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Death Of A Teacher Union Icon

The New Year brings sad word of the passing of Szeto Wah, celebrated Hong Kong democracy activist, legislator, and teacher union leader. He died on January 2 at the age of 79.

Once recognized by Time Magazine as one of the 25 most influential people in Hong Kong, and known by millions as "Uncle Wah," Szeto came to prominence in the 1970s as the firebrand founder of the Hong Kong Professional Teachers Union (PTU), which he led from 1974 to 1990. He was also a founder and leader of the Hong Kong Democratic Party, served in the Hong Kong legislature from 1985 to 2004, and was the founder and chairman of the Hong Kong Alliance in support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China. The alliance was the leading organization offering support to the pro-democracy movement in Mainland China, which organized yearly protests on the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre.

While condolences flow in from all over the world, the political question of the day in Hong Kong is whether or not the Chinese authorities will allow exiled democracy activists back into Hong Kong to attend Szeto’s funeral. Wang Dan, one of the most prominent of the Tiananmen Square democracy leaders, said that, for him, the loss is personal: "Uncle Wah has always been my personal mentor and a leader in the democratic movement. The greatest achievement he has made has been to pass on his beliefs before he left us. The younger generation now remembers June 4," he said.

We at the Shanker Institute also feel this as a personal loss. We met Szeto in 2002, when he travelled to Washington D.C. to deliver the Institute’s Albert Shanker Lecture. In it, he credited Al Shanker with helping to shape his political and organizational perspective:

Al was my mentor. In the Chinese tradition, teaching is regarded as a profession that somehow stands above the concerns that are the normal and legitimate interests of other workers: wages, and working conditions. Unlike workers of other trades, teachers are not supposed to organize themselves into trade unions. It was the American Federation of Teachers, led by Al, that inspired me to break from this Chinese tradition and to lead Hong Kong teachers on strike in 1973, and following the success of the strikes, to form the Hong Kong Professional Teachers’ Union (the PTU). Since the day it was established, the PTU has been the strongest trade union in Hong Kong.

From Al, I learned to combine professionalism and labor rights to organize a trade union and to employ trade unionism to promote democracy in society. The development of democracy is in turn the best guarantee for professionalism and labor rights.

Throughout my career, I have been guided by the understanding that democracy and freedom of association must be fiercely protected. Only in a democratic political system can human rights, freedom, and rule of law thrive.

With all of the recent teacher union bashing in the United States – and all of the attention to Hong Kong and the other "top fliers" in the OECD’s most recent PISA assessments – it’s worth noting that Hong Kong, like Finland, has an estimated teacher union density of over 90 percent: significantly higher than in the U.S. This, too, was Uncle Wah’s legacy.

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