High-Level, Global Initiative: Worker Rights Fundamental to Democracy

High-Level, Global Initiative: Worker Rights Fundamental to Democracy

Solidarity Center
Solidarity Center
High-Level, Global Initiative: Worker Rights Fundamental to Democracy


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).

US Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh attends the global launch of the Multilateral Partnership for Organizing, Worker Empowerment, and Rights (M-POWER) at the US Department of Labor.

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 moderating an M-Power panel in Washington, DC

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.

Summit for Democracy: Workers Organizations’ Vital Role

Summit for Democracy: Workers Organizations’ Vital Role

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 vibrant, according to speakers at the high-level event, “Worker Organizations’ Vital Role in Democracy.” (Watch for the full recorded session here.)

AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler, Democracy Summit, Solidarity Center, worker rights

“We stand with all workers everywhere who are on the front lines of democracy”—AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler. Credit: Solidarity Center

“Threats to democracy go hand-in-hand with threats to workers’ right to form unions,” said AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler, speaking at the November 7 virtual forum. “We stand with all workers everywhere who are on the front lines of democracy in their countries and their workplaces.”

The forum, an official side event of the December 9-10 U.S. Summit for Democracy, brought together union leaders, labor ministers and philanthropic organizations from around the world to highlight the role of worker voice and worker rights as fundamental components of democracy and spur global action in support of freedom of association and collective bargaining.

“Worker Organizations’ Vital Role in Democracy” built on recommendations that emerged from four listening sessions with 250 U.S. government officials and labor leaders from Asia, Africa, the Americas, Europe and the Middle East and North Africa. The Solidarity Center, International Trade Union Organization (ITUC) and the AFL-CIO assisted in organizing the sessions.

“The freedom to form unions is a human right,” said U.S. Labor Secretary Marty Walsh, opening the event. “For global democracy to thrive, the global community must support workers right to independent organizing and bargaining.” In announcing the launch of the Multilateral Partnership for Organizing, Worker Empowerment and Rights (M-POWER) initiative, a year-long efforts by governments, unions and the private sector, Walsh said its goals include extending labor law coverage and strengthening unions.

“When we say workers need a seat at the table, we mean it.”

Democracy Under Threat: The Voice of Workers

During a session exploring worker rights, ITUC General Secretary Sharan Burrow highlighted how economic inequalities—such as the 60 percent of the world’s workers who survive through informal jobs with no rights and no protections—threaten democracy. The ITUC and global labor movement are championing a new social contract, one that includes “Jobs, jobs, jobs, jobs,” said Burrow.

It’s time to return to full employment” with rights and protections for all workers, she said, with a new social contract that includes equality and inclusion for all workers, a push reiterated by International Labor Organization Director General Guy Ryder.

Josua Mata, SENTRO, Philippines, Solidarity Center, worker rights, Democracy Summit

Josua Mata at SENTRO says union members are standing up to brutal assaults on democracy and freedom of association. Credit: Solidarity Center

From the Philippines, Josua Mata, general secretary of the United and Progressive Workers Center (SENTRO), described a bleak environment for workers and their unions, with more than 50 union members killed since 2016 and ongoing redtagging (branding and accusing individuals and/or organizations of being terrorists), illegal firing of union activists and anti-terrorism laws directed at stifling freedom to form unions and bargain.

“Any claim that there is freedom of association in Philippines is a lie,” said Mata. Despite the dangers, he and other union activist there are determined to persist in the struggle for democracy.

“All of this has not stopped us from continuing to do what needs to be done.”

A union leader from Brazil shared her struggle with state corruption. Yet, like Mata, Carmen Foro, general secretary of the Central Union of Workers (CUT)  vowed to continue the fight for transparent and free government to enable workers to freely exercise their rights.

“Unions are indispensable to democracy,” said Foro.

In a rallying cry to workers in the United States and around the world, Randi Weingarten, president of the U.S.-based American Federation of Teachers (AFT) said workers must see the struggle to engender and preserve democracy “the same as we would fight for a collective bargaining contract. The fight for democracy is the same as the fight for wages, the fight for dignity.”

Said Solidarity Center Executive Director Shawna Bader-Blau: “No social or political progress happens by magic. Change is pushed by people working collectively. And legitimacy of the government comes from the people.”

Launching a Global Year of Action

Partners in the M-POWER initiative will come together in a year to evaluate progress and recommit to improving worker rights worldwide. Announcing a $100 million pledge by philanthropic organizations through Funders Organized for Rights in the Global Economy (FORGE), Open Society Foundation Executive Director Thomas Periello said the commitment is an important statement for philanthropy to do its part keep worker rights and justice central to its work around the world.”

“As we see rise of threat of authoritarianism around the world, democracies need to deliver, and a huge part of that is free unions,” he said.

Government officials from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the State Department and Labor Department’s Bureau of International Labor Affairs (ILAB) shared their support of M-POWER’s goals and highlighted the U.S. government’s significant financial commitment to program.

“Governments have a foundational role in providing an enabling role for enabling free and independent unions to thrive,” said Thea Lee, ILAB deputy undersecretary.

Labor ministers from Argentina, Germany, Mexico and Norway also shared how partnerships among union, government and private sector in their countries are enabling workers to reskill and upskill, transfer to jobs in renewable energy and ensure worker rights throughout. “To protect the rights of workers, the first thing we need is a development model to have rights at center,” said Argentina’s Minister of Labor, Employment and Social Security Claudio Moroni.

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