Dozens of union leaders from across Africa took part in the first-ever Summit for Democracy event on the continent March 30, where they discussed the essential role of unions in strengthening democracy and shared strategies on how unions can step up efforts to advance democracy through one of its most essential components—worker rights. Co-hosted by the Multilateral Partnership for Organizing, Worker Empowerment and Rights (M-POWER) and the Zambian Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU), the day-long conference included interactive sessions focused on strengthening democracy and opening rapidly closing civic space in Africa.
“Amplifying the Voices of Workers to Safeguard Democracy in Africa” was an official side event of the second Summit for Democracy, a global democracy initiative co-hosted by Costa Rica, the Netherlands, South Korea, the United States and Zambia March 28–30, 2023. The second Summit showcased progress made by Summit partners on their commitments in the first year of the global initiative—M-POWER is one of the largest commitments made by Summit partners.
Said Joy Beene, secretary general of the Zambia Confederation of Trade Unions: “There’s no democracy without workers.”
On the eve of the Summit for Democracy, high-level U.S. government officials and domestic and international labor activists highlighted the fundamental role of trade unions to reinforce, expand and protect democracy around the world at an official summit side event.
The event Tuesday, March 28, “No Democracy Without Unions: Labor Movements as Defenders of Democratic Rights,” featured Kalpona Akter, executive director of the Bangladesh Center for Workers Solidarity; Fred Redmond, AFL-CIO secretary-treasurer, president of the Trade Union Confederation of the Americas and a Solidarity Center board member; Becky Pringle, president of the National Education Association; Kelly Fay Rodriguez, State Department special representative for labor affairs; and video messages from Maung Maung, president of the Confederation of Trade Unions-Myanmar, and Lizaveta Merliak, leader of Salidarnast, an association of exiled Belarus labor unionists. The event was co-hosted by the U.S. Department of Labor, U.S. Department of State and U.S. Agency for International Development.
State Department Under Secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy and Human Rights Uzra Zeya opened the event by underscoring “unions’ unique and critical contributions to democratic societies.” She emphasized the dangers faced by labor activists fighting for basic rights, including Chhim Sithar, a Cambodian union leader imprisoned for her organizing work, and the Belarussian union leaders recently sentenced to lengthy prison terms for exercising their fundamental right to freedom of association and assembly. “These cases are emblematic of closing space for civil society champions writ large around the world,” she said.
Deputy Undersecretary for International Affairs at the U.S. Department of Labor Thea Lee, event moderator, concurred. “Governments that cannot tolerate democracy, cannot tolerate criticism are the most vicious in silencing worker movements,” she said.
“The fact the authoritarian regimes have tried to silence activists like Maung Maung and Lizaveta only underscores their leadership as champions of democracy and democratic values,” Lee added. “Democratic, grassroots workers movements threaten dictatorship.”
Indeed, worker movements have brought down dictatorships. Fred Redmond cited the example of Brazil, where labor led a mass civil society movement—including key strikes in the 1970s—and helped return democracy to the country and where, at the beginning of this century, the administrations of President Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva and President Dilma Rousseff—both former labor leaders—helped lift 40 million Brazilians out of poverty.
“The survival of democracy anywhere depends on working people defending it,” said Redmond.
The entire session can be viewed here. Solidarity Center Executive Director Shawna Bader-Blau spoke at a separate Summit for Democracy side event at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), which can be viewed here.
In Eswatini, a landlocked country in southern Africa, union workers are routinely harassed, attacked and even killed for going on strike or holding rallies. In 2021, dozens of workers were killed by security forces in what Amnesty International called “a full-frontal assault on human rights” by the government in response to ongoing pro-democracy protests. In January, prominent human rights lawyer Thulani Maseko was shot dead, hours after a speech by the king warning those calling for democratic reforms that mercenaries would deal with them.
Exiled SWATCAWU leader Sticks Nkambule is receiving support from SCAWU and other unions in Eswatini. Credit: SCAWU
Most recently, Sticks Nkambule, general secretary of the Swaziland Transport, Communication and Allied Workers Union (SWATCAWU), was targeted by the government for leading a strike to improve working conditions. Forced to flee Eswatini, formerly called Swaziland, Nkambule described the interconnected struggle for worker rights, human rights and democracy on the latest Solidarity Center Podcast.
“By bringing together the collective voice of all workers, unions fight for decent working conditions but also for the freedoms fundamental to all democratic societies,” Bader-Blau told Nkambule.
Despite the brutality and repression, Nkambule finds hope in the support from labor and human rights organizations around the world—and in workers themselves.
“What is quite inspiring is that the people of Swaziland are determined to be part of the conversation that is going to change their discourse. It is a reality, activists and, not just labor, beyond labor.”
One year ago, military forces of the Russian Federation invaded Ukraine, launching an unprovoked and unnecessary war.
This war has cost thousands of lives and damaged Ukraine’s social and economic infrastructure, which will take years to rebuild. Russia’s attack on Ukraine is the direct cause of major food shortages and agricultural supply chain disruptions felt most painfully in lower-income countries. Yet, the citizens of Ukraine remain united in their resolve to defend their country, endure constant attacks on their civilian infrastructure, and struggle to keep supplies of grain and necessary goods flowing despite Russian restrictions.
