Rallying beneath the banner for May Day

Recovery from the COVID-19 crisis requires us all to support trade unions


By Sarah Cliffe and Liv Tørres

DonkeyHotey / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)

They maneuvered demands and compromises. They built a collective bargaining system. They marched. They fought. They organized with civil society. They represented members, and they built a bottom-up structure to reflect it: a national movement led by workers and the poor. 30 years ago, we witnessed the Congress of South African Trade Unions, COSATU, achieve all of this and go on to help defeat apartheid.

Unions have been similarly crucial to ensuring social progress across the world. Often risking their liberty and life, workers have arisen collectively to pursue their interests and to challenge existing economic, legal, and political structures. Over the last 150 years, no other movement has had such immense influence on democratization, liberation movements, and the building of welfare systems. No other movement can wield such political power simply by warning of collective action.

In recent decades however, pressure on unions has increased, facilitated by a narrative that they are no longer essential, and aided by a tightening of restrictions across much of the world, while other progressively-minded social organizations fail to stand up and support them. Unions have paid a heavy price: hundreds of members have been killed each year because of their trade union activity. Many thousands have been detained for taking part in strikes and demonstrations. Millions have been fired for the same reasons and denied the basic right to organize and to bargain collectively. According to the International Trade Union Congress (ITUC), the number of countries in which workers have been subject to arbitrary arrests and detention has steadily increased. And that squeeze on unions has been a driver of economic and social challenges facing many countries: skyrocketing inequality, weakening democracy, and increased concentration of power and wealth in the hands of a few.

COVID-19 has put a booster rocket on all those social challenges, starting with the possibility of 195 million more unemployed people around the world. This would be equivalent to the doubling of global unemployment, with shocks to both low- and high-income countries. In addition to this, increasing underemployment and numbers of working poor are expected. Poverty and hunger will rise. Supply chains have been broken and labor markets have changed as a result of the pandemic, leading to more informalization, greater inequality, rising consumer prices and higher real wage gaps.

Despite the challenges we are facing, there are ways that we can use this crisis to come out stronger: to not only return to the level where we were before COVID-19, but to build back better. We need to “reimagine” our post-COVID world, and then enact this vision through pressure, negotiation, political compromise and national and global unity. Central to this effort will be the need to support strong labor organizations.

Here are some reasons why governments and civil society need to rally around the labor movement to contribute to stronger countries and a more peaceful, just and inclusive post-coronavirus world.

First, we need to understand that our bedrock institutions, including trade unions, are our insurance. In day-to-day life, these institutions may not be top-of-mind, but when crises hit, we suddenly appreciate their importance. The many workers, young and old, who have been thrown into precarious situations due to the pandemic will need trade unions to defend them, and trade unions will need to hear their voices.

Second, bargaining and negotiation are crucial to building back better in a post-COVID world. Collective bargaining is a crucial part of trade unionism. It is through a collective bargaining strategy that political muscle is built, that workers understand the importance of compromise, and that employers learn the lessons of power and cooperation. There has been much talk about social contracts, social compacts and tripartism these days as part and parcel of post-COVID reconstruction, but countries that have succeeded with social contracts have done so on the basis of relatively strong and well-functioning collective bargaining systems. The point is that no social contract can succeed unless the parties sitting at the table have something to deliver. Neither employers nor unions are able to deliver unless they have members and the collective muscle that can invest in the contract afterwards.

Third, trade unions can play a role in broad-based alliances with other civil society groups, like campaigns, and in broader public health information, relief, recovery and reconstruction efforts. Unions and civil society organizations may not agree on everything, but absolute agreement is not needed in order to join forces and support each other in issue-based mobilizations, campaigns or reconstruction efforts. Thankfully, such collaborations are already underway. Over the last few decades, labor movements have increasingly cooperated with other groups like the Fight Inequality Alliance, and on issues like HIV/AIDS and climate change — all crucial building blocks for the future.

Fourth, labor movements can highlight that their members´ interests are not solely focused on workplace issues and wages, but are very much linked to wider concerns like transport, wealth, social protection, health systems, food prices and even pandemic preparedness. Trade unions have not always been perfect. The proud labor movement in South Africa that fought apartheid, for example, was less progressive on education reforms. The labor movement in Tunisia that played such an important role in the country’s transition to democracy and was recognized by the Nobel Peace Prize, has struggled to find the right balance in defending its members’ pay and conditions, and sponsoring policies designed to help young informal sector workers and the unemployed. Economists call this the “insider-outsider” dilemma. Yet strong labor movements have managed to find a balance between workplace issues and wage demands by building a wider political agenda, thereby also gaining wider trust and legitimacy among the broader population.

Fifth, labor movements play a crucial role in sustaining peace and democracy, having been crucial in many democratic transitions — from Chile and Argentina to Eastern Europe to Korea to Tunisia. They have provided civic education and organizing, given voice to the powerless, and demanded human rights for all. The broader network of policy-makers, governments and activists who care about democracy must invest more in labor movements, with the understanding that organized labor is a core element of democracy, and trade union movements that surpass the “insider-outsider” dilemma should be a key part of the institutions we prioritize post-COVID. Labor movements, by playing to their strengths as broad-based membership organizations, and by listening to their members, can help avoid the mistakes that political leaders in some countries are now struggling with, such as growing polarization and anger against elites.

Sixth, we need to build international unity on labor´s side. History has taught us that rising nationalism, isolationism, and a focus on “making our own countries strong again”, can easily make them more prone to conflicts. Trade union movements differ in structure, interests and focus from one country to another, but they have in common the need for global solidarity and unity. Conversely, international trade union links have been an important source of global solidarity, as it was for the anti-apartheid movement. We need to build upon and recognize these links, including supporting the ILO to bring unions together to strengthen their role in the COVID19 response. And why not encourage the US labor movement to recognize and celebrate the same May Day that most parts of the world celebrate, in recognition of the struggle American unions spearheaded for the 8-hour work day?

Challenges that predated the pandemic, including escalating inequality and a growing backlash against democracy, now combine with the massive threats we face due to the COVID-19 crisis. They amount to a global rallying cry, urging us to go back to the basics and learn from history. The labor movement is still unrivaled in its ability to mobilize. With more than 200 million members worldwide, trade unions are still the largest democratic social movement on the planet. Now is the time for us to rally behind them.

No union is perfect because no institution is perfect. But to build the societies we deserve, unions are essential. Everyone who wants a fairer society needs to work to strengthen them.

May Day is not only a moment to recall a great legacy. It is moment to dream of a more equal, prosperous, safer, and more sustainable future, and to commit ourselves to supporting the most vital ally in fulfilling it. Solidarity forever… for the unions make us strong.