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October 31, 2023 HUMAN RIGHTS

No Democracy without Unions: The Multilateral Partnership for Organizing, Worker Empowerment, and Rights (M-POWER)

by Thea Lee and Molly McCoy

Throughout history, labor movements have been protagonists in democratic struggles. Tens of thousands of marchers at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom held signs declaring union support for equal rights; the red logo of Poland’s Solidarnosc union is a recognizable symbol of the anti-Communist social movement of the 1980s; and the Congress of South African Trade Unions’ (COSATU) broad progressive alliance and strategic leverage of workers’ economic power to end apartheid in South Africa represents the power of social movement unionism. More recently, Tunisia’s UGTT union federation won the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize for its role, with other civil society organizations, leading the Arab Spring in Tunisia and the democratic transition that followed.

Outside of such high-profile mass social movements, the daily work of labor activists, union leaders, and union members to protect and advance democracy is often less visible. Efforts like those of U.S. educators’ unions to protect teachers who speak out against censorship in public schools, Brazilian and Colombian unions’ participation in national processes to eliminate racism and social exclusion, and domestic worker unions’ advocacy for their members’ access to Social Security schemes and protection under labor law are less known but important examples of democracy in action. Progress in these struggles tends to be incremental rather than revolutionary. Unions’ victories are not recorded in history books but memorialized in collective bargaining agreements, regulatory changes, and union elections.

Nonetheless, for workers laboring in economic precarity and pushed to the margins of civic and political life, democratic labor movements offer a vehicle and voice in shaping the conditions of jobs, communities, and societies. They give workers the power, support, and stability to be engaged citizens. In many countries, unions are the largest grassroots, mass- and membership-based civil society organizations and some of the only multi-ethnic, -gender, and cross-sectarian civil society organizations. As such, they are a cornerstone of a pluralistic society and inclusive democracy.

President Joe Biden recognized this during the White House’s 2021 Summit for Democracy: “Workers organizing a union to give them the voice in their workplace, in their community, and their country isn’t just an act of economic solidarity, it’s democracy in action.”

Confronting and ending violence against labor activists and organizations are critical to enabling workers to exercise their democratic rights.

Confronting and ending violence against labor activists and organizations are critical to enabling workers to exercise their democratic rights.


Yet, despite such high-level affirmation, workers around the world continue to face an uphill battle to exercise their right to freedom of association, sometimes risking their livelihoods, freedom—or even their lives—to form unions, bargain with employers, or challenge repressive governments. For this reason, the U.S. Department of Labor, Department of State, and Agency for International Development (USAID) took President Biden’s remarks at the Summit for Democracy as a call to action to center labor rights in international economic development and diplomatic efforts with the announcement of a new initiative, the Multilateral Partnership for Organizing, Worker Empowerment, and Rights (M-POWER).

In December 2022, M-POWER launched as a partnership between the governments of Argentina, Canada, Germany, Spain, South Africa, and the United States, along with the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations, International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), International Domestic Workers Federation (IDWF), COSATU, the International Labour Organization (ILO), and nearly a dozen other philanthropic organizations, labor support organizations, and worker-focused civil society groups committed to building worker power globally. M-POWER’s founding partners put forth an ambitious plan for their inaugural year: defending labor activists and organizations under threat, supporting union-led campaigns to eradicate gender-based violence and harassment (GBVH) at work, promoting occupational safety and health as a fundamental worker right, and advancing worker rights in Honduras and Lesotho. Six months later, M-POWER’s progress on these priorities underscore both the critical importance of its mission and the challenges of achieving it.

This is most apparent in M-POWER’s efforts to protect labor activists and organizations under threat. Since M-POWER’s launch, Elizabeth Tang, the general secretary of the IDWF, an organization that serves on the M-POWER steering committee, was arrested by Hong Kong authorities and remains under investigation. Chhim Sithar, a Cambodian union leader whose videotaped remarks were featured at the M-POWER launch event, was sentenced in May 2023 to two years in prison for “incitement to commit a felony” for leading her union in a peaceful strike two years earlier. And just days before M-POWER’s all-partner meeting on June 29, five garment union leaders were murdered. Bangladeshi union organizer Shahidul Islam was killed leaving a meeting at a factory, and Honduran garment union leaders Xiomara Cocas, Delmer Garcia, Lesther Almendarez, and José Rufino were killed when a gunman opened fire in a billiards hall.

