Schools of democracy: labor unions mobilize against authoritarian regimes, for basic rights


Reports that the Philippines’ labor movement is beginning to mobilize against President Rodrigo Duterte’s authoritarian regime are a timely reminder that unions are often in the forefront of actions to defend fundamental democratic rights.

In Bangladesh, labor law experts, employers and trade unionists urged the government to ensure a comprehensive reform in labor law for improving labor-management relations and better protecting workers’ rights, reports suggest:

They also said that the government now has a unique opportunity to reform the Bangladesh Labour Act of 2006 and the Export Processing Zones Authority Act of 1980 through a broad-based input from different stakeholders by building consensus and creating a more just and reliable legal framework. The speakers said so in a consultation meeting on “Freedom of Association and Beyond: Prospects and Opportunities for Labour Law Reform”, organised by the Solidarity Center-Bangladesh ….. Ms. Jennifer Kuhlman, Country Director of the Solidarity Center-Bangladesh Office said that many positive developments have been done for the safety of the workers since the Rana Plaza incident.

Unions also play a vital role in combatting human trafficking and in organizing domestic workers.

Workers’ unfamiliarity with Jordanian labor law makes it difficult to access the justice process, the Solidarity Center’s Sara Khatib writes for Open Democracy:

It was within this context that in 2014, the Solidarity Center took the initiative to create the Domestic Workers Solidarity Network in Jordan. This was the first initiative of its kind in the country and one of few such initiatives in the region. The network, whose motto is “Sisters in Solidarity”, aims to serve and support domestic workers through awareness-raising activities, legal assistance through the Legal Clinic Initiative, and roundtables in coordination with the Adalah Center for Human Rights Studies. The network also strives to detect cases of forced labour and other forms of labour trafficking and severe exploitation, and refer them to the proper authorities.

Unions are often the largest membership-based organizations in civil society and fundamental democratic rights, including freedom of association, are a prerequisite for labor unions’ autonomy.

In spite of a generally good legal framework, Cambodians face systematic restrictions on their fundamental freedoms, according to the first annual report of the Fundamental Freedoms Monitoring Project by the Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR), Adhoc and the Solidarity Center [a core institute of the National Endowment for Democracy]:

The authors logged 391 individual cases of restrictions or violations of fundamental rights, as well as 60 reports of association meetings, trainings or celebrations being interrupted by the police “without a legal basis”. Additionally, they found 590 incidents, reported in the media, in which the Cambodian government’s “actions or words” had an impact on fundamental freedom. Sixty-one percent of those were cases in which the government “improperly implemented” the law.

Organized labor has also been losing members and political leverage in the advanced industrialized democracies.

From the Reagan years to the present, the labor movement has faced a profoundly hostile climate, notes Timothy J. Minchin. As America’s largest labor federation, the AFL-CIO was forced to reckon with severe political and economic headwinds, he writes in Labor Under Fire: A History of the AFL-CIO since 1979:

Yet the AFL-CIO survived, consistently fighting for programs that benefited millions of Americans, including social security, unemployment insurance, the minimum wage, and universal health care. With a membership of more than 13 million, it was also able to launch the largest labor march in American history–1981’s Solidarity Day–and to play an important role in politics.

One positive is that things are starting to tip towards collective action, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka (left) tells International Politics and Society, a magazine of the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung:

The Pew Institute just did a recent study and over 60 percent of the American public believe that unions are important and that they help the economic process. After the election, women came together in gigantic, huge numbers to try to counteract what was happening. We haven’t seen this kind of collective action for several decades. So, in that sense, I’m more encouraged now than I have been in a long time.

But unions continue to function as schools of democracy, especially in developing economies.

As a young woman working in her company’s IT department, Jane Muthoni Njoki was frustrated by what she says were employer attempts to push her around because of her youth and sex. But rather than quit her job, which she contemplated, she ran for a leadership position in her union, determined to work with others to make change on the job—and in society, the Solidarity Center’s Tula Connell reports:

Now 31, Njoki is the only young person in elected leadership in the Central Organization of Trade Unions–Kenya (COTU-Kenya), a Solidarity Center partner, and also president of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC)-Africa Young Workers Committee.

Njoki discussed how she is working through unions in Kenya and around Africa to educate and train young workers, especially young women, this week on the Working Life podcast, hosted by Jonathan Tasini (Njoki’s interview starts at 30:02).

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