Wednesday, 6 July 2016

EYES ON EDUCATION: Restoring the Relevance of Teacher Unionism in Zambia

By Pumulo Mungoma
Teachers marching
A trade union is defined as an organization that workers (teachers, in this case) join so that they can have good representation as regards industrial relations and their practices. 
In Zambia, we have four teacher unions with the largest being the Zambia National Union of Teachers (ZNUT). 
Others are the Basic Teachers Union of Zambia (BETUZ), the Professional Teachers Union of Zambia (PROTUZ) and the Secondary School Teachers Union of Zambia (SESTUZ). 
An estimated 100,000 Zambian teachers are unionized. All the teacher unions in Zambia are affiliated to the Zambia Congress of Trade Unions.
Trade unionism is basically born out of the belief that it is only through being united that workers can be assured of a fair and equitable work environment
In the last five years that I have served as a teacher, I have endeavored to closely follow activities of trade unionism in Zambia. 
Being the man privileged to head the Media department of Zambia’s largest professional online page, the Zambian Teachers Forum, I have been able to rub shoulders with high profile union officials from all the four teacher unions in the country. 
As of today, I can easily access any of the national union leaders, especially the public relations officers- from Mr. Joel Kasaka of ZNUT to Mr. Kabika Kakunta of BETUZ to Mr. Andy Makala of SESTUZ to Mr. Mathews Nkhata of PROTUZ, or indeed the union Presidents and/or General Secretaries.
These years of interactions with these teacher unions have not stopped me from deeply reflecting on the core essence of teacher unionisms, and how the movement can be made better in line with current trends. 
I have been a witness to many fruitful discussions and actions by the teacher unions in responding positively to the needs of some teachers. For me, it seems a good number of trade unionists (leaders) are so genuine and honest in the discharge of their duties while at the same time many members are so discontent with their unions- that they perceive as being “toothless”.
So then, where is the problem? The unions have not swiftly moved with time especially on communicating or engaging their members on the core business of unionism. As a result, some union leaders are so detached from the desperate conditions some teachers find themselves in. 
One fact remains that unions have done their best looking at the hostile environment they work from. On the other hand, probably, as members we have either placed so many expectations in unions or we do not understand the responsibilities and atmosphere that unions operate in.
It is for this reason, that I have taken some time from other equally important activities in order to put my thoughts on paper on what I believe can be some suggested ways to add value to teacher unionism, for the movement to retain some glory.
The national secretariats of teacher unions must have an effective and deliberate roadmap in empowering all their district leaders in matters of unionism. 
Most leaders in districts are elected or appointed, and then abandoned to fend for themselves like baby snakes. 
As a result these district leaders tend to make a lot of mistakes in their trial-and-error leadership! District, as well as zonal leaders, must be well vested in the environment teachers operate in; that must include in-house training in leadership and the terms and conditions of service, the disciplinary procedure etc. 
This must be a priority for any serious union! And leadership develop must go hand in hand with ensuring that districts are well funded at regular intervals for them to be mobile and run activities.
Currently, there seems to be no clearer communication establishments between members and their leaders, especially in accommodating the internet for the younger generations. All leaders at all levels must be easily accessible. 
For example, only BETUZ seems to have fully embraced the use of the internet in their operations. BETUZ has an updated and interactive website and social media presence. PROTUZ and SESTUZ are doing their best too in social media usage. 
Despite having the largest following, ZNUT has an underutilized website, and almost invisible on social media platforms. 
Of course, these channels need not be limited to the internet but also other telecommunication means. 
Additionally, the teacher unions can allow the website to host relevant documents and contacts like the constitution and audited books of accounts.
I have a say on members, too. For us members, we must get involved in the welfare of unionism. We must be active even at school level by educating ourselves on our conditions of service.
For example, how many of us have contact (phone) numbers for our district or zonal union leaders, just in case you need their professional advice in the blink of an eye?
I have also noted with thanks that all the teacher unions offer some financial support to their members when the scenario warrants so. It is up to the concerned teachers to forward their requests to these offices. 
Members need to get involved, and not be arm-chair critics only. Quality unionism begins with you. It is time we all knew that as members we have the power in our hands to hold our leaders accountable to union operations. 
Did you know that as a member you can easily walk at your union secretariat to demand for audited books of accounts?
The teacher unions must detach unionism from shirts they give to their members on World Teachers Day. Let us avoid “shirt unionism” and prove to members that we can do better through other social and financial means such as being helpful to members with funerals arrangements, sicknesses, schooling etc. 
This is not to say unions must not give the best attire to their members. Members must expect more from teacher unionism than being a “shirts parade” during the annual commemoration of the World Teachers Day held on 5th October.
The unions, too, must make it so clear to their members on what form of financial support they give to their members, and what is the modalities used to take care of needy members.
