Shuler: The Labor Movement Chooses Democracy

Washington, D.C.

Secretary of Labor Martin J. Walsh and AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler, together with representatives of the U.S. Agency for International Development, the U.S. Department of State, the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) and the Solidarity Center highlighted the role of worker voice and worker rights as fundamental components of democracy in the United States and globally at an official U.S. Summit for Democracy side event. President Shuler delivered the following remarks as prepared:

Hello everyone, I’m Liz Shuler, President of the AFL-CIO.

Thank you. It’s an honor to be here with so many global leaders and advocates, and especially my friend Secretary Walsh and Deputy Undersecretary Thea Lee. And I want to thank you, and the entire Biden-Harris administration for hosting this summit and for making sure the voices of workers are part of the conversation.

This is the most pro-union administration in U.S. history. And it’s leading at a critical moment.

The ongoing global spread of COVID-19 has made it clear how very connected we are.

And through those connections, we have to wonder: What values will spread to define and shape the post-pandemic world?

It seems we have two clear choices.

On the one hand, we have what the journalist Anne Applebaum calls “Autocracy Incorporated”: a global economic system linked and supported by structural violence and a rigged global financial system.

And it’s not just national autocrats. It’s members of corporate c-suites. They are enabled through big data and surveillance tech; misinformation on social platforms and state owned media. They use forced and exploited labor. They treat working people like robots.

But on the other hand—the other choice we have is democracy: the power for people to have a say at the ballot box.

And a say in our economic futures and working conditions by standing together in unions.

This summit is an opportunity to recommit to democracy—in our workplaces and in our societies—all across the world.

In the United States, the labor movement is working to reclaim bargaining rights, and expand voting rights. Secure a path to citizenship for millions of immigrants in a shadow economy. Fight for racial and gender justice.

And look what’s happening: right now, across industries throughout the U.S., working people are taking risks, walking out of jobs, going on strike.

We are winning better pay, benefits and rejecting the two-tier systems where younger workers get a substandard deal.

We are growing a bold, inclusive global labor movement. We are going to build power and organize with workers across borders, bring people in from the margins of the informal economy, reclaim our humanity from platform companies and gig jobs, end workplace discrimination and grow economic power for women and people of color.

Economic opportunity, equity and inclusion depend on freedom of association and the labor movement.

And strengthening democracies depends on social dialogue, worker-centered policies and social protection.

In Myanmar, for example, trade unions have overwhelmingly led the fight for democracy. In Tunisia, it was trade unions who brokered a peaceful path to democracy.

Threats to democracy globally go hand-in-hand with threats to workers’ fundamental rights—to freedom of association and collective bargaining.

Workers and union leaders are among the first who are targeted in repressive campaigns against democracy.

Like our brother Sawit Kaewvarn in Thailand, who is currently facing years in prison for his role in organizing a railway safety campaign.

We stand with all workers—everywhere—who are on the frontlines of democracy in their workplaces and their countries.

And that’s why the AFL-CIO looks forward to partnering with government partners on the M-POWER initiative, which will build on the White House Task Force on Worker Organizing and Empowerment by adding a global component that supports worker organizations in countries where worker rights and democracy are threatened.

Our movement is one of the most powerful counterforces to Autocracy 4.0.

Our adversaries may be networked—but work connects all of us—and we are using our powerful connections to lift up all working people—in the U.S. and globally.

We have a choice. And the labor movement chooses democracy. Thank you.