A Union-Building Lesson for Polish Teachers

By Ann Bradley — August 01, 1990 11 min read

Rozalin, Poland--At what was once a training center for promising young members of the Communist Party elite, a small band of activists from the group known as Teachers’ Solidarity has come together with colleagues from the United States to learn how to build a democratic trade union.

The irony of the location is not lost on the 19 Polish teachers present. Many of them suffered harshly at the hands of the Communists during the state of martial law that existed in the 1980’s. In large measure, it is the mentality once nurtured here they will be battling when they leave this hamlet outside of Warsaw.

“When we first arrived, the cooks were astonished that we weren’t drinking every night [as the Communists had done],” said Ewa Schramm, an English teacher from Lomza participating in the training.

Far from indulging themselves, the teachers who met here July 17-21 with representatives of the American Federation of Teachers worked studiously to master the basic precepts of trade unionism, American style.

The training program is part of the AFT’s Education for Democracy/International project, an effort to assist teachers in emerging democracies in obtaining the educational materials and training they need both to teach democracy and to practice it in their schools and unions.

The leaders of Teachers’ Solidarity who gathered here in July were selected from an earlier group of 50 teachers who met here with AFT members last January and February. The winter session exposed many for the first time to Western trade-union practices; the first summer session was intended to prepare a core of teacher-trainers who can assist union members throughout Poland.

In all, 150 teachers were to receive union training here over a four-week period.

Push for Autonomy

The training was conducted by John Stevens, director of the AFT’s Union Leadership Institute, using the same seminars designed for AFT members.

“Our view of a union is that it is not an organization that does things for people,” Mr. Stevens told the teachers here, “but an organization through which people do things.”

There is much for the members of Teachers’ Solidarity, which claims about 100,000 of the country’s 700,000 teachers as members, to do. Their first concern lies with gaining more autonomy to operate independently of Solidarity, the overarching trade union of which they are a branch.

Solidarity, in turn, must balance its role as both a trade union and the vehicle for the mass protests that brought down the Communist government. It is expected to evolve slowly into a federation of trade unions, but for the time being, teachers must work alongside the more powerful steelworkers, miners, and shipbuilders who make up the bulk of Solidarity’s 2.5 million members.

Because Teachers’ Solidarity receives its limited budget from the larger organization, the Polish teachers’ union and the AFT created the Foundation for Education for Democracy to funnel money specifically to Teachers’ Solidarity.

Union’s International Ties

The AFT has contributed $30,000 to the Polish foundation from its share of money alloted by the afl-cio’s Free Trade Union Institute, which in turn receives its funds from the Congress, the U.S. Information Agency, and the Agency for International Development through the National Endowment for Democracy.

The union’s best-developed foreign contacts are with Teachers’ Solidarity, but it also has provided training to teachers in Hungary, Romania, and Lesotho, a small country surrounded by South Africa. An extensive delegation of foreign teachers attended the AFT’s annual convention this summer. And the union recently held a press conference to suggest steps the United States should take in helping newly democratic countries reform their education systems--and not just their economies.

Albert Shanker, president of the AFT and the driving force behind the union’s activities in Eastern Europe, has been involved with the international free-trade-union movement throughout his career. He is president of the International Federation of Free Teachers’ Unions and a member of the board of directors of the National Endowment for Democracy.

In an interview, Mr. Shanker said he takes particular pride in the fact that the AFT has long espoused the teaching of democracy as a superior form of government. Some American educators, he said, have taken a more “relativistic” view, arguing that presenting democracy as the best system might be ethnocentric.

“It’s quite clear that there are two great desires that people fight for and are willing to die for,” Mr. Shanker said. “National self-determination and democracy.”

Of the fall of Communism, he said: “I never dreamt it would happen during my lifetime. It’s one of the great events in history--the people who had guns were paralyzed by the moral force of people with candles marching in the streets.”

Remnants of Old System

While the overt signs of Communist rule have all but disappeared in Poland, the people who profited from that system of government remain.

School principals, for example, were members of the “nomenklatura,” or privileged class, under the old regime, and many still hold their positions. Teachers’ Solidarity must compete for members with the still-existing Communist teachers’ union, which has the advantage of possessing holiday resorts, its own buildings and press, and an automatic dues check-off on paychecks.

The overall quality of the country’s teaching force is poor, according to Wiktor Kulerski, the deputy minister of education and a former leader of Teachers’ Solidarity. Polish teachers are badly paid--earning the equivalent of about $60 a month, compared with a steelworker’s $150--and have worked under tightly controlled conditions for years.

When martial law was declared, Mr. Kulerski said, many talented teachers were dismissed from their jobs and replaced by unqualified people.

During the training session here, the magnitude of the challenge presented by this legacy became apparent to the AFT’s Mr. Stevens and Sally Eskew, a national representative of the union who assisted him.

After conducting several exercises designed to explain how adults learn and suggest ways of varying the approach of training programs to meet the needs of various types of learners, Mr. Stevens asked the teachers to volunteer to prepare and conduct their own seminars. He suggested four topics: the organizational structure and function of unions; styles of leadership and the skills required for leadership; techniques for planning a union program; and recruitment of new union members.

Not a single teacher volunteered to work on the recruitment program.