Unions must stop the bad habit of recruiting members by force through conniving with some Human Resource officers or other unknown persons, but instead they must work hard to create an image that attracts one to join them at their own free accord. 
Similarly, the unions must make it so easy for members to leave the unions when they decide so! The unions must attract members with a sound leadership base and policies they believe in.
We need to realise that joining a union is voluntary. Probably we need to make it compulsory to all as even non-unionised members benefit from what is negotiated for by unions! (That is a topic for another day!)
Currently, there seems to be no meaningful consultations that unions do with their members. 
I might be wrong, but good unionism must be about quality representation of members- and this can only come if the members are widely consulted. 
Where possible some researches need to be done by the union Research departments before certain decisions are arrived at. 
For example, I was of the idea that in the 2016 collective agreement teachers needed a priority of a higher pay-rise considering that there has been a two-year wage increase freeze. 
The unions instead went for a priority of “upgrades as per the 2013 qualification audit”. 
The negotiations resulted into what others call as a “mockery” of as low as a K150 pay rise.
A good feeling of belonging is usually attached to some awards. 
I am yet to see any of the unions motivate their own members or leaders through annual awards even on events like the annual World Teachers’ Day. 
Rewards can consider things like academic performance or long service to the union. I know of teachers who have been members of older unions like ZNUT and BETUZ for a long.
Democracy to most of the teacher unions remains a myth. 
Unions must subject all union leaders to elections at regular intervals as per their constitution. 
I know of one union that has never held a national conference for so many years. 
Let us respect the constitutions of these unions. Probably as members it is high time we took some of these undemocratic unions to court to force them to hold elections! Let democracy rain and reign.
Additionally, the unions must have deliberate policies to groom more leaders including the younger generation! Democracy must go hand in hand with ensuring there is transparency, prudence and accountability of union funds.
A serious union must be willing and able to invest in worker education activities. 
Teacher members need to know the terms and conditions of service they work. 
Personally I value worker education more compared to recruitment of teachers itself as worker education is the backbone of a strong union. It is worker education that leads to good retention of members. 
In fact, the Industrial and Labour Relations No. 265 of the Laws of Zambia has clear guidelines on the use of union funds. And worker education must take the greatest chunk of the funds, which should 60% of the union funds (if my memory serves me well). There is no mention of union giving shirts there!
For instance, it is very disappointing that there is no union that took the trouble to explain the 2016 collective agreement to their members. 
Teachers only found the Funeral Policy on their pay slips without a word from the union. Even how this policy operates is a mystery to teachers! 
Newly deployed teachers must also benefit from worker education through orientations. Therefore, the union leadership must make deliberate actions to invest in worker education countrywide.
I have always advocated for unions to invest in some form of businesses that will help improve revenue for the union. 
Total dependence on monetary subscriptions from members is not good as that limits the works of the union. I am aware that BETUZ and ZNUT have done a great job on that part. Others must follow suit. 
Probably that is the reason why BETUZ and ZNUT are the only unions that are housed in their own buildings.
On a social note, the unions must ensure they organize participatory social events like sports and other recreation activities for teachers. 
The tournaments could be in districts, provinces or even the national level. 
This is in addition to the international sports events that some unions like ZNUT and BETUZ are engaged into. 
Try that and you will see how the union will tick. A teacher is a “social animal’ needing as many interactive platforms as possible. 
Why can’t unions combine resources to host events that benefit all members from the four teacher unions?
If there is a voice that has been consistent from the teachers is a demand that the four teacher unions must amalgamate into one united teacher union. 
This will be the only way that members will be effectively represented. 
I am aware there has been such discussions to merge at an advanced stage but has failed to come to fruition. It is time the teacher unions provided leadership by putting personal interests aside and instead merge for the best interest of teachers. 
I am aware that there are a lot of core programs that all the 4 teacher unions do together and why not formerly unite? 
In a divided trade union only leaders are seen to be beneficiaries, while in the united labour movement members are the key beneficiaries.
In order for teacher unions to remain relevant to members there is an urgent need for them to change the approach of conducting trade unionism- it must be participatory, and in line with some dictates of the modern lifestyle of members. 
Similarly, members must avoid having unrealistic expectations from unions. 
The mere act of becoming a union member does not mean that your life will be revolutionized overnight. 
Each union member must get involved to make a difference for the good of the teaching profession. Just like one veteran trade unionist, Joel Kamoko, would always remind me: “….a union is as strong or weak as its membership.”
(The next article shall look at the “Benefits of Belonging to a Teacher Trade Union”).

About The Author: Pumulo Mungoma  is a Zambian educator. This article is entirely his opinion.

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