Good morning and a heartfelt thanks to Thea and her team for having me here. It is a privilege to be at the Frances Perkins Building for today’s event. Some of you may not know that Frances Perkins was the fourth and longest serving Secretary of Labor and the first woman ever to serve in an U.S. presidential cabinet. A trailblazing champion of unions, she was one of the architects of the Social Security and Fair Labor Standards Acts. With a groundbreaking approach to labor issues, she introduced insurance to protect workers, worked to eliminate child labor, and advocated for fair wages and safe working conditions.
Secretary Perkins’ work laid the foundation for the free and independent unions that represent America’s workers today. There are 14.3 million wage and salary workers belonging to unions in the United States. Unions are indispensable to democracy, as they are often the largest NGO in a country. These participatory organizations are models of transparency and accountability.
It is in recognition of unions’ unique and critical contributions to democratic societies that we are here today on the eve of the second Summit for Democracy.
In fact, when President Biden convened the first Summit for Democracy in December 2021, labor featured prominently. International President of the Service Employees International Union Mary Kay Henry then highlighted workers’ role in building democratic resilience. Since that first Summit, our focus and commitment on labor remains steadfast. Just last week, while marking International Women’s History Month, President Biden underscored the importance of unions and how they are vehicles for inclusivity. He noted, “I was going to be the most pro-union President in American history. I’m insisting that they significantly increase the number of women in unions across America. And they’re doing it.”
In response to President Biden’s clarion call, I am here today with you to highlight three ways the Department of State, alongside our partners and allies, continues to prioritize labor rights and unions. We are: (1) engaging and learning from trade unionists to inform our actions; (2) defending union from repression while building capacity; and (3) building coalitions and alliances, including with many Summit participants, to support labor diplomacy and rights worldwide.
On our first line of effort, our active engagement with trade unionists allows us to hear directly from workers individuals about the challenges they face. Among the 30+ countries and 5 U.S. cities I visited in the past 20 months, I have had the privilege of meeting labor union leaders from across the United States and around the world. Last June at the AFL-CIO convention in Philadelphia, I met with labor leaders from the Philippines, Egypt, Bangladesh, and Ukraine, who shared stories of hard-fought victories and obstacles that remain. Their insights and recommendations have helped to shape U.S. labor policy and program planning.
In December 2022, I welcomed ILO Director General Gilbert Houngbo to the U.S. Africa Leaders’ Summit, where we joined an important discussion on “Elevating the Worker Voice.” This conversation underscored the critical role that labor unions play in defending democracy and featured a rich exchange with African trade unionists.
Earlier this year, the State Department’s new Special Representative for International Labor Affairs, Kelly Fay Rodriguez, joined me for a visit to Honduras where we met with democratically elected union leaders. Kelly introduced me to Eva Argueta, the Organizing Director for Honduras’ General Workers Confederation, and President of the Central American maquila workers’ project, who has spent her life organizing women workers in San Pedro Sula. Thanks to her brave work, and that of others, almost 50% of Honduran apparel workers are now covered by collective bargaining agreements negotiated by independent unions, vastly improving the lives of thousands of Honduran families. Importantly, Eva’s union engages with companies that respect and value freedom of association. In candid conversations on that trip, private sector representatives acknowledged to me the value proposition of unions for workers’ well-being, productivity, and retention.
Though the country and context may vary, all the trade unionists I’ve had the privilege to meet with articulated a common desire: to be heard, seen and respected. That’s why the State Department will continue to engage with these individuals and amplify the voices of labor leaders such as those joining us here today, like Kalpona, Maung Maung and Lizaveta. It’s worth noting that Maung Maung and Lizaveta are joining us today through virtual, pre-recorded remarks. As we gather in the comfort of this hall, let’s not forget that their voices, essential to pushing for genuine democracy in Burma and Belarus, are under continual attack.
The dangers they face bring me to the second way the Department prioritizes labor rights, which is to defend trade unionists when non-democratic forces seek to silence them.
Unfortunately, there are far too many examples. The State Department’s very own 2022 Human Rights Defender Awardeee, Chhim Sitha, a renowned Cambodian trade unionist, remains imprisoned for her organizing work. There is the further travesty of the brave Belarussian union leaders sentenced by the Lukashenka regime to lengthy prison terms simply for exercising their fundamental right to freedom of association and assembly. These cases are emblematic of closing space for civil society champions writ large around the world.
To help trade unionists under threat, the State Department has provided nearly $70 million in funding over the last 5 years to promote and safeguard labor rights in 50 countries. This includes support for over 1,000 independent worker organizations to defend the rights of some of the world’s most vulnerable workers. As we offer vital program support, we defend labor activists through our diplomacy by raising their cases with foreign counterparts. Our annual Human Rights Reports, just released last week, shines further light on the challenges and persecution faced by trade unionists from around the world.
Alongside our intensive bilateral efforts, the third and final way we safeguard and promote labor rights is by building coalitions and alliances with likeminded partners on shared priorities, including allowing unions to organize and operate. Good labor diplomacy is not about going it alone.
To this end at the first Summit for Democracy, the United States launched M-POWER – the Multilateral Partnership for Organizing, Worker Empowerment, and Rights. M-Power commits the Department of Labor, USAID, and the Department of State to invest more than $120 million to ensure working families thrive in the global economy and to elevate the role of trade unions and organized workers.
Today, MPOWER is a thriving partnership of six governments, including Argentina, Canada, Germany, South Africa, Spain, and the United States. It also includes global and national labor organizations, philanthropic institutions, and civil society stakeholders, with members in more than 100 countries working together to uphold workers’ rights and strengthen democratic unions’ capacity.
Throughout this year, the Department of State is co-chairing M-POWER’s Urgent Action Initiative in partnership with the Department of Labor and the AFL-CIO. This team effort seeks to identify and eliminate escalating threats against trade unionists, labor leaders, and activists. In February, the Urgent Action Initiative elevated the call to protect trade unionists in Belarus.
Another track for our labor partnerships is via newly formed Summit for Democracy “cohorts,” designed to bring governments, and civil society together, on equal footing, to develop and fulfill Summit commitments. The State Department and the AFL-CIO together chair an action oriented Democracy Labor Cohort, whereby governments and unions developed a set of best practices to combat forced labor.
It’s heartening to see so many coming together this Summit week to strengthen democracy via empowered workers. We have a robust agenda ahead of us, long after the Summit ends.
Looking ahead, I want to recall a tragedy that occurred over a century ago that underscores the importance of our work at home and abroad.
On March 25, 1911, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire consumed a clothing factory in New York City. This was a non-union shop where 146 garment workers trapped inside the burning building perished. This disaster propelled a young eyewitness, Frances Perkins, into a career dedicated to defending and empowering workers, leading her efforts to create a domestic framework that put unions front and center in historic labor reforms that many American workers today take for granted.
More than 100 years and a few ILO conventions later, there is widespread recognition that unions are good for everyone, in every country.
President Biden summed up the transformational role of unions and their essential role in democracy when he said, “In a simple word, a union means there is democracy. Organizing, joining a union — that’s democracy in action.”
Thank you all for the action work that you are undertaking, and let’s keep putting labor at the forefront of our democratic renewal efforts. I see this as a win-win-win – a win for our workers, our communities, and our world!