Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Guilds and unions: Alternative histories

Education Minister Alejandro Ventura is publicizing a technical note published by the Inter-American Development Bank (IADB, or BID in Spanish) issued last August. IADB technical notes are published with the disclaimer that they are the opinions of the authors, not the IADB.

The study, which is a thorough attack against the education unions in Honduras, is long on opinion and light on credible supporting sources for those opinions. But that's a topic for another time.

Honduran teachers' unions are actually quite different from the image of modern labor unions. And the IADB study illuminates those cultural differences sharply.

Honduran teachers' unions are technically gremios. Gremios, or guilds, arose in the 11th century A.D. as confederations of artisans and merchants that controlled the production, price, and quality of a certain craft. You had to be a member of the guild to make and sell that craft in a particular town, and your education and even the tools you could use were often spelled out. The guild guaranteed your pay. Guilds also provided services like funerals, hospitals, and loans.

In this area of services, guilds served the same function as cofradia memberships did. Cofradias were lay-religious organizations licensed by the Pope that developed at the same time as guilds. Cofradias were concerned with the adoration of a particular saint, but also provided diverse social services such as funerals, hospitals, and loans. We'll return to this shortly.

Honduras has had some form of teacher's union since 1895. The compulsory education law of 1966 established that all teachers must belong to a professional organization recognized by the Honduran government, and those organizations are gremios; guilds. They set the teaching standards, define a code of ethics, and the conditions under which teachers work.

Fast forward to today. What do teachers say are the most important reasons for joining one of the gremios?

According to one study cited in the IADB technical note, they are (in order from most to least important) loans, life and health insurance, and discounts on funerals.

In Honduras teachers are part of the group Hermano Juancito called the "lower middle class." For these people, gremios continue to play a vital role in ensuring economic stability and access to social services.

This is reflected in an otherwise difficult to understand fact: about 20% of the teachers' union members belong to two or more teachers' unions. This matches the practice among cofradia members in medieval Spain, where multiple memberships were common. Each cofradia or guild had a diverse set of social services that could attract members. Some people belonged to as many as five cofradias in sixteenth century Zaragoza, for example.

A World Bank/IADB Public Expenditures Survey (PETS) in 2008-2009 found that having multiple memberships was explicitly a strategy to get more and better health coverage and life insurance, to have greater access to loans, and to have access to a greater suite of diversified services.

(The PETS study found a different set of priorities cited as the main reasons members joined a gremio: salary concerns, academic training, and the formulation of education policy. But that may reflect the contemporary salary negotiations just concluded at the time, and the pattern of multiple memberships is not explained by these interests.)

Medieval institutions still function in our day, still provide benefits to their members. More modern institutions seek to dismantle them in the name of decentralization, not particularly concerned with replacing those services that keep the older institutions popular.

Whatever else is driving the conflicts over teachers' unions that the IADB note seeks to dismantle, one of the effects of their recommendation would be to replace a way to secure social services that has centuries-long roots in the Spanish culture brought to Honduras in the 16th century.


Sharon said...

Thank you for this. I've been struggling to make sense of the Honduran Teachers Unions and this helps a lot.
Actually, I should say thank you for this blog in it's entirety, it is great to have a reliable source of quality information in English on the situation in Honduras - keep up the good work!

Charles said...

Amen to what Sharon said.

Carlos Tower said...

If Honduran teachers are "lower middle class", and constitute members of a true identifiable class, what are some of the occupations and corresponding salaries of those who constitute "middle, middle class" and "upper, middle class"?

RAJ said...

Don't be so lazy. Go read the piece to which we linked.