To Mr. Stevens and Ms. Eskew, who have extensive backgrounds in union organizing, it seemed odd that the Polish teachers were reluctant to address what is clearly a pressing problem for their union. Without adding new members, the Americans knew, Teachers’ Solidarity would not be able to achieve its other aims: raising money for widespread training programs, publishing a union newspaper to disseminate badly needed information about the changes in Polish education, and achieving a strong voice on behalf of members.

But the Polish teachers did not immediately make the connection between a large membership and a large budget. Many remained torn between the desire to be a union of only the best qualified and most active teachers, and the need to gain influence through sheer numbers.

At one point during an exercise, the question of raising money for Teachers’ Solidarity from outside sources arose. Krzysztof K. Balawender, a member of the Polish union’s national executive committee, asked Mr. Stevens whether trade unions in the United States are supported by the government.

Mr. Stevens took pains to explain that American unions “want to be absolutely independent of government control or control by an employer.”

When the training segment on membership recruitment began, it became obvious why the Polish teachers had not seen recruitment as a top priority. The first thing they were asked to do was to describe what came to mind when the word “recruitment” was mentioned. Their answers: The Polish Army. The Communist Party. Opposition. Resistance. A trick.

“Our history forces negative connotations connected with this term recruitment,” explained Lilianna Szymanska, an elementary-school teacher from southern Poland.

During the exercise, the teachers also described typical union members and teachers who chose not to belong to the union. Those who have joined Teachers’ Solidarity were described as being active, good teachers and career-oriented. Teachers who are not members were portrayed as Communists, either very young or near retirement, and financially well-off, either because of party connections or through devoting time outside of school to making extra money.

In the end, however, the teachers came up with solid suggestions for encouraging new members to join. They included working for better benefits for all teachers, helping all teachers find ways to participate, and getting to know the concerns of a particular teacher before approaching him or her about joining.

During the discussion, one teacher mentioned that Teachers’ Solidarel15lity members in his area had helped teachers in a high school get a canteen where they could eat meals, and had signed them up for union membership in the process.

The session on membership recruitment, difficult as the topic was, was one of the highlights of the week for the AFT trainers.

“I have been involved with 10 major strikes and all kinds of political turmoil in states and with union locals,” Ms. Eskew told the participants, “but it does not compare to what I have learned from you.”

Evolving Institutions

Even if its members can agree on what positions they should take on particular issues and on how the union should grow, Teachers’ Solidarity faces overwhelming challenges, according to those here, in responding, simultaneously, to changes in the Polish system of government, in the education system itself, and in Solidarity’s role in Polish politics.

Solidarity is part trade union and part political party. Many of its former leaders, such as Mr. Kulerski, now hold posts in the government. Polish workers, therefore, have been torn between the instinct to support the new, non-Communist government allied with Solidarity and the need to create trade unions that support their members’ needs.

Many members of Teachers’ Solidarity also lack an organization corresponding to an American union “local” around which they can organize themselves. In more rural areas of the country, teachers are represented by regional Solidarity commissions, while in larger cities there are local commissions that more closely parallel the municipal government.

The regional commissions elect representatives to the national committee of Solidarity, where teachers wield relatively little influence.

Teachers’ Solidarity suffered a setback in July, when its president, Boleslaw Jurkiewicz, was killed in an auto accident on his way to the airport to fly to Boston for the AFT convention. The loss, Mr. Kulerski explained, was particularly serious because Mr. Jurkiewicz had had a deep understanding of the “fragile balance” that exists between the Polish government and Solidarity.

Decentralized Government

The government’s effort to decentralize authority in Poland has created new organizations to which the union must respond, teachers here said. An education bill being debated in the parliament proposes giving the country’s newly elected municipal councils--the equivalent of American city councils--the task of running the schools. They are now administered by the Ministry of Education, which appoints the superintendents for each district.

The education bill also would create councils in each school made up of teachers, parents, and outside “experts,” though the numerical balance among the groups has not yet been determined.

Teachers at the training session expressed great uncertainty over the makeup and function of these councils. Essentially, the logic behind their creation is the same underlying the move in the United States toward school-based management.

“The school council gives opinions and advice and has influence over decisions,” explained Krzysztof Dolganow, a young teacher who took part in the training here. “Their role is very enigmatic and each school has to work out a separate meaning for it.”

According to Mr. Dolganow, the union is to have only one representative on the school council. He suggested that union members should be active in encouraging parents to participate in the councils, complaining that previous parents’ committees had been “just for serving tea at the school parties.”

Mr. Stevens strongly encouraged the Polish teachers to get involved with these councils, noting that the AFT has urged its members to do the same.

“I think this is the kind of development that the teachers’ union has to be concerned about,” he said. “If the union is not involved, we can find ourselves in the position of opposing proposed changes. You are either going to be viewed as part of the solution or part of the problem, and we think it’s best to be part of the solution.”

How the union should respond to the councils is further complicated by the fact that each school also has a faculty council. In schools with large Teachers’ Solidarity memberships, the councils are composed of union members, while in other schools they are not.

The two AFT representatives said the enormity of the challenges facing their Polish counterparts made a deep impression on them. Mr. Stevens, in fact, said the training here had been the most satisfying work he had ever done.

“You really have the feeling that you can help make a difference,” he said. “A lot of what we’re doing is just to encourage them and show them it can be done.”

A version of this article appeared in the August 01, 1990 edition of Education Week as A Union-Building Lesson for Polish Teachers