Summit for Democracy: No Democracy Without Unions

Summit for Democracy: No Democracy Without Unions

Solidarity Center
Solidarity Center
Summit for Democracy: No Democracy Without Unions


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.



Podcast: Workers Speak Out: Unions Are Essential for Democracy

Podcast: Workers Speak Out: Unions Are Essential for Democracy

Workers from around the world, including those exiled from Belarus, Eswatini and Myanmar for forming unions, striking and trying to speak freely, describe why democracy is important—and why unions are key to democracy—in a special episode of The Solidarity Center Podcast.

This week, high-level policy makers, including U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris, are gathering for Summit on Democracy events in Washington, D.C., and in Zambia, where the spotlight will be on how to amplify worker voices to safeguard democracy in Africa and globally. (Register for an official Summit side event in Zambia focused on worker rights.)

“Workers know the importance of unions to democracy—and what democracy means in their lives,” says Solidarity Center Executive Director and Podcast host Shawna Bader-Blau. “The union movement is the strongest voice for democracy.”

One of the workers the episode highlights is Lizaveta Merliak, a union leader exiled from Belarus, who speaks out from Germany, where she and other union leaders were forced into exile.

“I’m one of a few trade unionists who escaped from Belarus after the liquidation and repression of democratic trade unions—unlike my comrades, leaders, and activists of democratic trade unions who are jailed and tortured in prisons.

“We must support the aspirations for democracy in every way we can and, at the same time, preserve and develop the idea of grassroots democracy at workplace. We will revive the independent trade union movement in Belarus, with the aim of creating a democratic society based on the principles of social justice and decent work.”

Listen to the full episode here.

Follow the Summit for Democracy events on Twitter @SolidarityCntr and on Facebook at Solidarity Center.



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