Stephen is Director of the Centre for Global Education in Northern Ireland and a member of NIPSA and Unison.
Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) are natural allies and partners of the trade union movement and, yet, it seems that we have just scratched the surface in terms of the potential in this partnership for enhancing global learning. In many respects trade unions and CSOs, particularly those in the global education sector, have many striking commonalities.
Both sectors are firmly wedded to global solidarity rather than charitable-based approaches to development and have a shared values base that includes a commitment to diversity, respect, anti-racism and social justice. While trade unions may gravitate toward worker’s rights, trade justice and economic inclusion in their advocacy and education work, they are also closely identified with campaigning activities on global justice issues from solidarity with Palestine to addressing the climate emergency. Many trade unions are also part of larger global confederations that campaign effectively for workers’ rights in the global North and South. This is particularly the case in sectors such as textiles where trade unionists in the global North and South are sometimes part of the same corporate production chain.
Like trade unions, global educators in the CSO sector are committed to a wide menu of global justice issues and inform their work with links to the global South. CSOs are similarly part of international networks, like Bridge 47, which support partnerships with the global South. So, how could a deeper partnership mutually benefit CSOs and trade unions?
What are the benefits to CSOs from trade union partnerships?
I work for a CSO in Belfast, the Centre Global Education (CGE), which operates in the global education sector and has benefited for several years from strong trade union links. By recognising a trade union, we have had access to pro bono advice and guidance on the updating of our governance documents to ensure they comply with best practice and current legislation. We have also been invited to participate in, and contribute to, trade union seminars and training events on international development issues, including debt, trade justice and climate change. CGE always ensures that it has a trade union representative on its Management Board to provide advice on employment issues and support an effective exchange of information on campaigning, advocacy and education activities on global justice issues. We also encourage our staff to join a trade union of their choice.
CGE has also secured trade union funding from Northern Ireland Public Service Alliance (NIPSA) for global education projects in the Gaza Strip, Palestine and Beirut, Lebanon. The projects are delivered to Palestinian and Syrian children living in refugee camps who lack access to full-time education and have mental health problems caused by constant exposure to extreme poverty and conflict. The projects are regarded by NIPSA as solidarity, not charity, and an opportunity to educate their members about the root causes of inequality and injustice, as well contributing to poverty eradication. A condition attached to NIPSA’s grant is that CGE contributes articles to their Global Solidarity newsletter which updates NIPSA members on the impact of programmes as well as the general country / regional context in which they are delivered. So, the projects are much more than donations to the global South and very much an exercise in trade union education.
What are the benefits to Trade Unions from CSO partnerships?
Global education practitioners in the CSO sector are a potentially rich resource for trade unions in supporting the education of their members. Many trade unions offer courses to their members and, while many of these focus on employment and workplace issues in the global North, they often extend to international development and human rights issues. CSOs have the capacity, expertise and training materials to deliver one-off seminars and short courses to trade unionists on a host of issues - trade, transnational corporations, neoliberalism, debt, climate change, migration and refugees – all of which have a strong cross-over between the two sectors. CSOs that operate in the global South can bring the reality of these issues to their educational activities with trade unions by enabling their Southern partners to feed directly into training events for trade union members in the global North. CSO personnel, too, can share their extensive experience in the global South with trade unions through workshops, seminars, courses and publications.
Trade unions represent a range of occupational sectors and, in the south of Ireland for example, it is estimated that there are around 500,000 trade unionists (from a population of just under 5 million), representing a quarter of all employees, affiliated to 43 trade unions. That is an enormous constituency which offers significant possibilities for both sectors in terms of advancing global education. For trade unions, a more active form of partnership with CSOs in the global education sector, could strengthen the knowledge and understanding among members of global justice issues and their engagement with campaigns and actions. For CSOs, trade union partnerships offer access to a large audience of learners, many of whom are already actively engaged with global justice issues and receptive to global learning.
Join a union
As a global educator and a trade unionist, I strongly urge everyone reading this blog to join a trade union, if not already affiliated. Employment across many sectors has just become much more precarious in the post-COVID-19 world, with many sectors shedding workers or reducing their hours. Many employees are already subjected to zero hour contracts and deregulated workplaces that prohibit trade union affiliation. This is designed to prevent the organisation of workers to improve their terms and conditions of employment. We should never forget that statutory and annual leave, 35 hour weeks, work pensions and other employment rights came from generations of struggle. Resisting the erosion of these rights demands a strong labour movement so, even if you think that you may never need to call upon a union, your union affiliation can help other workers.
Supporting a trade union could also become a route into global education, particularly if CSOs and trade unions strengthen their future collaboration to enhance the engagement of workers in solidarity and action to eradicate poverty wherever it is found.