium term there may be oscillation back to the union tradition. Hints of the future appear to be coming from the field of medicine as private enterprise has been applied to the delivery of healthcare through Health Management Organisations, HMOs, and as information technology has centralised some diagnostic processes previously the forte of the individual medical practitioner resulting in some de-skilling of the latter. Increasingly, medical doctors have been priced out of individual practice and incorporated as employees of HMOs or hospitals. The medical profession, once the bastion and repository of the ideal of the professional association, is increasingly venturing into the arena of collective bargaining. In Jamaica, for example, junior doctors have become the most militant practitioners of the union tradition.

Another factor in the relationship between the traditions in the representation of teachers and the wider society is that with the media. There is no question that the very nature of union activities related to the defense of teachers in relation to hiring and firing practices, negotiation of salaries and conditions of service and the taking of industrial action from time to time is more attractive to the media. Union activities apart from there dramatic and spectacular content falls within the ambit of the sensational which appears to be the prevailing idiom in the media. Association activities are decidedly less dramatic and spectacular. Moreover, they generally fall within the good news category which by definition is less newsworthy.

The public impression resulting from this is that teachers organisations are almost totally engaged in union activity to the neglect of professional considerations. While this may be at odds with the reality, the perception persists largely through the representation in the media. In times in which the union tradition is out of favour, the consequence of such public perception could be negative responses with respect to the teachers and their organisations. Combating this assessment, based on media coverage, is an uphill task.

THE IMPERATIVES OF THE CONTEMPORARY SITUATION

The imperatives for change in the content of teacher representation in the Caribbean is stemming from the teachers themselves and not simply the wider society or the dictates of the prevailing political ideology. For more than 150 years the mainstay of the teaching profession has been the college trained teacher who graduates with a certificate or a diploma. In times past such credentials and qualifications made teachers the most educated persons in many communities. This is no longer the case.

Sometimes and some people make the assumption that the principal or even the sole purpose of teacher training is to prepare competent teachers for the classroom. While there can be no doubt that teachers must be competent classroom practitioners, the education and training of teachers must take account of more than the educational requirements of the classroom.