A former guerrilla fighter is elected president in Colombia, and Filipinos choose Bongbong Marcos, the son of a dictator, to lead their country. Meanwhile, other nations around the world are teetering between democracy and authoritarianism.
Why is democracy so precarious and what is the role of unions in this fight? I talked with 20 global labor leaders who came to the AFL-CIO convention in June about their winning strategies, what’s working, and how they resist repression.
Democracy has failed to protect working people.
Sharan Burrow, general secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation sees authoritarianism accelerating. “In every democracy there’s a feeling among working people [that] they’ve been left behind. So the overall state of the world is that the labor market is broken. And if you have a broken labor market, there’s no rule of law.”
Daniela Kolbe is the vice president of the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung and a leader in the German Trade Union Confederation. She remembers growing up in Leipzig when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1989: “When the wall came down, we got democracy and job loss—not democracy and jobs. Leipzig had a population of 600,000 people and lost 100,000 manufacturing jobs. People are still angry, especially older men. There are angry and wounded people around the world.”
“As long as the economy is not in the interest of the vast majority of people, you continue to have problems in society and pressure on democracy,” explained John Ejoha Odah, executive secretary of the Organization of Trade Unions of West Africa. “People start wondering why they fought to have one-party rule give way for multiparty democracy. As Amilcar Cabral said, the people are not fighting for the ideas in anybody’s head but how this translates into food on the table. The crisis of democracy in our sub-region of West Africa, and I dare say, in the whole of the African continent, is the crisis of employment for the vast majority of the population.”
Josua Mata, general secretary at the United and Progressive Workers Center in the Philippines (SENTRO), ruefully explained how so many workers voted for Bongbong Marcos: “There’s a lot of frustration out there. Many people feel they did not benefit from the so-called ‘dividends of democracy’ that were promised after we kicked out the Marcos dictatorship 36 years ago. There are surveys done on self-rating of poverty: people are asked, do you feel you are poor or not? At the time that Cory Aquino succeeded Marcos, self-rated poverty was around 40 percent. And last December, it was around 43 percent. So there’s not much change. It seems clear to me that the left has failed to deepen democracy, even among workers. That is a wake-up call for everyone.”
David Welsh, country director for Thailand and Burma at the Solidarity Center, explains that “workers who have been messed [with] again and again are confusing their belief that democracy doesn’t work with the fact that capitalism doesn’t work.”
Unions are a pillar of democratic civil society.
The successful election of leftist presidential candidate Gustavo Petro was days away when I talked to Fabio Arias Giraldo, a national officer with Colombia’s Central Union of Workers (CUT). He had a long-term perspective on the role of the labor movement and their decades-long struggle against authoritarianism: “CUT led popular opinion on issues—labor, social, political or economic. And the first thing the government would do is attack and stigmatize the labor movement. That means accusing us of being corrupt, linking us with assassinations.”
In 2019 and 2021, CUT called for national actions and formed the National Strike Committee, which included 30 civil society organizations. “There was a lot of pent-up demand to express rejection of policies coming out of the government,” Arias Giraldo said “We were able to coalesce these disparate organizations because we have the credibility of taking positions in favor of working-class people—and we were also one of the greatest victims of the violence coming from the right. People see that. We may be weak in numbers, but [we are] strong as a historic reference for nonviolent political struggle.” Giraldo credits the National Strike Committee with defining the debate for the election.
In Nigeria, unions aligned with youth protesting police and with other civil society organizations on the need for accountable government, while resisting ethnic and religious divisions. “Politicians divide the citizens as a tool,” Ayuba Philibus Wabba, president of the Nigerian Labour Congress explained. “I try to educate our people to the fact that all of us are citizens and we should not be divided along ethnic lines.” In Honduras, Iris Yolanda Minguia Figeuroa is the secretary of women’s affairs at the Federation of Trade Unions of Agricultural Workers. “We have a close relationship with a group called the Center for Women’s Rights, one of many women’s organizations in the country, with strong, empowered women,” she said. The labor movement in the Philippines has built a broad social movement coalition. “The women’s network, the youth movement, the biggest urban poor groups, they banded together with trade unions and formed a Union of Social Movements,” according to Mata of SENTRO.
“Because of the capacity of the unions, we had been the pillars of the democratic movement, especially for mass mobilizations and rallies,” Ming Lam told me. A leader in the Hong Kong labor movement, Lam is now the managing director of the Hong Kong Labor Rights Monitor, and is exiled in England. “The labor movement in Hong Kong worked hand-in-hand with the rest of civil society in what we called Social Movement Unionism: women’s rights organizations coming to support teachers, for example. It transcends a strike between the workers and their respective employers, becoming a fight between classes; inequality within society.”
The right wing is targeting unions.
They are also using new tactics to undermine them.
The extreme right in Italy gained popularity by moving beyond social grievances and embracing economic issues. “Far-right parties can be successful everywhere. There is no immunity,” according to scholar Guglielmo Meardi from Scuola Normale Superiore in Italy. “The Northern League went from 3 percent to 40 percent. They were successful because they combined economic and social decline. Traditional far-right parties focus on social decline. Le Pen in France, Law and Justice in Poland, Orban in Hungary—they combine the two.”
