In a powerful demonstration of support for strengthening worker rights to ensure thriving democracies and prosperous economies, representatives from governments, unions and philanthropic organizations met in Washington, D.C., yesterday to renew their commitment to the global initiative, M-POWER (Multilateral Partnership for Organizing, Worker Empowerment, and Rights).
U.S. Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh makes the connection between worker rights and democracy. Credit: Department of Labor / Alyson Fligg
“Labor rights are fundamental to democracy,” said U.S. Labor Secretary Martin Walsh, opening the event before a packed room. “The collective voice of workers is fundamental to democracy. And strong labor movements are fundamental to democracy,” he said, remarks echoed by participants throughout the event.
Launched in December 2021, M-POWER is part of the U.S. Presidential Initiative for Democratic Renewal involving a partnership of governments, global and national labor organizations, philanthropic institutions and civil society stakeholders cooperating to advance freedom of association and collective bargaining in the global economy through actions such as standing up for and standing with labor activists and worker organizations under threat.
“When workers have a seat at the table, trade unions can advocate for better protections, better wages better and better laws that protect them,” said USAID Director Samantha Power. Speaking via recorded video, Power said USAID is contributing $25 million to the initiative, which, at $130 million, is the largest the U.S. government has made to advance worker rights globally.
“The M-POWER initiative lifts up the voice of workers who are fighting on the front lines for democracy,” said Cathy Feingold, deputy president of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) which, along with the U.S. Labor Department, is M-POWER co-chair. The initiative creates “the power to shape policies that affect workers and their environment. Protecting that power has never been more important,” she said, citing examples of brutal government attacks on workers and their unions in countries such as Belarus. Feingold also is AFL-CIO International director.
Another country where workers have been under brutal assault is Myanmar, following a government takeover by a military junta in February 2021. Speaking from outside the country in one of several video clips of workers shown throughout the event, Khaing Zar Aung, president of the Industrial Workers Federation of Myanmar (IWFM), said “freedom of association is very important for Myanmar, for workers.
“If we don’t have freedom of association, we cannot organize and hear the voice of the workers.”
Commitment to Action
Solidarity Center Executive Director Shawna Bader-Blau moderates a panel on putting M-POWER into action. Credit: Department of Labor /Alyson Fligg
Leaders of global unions and representatives of the U.S. government and philanthropic organizations turned to concrete examples of worker power in the panel, “Commitment to Action: the M-POWER Agenda for Worker Empowerment.”
“While human rights has long been considered a bedrock of democracy, worker rights has not received credit for the part it plays in ensuring more democratic societies,” said Solidarity Center Executive Director Shawna Bader-Blau, panel moderator.
Zingiswa Losi, president of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), shared the union’s efforts for adoption of Convention 190, the International Labor Organization (ILO) treaty to end gender-based violence and harassment at work, and its successful efforts to push the South African government to ratify it.
“We strongly believe if we are to transform the workplace, we must ensure that when women go to work, women must be empowered equally as men,” she said. Losi discussed how South African unions work with government and business to improve worker rights, a model like M-POWER in which “through collaboration, we can meet challenges.” COSATU is a long-time Solidarity Center partner.
Describing the struggle of domestic workers to win their rights on the job, Elizabeth Tang, general secretary of the International Domestic Workers Federation (IDWF), said the first hurdle is getting lawmakers and the public to recognize them as workers. “They don’t think of domestic workers as workers because they are so invisible, and so just as they don’t think of them as workers they don’t think of them as eligible for labor rights.”
Tang outlined how domestic workers came together from around the world to create IDWF, which has grown from tens of thousands of members to some 650,000 in the past 10 years. This experience showed that workers having “a seat at the table is vital to see worker rights advancement,” a goal M-POWER has made central to its outreach.
Philanthropy & Government Working Together See Big Results
Sarita Gupta, vice president of the Ford Foundation, said combing philanthropic work with government resources was essential given the growing threats to the right of freedom of association and collective bargaining. “Achieving change at scale is impossible without the government,” she said.
Ford is among philanthropic organizations working together through FORGE, Funders Organized for Rights in the Global Economy, to support worker rights. “We have long known that democracy is incomplete if workers lack a say in their workplace,” Gupta said. “Worker voice is democracy.”
Erin Barclay, senior bureau official in the U.S. State Department’s Democracy, Human Rights and Labor division, said the appointment last week of Kelly Fay Rodriguez as special representative for International Labor Affairs was among the commitments the U.S. government has made in its global labor rights efforts. Rodriguez’s experience working in the international labor movement includes the Solidarity Center.
The initiative also includes an urgent action component to protect labor activists and organizations facing threats, because the variety of threats workers face mean they are most effectively addressed by a “diversity of tools,” said Molly McCoy, U.S. Labor Department assistant deputy undersecretary of international affairs.
AFT President Randi Weingarten, whose U.S.-based teachers’ union has long been committed to advancing global labor rights, put it this way: “Our responsibility as a global labor movement is to do more than speak, it is to act” to defend “fundamental rights like the right of association, like the right to collectively bargain.”
Labor ministers from Argentina and Canada joined the event to highlight how their governments are supporting and enhancing worker rights. Their countries are among Germany South Africa and Spain taking part in the initiative.
Dynamic women worker rights leaders from across the globe offered a vision for hope, resilience and movement toward an economy and society that works for people and the planet yesterday at the event, “Building Power: Women’s Leadership in the Fight for Justice, Democracy and Fair Work” in New York City.
