Demonstration for better living conditions in Tunisia

In Tunisia, the unions played a crucial role in reducing tensions after the Arab Spring, writes debater Ruben Wågman. Photo: Gilbert Scossar and private


Trade unions are crucial to world peace and security

Through the work for decent wages, social security, and the pursuit of dialogue, democratic unions have a unique ability to work for peace and prevent conflict. It shows examples from Sudan, Tunisia, South Korea and Brazil, among others. More voices and actors, both in Sweden and in the world, need to stand up for people's right to organize and work in a union.

The trade union movement in Sudan was recently involved and peacefully overthrew the Sudanese dictator Omar al-Bashir. Then they continued to protest against the military junta that followed. It is the latest example of the crucial role of trade unions in creating peaceful and democratic societies. The demonstrations were driven by a desire for democracy, but also against poverty and high living costs.

Conflicts often have their roots in economic and social vulnerability. As gaps grow within and between countries, many lose confidence in democratic processes and dialogue, which increases the risk of conflict. Organizing people so that they can demand decent wages and living conditions is therefore an essential component in dealing with the root causes of social instability and conflict.

The role of trade unions not only benefits trade union members but is positive for society as a whole. Several studies show a strong connection between a high degree of union affiliation and income-equal societies. More egalitarian societies tend to show greater trust between people and create less social unrest and political instability.

The work of trade unions also tends to push for a more inclusive social and economic policy. This is not least through negotiated conditions for living wages and social security. It can create security for particularly marginalized groups and reduce their exclusion, which can otherwise be a breeding ground for violence and extremism.

The non-violence strategy is central

Central to democratic unions is the use of dialogue as a non-violent strategy to resolve conflicts. We know that an inclusive social dialogue, ie trusting cooperation between the actors in the labor market, plays a crucial role in peace processes in countries in conflict.

A clear example of this was given when the 2015 Peace Prize was awarded to the Tunisian Dialogue Quartet, which included a central trade union organization and an employers' organization. A triggering factor for the Arab Spring was that young people demanded social and economic justice, as well as a real opportunity for livelihood. The Nobel laureates' organizations were able to give them a constitution thanks to the negotiations that gave the country a way out when too much pointed to civil war.

History has also shown the importance of trade unions in reducing tensions within and between countries. In countries such as South Korea, South Africa and Brazil, trade unions played a crucial role in the transition from dictatorship to democracy.

Trade unionists are murdered

In several countries, however, the development has slowed down, which means that trade unions' opportunities to contribute to dialogue and reduced conflicts are now limited. According to the report Global Rights Index of the world trade union International Trade Union Confederation, 53 trade unionists were murdered in ten countries in 2018. In 54 countries, democracy and freedom of expression are also particularly hard hit. In 80 percent of the 145 countries included in the study, the right to collective bargaining was violated, and in 107 countries, workers are prevented from joining unions. These violations effectively stifle the opportunities for millions of people to rally and raise joint proposals in a democratic and peaceful way.

Violations that affect trade unionists are not only a direct threat to human rights, but also undermine democracy. Thus, it puts long-term security and peace in the risk zone. If long-term sustainable societies are to be built, people affected by economic and social decisions need to have a voice at the negotiating table and in dialogues. It is then fundamental that states and companies respect international conventions, such as the right to organize and collective bargaining. But it is also about states like Sweden needing to strengthen their work to promote the democratic space of trade unions in multilateral contexts such as the UN. They also need to ensure that trade promotion policies always take into account the perspective of workers, and not least to engage in dialogue with workers' organizations in resolving conflicts.

Democratic unions play a crucial role in reducing vulnerability and tensions around the world. If we want to build societies that are characterized by consensus, security and peace, we therefore need more actors to stand up for trade union rights.

This is a debate article. The author is responsible for analysis and opinions in the text.

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