Speech | Global Worker Rights

Trumka: The Survival of Democracy Anywhere Depends on Working People To Defend It Everywhere

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka delivered the following remarks to the Trade Union Confederation of the Americas:

Toni Moore, thank you for that introduction. And more importantly, thank you for all you do to empower working people in Barbados—and around the world.

It is wonderful to be joined today by former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.

The AFL-CIO is a proud partner of not only the Brazilian labor movement, but of Lula—a proven pro-worker champion.

Just over a year ago, before the pandemic, I was able to visit Lula in Brazil—still unjustly imprisoned—and present him with the AFL-CIO’s George Meany-Lane Kirkland Human Rights Award.

I promised our continuing solidarity in the fight for justice and democracy—in Brazil and around the world. That promise we made in 2019 is a promise we will keep today. The AFL-CIO will continue to stand with President Lula in his fight for justice.

I’m also grateful to be joined by President Alberto Fernandez.

We know the previous government made working people weaker in Argentina. And that was one of the many challenges his administration inherited.

Under his leadership, workers are changing the trajectory in Argentina. They are forging a new era—one where power is shared and labor is valued.

President Alberto Fernandez, your recent creation of the Economic and Social Committee—an important space for social dialogue—means workers will once again have a seat at the table.

And when working people have the power to shape policies and our collective future, we ensure our political, economic and social systems actually work for working people.

Working people demand and deserve that power. In Argentina. In Brazil. In the United States. Everywhere.

The survival of democracy anywhere depends on working people to defend it everywhere.

The truth is democracy and the labor movement are one and the same.

Without an empowered labor movement, too many people will be unable to sustain a living and provide for our families.

To the surprise of nobody, inequality has soared to extreme levels.

Inequality of wealth and wages. Inequality of opportunity. And inequality of power.

You can’t solve inequality of wealth and wages or inequality of opportunity until you solve inequality of power.

Simply put, global corporations are too powerful and working people across the globe are too weak.

And as long as that imbalance is allowed to continue, we won’t be able to solve inequality.

And inequality is a threat to democracy.

It breeds pain and fear and distrust. And it undermines the democratic systems we rely on.

Make no mistake about it: Extreme levels of inequality result in growing distrust in our democratic institutions.

If democracy is synonymous with inequality, the foundation of our global community is in danger of implosion.

So the labor movement is going to do our part. To reverse decades of austerity and greed and outsized corporate power.

Think about it. Our unions run like our countries—by the will of the people.

All members get to vote, and each vote counts the same.

The greatest risk to any democracy occurs when working people are beaten down and left out. Ignored and unseen. Rendered voiceless and powerless.

That happens too often and in too many places.

Here are the facts.

Today, the world is three times richer than it was just twenty years ago.

And despite that, hundreds of millions of working families have been left out of the gains their work created.

Seventy percent of people have no access to universal social protection.

And 84 percent of people say that the minimum wage is not enough to live.

In 2020 alone, working people lost the equivalent of 255 million jobs worldwide due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Despite what some may think, not everyone can see a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel.

Look at the global vaccine rollout. In the United States, the president set an ambitious goal in January to get 100 million vaccines in 100 million arms in just 100 days. Since then, he’s doubled that goal to 200 million vaccines—and the U.S. is well on its way to meeting it.

But America’s labor movement knows that the vaccine rollout is not just a national effort—it’s a global effort. We have reached out to the Biden administration. And we have urged them to send vaccines to Brazil and other countries in the region that so desperately need them.

Vaccine equity is solidarity. We will not begin to heal from this pandemic until all working people are safe from COVID-19.

We are living through a period of great crisis. A pandemic and an economic free fall. Climate change and human rights violations. And underlying it all is the brutal pain of a global economic system that does not serve the vast majority of people. It’s a ticking time bomb. And bad policy decisions continue to light the fuse.

Look at what has happened over the last few years around the world.

Look at how many attempts there have been to overrule democratic elections or override the will of the people.

In Brazil, by persecuting Lula—and stopping him from running in an election he surely would have won.

In Bolivia, by forcing a duly-elected president to leave the country because of a nullified election.

In the United States in January, when a mob—motivated by white supremacy and nazism—stormed our Capitol in an attempt to deny President Biden the White House.

Whether they knew it or not, the former president used that mob to try to create the kind of country he wanted. A country where only the rich and powerful have a voice. That is what happens without democracy. Working people go from being citizens to subjects.

Fortunately, the U.S. labor movement organized not only to win that election. We organized to defend what we won.

And that fight for democracy is still one we are waging today.

A cornerstone of our Workers First Agenda—the agenda we are counting on President Biden and the U.S. government to deliver—is democracy reform.

Since January, right-wing lawmakers have introduced legislation that would make it harder to vote in 43 of our 50 states.

You see, democracy is still under siege in the United States.

It’s not a coincidence that the opponents of democracy are also anti-worker politicians. The politicians who have spent decades dividing and weakening working people. Tearing us apart by race. Weakening social protection programs. And fighting our unions with everything they have.

My message to them is simple: Your time is up.

Democracy must exist at the ballot box, but also in the workplace.

In the United States and countries around the world, working people are clamoring for:

  • Family-sustaining wages; Better benefits to meet the needs of the day;
  • Stronger protections to stay safe on the job;
  • Greater racial and gender equity;
  • And greater power and prosperity from the wealth our work creates.

We need a set of policies that work for every worker—from the migrant domestic worker to the street vendor, the teacher to the construction worker.

We need to create a new economy that works for us.

That’s why workers are banding together and engaging in collective action.

But it should not be so hard to form a union.

We should not experience threats and intimidation and even violence for exercising our rights as trade unionists. It is still far too dangerous to be a trade unionist in Colombia, Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and so many of our countries.

In the U.S., our labor laws have failed to protect workers. That’s why labor law reform is so important. But the Protecting the Right to Organize Act—or the PRO Act, for short—is more than labor law reform legislation. It’s an economic stimulus. It’s civil rights legislation. It’s democracy reform.

The survival of our democracy—and every democracy— hinges on working people to defend it.

We always have. We always will.

Give us back our power and we’ll pull our countries back from the brink.

We’ll begin to reverse the damage to our diminished democracies.

And we’ll do that by creating a new social contract.

A social contract that:

  • Creates well-paying, climate-friendly union jobs and spurs investment in communities;
  • Enforces the protection of our rights, including freedom of association and collective bargaining;
  • Increases access to social protection;
  • Fosters human rights by tackling racism, sexism, discrimination against migrants and every form of bigotry;
  • And promotes inclusive, sustainable development based on multilateral cooperation.

The prescription to our common problem is finally fixing the systems that have failed working people—whether they’re political, economic or social.

From Brazil to Belarus, Hong Kong to Myanmar, the fight for democracy and the need for worker solidarity is global.

That’s why the labor movement has never been more important than we are today. And we have never been more ready for what we must do.

In the coming years, when we look back these days, let us be able to say we rebuilt our democracies.

That we banded together to collectively bargain for working people today—and for generations to come.

That we returned power to the hands of the workers.

They may not remember our names. But trust me, they will never forget what we did together.

Thank you. And may God bless you.

Toni Moore, back to you.

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