The German Education Union (GEW)
GEW is the education sector union affiliated to the German Trade Union Confederation (DGB). We organise educators and teachers in schools, universities, early childhood education, vocational training and adult education.
Members of the GEW are manifold - women and men, teachers, educators and researchers, working in different types of schools, universities, academic and research institutions, in adult education, social and cultural work, vocational and language training or other forms of teaching. The GEW is a trade union for a professional community. The vast majority of our members are academics.
The GEW is an autonomous and independent trade union in terms of funding and party politics (like all trade unions in the DGB) with 270,000 members. It is by far the biggest organisation in the education sector in Germany. Some of our members are currently unemployed and we represent a reasonable amount of employees working in part-time. We also represent many members who are retired or students. Trade union membership in the education sector ranges from 15 to 50 per cent, depending on the region and the teaching profession. The GEW not only attends to the salaries and social interests of its members. As an education union we also play a vital role in campaigning and implementing education reforms.
Almost seventy per cent of the GEW’s members are women. The GEW has been working for years, through its policies on women and gender, to ensure that women are properly represented on its committees and in its activities. The age structure of our membership has shifted drastically over the last decades. We have grown older. To recruit new and younger members, the GEW has been investing in services that will appeal to beginners in the profession, with membership campaigns and new GEW structures for young members.
Trade union services to our members in the field include legal support, social and professional advice, a wide range of information and continuous training and, of course, back-up if it comes to a dispute: The GEW provides financial and legal support for members on strike. Our members are also covered for professional third party liability by a trade union insurance policy. In addition to these and other services, members at local, regional and national level can take advantage of a broad spectrum of training courses and wide-ranging opportunities to participate in debates about social and education policy.
The trade union policy guidelines are adopted by the trade union assembly. This is a congress of 432 GEW delegates from all over the country that is convened every four years. The day-to-day priorities for trade union work are agreed by the Executive Committee (80 members) and implemented by the Executive Board, which consists of eight members working full-time for the GEW. Inside the GEW our 16 regional organisations play an important role, each with their own executive committee, based in the 16 German federal states. This is due to the federal structure of government in Germany. The federal states are competent to make their own decisions in many fields of policy. That is why many major decisions, notably with regard to schools and universities, are not taken in Berlin but in the regional capitals. So the GEW needs strong structures with the confidence to pursue their objectives in the 16 federal states.
The international work of GEW is carried out by the National Executive and the Executive Board. Responsibility here lies with the President. Agreement and unity in the trade union movement have always been key to achieving greater influence and campaigning successfully for our goals. That is why the GEW takes an active part in Education International (EI). EI has about 30 million members, making it the largest Global Union Federation in the world.
Our main fields of international work are:
- Education for all - participation in the Global Campaign for Education
- Fair childhood - elimination of child labour
- Human and trade union rights
- Support for trade unions suffering repression
- Cooperation between trade unions in North and South
- For a social Europe - promoting trade union policy within the European Trade Union Committee for Education (ETUCE)
The GEW also maintains important bilateral links that have grown into reliable partnerships over the years with EI affiliates in Israel and Palestine, Turkey, the United States, Nicaragua and Burkina Faso.
Our ties are especially close with education unions in neighbouring EU countries and Scandinavia. Another major focus is dialogue and understanding with trade unions and their members in Central and Eastern Europe. Our commitment to human and trade union rights is also reflected in our international work. In 1981, the GEW set up the Heinrich Rodenstein Fund to assist teachers and researchers faced with persecution.
There are many countries in the world where people engaged in democratic and trade union activity still confront major personal risks. That particularly affects the teaching profession. Democratically committed teachers are frequently a thorn in the flesh of those who wield power. Men and women working in education may be intimidated or repressed and are often exposed to violence. Columbia has been high on the oppression list for many years: dozens of teachers are murdered each year after resisting corruption and abuses of power by engaging in local politics or in their trade union FECODE. Things are no better in Ethiopia. Or Nepal. Our colleagues in the poorer and poorest countries are often most vulnerable, and their plight may be compounded by natural disasters.
This is where the GEW can help by offering practical solidarity and material relief between colleagues, helping others to help themselves. As a structure for this trade union solidarity the GEW set up an aid fund in 1981 and named it after Heinrich Rodenstein. He was a founder of the GEW after the Second World War and committed reformer and trade unionist. Heinrich Rodenstein fled into exile under the Nazi regime and survived persecution and war thanks to the help he was given by others.
What Kind of Help?
The Fund helps teachers who are threatened or persecuted because of their trade union commitment or for political motives. It also offers relief to colleagues who face need because of natural disasters. It does not work by supporting the aid organisations, but provides individual aid in specific cases, i. e..
- by paying for a lawyer and court costs
- by providing subsistence
- by helping people to help themselves build a new life
- by enabling people to flee a danger or escape into exile
- by supporting the families of murdered colleagues
Where Does the Money Come from? Where Does It Go?
The Heinrich Rodenstein Fund (HRF) is maintained by individual donations from teachers. The GEW issues appeals, ensures media coverage and organises events. Up-to-date reports can be found on the GEW website. The National Executive of the GEW assumes the administrative costs. This ensures that 100% of the money received can be passed straight on to the people who need it. The HRF Board, working closely with the GEW’s National Executive, decides how to allocate the funds.
Through its international work and its close cooperation with Education International (EI), the GEW remains well informed about where our colleagues are in distress and where the HRF is needed. But requests for help can also be made directly to the HRF.
In some countries trade unions and students’ unions are struggling against the introduction of tuition fees, in other countries they are struggling against an increase of the fees. In October 2007and in cooperation with the National Union of Students in Germany (FZS), the German Education Union (GEW) submitted a report to the United Nations regarding the violation of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in Germany by the introduction of tuition fees for students for universities.
Until 2006, higher education tuition in Germany was free of charge. Now several of the sixteen federal states are introducing tuition fees for all students enrolled in their universities and colleges. Approx. 75 percent of German students are affected. The GEW supports the German students' opposition to tuition fees because they can impede the admission to universities and colleges.
For young people from families with a low income it will become harder to begin and succeed their studies. Besides, it is already hard enough for them to obtain a higher education. Less than 35 percent of any age group has access to higher education in Germany – less than in other comparable industrial countries.
Referring to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights seems to be a promising international measure to support our national political activities. We are looking forward to join forces with others who live in countries which ratified the International Covenant supporting our position in Europe and all over the world.
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