Ukrainian workers and trade unions mobilized to become an integral part of the country’s home front. They not only keep the country’s civilian economy moving in areas like agriculture, railways, electrical utilities, education, health care and public administration, but they have also volunteered their time to meet the country’s humanitarian crisis. Ukrainian unions, including the Federation of Trade Unions of Ukraine (FPU) and the Confederation of Free Trade Unions of Ukraine (KVPU), and a number of independent unions have converted union property into housing for internally displaced people, created supply chains for humanitarian aid and turned union halls and offices into community centers for those in need of assistance.
The Solidarity Center supports these union partners’ humanitarian work as well as their efforts to defend worker rights. Despite the difficulties of war, unions continue to support workers in all areas of the Ukrainian economy with organizing and bargaining support, education and legal assistance, and they continue to defend worker rights in democratic debate at all levels of governance in Ukraine. The staff of the Solidarity Center and its Ukrainian partner Labor Initiatives (LI) continue to assist Ukrainian unions and partners with technical assistance, training and legal aid. In addition, Solidarity Center and LI staff have joined in the humanitarian effort, helping to create the Trade Union Lifeline, a network of unions and activists working to move humanitarian aid to where it is needed the most. The resilience of Solidarity and LI staff, to continue working through the intense stress and violence of the war to forward the mission of the Solidarity Center and the international trade union movement, is notable and praiseworthy.
The Solidarity Center joins with the AFL-CIO in honoring the work of Ukrainian unions and working people and calling for end to the violent invasion of a sovereign nation and for peace, reconstruction and democracy in Ukraine and the region.
Fearing for his life and liberty, pro-democracy activist and Swaziland Transport, Communication and Allied Workers Union (SWATCAWU) General Secretary Sticks Nkambule remains trapped in exile while his union campaigns to bring him home safely.
The murder last month of human and worker rights lawyer and pro-democracy activist Thulani Maseko—whom Nkambule describes as “friend, colleague, personal attorney and man of peace”—demonstrates that Eswatini is unsafe for rights defenders, says Nkambule.
“We are being visited by killing squads,” he says.
While he was out of the country, on December 28, 2022, Nkambule’s home was raided and his family harassed by heavily armed members of the police and military. In January—after police published Nkambule’s name as a wanted person for alleged criminal conduct associated with a SWATCAWU December 13 –14 job “stay away” announcement—Nkambule began receiving reports of dozens of armed state and military members searching for him and other SWATCAWU leaders in multiple locations.
Under such circumstances, Nkambule says his return is impossible and, even in his new location, he cannot live freely for fear of mercenaries.
“The regime is clear to say that certain figures and faces need to go,” says Nkambule, referring to a “list of terrorists” publicly cited by the leader of a South African company that has a contract to train Eswatini security personnel, per news reports.
Eswatini state harassment of unions and other rights defenders is a decades-long pattern which, reports Nkambule, last year included stepped-up police and military harassment of SWATCAWU leadership, and surveillance by unknown persons in unmarked cars. Growing state repression and fear have led many rights defenders to flee, he says—including Swaziland National Association of Teachers (SNAT) President Mbongwa Dlamini, who left the country after state security forces fired live ammunition at his home last year.
Harassment of union leaders ramped up after SWATCAWU began announcing job actions, reports the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC). The union began a series of “stay aways” last year, says Nkambule, to sidestep the state’s brutal repression of peaceful protests, which in 2021 included police and military members beating rally goers and firing live ammunition into crowds during popular uprisings against the king’s government.
“[The October stay away] worked,” says Nkambule. “When protestors stay in their homes, they don’t get shot.”
However, the threat of a series of transport worker “stay aways”—which brings the economy to a standstill because workers cannot travel to their jobs—presents an unwelcome, and escalating, challenge to the state and employers.
“And that is why I have been singled out,” says Nkambule.
SWATCAWU has been embroiled for almost three years in a lawful and peaceful effort to encourage the state to improve transport workers’ wages and conditions—including a $233 monthly minimum wage, better access to social security and health care, repair of dilapidated roads and an end to police harassment—and to release from prison pro-democracy Eswatini Parliament Members Mduduzi Bacede Mabuza and Mthandeni Dube.
Meanwhile, Africa’s last absolute monarch, King Mswati III, controls all three branches of government, chooses the prime minister, can dissolve Parliament and appoints judges. Under his control, Eswatini has conducted a two-decades-long anti-union and anti-democracy campaign with impunity, reports the ITUC.
Human Rights Watch last month called on the South African government to investigate allegations that South African mercenaries and private military personnel who are allegedly operating in Eswatini are targeting pro-democracy activists. UN and African Union experts condemned Maseko’s murder and demanded an impartial investigation into his death, reiterating UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk’s call for the authorities to ensure the safety of all human rights defenders, civil society actors and lawyers in Eswatini.
In the context of shrinking civic space and a global crackdown on human and worker rights, the Solidarity Center continues to support and partner with pro-democracy union activists across the globe, and has long supported beleaguered unions in Eswatini.
In April, at least 18 union leaders were recently arrested in Belarus, where an autocracy has run the country since the fall of the Soviet Union. Among those arrested was Sergey Antusevich, vice president of the Belarusian Congress of Democratic Trade Unions, who was a guest on The Solidarity Center Podcast in 2021. On the show, re-aired here, Antusevich spoke passionately about how Belarusian workers took to the streets to protest fraudulent elections in 2020 that meant the country’s autocrat would continue in power. ”
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