Turning the crisis around: Hope for change from global trade unionism

Published on Wednesday, 06 June 2012
Turning the crisis around: Hope for change from global trade unionism

One of the earliest priorities of the trade union movement, dating back to the 19th century in many countries, was free public education. This demand was made in order to provide opportunities for the children of workers. It was part of a fight for equality, a fight that is not yet won.

Quality education remains a central trade union priority for equality between women and men; to provide opportunities for groups on the margins of society; for democracy; and for building a healthy and sustainable society.


National action is no longer sufficient to defend the right to education and to enhance the contributions of education to society. It has become a global struggle and, therefore, a Global Unions priority, with the teachers’ union movement, under the leadership of EI, playing a leading role. Nothing could make the global context and dimension of education more apparent than the impact of the Great Recession.

A handful of financial market actors brought the global economy to its knees. Since the end of the 70’s, bubbles based on excessive leverage have regularly inflated and burst; with the latest one having the most devastating impact. Governments and global institutions have been irresponsible for decades by deregulating financial markets, motivated by neither reason nor experience, but by blind faith in the virtues of unrestrained market forces combined with effective lobbying by banks and other financial institutions.

Global unions welcomed the apparent willingness of world leaders and such institutions as the IMF and the OECD, when the shock of the first crisis hit, to examine the fundamentals of the global economy and act to ensure that history would not continue repeating itself. One had the impression that the idea that financial markets should serve the real economy and not the other way around had been re-discovered. Fortunately, the impact of the crisis has not been the same in all countries. Some emerging economies that have followed different policy paths, like Brazil and Argentina, have done relatively better than European and other OECD countries. But, the crisis is a concern of all and its impact is far from over.

Although it may be true that a timely bail-out of banks avoided a global Depression, it was immensely costly. And, that action was not combined with adequate measures to regulate financial markets to avoid a second crisis. And, too little was done to fight growing unemployment.

We have now entered into a second phase of the crisis where financial market actors including banks and rating agencies like Standard and Poors and Moodys are back in the driver’s seat. And, they are imposing strict limits on governments; something that they utterly failed to do on themselves. This is “punishing” governments for spending money, including the vast expenditures devoted to saving banks. And, their conduct is, in effect, forcing further bail-outs.

The second phase of the crisis was ushered in when governments suddenly decided that public spending and services, so recently considered part of the solution to the crisis, must be abruptly curtailed. Vital spending to maintain or improve public services, to create jobs, and to help maintain strained social protections, was cut. A climate of panic had “crowded out” responsible political leadership.
On the revenue side, growing unemployment has slashed tax income and tax increases have been rare, even for the most privileged citizens and corporations; with declining contributions in recent decades. IMF, ILO, and OECD studies have all shown that growing inequality is not only a social problem, but an economic one as well. They also show that public services contribute to equality and highlight the role of education as pro-equality factors (See the most recent study from the OECD, “Divided We Stand; why inequality keeps rising” at www.oecd.org/els/social/inequality).

EI, together with other Global Unions, has supported a number of measures to combat the crisis. It has worked with others to influence the G20, the IMF and the World Bank, the ILO and the OECD and others. Among the Global Unions proposals are:

  • Global regulation of financial markets to reduce their dominant role in the global economy and restore them as a support for the real economy and productive investment;
  • A broad range of urgent actions for jobs and recovery, including a focus on youth unemployment, in order to create good, secure employment.
  • Employment measures, including enhanced education and training, which will ensure the long-term generation of good, sustainable jobs; a central element of the fight against inequality and poverty;
  • Responding to the challenges of climate change in a way that has a real, demonstrable impact on carbon emissions, creates green jobs, and strengthens social sustainability;
  • Impose fair taxes that would raise greater revenue from the upper income groups and corporations and fight tax fraud and evasion, close loopholes and crack down on tax havens;
  • The Financial Transaction Tax, a measure which would not only generate revenue, but would inhibit rapid financial transactions; making financial markets more stable and less dangerous;
  • Fully respect trade union rights and promote strong systems of collective bargaining and social dialogue to help build fairness and democracy; Make social protection more comprehensive including through the creation of a global social protection floor supported by adequate funding;
  • Oppose austerity measures and maintain government capacity, so that it can govern effectively, deliver effective services, and be relevant and credible, including with respect to measures to influence and affect the direction of the economy;
  • Support quality public services, especially quality education services, as an important means to overcome the crisis, but also as a way to sustain societies, build democracy, and improve the quality of life.


Quality Public Services is a major Global Union priority. They do not only take the visible form of resisting austerity programmes of governments, but also the form of campaigns to build public support for government services that improve and “add value” to society in a way that private endeavors cannot. Public service values are fundament to decent societies; societies that are about values and not just about prices.

Quality free education and free trade unionism are currently, as well as historically, intertwined. And, we are in the struggle of our lives. Trade unions at national and global levels are up against powerful forces that are determined to defend their control and their privileges. But, solidarity works and its power should never be under-rated.

Our work at national, regional and global levels is linked. Progress at national level is more and more dependent on decisions and/or constraints at regional or global levels. And, change at regional and global levels will not take place without national action. In that mix, education unions are central. Together, if we strengthen our trade union coalition and effectively co-operate with others to mobilise as well as to lobby, we can change the balance of power and weigh in behind human values to change the societies in which we live and work.

Last modified on Wednesday, 04 July 2012

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Jim Baker

Jim Baker has held a number of positions in the US and international trade union movements over the last 40 years. His most recent responsibility was seven years of service as Coordinator of the Council of Global Unions (CGU). 

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