May Day 2024: there’s no democracy without trade unions

May Day 2024: there's no democracy without trade unions

Demonstrators take part in an International Workers’ Day rally in Surabaya, Indonesia on 1 May 2023.

(Juni Kriswanto/AFP)

This year, in what has been dubbed a historical ‘super election year’, around four billion people will vote in more than 40 countries. But, if we look at the state of democracy around the world, and particularly trade union rights, we see that it is seriously ill and needs care. The world’s largest social movement is the global trade union movement, we are a fundamental part of good democratic systems, and we have the democratic values and experience to stand up ‘For Democracy’.

The deterioration of democracy is clear. It is contracting in every region of the world. Every year since 2018 more countries are experiencing net declines in democratic processes than improvements, according to the Stockholm-based International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance’s 2023 Global State of Democracy report.

The Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index gave the world a total score of 5.22 in 2023, down from 5.29 in 2022, as war and conflict worsen existing, negative, anti-democratic trends. It found that while 45.5 per cent of the world’s population live in a democracy of some sort, only 7.8 per cent of people, or fewer than one in ten, live in a “full democracy”, and 39.4 per cent live under authoritarian rule.

This anti-democratic trend corresponds with global attacks on trade union membership. In the 2023 Global Rights Index (GRI), compiled by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), violations of key measures reached new highs: 87 per cent of countries violated the right to strike, while 79 per cent violated the right to collective bargaining. The GRI has tracked the worsening of these figures over ten years.

This rise in violations of trade union rights has been matched by a parallel rise in economic inequality and insecurity. Where countries have high rates of trade union density and collective agreement coverage, wealth and power are distributed more equitably and citizens have more trust in democracy. In 2023, the V-Dem Institute identified Norway – where trade union density is 49 per cent and collective agreement coverage is 72.5 per cent – as the world’s most deliberative and egalitarian democracy. However, researchers have also found that “union density has declined throughout the developed world, and in most countries the union wage premium has fallen as well.”

The rise of new forms of fascism, nationalism, populism and xenophobia have been further fed by capitalism’s austerity policies. A 2022 study of 200 elections in Europe found that austerity policies had led to “a significant increase in the vote share of extreme parties, lower voter turnout and a rise in political fragmentation.” Instead of delivering stronger economies to support a more inclusive social state, profits have been privatised and costs socialised.

This amounts to a betrayal of the electorate’s trust. In history we see that working people inevitably search for alternatives that promise to address their needs and populists exploit this to win elections and then dismantle the elements of democracy that handed them power.

No region of the world remains untouched by this rise in anti-democratic forces, and this is happening as we witness a convergence of global crises. Armed conflict is increasing, the climate emergency is accelerating, the debt crisis can no longer be ignored, and the unregulated growth of technology poses enormous social risks.

It’s time to stand up ‘For Democracy’

To address these trends, we need a truly democratic movement that crosses borders, unites all social groups and has the power and accountability to change the balance of power in every workplace, country and global institution. We are that movement, because democracy is a worker’s project.

It is time that we trade unionists took up our role as the foremost practitioners and defenders of, and fighters for, the democratic values we exercise every day.

That is why the ITUC has launched the For Democracy campaign, to defend the foundations of democracy in three critical arenas: at work, at the national level and globally.

For Democracy at work: Because there is no democracy without trade unions, we assert our right to freedom of association, to organise unions and to strike. We demand collective bargaining and social dialogue, equal treatment for all workers, equal power in decisions that impact our health, safety, environment, and employment prospects, an end to workplace violence and harassment, and democracy and representation in our union structures.

For Democracy at the societal and national level: We assert the right to protest and free speech; a free press is key to this. This World Press Freedom Day, we must defend the role of journalists as part of strong democracies to expose injustices and raise awareness, free from fear of attacks and persecution. We demand true gender equality, just tax systems to fund universal social protection and a Just Transition that supports all workers. We resist the hate-filled, far-right ideologies and the corporate capture of national policy making.

For Democracy at the global level: We demand the reform of international economic structures to create inclusive systems that prioritise public welfare, human rights and labour standards over private profit. We demand the protection and advancement of representative democratic multilateralism, and equitable global cooperation to achieve universal peace and common security.

At the heart of the For Democracy campaign is a New Social Contract; a redesigned global economy centred on workers’ voices and built on the pillars of jobs, rights, wages, social protection, equality and inclusion, to address the convergence of global crises. Only a democratic, participatory approach that allows workers to shape their futures can deliver a New Social Contract, and only a New Social Contract can ensure that democracy is sustainably rebuilt.

This May Day we must remember what trade unions have done for democracy in the past, and harness the collective power of trade unions to defend and rebuild democracy now and in the future. The For Democracy campaign is a clarion call to workers, trade unions and allies worldwide to rally for democratic change. Democracy is not only a political ideal but a lived reality that working people are best equipped to define, defend and advance.