PRESENTATION AT THE 100TH ANNIVERSARY AGA OF THE WORKERS’ EDUCATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF FINLAND (TSL), HELSINKI, 7 JUNE 2019.
Friends, colleagues, brothers and sisters, good afternoon. My name is Sahra Ryklief and I am the General Secretary of the International Federation of Workers’ Education Associations. I am honoured and pleased to be here today and to join you in the celebration of the Centennial Jubilee of your esteemed organisation.
I have had the privilege of working together with TSL on various project activities for over twenty years. In this time I have come to understand its deep roots in Finland, and its importance to the adult education system in the country. It can be comfortably said that any non-profit organisation that has been around for 100yrs, has proven its significance again and again to its beneficiaries and supporters.
The philosophy, value and ethics of worker’s education are based on the inalienable right of adults to lifelong learning as a cornerstone of democracy. Where there is no democracy, workers’ education directs itself towards building it. Where democracy exists, workers’ education examines, extends and entrenches it. I congratulate you on remaining an essential institution of democracy in Finnish society for 100 years. Finland has been found to have the best and most equal education system in the world for developing its student, working and aged population. You are the advance guard that the rest of the world looks to.
The TSL is not only an important organisation on a national level. I am here to give testimony to the role of the TSL as a regional and global actor, through its co-operation in the Nordic WEA (ABF Norden), through European worker and continuous education networks, and internationally, through its role in the development and support of the global knowledge community of the IFWEA.
The TSL was a founding member of the IFWEA, which was constituted in 1947 in London, by 9 European workers’ education organisations, in the aftermath of the Second World War. There can be no doubt that the divisive legacy of World War 11 was the single dynamic force that encouraged the formation of this initiative for international cooperation of workers’ education associations. The founding values upon which IFWEA was built were human mutuality, social justice and freedom of expression, broadly set within the principles of social democracy but not expressed explicitly in party affiliation. This allowed for a broad-based membership to develop, embracing national workers’ education bodies, labour research and education NGOs, education foundations of trade unions and even a few International Trade Secretariats (now Global Unions).
The purpose of forming IFWEA was to bring together its members to exchange educational information, materials, methods and ideas; to study questions of importance to adult education; to represent the interests of workers’ education on an international level and to encourage, support and assist in the development of new movements and organisations in workers’ education.
In the 23 years that I have been active as an Executive Committee Member and then General Secretary of the IFWEA, I have appreciated TSL’s role in every single one of these important pillars which have kept the IFWEA going since 1947.
The exchange of educational information, materials, methods and ideas
The TSL assisted IFWEA in the 1990s to establish itself online and explore online pedagogy through the first international study circles and courses. The current Secretary General, Jouko Muuri, was a key person in advising and assisting the building of our online identity and enabling worker educators in developing countries to become competent in the digital space. Nowadays, IFWEA has its own education platform, the Online Labour Academy (OLA), through which hundreds of trade union members in multiple countries are educated annually. Even though his portfolio in the TSL has changed since those early days and we no longer need his skills in technology and communication, the IFWEA Secretariat continues to rely on Jouko’s support for our work in bridging the digital divide between the rich and the poor, and building our global knowledge community.
As a pioneer institute of distance learning and online communication, TSL prompted IFWEA in the mid-2000s to explore the early distance learning and communication platforms, and assisted the IFWEA Secretariat at a time when we had very few resources available to set up our own affiliate communication platform. Jouko, along with Merja Leskinnen, who at that time was responsible for TSL Communication, was the bridge-builder in those early initiatives.
In the same decade Merja also worked with a group of IFWEA education pioneers in Africa, Latin America and Asia to build our Global Network for social dialogue between trade unions, NGOs and campaign groups, in partnership with SASK, SAK and other valued global role players. I was privileged to be one of those educators and the exchanges, materials, methods and contacts that we build co-operatively during that decade provided a solid foundation for the work we are all still doing today.
The study of questions of importance to adult education and representing the interests of workers’ education on an international level.
Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, when we were re-orienting IFWEA towards becoming the vibrant international organisation it is today, we relied on the General Secretaries of the TSL, first Jorma Turunen and then Kari Antilla for support and encouragement. Not only were both members of the IFWEA executive committee, but they also served as key role players in adult education policy formulation nationally, regionally and internationally.
The entire IFWEA Executive Committee valued their support as advisors, and I, more specifically, viewed them as mentors whose encouragement I relied on as I developed my international role and the programme of the IFWEA.
Encourage, support and assist in the development of new movements and organisations in workers’ education.
Everyone here is well aware that the world’s resources are very unevenly divided. Inequality is everywhere, but it is only when viewed on a global level that its scale and extent is fully appreciated, hence the need for labour internationalism on as many levels as possible. Since the 1970’s the technological revolution have brought about far reaching changes in the organisation of labour and the working world. Most significant has been the increase of numbers of people without decent work opportunities. The modern phenomena of jobless growth has left vast numbers of people without any prospect of ever holding down a wage-based “job” in southern economies.
From 2011, IFWEA has offered our Youth Globalisation Awareness Programme, an annual collaborative exposure and exchange initiative for the next generation of young trade union leaders and worker educators. Along with the ABF Sweden and AOF Norway, the TSL was a pioneer in this initiative. Katri Soder, TSL education director and IFWEA executive committee member, remains one of YGAP’s strongest supporters and resource providers.
YGAP provides young labour leaders with the education required to tackle the challenges of the 21st century, and assists them to develop education, union organisation and solidarity which acknowledges how much work has changed, specifically in the south, and what this means for the struggle for democratic and labour rights. Thus far, YGAP has developed 149 young educators, trade union and youth leaders from 26 different countries. They form a growing pool of young internationalists who appreciate the challenges labour faces and understand the need for innovation and solidarity. YGAP has helped them to be strong in their convictions, to articulate their internationalism and to develop a sense of purpose and willingness to build solidarity in and between their organisations towards a better future for all.
The global challenge ahead
In preparation for our 23rd Global General Conference in Cape Town in December, the upcoming IFWEA executive committee next week, hosted by the TSL, will discuss our strategic direction for the next five years. I hope to see a strong TSL delegation at our Conference. We will propose to the 23rd General Conference the adoption of a global education programme that equips trade unions and worker associations to improve their role in engaging with:
- the future of work and improving labour conditions and regulations in new forms of work;
- building women friendly trade unions, and developing women’s leadership capacity;
- preparing for the impact on the environmental due to climate change;
- and last but by no means least, responding to populism and the rise of the far-right nationalism.
We believe that the rise of right wing nationalism is the result of widespread, prolonged grievances amongst working people which have been ignored by those with the power to effect change. Not only those in power, but also those with access to those in power, are often viewed as part of the elite. Even our familiar institutions of labour, our parties of and trade unions, have experienced criticism and a loss of support, as the layers of the labour force, our communities and societies become more striated.
As educators, we need to build capacity in our movement for those suffering the most under inequality and marginalisation, who need to be heard. We need to encourage and enable them to articulate these grievances and seek positive solutions to them. Worker education orients us towards society’s base, not pinnacle, thus avoiding the stigma of elitism. We provide valuable resources and expertise and establish trusted service relationships with trade unions; community and member based organisations. Our work encourages continued learning, is guided by principles of internationalism and democracy, and covers a broad range of workplace, cultural, social and economic issues.
We are therefore both ideally situated and essential to contribute towards labour’s building of a counter-response to under-employment; the weakening or complete absence of labour protections; the under-representation of women in leadership positions in trade unions and political formations; the predominance of fake facts and right wing populist propaganda.
TSL has been and will continue to be, a leading stakeholder and partner in these initiatives. As the representative of the member organisations of TSL, on behalf of the IFWEA member organisations, I thank you all for enabling it to do so.
International Federation of Workers Education Associations.
 Denmark, Finland, France, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland and hosts to the founding conference and first Secretariat, the United Kingdom.