Dozens of union leaders from around the world who are working to advance democracy in communities and workplaces convened last week in Washington, D.C., to discuss the essential role of unions in leading social change and addressing multiple global crises, including strengthening democracy through the exercise and advancement of worker rights. 

As part of the Global Labor Leadership Initiative (GLLI), a Solidarity Center partnership with the Worker Institute at Cornell, 22 union leaders and allies from 17 countries spent two days discussing movement building, the platform economy and strategies to tackle in-country and mutual challenges affecting working people, often in the face of brutal conditions. They then joined more than 70 U.S. and Canadian labor and social justice leaders for a two-day event, “Meeting the Moment: How Can Unions Maximize Impact and Power in a Time of Increasing Polarization and Change?” where they shared strategies on how unions can step up efforts to defend and promote worker rights.

Four Global Labor Leadership Initiative (GLLI) participants clasp hands at AFL-CIO Washington, D.C., headquarters. Photo: Kaveh Sardari

Global Labor Leadership Initiative (GLLI) participants Mauroof Zakir, Tourism Employees Association of Maldives (TEAM) General Secretary and Maldives Trade Union Council President; Nazma Akter, Sommilito Garments Sramik Federation (SGSF) President and founder (Bangladesh); Sonia George, Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) General Secretary; and Intan Indria Dewi, SPN (garment and textile trade union federation) Banten Provincial Chairperson (Indonesia). Photo: Kaveh Sardari

“Democracy exists [only] where workers can be heard,” said Maicon Michel Vasconcelos da Silva, who spoke at the panel event and who serves as secretary of international relations of the Brazil National Confederation of Metalworkers (CNM).

Overwhelming evidence shows that democracy begins at work—in particular, where independent unions provide individuals with the opportunity to elect and be leaders, and join in common cause for better wages, benefits and working hours. Organized labor also holds politicians accountable. In recent years, labor lawyers pushed for justice following Brazil’s deadliest—and entirely preventable—mining disaster. An aviation union in Ukraine exposed rampant corruption in the terminal. And in Colombia, the labor movement shut down the country’s largest port to reach a landmark agreement from the government to live up to its promises to invest in a long-neglected and majority Black city.

Meanwhile, democracy enables workers and their unions to flourish and, as it is increasingly threatened around the world, democracy also depends on working people and their organizations to keep it resilient, said panel speakers and participants, emphasizing unions’ unique role and capacity to push back on unjust and undemocratic forces.

“Unionism and unionizing should really put all of its energy behind democracy,” said Sergio Guerrero in a separate interview. Guerrero, a platform worker in Mexico and general secretary of the National Union of Workers by Application (UNTA), added: “We can’t have a democratic society without unionized workers.”

Yet across every region of the world, “the global cost-of living crisis has been met with a crackdown on the rights of working people,” according to the 2023 International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) Global Rights Index.”

“Organizing on issues of democracy, of human rights, of preservation of democratic procedure is something I think is essential for us as a union,” said Čedanka Andrić, president of the Serbia Trade Union Confederation Nezavisnost (Independence), who spoke to the Solidarity Center between sessions.

A key takeaway, said many participants, is that democracy cannot be taken for granted.

"No one is insulated from dictatorship. No one is safe," said Peter Mutasa, who had to flee for his life following a violent crackdown on Zimbabwe unions.

“No one is insulated from dictatorship. No one is safe,” said Peter Mutasa, who had to flee for his life following a violent crackdown on Zimbabwe unions. Photo: Kaveh Sardari

“We learned that the rights won by those who fought before us are transient,” warned Peter Mutasa, chair of the Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition. Mutasa, former president of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU), had to flee for his life in 2020 following a violent crackdown on Zimbabwe unions and their leaders that began in 2018

“No one is insulated from dictatorship. No one is safe,” he said.

The panel event concluded the 2024 GLLI convening. Organized by the Solidarity Center in coordination with Cornell’s ILR Worker Institute, GLLI provides participants with solidarity and skills-building opportunities so they can help build a dynamic, powerful and inclusive labor movement that can transform society and the economy so that it works for workers.

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