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“Bob Hawke and the origins of Education International”, by Robert Trevennel Harris.

Former Australian Prime Minister and trade union leader Bob Hawke died last month at the age of 89. Educational International paid tribute to his long service as Chair of the EI Committee of Experts on Membership. Looking back in time to the origins of EI, the Committee of Experts was a critical piece in the agreement between the two founding organisations to reach a merger. Bob’s acceptance of the role of Chair gave credibility to the Committee as an integral part of the new International’s structure, and he helped provide a solid base for EI’s rapid growth through the admission of new organisations after the end of the Cold War.

In early 1992 the merger negotiations between WCOPT and IFFTU were well underway. Agreements had been reached in principle on many of the key issues. As General Secretaries, Fred van Leeuwen and I had prepared drafts of future statutes for presentation to the negotiating teams. But when the teams came together in Washington DC a major stumbling block stood in the way: the criteria for membership. The differences of view between the two organisations were rooted in their histories, particularly in the context of political changes in the world since the early 1950s, when both were founded. WCOTP sought to assemble all professional organisations of teachers, remaining politically non-aligned and non-judgemental about the political orientations of national organisations or their relations with authorities. IFFTU was an International Trade Secretariat of the then International Confederation of Free Trade Unions, favourable to social democratic political movements. Over time, many national teacher organisations came to see their professional and trade union roles as two sides of the same coin, so that earlier barrier to merger of WCOTP and IFFTU tended to fade away.  But the political differences which remained turned around the question of membership.

The Washington DC discussions were far from easy. With difficulty, it was agreed that all existing national member organisations of both WCOTP and IFFTU could become founding members of the new International. They included, for example, the national organisation in Yugoslavia as it was then. But the real stumbling block was the question of new members. The Australian Teachers’ Federation (ATF), for example, favoured the admission of the teachers’ organisation in Vietnam, which was unacceptable to the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). The situation was further complicated by overtures to WCOTP from a newly formed federation of organisations from the republics of the disintegrating Soviet Union. As we left Washington the merger talks were in serious jeopardy.

When the two delegations reconvened two months later at a hotel near Frankfurt International Airport, everyone knew that this was the make or break meeting. With the agreement of the two teams, the Presidents and General Secretaries of WCOTP and IFFTU decided to meet a day earlier to try to find a way forward. For several hours we debated the issues around membership with complete frankness. Then Al Shanker, IFFTU and AFT President, came up with a proposal. Al suggested that we approach the politically charged question of membership – whether for new applicants or for any challenges to existing members – in a quasi-judicial fashion, with a set of criteria, including independence from national authorities, to form the basis for findings on eligibility for membership by a committee of experts, to be separate from the Executive Board. We agreed that for this concept to work, the committee of experts would need to have the confidence of the Board and the members generally. So, we proposed that it be composed of people with a great deal of experience in professional and trade union organisations, but no longer holding positions in them. We also agreed that the initial choice of a chairperson was most important.

Over the lunch break, joined by two other colleagues, we raised several names. One of those around the table threw in the name of Bob Hawke, until recently Prime Minister of Australia, and prior to that President of the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) and Vice-President of the International Labour Organisation (IL0). Some-one said that Bob Hawke was out of our league, or words to that effect. Al and I looked at each other, and I suggested we give it a try. We agreed that I should approach Bob through the ATF.

That evening in Frankfurt, there was an air of expectation as we joined the other members of the WCOTP and IFFTU teams for dinner. The tension from the Washington meeting was behind us. The next morning there would be a formal proposal on the negotiating table which the leaders of the teams believed would move us towards success.

It was up to me to make the call to Australia in order to find out if Bob Hawke would agree to chair the new committee of experts on membership if, as we expected, the merger could be successfully completed. I had known Bob prior to his political career. Back in the mid-1970s, the ATF was the biggest member of the Australian Council of Salaried and Professional Associations, (ACSPA). As President of the ACTU, Bob had begun informal discussions with ACSPA leaders about amalgamating with the ACTU. These moves, supported by the ATF’s biggest affiliate from the state of New South Wales, led to formal negotiations, in which I was one of the two ATF representatives. The issues we dealt with went to the heart of debates about professionalism and trade unionism, as well as questions about political affiliation. In a way, these national negotiations were precursors for the international negotiations of the 1990s leading to the creation of EI. That is when I came to know the Bob Hawke many have spoken about so warmly in recent weeks. Bob had a remarkable capacity to listen to all sides of an issue, work out a consensus-based solution, then formalise it in writing. In a working session there was the complete focus of his intellect, then after the session was over, Bob would relax socially, telling stories, showing his human side.

The ATF endorsed the ACPSA – ACTU amalgamation in January 1978, at my last ATF Conference before leaving Australia to study in Europe and work with WCOTP. After he was elected Prime Minister in 1983, Bob came to Geneva to address the ILO Conference, where he received a hero’s welcome from a special session of the workers’ group. He continued as Prime Minister through three elections until 1991, and he had left office not long before his name came up in Frankfurt.

After the concept of a committee of experts was endorsed by the teams in Frankfurt, leaving Fred and me with the task of working on detailed texts of criteria and composition, I called ATF Federal Secretary, Dave Robson, in Melbourne, and asked him to put the idea to Bob. Dave called me back surprisingly quickly to say that Bob would agree to do it. Moreover, he would do it free of charge, for expenses only for himself and his wife. Dave and I met again just last year in Melbourne at the 25th anniversary of the Australian Education Union (as successor to the ATF), and shared this story again, 26 years after the event. Our recollections were identical!

The rest, as they say, is history. After the EI Constituent Congress in January 1993 in Stockholm, Bob Hawke came to Brussels for the first meeting of the Committee of Experts. Again, after the serious business of the meetings, there were enjoyable social get togethers, with Fred and Don Cameron, who succeeded Bob as committee chair in 2011. Bob’s wife, Blanche, gave steadfast support in this work. They and Fred became great friends.

Bob Hawke chaired the committee for the first 18 years of EI’s existence. He guided the committee through a period of rapid growth. When EI was founded by the formal signatures of the leaders of members organisations from the two merged internationals, EI represented some 12 million teachers and other education employees. The new International with its greatly reinforced role of speaking to international institutions on behalf of educators from around the world, attracted more affiliates. Especially important was the end of the Cold War, as organisations from the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe applied to join, as well as others from the developing countries. So, the Committee had much work to do, and its findings were actively sought by successive Executive Boards. Later came the amalgamation of the World Confederation of Teachers with EI, so that on the eve of this year’s World Congress, EI speaks for 32 million teachers and other education employees.    

On 14 June, the Australian nation paid a tribute to the immense contribution of Bob Hawke, with a memorial at the Sydney Opera House. EI has its own recognition to make of Bob’s contribution to EI’s growth and the reinforcement of its values from those early days a quarter of a century ago.


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Robert Trevennel Harris

Robert Harris is an Australian who is passionate about the culture and the history of France and was, for many years, an acknowledged leader in the world of international civil society organisations. A president of several NGOs at UNESCO in the 1980s, and at the UN Economic and Social Council in the 1990s, he is the co-founder of Education International. After the political divisions of the Cold War, he participated in the foundation of the Council of Global Unions. For 17 years he was spokesperson for the trade unions on education, training and employment policies at the OECD in Paris, participating in the World Economic Forum in Davos and Geneva, and in conferences for the organisation of the G7, G8 and G20 summits.

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