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.”