Reclaiming the narrative in a changing world:

The work of unions in the 21st century

While there is much wealth to be gained from changes, it is becoming apparent that this wealth is not being shared equitably among workers and, despite the early promise of the internet as a forum for increased democracy, it appears that inequality and injustice is becoming entrenched. IEUA NSW/ACT Organiser Keith Heggart writes.

In Australia and around the world, there is low growth in real wages, increasing competition from national and international businesses and a startling rise in the number of industries that now employ workers in precarious forms of employment: the most obvious example being the rise of the ‘gig economy’ as typified by companies like Uber, which promote neoliberal values of individualism and choice while undercutting workers’ rights and democratic ideals of altruism and collectivism.

Young people, in particular, have been a focus of these attacks. In schools and after joining the workforce, they are increasingly described with deficit models – they are lacking the 21st century skills, or knowledge about their communities, or the motivation to succeed. Such models often ignore the heterogenous nature of young people and the specific knowledges they do possess. Another area of criticism has been that young people, in particular, are apathetic and disinterested in politics or social movements. The declining numbers of young people joining organisations like trade unions or political parties is often used to illustrate this.

Challenges facing education

The challenges of globalisation have been felt in education too. The rise of ‘edu-business’ and ‘edu-preneurialism’ is based on an increasing understanding that education is ripe for investment and profiteering, especially in the areas of assessment and educational technology.

The work that companies like Apple, Microsoft and Pearson (as well as a host of smaller, less well known companies) are doing in schools in Australia and around the world illustrate a combination of neoliberal policy-making and new managerialistic practices that treat education more and more like a business and less like a public good.

These approaches can be linked directly to the increasingly narrow approaches to curriculum (an emphasis on literacy and numeracy at the expense of the arts); the involvement of industry in determining curriculum, for example via STEM; more uses of high stakes and standardised testing and schools being run less like communities and more like business. For example, there are Charter schools in the US, who now terminate the employment of 10% of their teaching staff each year as a matter of principle. While all of this is going on, teachers are facing increasing workloads, pressure from managers and parents and more demands on their time and resources – often coming at their own expense.

Where to now for teaching unions?

In the face of this, it is natural to question the role of the union movement, and especially teachers’ unions like the IEUA. How can the IEUA respond in a way that looks after the interests of members in such a challenging environment? Any response needs to begin with the recognition that the union movement in Australia is, as a whole, facing its own troubles with declining membership, an increasingly regulated industrial relations context and a punitive approach from government.

Fortunately, there has been some work done to explore how unions might change in order to address these challenges – most notably the work by Nina Bascia and Howard Stevenson (2017). In Organising teaching: Developing the power of the profession, based on their work with a number of teaching unions around the world, Bascia and Stevenson have suggested that there are seven avenues for unions to follow if they are to reinvigorate the union movement. These are:

  • reframing the narrative
  • connecting the industrial and professional
  • working with and against employers
  • building at the base
  • building democratic engagement
  • connecting the profession, and
  • working within and beyond the union to create broader alliances.

  • Recognising the applicability of these themes, the IEUA has begun to explore ways in which we can integrate these ideas into our work. Currently, a working group has begun to consider how we might challenge the dominant neoliberal discourse in education. Bascia and Stevenson suggest that the attacks on teachers’ working conditions are located within a broader ideological attack on public education. Bascia and Stevenson suggest that it is necessary for unions to ‘change the conversation,’ or reframe the narrative, to challenge the ‘private good, public bad’ discourse articulated by powerful corporate interests.

    Unions need to develop simple, clear and powerful messages that explain why education is a public good.

    In order to do this, unions need to develop simple, clear and powerful messages that explain why education is a public good, and that such education depends heavily on the skill and dedication of highly qualified professional educators. The IEUA is currently examining ideas around how we might craft these messages to communicate the important work that teachers and support staff do, both within the education system and more widely in the community. The next step is equally important: we need to mobilise around the narrative.

    This means that IEUA must communicate what it stands for, as well as what it stands against. Bascia and Stevenson encapsulate this neatly:

    “Within this research project are numerous examples of unions mobilising teachers around ideas and counter-narratives. Unions connected immediate issues with wider narratives. Only by doing this can teacher unions connect what they are against with what they are for. Being against something, and tapping into a popular grievance, can often provide the spark that generates member involvement in the union. Being for something is what is required if momentary interest is to develop into long term engagement and commitment.” (p56).

    While still only in the early stages, the working group is looking forward to reporting back to members our work in this area.


    Bascia, N. & Stevenson, H. (2017). Organising teaching: Developing the power of the profession, Brussels: Education International.