Interview with Susan Flocken, Director of the European Trade Union Committee for Education (ETUCE)
Ensuring teachers voices are heard through social dialogue
The ETF had the opportunity to interview Susan Flocken, European Director of the European Trade Union Committee for Education (ETUCE). ETUCE is Europe’s main education social partner. It belongs to the international Trade Union Federation representing 51 countries including 17 ETF partner countries*, and approximately 11 million teachers at all levels of education.
ETF: Susan, tell us about your background which led you to your current position?
SF: My previous experience is in education and social dialogue. I worked in the social dialogue unit in the European Commission before becoming a coordinator at ETUCE more than ten years ago.
ETF: What are the main issues at present concerning your role as ETUCE Director?
SF: We work for quality education, to support teachers with decent working conditions including professional development and professional issues such as sustainability, digitalization and inclusion. Representing approximately 11 million teachers we are their voice, and we work for their trade union rights and the upholding of these rights.
ETF: How do you speak as one voice at European level when you have so many different education and training contexts across this region?
SF: We have a big range of member organizations stretching from Iceland to Israel and Ireland to Tajikistan who all have common issues concerning the core values of the teaching profession. Just recently in July we had our congress where we identified ten key themes which we will promote throughout a two year campaign. These include firstly raising the profile and attractiveness of the teaching career, as well as supporting innovation, and strengthening democracy.
ETF: So how important do you think it is that teachers and their representatives are involved in the policy process and at what stage, or stages, do you think it's most important for them to be engaged?
SF: Teaches and their unions need to be engaged at all levels of the policy process, and especially when changes are being made to education and training whether it is policies that are being adapted after many years or introducing new practical approaches. Policymakers need to know what is happening on the ground for which they need to ensure those who are working in the sector, in the classroom and working with students, are engaged and listened to, and given ownership as they will be the ones implementing reforms.
ETF: How good would you say this level of engagement is across countries?
SF: There's a huge variation. In countries that have a good tradition of social dialogue, a respect for the social partners and for the trade unions there is good engagement of governments and of employers with the trade unions to ensure that new measures in education and training correspond to the needs. Unions are called upon as equal partners to find those solutions. For example, when we had the pandemic, it was important to have that exchange and also with other issues such as digitalization and most recently with the energy crisis. However, we also have many countries that choose to take decisions unilaterally and this is usually a reflection of the level of democratic engagement within the country. There are also cases of consultation which is just a formality without taking on board the opinions of teachers and their unions.
ETF: Do you have some good examples to share?
SF: Generally speaking, in Scandinavian countries and other northern European countries, such as Ireland and Belgium, there is a good tradition of social dialogue. Social dialogue does not mean that there is always a solution, but it is about working together to find a compromise and respecting the social partners. Even in countries with good traditions challenges still arise as we are seeing in Scandinavian countries at the moment due to the pressures created by the cost of living on teachers and public education.
ETF: And outside the European Union, what would you say are the main issues?
SF: Trade union rights, democratic rights and human rights are very much intertwined. We work on capacity building in these areas for which the ETF is an important partner for us. There are inspirational examples from different countries, for example, in Tajikistan the trade union has just elected a young woman leader representing a strong move towards democracy and in Georgia there have also been steps forward within the trade union movement and recognition for it form the government as a strong social partner. This progress is also due to the work of national stakeholders and with the ETF which joined us recently at our Central Eastern European roundtable.
ETF: How do you support your members develop their skills for social dialogue?
SF: There are different ways such as capacity building and trainings about trade union work. The challenge is not only to strengthen trade unions at the national level but to bring this right down to the local levels so that members reflect upon what it means to belong to a trade union and how they can best represent colleagues’ interests. For this to happen the sharing of experiences is very important, and not just good practices but the difficulties as well. Helping members learn from each other is a critical part of our outreach so members understand they have support from a vast network of people including many who are experiencing similar situations. Members can also reach out to us especially in instances where dialogue has stalled or for support with legal issues and we will help to create channels for communication to get dialogue going again.
ETF: How do you share experiences from the EU with members outside the EU and vice versa?
SF: Liaising with the European institutions and international institutions is a big part of our work. We inform them about the situation in member countries and ensure that member organizations are aware of the topics that are being discussed or being prepared at European level, and at international level which would or should feature on the agenda with their governments, and this allows them to prepare for dialogue.
ETF: And are there any particular tools or platforms you use?
SF: There is no one tool or platform. We use various means depending on the circumstances and availability. Nothing can replace face to face meetings which of course was a critical issue during the pandemic but is now thankfully an option again.
ETF: How can governments encourage teachers to be more involved in the policy process?
SF: The first step is willingness of governments to engage and not to be reluctant to meet with us, to understand the issues teachers are facing on a daily basis. I always find it very interesting that in Ireland, for example, at the teacher union congress the responsible government minister attends and speaks to all the members and then the media follows up on what the minister said and the comments. It is also important that governments do not single out teachers or individual academics as an example, but that they accept that indeed the unions are speaking on their behalf. There needs to be respect for this collective voice which unfortunately often gets undermined when governments turn instead to other education actors such as associations, think tanks or consultancy companies. These organizations have their role to play but not as a replacement for listening to the voice of practitioners represented by their trade unions.
ETF: How important do you think the media is for the work of the teachers trade union?
SF: It depends very much on the different country contexts. The independence of the media or level of bias also corresponds with the level of democracy in a country, but not only. How teachers are viewed within countries is also reflected in the media. For instance, in Finland the teaching profession is highly regarded, and this is reflected in the national media. At times the media can support the work of teacher unions but at others they can work against them. Many of our member organizations struggle with presenting their case to the media so that the media at least can have a better or a more objective view of the situation. It is important for Unions to seek alliances. For example, alliances in education could be sought with parents or with the students’ unions, who are important actors. They should also cooperate with other actors in education, at national level, and at European and international level depending on the issues and context to enhance their profile and media standing.
ETF: Looking forward, what are the key issues for ETUCE?
SF: There are teacher shortages across Europe and across the different education sectors which we are urgently working to address and find solutions. We are supporting teachers with the digital green transformation of society and working to ensure the social change that we need and guiding and shaping trade unions as fundamental actors for more democratic societies.
Raising the profile of the teaching profession is also important to attract new recruits and maintain quality. We are also working to avoid the privatization of education in the face of mounting pressure especially given the cost-of-living crisis and high inflation rates that make governments want to reduce their support for the public system of education. Our position is very clear, and we persistently advocate that education remains a well-supported public good ensuring equal access, quality, and inclusion for all. Education and training are the means to lift people out of poverty.
The situation in Ukraine is a very big issue for us. We are supporting teachers who are continuing to teach during the war. We have member organisations in Ukraine and in Russia, and it is important to ensure solidarity that goes out from our member organizations to the Ukrainian colleagues for a solution and peace.
* Albania, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Georgia, Israel, Kazakhstan, Kosovo, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Montenegro, Serbia, Tajikistan, Turkey, Ukraine, Uzbekistan