Thursday, February 03, 2011

The teachers' union leader whose principles and practices inspired Hong Kong democracy

Facebook, the social network which I recently joined, has a form that asks you for the names of “People Who Inspire You.” I wrote “Szeto Wah.,” who died in Hong Kong on January 2.

I was privileged to meet Szeto Wah during a brief rest stop in the mid-80s. Five years ago, he visited Washington to give a talk about his experience as president of the Hong Kong Professional Teachers Union and as leader of the ex-colony’s democracy’s movement.

Because of illness I was unable to attend the talk, but I still have a copy of his seven-p;age text. Here is my summary of part of one page.

In the Chinese tradition, teaching has a statis above that of ordinary occupations. Teachers do not organize into trade unions. They do not involve themselves in matters like wages, hours, and working conditions – doing so is considered “unprofessional.”

It was the experience of the American Federation of Teachers, led by Al Shanker, that inspired me to lead Hong Kong teachers on a strike and after the strikes’s success, to form the Hong Kong Professional Teachers Union. Since the day it was established, the PTU has heen the strongest trade union in Hong Kong. And it went on to inspire the formation of other unions and to unite them in the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions., with me as its first Secretary General.

From Al, I learned that professionalism and labor rights are compatible and that, in combination, they can promote democracy in society. The development of democracy is in turn the best guarantee professionalism and labor rights.

Throughout my career, I have been guided by the understanding that democracy and freedom of association must be fiercely protected. Democracy based not on strength representative institutions, but on the will of rulers, isß always in danger of being diminished or removed.

Independent trade unions are the principle force in protecting and promoting democracy in society. The key word here is “independent’ – not being controlled or influenced by any government. It is no surprise, therefore, that in totalitarian countries, independent unions are outlawed.

It should be no surprise, either that the Hong Kong Professional Teachers Union is the flagship of Hong Kong’s democratic movement and, in concert with the independent trade union movement as a whole, provides the energy and organizational strength that sustains it.

According to Wikipedia, “Szeto was admired in Hong Kong politics for his strong principles, for eschewing personal gain, and for his rare political acumen.”

Print Page

No comments: