Houcine Abassi, secretary general of the Tunisian General Labor Union (Union Générale Tunisienne du Travail, UGTT), which shares this year’s Nobel Peace Prize, and AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, write today in The Guardian that “awarding the Nobel Prize to an organization led by the Tunisian labor movement was a recognition of the essential and potentially transformative role of labor in all of our nations.”
“Strong unions make strong democracies,” they continue. “It sounds simplistic, but each of us have experienced this fundamental premise in our nations. As labor leaders in the United States and Tunisia respectively, we know full well that when workers come together for a voice on the job, it boosts the economy, eases social unrest and creates the conditions for peace, prosperity and the protection of rights.
To be sure, we come from very different countries, each with its own set of economic and political challenges. But we have seen the healing power of unions firsthand.”
Read their full op-ed here.
The Tunisian General Labor Union (Union Générale Tunisienne du Travail, UGTT), a longtime Solidarity Center partner, was at the forefront of the four organizations that recently won the Nobel Peace Prize, AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Liz Shuler said today. In a ceremony at the AFL-CIO honoring UGTT Secretary-General Houcine Abassi, Shuler praised Abassi’s courage and tenacity and called the UGTT’s work “inspirational to us in the United States.”
AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Liz Shuler welcomed UGTT Secretary-General Houcine Abassi in a ceremony honoring his work. Credit: Solidarity Center/Kate Conradt
In his remarks, Abassi said “the Nobel Prize is not given just to us, but to all the labor movements in the world.” The award “sends a message that unions can play an equal role in government, in social dialogue … and many times can provide critical leadership.” Abassi is in Washington, D.C., this week to receive the Fairness Award presented by the Global Fairness Initiative. Solidarity Center ally Myrtle Witbooi, general secretary of the South African Domestic Service and Allied Workers Union, is a co-recipient of the award.
In October, the Nobel Committee recognized the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet—comprised of the (UGTT); the Tunisian Confederation of Industry, Trade and Handicrafts; the Tunisian Human Rights League; and the Tunisian Order of Lawyers—for establishing “an alternative, peaceful political process at a time when the country was on the brink of civil war.”
Abassi described the many hours of dialogue in the months after the 2011 Arab uprising deposed longtime dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and ushered in a period of economic and political uncertainty. As a key participant in the discussions, the UGTT succeeded in including collective bargaining rights and the right to strike in the country’s new constitution, which Tunisians approved in 2014. Through the UGTT’s efforts, the constitution also enshrines many more fundamental social and economic rights for Tunisians.
The Tunisian union movement has been in the forefront of the struggle for democracy and social equality since its formation in 1946. Following the country’s independence from colonial rule in 1956, the organization played a key role in establishing a road map for national development that made Tunisia the most advanced economy in the Arab Maghreb.
In the months after the 2011 uprising, the UGTT employed direct action when mass mobilization was needed to shore up democratic principles like women’s rights and freedom of speech, all top priorities for Tunisian unions.
“Ever since its founding, the UGTT went very much beyond the traditional role of labor unions,” pushing for freedom and democracy and inclusive participation of all civil society in governance, Abassi said.
This is the second consecutive year that worker rights activists and Solidarity Center allies have been honored with a Nobel Peace Prize. Last year Kailash Satyarthi, head of the Global March against Child Labor, shared the prize with girls’ education activist Malala Yousafzai.
In 2012, the UGTT received the AFL-CIO’s 2012 George Meany-Lane Kirkland Human Rights Award along with the labor federation of Bahrain, the General Federation of Bahrain Trade Unions, for their mobilization of thousands of people in their countries to carry forward a message of social justice during the 2011 uprisings.
The United States and India are connected by a common philosophy and a common history of resistance to oppression. And trade unions are key to greater equality and inclusion, said Fred Redmond, international vice president of the United Steelworkers, at a conference in Delhi this week that focused on how democracy in Asia can be strengthened through inclusion, participation and rights.
“Today in the United States and around the world, social cohesion is threatened by rising inequality and the economic and social marginalization of large segments of the population. The breakdown of institutions, such as labor unions, that promote equality and opportunity and participation, creates not only a skewed distribution of resources but also a breakdown of trust,” said Redmond, who joined with Nobel Peace Laureate Kailash Satyarthi Monday to explore the global march for dignity and democracy.
They highlighted the common thread running through social movements around the world: Gandhi’s philosophy of peaceful disobedience, which brought India independence, shaped the U.S. civil rights movement and continues to serve as a foundation for people around the world seeking justice and equality. Solidarity Center Executive Director Shawna Bader-Blau moderated their discussion.
Satyarthi, founder of Global March Against Child Labor and a lifelong campaigner for children’s rights, emphasized that the lack of economic security hinders the flourishing of democracy. When workers have no jobs, they also have no opportunities to join unions, which enable them to secure living wages and social protections like health care, said Satyarthi. He added that workers who lack economic security are often forced to send their children to work. The Solidarity Center has worked closely with Satyarthi for years to help end child labor.
Satyarthi and Redmond made their remarks as part of a panel discussion at the Strengthening Democracy in Asia conference organized by the Institute of Social Sciences (ISS), Asia Democracy Network and the World Movement for Democracy held March 23–24.
Also at the event, Solidarity Center Asia Director Tim Ryan moderated a panel discussion on strategies to promote democracy among marginalized workers featuring Redmond; Manali Shah, national secretary of the Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA); and Ramachandra Khuntia, vice president of Building and Wood Workers International.