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International Teachers Associations

Ideologies and the International Labor Movement, The Four Trade Internationals, Competition and Convergence

A large majority of teachers' unions and associations around the world are represented internationally by one unified organization, Education International (EI). Headquartered in Brussels, Belgium, EI was created by the merger of two major teachers' organizations in 1990. It includes 310 teachers' organizations from 159 countries, with a membership of more than 25 million teachers and other education workers.

The creation of a unified international organization of teachers was the result of several major post—World War II international trends and political developments (e.g., the cold war, the end of European colonization, the expansion of the worldwide movement for civil and human rights, the rise of teacher unionism, the collapse of communism) that brought together two former teachers' internationals and doomed two others.

Ideologies and the International Labor Movement

Following World War II the international labor movement, of which teachers formed a small part, divided into three major strands, each of which was associated with a competing political ideology. These strands were aligned with democratic, communist, and Christian Democratic ideologies.

At the close of the war, there was a short period during which union federations in Europe, North America, and the Soviet Union joined to form a common international confederation of national union federations, the World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU), as well as corresponding international trade secretariats (ITSs) for unions in common sectors, such as metal workers, textile workers, and government employees. (ITSs actually predate World War II, but were reorganized after the war as part of the family of international labor confederations.)

From the beginning a small minority of national unions questioned the wisdom of creating an international union organization that included organizations from the Soviet Union and communist-controlled Eastern European countries, arguing that such unions were not independent from the state and from controlling communist parties. (For example, in the United States, the American Federation of Labor [AFL] refused to join the new international, while the more leftist Congress of Industrial Organizations [CIO] did join.) However, at that time the impulse to create a workers' international overcame any qualms about the validity of unions in communist-controlled countries.

This brief period of labor unity ended in 1949. Between 1945 and 1948, it became increasingly clear to union leaders in democratic countries that so-called unions in Russia and Eastern Europe were actually front organizations that served the foreign policy interests of the Soviet Union, rather that the legitimate interests of workers. The efforts of these communist-controlled unions to block any criticism of the Soviet role in the 1948 coup in Czechoslovakia proved to be a breaking point.

In 1949 democratic union federations in Western Europe and other parts of the world split from the broad labor international to form, with the AFL, the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU). ITSs that had previously included both communist and noncommunist members also split, and new democratic ITSs were organized. The word free in the titles of new international labor organizations signaled that they were democratic internationals (e.g., the International Federation of Free Teacher Unions). Socialist and social democratic unions typically led these international labor organizations. The Soviet Union's internationals were composed of labor fronts from Eastern-bloc nations and communist-dominated unions in Western Europe and other parts of the world.

The third political strand in the international labor world was that of the Christian Democrats. The Christian Democratic political movement, founded by the Catholic Church in the first half of the twentieth century in response to the growth of communist and socialist movements, included the organization of fraternal labor movements at the national and international levels. Christian Democratic teachers' organizations were members of the International Federation of Employees in Public Services (INFEDOP; part of the Christian trade unions family) until 1963, when they split off to form the World Confederation of Teachers (WCT).

The Four Trade Internationals

By the early 1960s there were three international teachers' organizations, each associated with one of these three political strands: the International Federation of Free Teachers' Unions (IFFTU–social democratic), the World Federation of Teachers' Unions (known by its French acronym, FISE–communist), and the World Confederation of Teachers (WCT–Christian Democratic). Then, in 1952, a group of smaller regional and international teachers' organizations that existed before World War II formed a fourth international organization, the World Confederation of Organizations in the Teaching Profession (WCOTP).

The WCOTP differed from the other teacher internationals by its lack of political orientation and, at least originally, any union orientation. It was created at a time when most national teachers' organizations were dominated either by school administrators or by teachers who had little interest in traditional union activity. For example, in the United States, the National Education Association (NEA) was founded as a professional teachers' association and was a founding member of the WCOTP (from 1952 to 1972 the WCOTP office was located in the NEA building in Washington, DC). The American Federation of Teachers was founded as a labor union and was a member of the original AFL, as well as being a founding member of the IFFTU–the social democratic—oriented teachers' international.

The background of member organizations in the IFFTU, the FISE, and the WCT were ideologically related, respectively, to the social democratic, communist, and Christian Democratic political movements. In contrast the WCOTP would accept organizations with any or no political orientation–and with little concern about an organization's independence from government or political parties, as long as it claimed to represent educators.

The ideological identification of the IFFTU did not mean that all its members were affiliated with, or directly connected to, a democratic socialist party. Rather, it indicated that the traditional leadership of the IFFTU unions tended to relate to social democratic movements or with similar parties, such as the Democratic Party in the United States. However, not all European teachers' organizations with social democratic ties affiliated with the IFFTU. For example, most Scandinavian teachers' organizations were affiliated with the WCOTP until the beginning of the 1990s.

With one notable exception, the internationals did not prohibit members from being simultaneously affiliated with other teacher internationals. Generally, teachers' organizations from developed countries did not hold dual affiliations, for economic reasons, among other factors–it was not practical to pay dues to multiple organizations. Many teachers' organizations from poorer countries, however, held more than one affiliation in order to benefit from financial assistance from different international organizations and free participation in international conferences and congresses–while paying little or nothing in membership fees to any international. Each international teachers organization had a dues structure that adjusted dues to take into consideration the per-capita income of different countries.

