Speech | Global Worker Rights

Redmond: We Need a New Global Social Contract with Workers at the Center

Panama City, Panama

AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Fred Redmond's opening remarks as prepared for the Trade Union Confederation of the Americas Executive Committee Meeting:

Hello, everyone. It’s my pleasure to welcome all of you to this TUCA seminar and to be sharing the stage with incredible partners like:

  • Panama’s Minister of Labor Doris Zapata Acevedo;
  • Director of the Office of Workers' Activities (ACTRAV) María Elena André;
  • Dörte Wollrad, Representative in Uruguay for the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung Foundation; and
  • ITUC General Secretary Sharan Burrow. 

I know that with all of the great leaders we have joining together this week that this is going to be a productive gathering and a time of unity for our community. And I know you all join me in extending those thoughts of unity to our siblings in Ukraine, who we are thinking of and stand ready to support. 

And speaking of joining together, I have to say, it is so nice to be with all of you in person after so many virtual meetings. 

And it is especially great to be here in Panama – home to one of the greatest symbols of global connection, the Panama Canal. 

The Panama Canal is where ingenuity and the incredible, heroic efforts of working people met the needs of a changing world. Through innovation, engineering and sheer force of will, working people were able to connect countries, markets and communities across the globe. 

But those efforts were not without fault or risk. Workers – large numbers of whom were African-American and Black workers from many countries whose unions are now members of TUCA – faced incredibly dangerous and exploitative conditions day in and day out.

The construction of the Panama Canal took the lives of thousands of workers, the majority of whom were black. 

They were killed by mudslides, falling boulders, and unsafe working conditions that led to preventable dynamite explosions. 

And they were also killed by outbreaks of viruses like yellow fever that swept through worksites.

While many of those dangers were left unaddressed, the spread of the virus did lead to the rollout of a massive public health campaign to improve working and living conditions for the workers clearing the canal. 

And it was incredibly effective – draining standing water and putting screens on the windows helped curb the spread of the mosquito-borne disease. 

Putting worker health and safety first worked – just as it always has. 

Given that backdrop, and the reality that too many workers – especially workers of color – still face too many of these same types of challenges today, I can’t think of a more fitting place for us to have this conversation about how, as a global community, we build back from COVID – the virus that has swept through our own worksites and communities over the past two years … and about how we build a future that addresses inequality, ends worker exploitation and keeps working people across the Americas safer. 

We know working people are – and always will be – on the front lines of our greatest challenges, as we have been during COVID. 

Our health care workers risked exposure to keep others alive. 

Our teachers made sure the next generation continued to have access to education. 

And our government and public employees organized and delivered relief and recovery plans. 

We also know that some workers face greater risk than others – people of color who live in communities that have been subject to underinvestment and neglect for decades … those in the informal economy … those on the margins. 

We need to bring them to the center of our thinking everywhere we go, because we cannot move forward as a global community if we leave people behind. 

COVID served as a clear reminder that we are a global community. We have to think globally and act globally. The impact of the decisions we make does not stop at our borders. And our solidarity cannot stop at our borders either. 

I know this seminar, and TUCA meetings after it, will give all of us a chance to ask the big questions. 

What are the lessons we’ve learned from this pandemic? 

How can we work together to plan ahead for the next challenge we will face as a global community? 

How do we help those who are most impacted? 

I believe the answers to those questions start with the creation of a New Global Social Contract that puts workers and sustainability at the center of everything. 

This is our moment to rebuild our global economy with better standards and to reset the balance of power so that those who do the work receive a fair share of the wealth we help create.

And this work is urgent. Because the current global economic model is unsustainable. It has enabled the worst-ever global health emergency… increased racial and gender inequity… and accelerated the disastrous effects of climate change. And it continues to feed runaway economic inequality through the systemic discrimination and devaluation of human beings.

Working people bear the brunt of all of these challenges. But this idea of a New Global Social Contract tells us that we can – and must – be at the center of the plans to address them. 

In the U.S, the Biden-Harris Administration is aggressively embracing this framework. They are putting workers and sustainability at the center of both domestic and global policy priorities. 

Right now, we are making a once-in-a-generation infrastructure investment that will create good-paying union jobs and grow the economy sustainably and equitably. This is all possible. 

Rights, equity, a universal social protection floor, a just transition, and solidarity. Nations and people working together. That’s how we will solve the great problems facing workers everywhere. 

A New Global Social Contract should be a baseline understanding among the world’s governments, global corporations, multilateral institutions, communities of faith, trade unions and civil society organizations. We all have a role to play in making a better, fairer, more just, more connected world. 

And as they learned a century ago at the Panama Canal … and as we have learned from COVID over the past two years … to build that world, we must put worker health and safety front and center. Our global advancement cannot come at the cost of working people’s lives. 

That’s why the ILO’s work to recognize Occupational Health and Safety as a core convention is so important. This is a fundamental right. No one should be forced to work in conditions that put their life or health at risk. 

Creating safe workplaces also means protecting every person from gender-based harassment and violence.

That’s why I am so proud that the Solidarity Center will be adding additional support to the work of TUCA’s Women’s Committee to ratify and implement ILO Convention c190 in the Americas. 

These are important steps forward, but they are just the beginning. Workers everywhere are asking for better working conditions, better pay and better standards. They are fed up and fired up - and we as a movement must stand ready to help them take action. 

Unions are the best vehicle to deliver the change workers want for our families and for our communities. So as workers recognize the power of joining together - let’s be ready to reach out our hands. 

In America, most workers want a union. In fact, 60 million American workers would join a union today if they could. 

People are joining together in places and industries we could never have imagined. Union organizing from Starbucks to Amazon should remind us all that demanding a collective voice in our workplaces is possible, even in the face of tremendous obstacles.

I hope the collective spirit of workers around the world guides all of us through this meeting and through our work moving forward. 

I have no doubt that we can build a movement that meets the moment and a better future for working people everywhere. 

Thank you.

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