On June 30, 2023, the ITUC published its 10th annual Global Rights Index. The report notes that “violations of workers’ rights have reached record highs” in 2022, citing violent attacks against workers in 44 percent of countries surveyed and murders of workers in eight countries: Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, El Salvador, Eswatini, Guatemala, Peru, and Sierra Leone.

At the time of this writing, both the Bangladesh and Honduras murders were under investigation, and authorities had not determined whether the attacks were related to the victims’ trade union activity. Regardless of the outcome of the investigations, the murders provoked fear among union leaders, activists, and workers because the victims were well-known union activists in countries where union activists are frequent targets of violence. In Bangladesh, which the 2022 ITUC index names as one of the 10 worst countries in the world for trade unionists, Shahidul Islam was beaten to death as he and other union officials left a meeting with garment factory managers. In Honduras, where 36 trade unionists were murdered between 2009 and 2020, the slain union leaders had received public death threats during the week prior to the attacks. The threats blamed the union for the garment factory’s announcement a week earlier that it planned to shutter operations, leaving 2,400 workers unemployed. 

Beyond the tragic loss of beloved family members, coworkers, and community leaders, these acts of violence discourage other labor and civil society activists from continuing their work. Days after the murders in Honduras, a national union leader told U.S. government officials that many women union leaders in the apparel sector were considering leaving their leadership roles because they feared similar attacks.

In Honduras, where limited formal employment opportunities, ongoing gang violence, and recent devastating storms are pushing many citizens to migrate abroad in search of safety and opportunity, the potential retreat of a cohort of activist women from the country’s embattled labor movement puts an already fragile democracy at further risk. Honduras’s labor movement is a democratic force—unions helped lead the public resistance to the 2009 coup d’état, and, more recently, were a lifeline to displaced workers during COVID, when garment worker unions negotiated with the government and apparel sector employers to secure extended pay for workers during factory closures. Over 200 women serving in positions of union leadership across Honduras’s apparel sector have helped make the sector a bright spot for women’s economic empowerment, with more than 40,000 apparel sector workers covered by collective bargaining agreement provisions on issues including wages, housing, job security, and childcare.

Confronting and ending violence against labor activists and organizations are critical to enabling workers to exercise their full spectrum of democratic rights, but urgent cases represent only part of M-POWER’s broader commitment to building worker power. M-POWER government partners are also coordinating government positions to support worker rights in multilateral fora like the G20 and ILO, directing more of their foreign assistance dollars to projects that directly support worker organizing and rights, expanding domestic social dialogue between unions, the private sector, and governments to tackle complex issues such as energy transition, eliminating GBVH, and recruiting additional governments as partners. In July 2023, Brazil, France, and Mexico each signaled their intention to join.

Trade unions are seizing the opportunity that M-POWER presents to directly engage their governments: On the margins of Zambia’s Summit for Democracy in March 2023, COSATU and Zambia’s Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions convened their own summit on the role of African unions in advancing democracy. In July 2023, Lesotho garment unions and international labor support organizations hosted an M-POWER event to explore expanding a binding agreement between global garment brands, manufacturers, and international and local labor organizations to eliminate GBVH in the apparel sector. Argentina’s unions, government, and employers formed their own “Argentina chapter” of M-POWER earlier this year.

On July 6, as unionized workers in ports, Hollywood, hotels, warehouses, and mail and courier services in the United States, Canada, and Europe threatened or launched high-profile strikes, a New York Times headline queried, “The great resignation is over. Can workers’ power endure?” M-POWER’s answer is a qualified yes. Labor organizations, governments, and civil society groups must act together to recognize and support labor leaders as democratic activists and human rights defenders. Governments that champion democracy must recognize that promoting and upholding worker rights is fundamental to that effort. M-POWER’s partners do not purport to be perfect models of tripartite social dialogue and harmonious industrial relations, but they share the conviction that there can be no democracy without unions.

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Thea Lee

Deputy Undersecretary for International Affairs at the U.S. Department of Labor

Thea Lee is deputy undersecretary for International Affairs at the U.S. Department of Labor. Previously, she was president of the Economic Policy Institute and Deputy Chief of Staff at the AFL-CIO.

Molly McCoy

Associate Deputy Undersecretary for International Labor Affairs at the Department of Labor

Molly McCoy joined the Biden-Harris administration as the associate deputy undersecretary for International Labor Affairs follow-ing more than 20 years in the labor movement, where she got her start as a union organizer in New York City hotels before shifting to a focus on labor rights in the global economy. She lives in Washington, D.C., with her daughter and dog.