The right recognizes unions as institutions they have to defeat or neutralize in order to advance their agenda. One tactic is to establish their own trade unions. “Far-right parties in parliament implement aggressive policies against workers, then say ‘the trade unions don’t protect you, let’s go for alternative trade unions,’” says Luca Visentini, general secretary of the European Trade Union Confederation.
Similarly, Samantha Smith from Norway, and director of the Just Transition Center cites fake unions founded by the right-wing AfD Party in Germany, who “come in and tell coal workers that the Social Democrats are selling you out.” Cristina Faciaben Lacorte, a leader in the Trade Union Confederation of Workers’ Commissions in Spain, describes the efforts of the right-wing party Vox to counter legitimate unions: “Unions are a main focus for Vox. They decided to create a union called Solidarity. They have few members, but are having success in some sectors, such as the Catholic schools.” They are also organizing within the unions. “We must be aware of a problem our French union colleagues have suffered,” continued Lacorte. “In France, the Le Pen party people go to the workplace and have meetings with the workers. They say ‘we are the friend of working people, watch out for foreigners.’ Vox is also trying to recreate the French ‘yellow vest’ movement in Spain.”
Unions are the victims of extreme violence: Based on research from the International Trade Union Confederation, workers across 45 countries have experienced some kind of violence.
In the Philippines, union activists are “red-tagged,” which means that the state or companies release photos of union leaders on social media describing them as terrorists asa signal from the authorities that these are legitimate targets of the state. Most are jailed or dead, according to union activists, with more than 50 trade union and peasant leaders gunned down by the Duterte regime. Union leader Mata believes that under the Bongbong Marcos government, unions and civil society will be under attack: “Will it be as violent? Maybe not, but that could be more dangerous. The government will be benign to most and crush the unions.”
Marques-Severo Quintano of CUT Brazil describes a campaign by President Jair Bolsonaro to criminalize labor: “He has tried to shut down the unions while making work more precarious.” For the election, “the CUT has two main strategies,” he explained. “We have committees throughout the country, where we discuss issues that concern workers, but we always relate them back to the election. We call them Fight Committees. Our second front is on social media, with ‘Digital Brigades.’ Hundreds, thousands of online activists challenge disinformation and take down fake news.”
Quintano warns of escalating political violence as the October presidential election nears. “The Bolsonaro government has incentivized the purchase of firearms. Our response is to organize in communities and mobilize demonstrations. We will not be intimidated because of these threats of violence.”
How do unions prevail under severe repression?
Ming Lam describes the heartbeat of resistance in Hong Kong. “There are still unions in Hong Kong, and it’s important to keep some organizing capacity on the ground. The fight will still be there whether it is organized or spontaneous, decentralized strikes, disputes, collective actions,” he says. “Labor struggles will continue because conflicts between employers and employees will not go away.”
Lam gives the example of an election for officers in the union representing Cathay Pacific Airlines, which wanted to establish a pro-government leadership in the union, but was not successful because 84 percent of workers voted against them.“This victory was small but it meant a lot,” Lam says. “Workers are taking it on themselves in struggles in the workplace. They are also taking it into other areas where they can exercise some power, as in where they shop. There is a movement to only go to businesses that are pro-democracy. They are turning resistance into everyday life.”
Josua Mata from the Philippines says, “We have to rethink everything we’ve been doing for the past several decades. Our education program, our organizing strategy and objectives.” While union leaders from around the world agree on the need to deliver basic economic gains, Mata cautions that “we spend so much time in fights just to set up the unions, to have an election, to be considered the sole bargaining agent to have the chance to negotiate with the employer. And then at the end, the employer would just pick and choose which of the provisions of the contract they will implement, which forces us to fight for it again or go to the courts. When you fight, you have to deal with massive repression. When you go to the courts, it’s their ball game. It doesn’t actually provide us with the power to check the power of the capitalists. We need to make sure we are organizing not just for collective bargaining agreements, but to transform society.”
And the struggle is long-term. “We need to stop thinking in terms of year cycles. The progressive movement in the country should think in terms of decades. After all, Bongbong Marcos planned his restoration for decades.”
Piotr Ostrowski, vice president of the Poland Alliance of Trade Unions, talks about the need to deliver on economic issues while connecting to other struggles and building alliances. “We should go beyond the narrow economic way of thinking about the role of trade unions. That doesn’t mean we forget about working conditions, wages, health and safety, pensions, health care and so on. This is our core. However, we need to go beyond this perspective and present ourselves to our members and to the wider audience as part of the fight for democracy. We need to include in our agenda that of women’s rights, LGBT issues, equality, the rights of migrant workers.” While taking stands on these issues can alienate some members, Ostrowski believes communication will help. And he sees these constituencies as members of the future.
International solidarity is vital to those struggling under repressive regimes. “Authoritarian regimes need to be monitored by international mechanisms such as the ILO and the UN. We cannot let them operate with impunity, trampling human and labor rights,” says Lam from Hong Kong. “There are international obligations they have to observe; international treaties they have signed.”
Unions are on the front lines of democracy.
And they have been for generations in some cases. “We were born as a fight against Francoism,” says LaCorte from Spain. “We are an anti-fascist trade union.” CUT Brazil was formed in 1983 as an authentic union to challenge the military dictatorship. And here in the United States, many of us are reeling from the recognition that it can, in fact, happen here. If we want to fight the global pandemic of right-wing extremism, we’ll need to learn from each other, and operate with international solidarity.