Guest blog: Gabi Wills on “Teacher union membership in SA”

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Below is an Extract from Gabi Wills forthcoming PhD thesis:

Chapter 4: Teachers’ unions and industrial action in South African schooling. Exploring their impacts on learning. In Wills (2015, forthcoming) An economic perspective on school leadership and teachers’ unions in South Africa”

Teacher union membership in South Africa

During apartheid, the provision of unequal education to race groups was an instituted policy mechanism to supress the majority of South Africa’s black population. Most notoriously, black people were intentionally provided inferior education through the then ruling party’s “Bantu education”[1] policies. Separate education departments, divided along racial lines, implemented not only distinctive curricula for students but distinctive forms of authority over teachers. As noted by Chisholm (1999), control over white teachers was largely professional in nature where they were consulted in the formation of curricula and given a degree of autonomy in work. By contrast, control over black teachers was intentionally bureaucratic and authoritarian in line with state intentions for social control. Black teachers were closely monitored by inspectors, subject advisors and other representations of white subjugation. In the late eighties, however, large political opposition arose to apartheid in general and particularly its unjust education policies (Govender, 2004). The linkage with the apartheid state of bureaucratic controls over teachers generated considerable teacher resistance which persists today.

As a rough estimate, two thirds[2] of all persons in education (including administrators, management, support staff and privately employed personnel in schools) are formally identified as members of a teacher union in South Africa. In absolute terms, this represents 380 000 members using 2012 data where membership rates and choice of teacher union differ across provinces.

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Figure 4.1: Teacher union membership in South Africa, 2012

If one limits the national teacher union membership estimate to only teachers this estimate is likely to be higher. Armstrong (2014: 4) using the Labour Force Surveys between 2000 and 2007 identified that roughly 76 percent of teachers in South Africa are union members. What these national estimates do not recognise is the interesting provincial dimension to union membership in the education sector which is highest in provinces such as the North West, Limpopo, KwaZulu-Natal, Mpumulanga and the Eastern Cape but notably lower in Gauteng Province and the Western Cape.

There are various different teacher unions in South Africa, but by far the dominant union is the South African Democratic Teachers’ Union, most commonly referred to as SADTU. Audited 2012 figures indicate that their membership comprised roughly 253 000 personnel which represents two thirds of all registered teacher union members. SADTU membership has also grown substantially over the past twenty years, with membership figures in 2012 that were 2.5 times that in 1996 (Govender, 2004).[3] A clear provincial dimension exists to SADTU affiliation. Their proliferation is strongest in the Limpopo Province where figures from the Public Service Co-ordinating Bargaining Council suggest that 82 percent of all unionised education personnel in Limpopo are registered members of SADTU, compared with a figure of 48 percent in the Western Cape. The next largest teachers’ union is the National Professional Teachers’ Association of South Africa (NAPTOSA) with just over 50 000 members as at December 2012. Affiliation to this union is strongest in the Western Cape and the Gauteng Province when expressed as a proportion of unionised teachers in each province. These provincial differences in union membership are worth noting. They may have implications for differences in the balance of negotiating power across provincial chambers of the ELRC and in the functioning of provincial administration departments of education.

Considering the two largest teachers’ unions in South Africa, SADTU and NAPTOSA, both play a role in negotiating conditions of work for teachers in two sets of combined teachers unions[4] in the sector specific ELRC. Both unions fulfil a primary function as bargaining agents for their members, although on the basis of sheer vote size SADTU’s influence in negotiations is considerably more substantive. However, in balancing their secondary functions as political and professional organisations[5] they are divergent in their ideologies (Chisholm, 1999; de Clercq, 2013). Teacher unions represented in what is now NAPTOSA existed in the early days of apartheid with typically white leadership and an agenda largely concerned with the professionalism of teachers. By contrast SADTU, having emerged in direct opposition to apartheid, is understandably more militant, political and concerned with the rights of the ‘worker’ than promoting professionalism (Chisholm, 1999). Moreover, SADTU is an affiliate of COSATU – one of the three members in the tripartite ruling alliance – which prioritises their role as a political organisation over their function as a professional body. As a political organisation, their presence is extensive not only in terms of membership numbers. The organisational structure of the union facilitates an on-site presence across almost all school districts and in the majority of schools.

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[1] The Bantu Education Act of 1953 was the designed plan of former Prime Minister H.F. Verwoerd. In his own words he said, “There is no place for [the Bantu] in the European community above the level of certain forms of labour. It is of no avail for him to receive a training which has as its aim, absorption in the European community” (Senate, 1954). The Bantu Education system was established to educate black youth only to a level where they could operate as labourer, worker and servant.

[2] See the notes of Figure 4.1 for a description of how this figure was estimated relying on union membership figures from the Public Services Bargaining Council (PSBC). Calculating teacher unionisation rates with available data in South Africa is not straight forward, where it is not obvious what groups of education personnel are included in the PSBC figures. On the basis of a priori expectations this estimate of 66 percent seems too low but it must be noted that in both the numerator and denominator of the calculation are non-educator personnel such as provincial or district staff, school support staff and privately employed SGB or other staff members at the school level. If one were to limit the numerator and denominator to include only educators, this figure may be higher if more educators than administrators are unionised. It is also noted that some studies have erroneously attributed teacher union membership figures reported by the PSBC as referring to teachers only, when non-teachers in the education sector are also included in these figures. For example, both SADTU and NAPTOSA attract teachers in the public and private sector and other workers in the education sector to their membership base. If this is not recognised, this results in over inflated estimates of teacher unionisation as high as 90 percent in some studies.

[3] The majority of the growth in SADTU’s membership took place between 1996 and 1999 when their membership base grew from 106 000 to nearly 200 000 three years later (Govender, 2004).

[4] At the ELRC, negotiations and consultation takes place between the Employer (the DBE) and two sets of combined trade unions (CTU). The first is the CTU-SADTU where SADTU membership vote weights are combined with the Cape Teachers’ Professional Association (CTPA). NAPTOSA’s bargaining power is established through the combined ‘Autonomous Teachers Union’ (ATU) which includes a number of smaller unions including the Suid-Afrikaanse Onderwysersunie (SAOU), the National Teachers’ Union (NATU), the Professional Educators Union (PEU), the Public Servants Association (PSA) and the Health and Other Service Personnel Trade Unions of South Africa (HOSPERA).

[5] As noted by Cowen and Strunk (2014), there are three main functions of teachers’ unions. The first and most dominant role is that of a bargaining agent for member teachers and the second role is that of a political organisation advocating for teachers. As a political organisation, their function is to act as an interest group, “active not only in promoting or opposing particular pieces of legislation or administrative policy, but also as a force in national, state and local elections” (ibid, 2014: 4). The third role is that of a professional organisation, providing support to individual teachers. In particular, where teacher unions embrace their role as a catalyst for the professionalization of the teaching force, this can yield very positive impacts for educational systems. However, this role is not widely explored in relation to its influence on student achievement and altering district/national resources for education (Cowen and Strunk, 2014: 4).

One response to “Guest blog: Gabi Wills on “Teacher union membership in SA”

  1. Are you in or out the country?
    The matric results for state schools are due out on January 4/5 and we are looking for an analysis piece on them for Sunday January 10.
    It would need to be handed in on Thursday January 7 and be 1200 words.

    Are you able/interested in doing this?

    Please let us know.

    Thank you.

    Gillian Anstey
    Deputy Editor: Opinion
    Sunday Times
    ansteyg@sundaytimes.co.za
    Phone: 011 2805084

    Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has – Margaret Mead

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