While WCOTP and the FISE had no such prohibition, the IFFTU constitution restricted its members from holding dual affiliation with the communist teachers' international, the FISE. WCT members generally did not hold dual affiliations. As a result, the WCOTP included organizations that also belonged to either the FISE or the IFFTU. The IFFTU included members that also belonged to the WCOTP, but not to the FISE. This situation simultaneously contributed to and impeded the IFFTUWCOTP merger movement in the late 1980s.

Competition and Convergence

Throughout the cold war era, there was a constant competition, especially between the IFFTU and the WCOTP, for members, prestige, and recognition. Initially, both the IFFTU and the WCOTP were primarily composed of organizations from Europe and North America. Decolonization in Africa and Asia, and the creation of teachers' associations in newly independent nations, resulted in a major expansion of all the four teacher internationals. During the 1960s the membership of the WCOTP expanded rapidly, with the greatest growth coming from Africa, Latin America, and Asia. The membership growth in the IFFTU lagged behind the WCOTP, but began to catch up in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Much of the new membership in the IFFTU came from organizations that were already members of the WCOTP.

It was always difficult to compare the size of the four international teacher organizations with any degree of accuracy. Membership figures for national affiliates were often unreliable. For example, Indian teachers' unions claimed millions of members, but few of the claimed members paid dues to the national organizations, nor did the national organizations pay more than token dues to the internationals. In general, due to economic hardship, almost no members from developing countries paid more than token dues to international teacher organizations. In addition, the competition between the internationals for members, and therefore to claims of strength on the international stage, made it difficult for an international to pressure members to pay dues for fear of losing those members.

As a result, member organizations from the developed world (Europe, North America, and Japan) were responsible for more than 60 to 70 percent of the core budgets of the WCOTP and the IFFTU. The WCT's and the FISE's core budgets were less transparent. It was assumed that the majority of operating funds for the FISE came from the Soviet government, and that of other communist countries. The WCT received a combination of funding from its major members and from government subsidies in countries with strong Christian Democratic parties.

The Rise of Teacher Unionism

From the 1960s to the 1980s, the WCOTP was the largest international teacher organization–measured by membership, funding, and prestige–in the international education world. In the earlier years, the IFFTU was smaller and financially weaker than the WCOTP. However, the issue of teacher unionism began to change this balance. Teacher unionization was, by and large, a post—World War II phenomenon. Even teachers' organizations that were founded as unions and belonged to union federations, such as the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), only began engaging significantly in traditional union activities, such as collective bargaining and strikes, in the late 1950s.

The first major teachers' strike in the United States took place in New York City in 1967, when the New York City local of the AFT went on strike for fourteen days. This was the beginning of modern teacher unionism in the United States. Eventually all the major locals in the AFT adopted the demand for union representation and collective bargaining rights. The success of this new strategy for teachers also influenced the National Education Association to change from a management-dominated professional association to a union led by teacher representatives. In the 1970s and 1980s this transition from professionalism to unionism was duplicated in most of the developed democracies and in many parts of Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

This trend among members of the IFFTU and the WCOTP, and the accompanying emphasis by both internationals on the right of teachers to unionize, increased the coincidence of interests between the two organizations. A second factor that contributed to the harmonization of the two internationals was the development of the European teachers' unions' organization, the ETUC. The ETUC was created in response to the creation of the European Community (EC) and included all European teachers' organizations, regardless of their international affiliations. While European teachers' organizations were divided between those who were members of the IFFTU and the WCOTP or the WCT, the same organizations worked together at the European level.


This growing convergence of memberships, interests, and union orientation led to formal merger discussions between the IFFTU and the WCOTP in the late 1980s. After approximately two years of talks, the two organizations reached a merger agreement that was ratified at a joint unity congress held in Stockholm in December 1990. The most significant political requirements of the new organization, Education International, were that its members be independent democratic organizations and not be members of any other international organization of teachers. These two requirements were departures from the practice of the former WCOTP, which had not imposed such qualifications for membership. The impact of these requirements meant that if a national teachers' organization desired membership in the largest, and potentially most influential, teachers' international, it had to give up any affiliation it might have with the two smaller organizations, the FISE and the WCT.

The breakup of the Soviet Union, and the accompanying decline in support of communist movements in other parts of the world in the late 1980s, made this dual membership prohibition somewhat of a moot issue. The FISE closed its Paris offices in the early 1990s and ceased to exist, and the WCT was never as large and influential as either the WCOTP or the IFFTU. In general, the international Christian Democratic labor movement seems to have withered in terms of numbers and financial support since the 1980s, and the prohibition against EI members holding dual memberships has restricted the membership potential of the WCT. Currently, EI and the WCT are discussing some form of a merger or, short of that, an agreement of cooperation.

New Challenges New Century

At the start of the twenty-first century the vast majority of national teachers' unions are represented by Education International. The post—World War II ideological conflicts and divisions have faded away, while many traditional issues, such as recognition of union rights for teachers, remain in several parts of the world. At the same time, organized teachers are facing new challenges to public education, to teacher welfare, and to security, as well as a growing concern over national and international equity issues. The unification of the international teacher's movement has created a vehicle for teachers to address these issues in an international environment. The new focus for EI is to develop the flexibility, financial base, and expertise to effectively defend teachers' interests and promote quality education systems for all countries in the context of the globalization of education issues and policies.


EDUCATION INTERNATIONAL. 2002. <www.ei-ie.org>.

WORLD CONFEDERATION OF TEACHERS. 2002. <www.wctcsme.org>.


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