“Collective power is the way to build justice.”—AFL-CIO International Director Cathy Feingold. Credit: Solidarity Center/Tula Connell
“We are bringing women labor leaders together today who are at the forefront of movement building. They all know one thing—collective power is the way to build justice. Collective power is the way to democracy,” said AFL-CIO International Director Cathy Feingold, opening the gathering, a side event to the United Nations General Assembly meetings happening this month. (Watch the event here.)
In a statement issued before the event, the philanthropies committed to supporting labor organizations and worker groups in their portfolios, backing ratification and implementation of International Labor Organization (ILO) Convention 190 to eliminate gender-based violence and harassment at work, and boost advocacy to support civic space.
The philanthropies were inspired by the women who fought for passage of Convention 190, said Laine Romero-Alston, team manager for the Fair Work Program/International Migration Initiative at OSF. “Out of that inspiration we are committing to you all to support the work moving forward.”
‘Dignity and Rights of Working People, Not Exploitation’
The future of work must be about “dignity and the rights of working people and not exploitation”—ITUC General Secretary Sharan Burrow. Credit: Solidarity Center/Tula Connell
Discussing a global movement for economic justice, democracy and fair work, women union leaders featured on the first of two panels agreed there is a worldwide jobs crisis—and women endure the lowest pay and worst working conditions.
“Look at the inequalities in workplaces, who is most affected? Women are most affected,” said Rose Omamo, general secretary of Amalgamated Union of Kenya Metal Workers and the national chair of the Central Organization of Trade Unions-Kenya (COTU-K) Women’s Committee.
“We need to work in solidarity together, have alliances, build alliances,” said Omamo who, as an elected member of the Organization of African Trade Union Unity and a member of ITUC–Africa Women’s Committee, is building cross-continent partnerships.
AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Liz Shuler urges unions to reach out to young workers. Credit: Solidarity Center/Tula Connell
“Sixty percent of the world’s workers are in the informal economy with no minimum wage, no rule of law, no social protections,” International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) General Secretary Sharan Burrow said to the packed crowd. “The employment model is broken down and the future of work must be about dignity and the rights of working people, not exploitation,” she said.
Moderated by Patrick Gaspard, OSF president and former U.S. ambassador to South Africa, the panel also explored solutions for ensuring a future of work rooted in a global economy that works for everyone.
One solution starts with unions themselves: “We need to get more women into union leadership,” said AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Liz Shuler. “We cannot be afraid to fail and experiment and connect with young people by making the labor movement relevant to what they see in their lives.”
‘Elimination of Gender-Based Violence Key to Accessing Other Rights’
Solidarity Center Executive Director Shawna Bader-Blau: “Labor rights are core to all our democratic rights.” Credit: Solidarity Center/Tula Connell
Moderated by Solidarity Center Shawna Bader-Blau, the second panel included Libakiso Matlho, national director at Women and Law in Southern Africa Research and Education Trust–Lesotho (WLSA). Matlho discussed the recent landmark agreement agreement WLSA participated in negotiating that will address the rampant gender-based violence and harassment denying thousands of women garment workers a safe and dignified workplace in Lesotho.
Lesotho-based unions and women’s rights groups, major fashion brands and international worker rights organizations, including the Solidarity Center, negotiated the worker-centered program in August with factory owner Nien Hsing Textiles.
One element that sets the agreement apart from most corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives, she said, is the inclusion of freedom of association. With unions at the table, she said, employers can be held accountable to keeping their commitments.
Worker rights leaders Maricarmen Molina and Anannya Bhattacharjee discussed the structural underpinnings of gender-based violence at work and the ramifications for women workers who suffer such abuse.
“Violence and harassment are part of a continuum of behaviors in many of the systems where we work”—Mariecaremen Molina Credit: Solidarity Center/Tula Connell
“Violence and harassment are part of a continuum of behaviors in many of the systems where we work,” said Molina, the first woman secretary general of a national union confederation in Central America, the CSTS (Confederación Sindical de Trabajadores y Trabajadoras de El Salvador). The CSTS, working with the national federations CONFUERSA and FEASIES, recently won significant minimum wage increases for workers in service, industrial and agricultural sectors.
“We have found that gender-based violence at the workplace is the most corrosive element that works against everything,” said Bhattacharjee, international coordinator for the Asia Floor Wage Alliance.
“It is really difficult for women in those situations to attempt to form unions,” which would enable them to join together to improve their working conditions.
With Global Labor Justice, Asia Floor Wage Alliance this year launched a global campaign, #GarmentMeToo, a movement led by women union leaders to contribute to new international labor standards.
Elimination of gender-based violence is the necessary condition for accessing other labor rights, such as the right to a living wage, such as the right to freedom of association,” said Bhattacharjee. “It is part of a global supply chain where the brands are the main drivers. Their purchasing practices are what causes the gender-based violence. Anything we do, they have to build held accountable in any agreement that works.”
Unions and collective action are key to holding employers accountable and to ensuring workers can exercise their fundamental rights on the job, the panelists agreed. And “labor rights are core to democracies, they are core to making all our other democratic rights real,” said Bader-Blau, closing the event. “These rights are under attack in every single one of our countries right now. And it is on all of us to stand up for worker rights.
“For every woman trade unionist who has ever received a death threat for daring to lead… for every new activist young and old entering the labor movement right now who doesn’t know if she has a place because our institutions have for so long been so male dominated, we see you,” she said.
“We respect and honor what you are trying to do to make our democracies stronger and more just. You are the future and we all of us in this room have your back because this is what democracy looks like!”
The CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies hosted the event, with Dean Gregory Mantsios welcoming the group.
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