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 You are in: Under Secretary for Democracy and Global Affairs > Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor > Releases > Remarks > 2002 > July - September

Trade Unions Are Key to Sustaining Democratic Gains

Lorne W. Craner, Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
Remarks to Worldwide Labor Officers' Conference
Washington, DC
July 18, 2002

As you can tell from our last two speakers, labor rights are getting attention in this Republican administration.

This Department, in particular, is fortunate to have a Secretary of State who appreciates the importance of human rights issues, including labor rights. On a number of occasions, I have seen the Secretary personally intervening with foreign leaders in the most effective manner to promote human rights. For labor issues in particular, the Secretary’s own experience and union background underscores his innate understanding and appreciation of the importance of worker rights issues.

Democracy and human rights issues will always have a place in U.S. foreign policy, especially during this troubled period. The U.S. may be pursuing Osama Bin Laden now, but 5 or 10 years in the future, the U.S. will have to deal with his "nephews" if the we do not address human rights and democracy issues worldwide.

Labor issues fit into the human rights and democracy promotion paradigm. Though trade unions focus on the economic interests of their worker members, they engage in democratic processes in order to achieve their objectives. Because they must answer to their membership, free and independent trade unions can approach governments with the same appreciation for and insistence on accountability.

Trade unions are often the only institutions that give a voice to workers, whose circumstances are often neglected by those in power. More important still, sometimes they are the only mass-based organizations that stand against authoritarian regimes. Belarus, Ukraine, Zimbabwe, and Venezuela are countries where trade unions are struggling for freedom and democracy.

Trade unions have stood up against tyrants, because for them democracy is really a two-way street. Free trade unions need a stable, democratic environment to protect the political and economic rights of their members. Trade unions cannot adequately protect worker interests if they are subject to the whim and caprice of a government that does not respect democratic principles or the sanctity of law.  Not only do trade unions have a role in propelling the transition to democracy, they also have a role in sustaining and consolidating democracy’s gains.

We know from experience in former Soviet states, central and eastern Europe, and Latin America that the transition from totalitarianism and command economies to democracy and open markets can be unpredictable, even chaotic for some countries. Unprecedented political and economic reforms are often followed by reactionary cooption and subversion of democratic development. There are countries on every continent that are in danger of backsliding. Demagogues in these countries have skillfully exploited the disenchantment of those who feel marginalized by and not benefiting from democratic change. While free and fair elections are the first critical step for democracy, trade unions are one of the institutions that help to insure the long-term sustainability of newly emerging democracies.

When trade unions remain steadfast in their commitment to democratic and accountable governance, they represent a key institution to sustaining democratic gains. The large membership and geographic reach of trade unions often can help deepen and broaden support for democratic principles and practices within a country. It is no coincidence that in countries in which there is a free and active trade union movement the movement towards more democratic, more transparent, and more representative governance is more rapid.

My experience at the International Republican Institute demonstrated that to many people in developing countries, Western "democracy" means "prosperity." If they are prospering, democracy looks good. If they have lost their jobs, and can’t put food on the table for their kids, the old, dreary stability of dictatorship starts to look good.

One of the missions of the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor (DRL)is to work for labor standards in order to ensure that globalization enhances, and does not detract from, democratic transitions. This is a difficult mission to fulfill, because let’s face it; many people around the world are frightened by the prospects of globalization. Instead of "taking the plunge" into a world of more economic freedom and opportunity, many people look over the edge and only see an abyss. And they retreat in fear and cling to old familiar ways that may in fact not be in their best interests in the long run. And what adds to their fear is the feeling that they have no voice in what’s happening to them.

Free trade unions can help ensure that workers have a role in shaping change, which helps to dissipate resistance to change. Free trade unions help to provide the underpinning for nations undergoing economic growth and democracy by contributing to the emergence of a stable, fairly paid, working middle-class. Without free unions, developing countries tend to enrich only narrowly based economic and political elites while the vast majority of their increasingly alienated citizens continue to be trapped in poverty.

The Labor Officer has an important role in this area because you will often be in a position to help address the Department’s strategic goals of opening markets and promoting global economic growth. As the Secretary pointed out, with the Labor Officer’s unique reporting perspective, you are in a position to help policy-makers understand the concerns of worker – the voters in a democracy. You will be able to suggest ways we might get a government to address those concerns and also how to get workers to see the long-terms benefits and to support appropriate reforms. It is your reporting as Labor Officers that will help policy-makers implement a more nuanced and effective approach.

DRL is also trying to deliver this message to the corporate world as well in our Partnership to Eliminate Sweatshops program. Industries realize that it is in their best interests to ensure worker rights are respected.

In addition, it seems some of the international financial institutions are not conceptually current on the relevance of labor issues in economics, and this is something we hope to take up with them in the future.

Finally, I want to inform you of our special interest in the development of democracy in the Muslim world and China.

I define the Muslim world as geographically broad, stretching from the Maghreb region, through the Middle East, Central and South Asia, all the way to SE Asia. From Morocco to the Philippines, our bureau has a keen interest in seeing the development of trade unions in the Muslim world as part of our democracy-building strategy.

Our approach is not an attempt to impose our way of life on other countries. However, the U.S.Government should point out the value of people having a say in governance and having constructive outlets for dissent. Otherwise, they may be inclined to more radical means to achieve their objectives. The U.S.Government must encourage giving people a role in their government and accepting diversity of opinion and belief.

We have to build our relationship on what we have in common. One of the things we have in common with the Muslim world is the basic dignity of work.

In fact, Islamic teaching is consistent with a basic respect for workers. The prophet Mohammed said, "Pay the worker while the sweat is still on the brow."

But a lack of democratic evolution and gender inequality still plagues the region. Many of you may be familiar with United Nations Development Program’s (UNDP's) "Arab Human Development Report 2002." It accurately points out the democracy deficits and lower status of women, as well as other problems, such as the resentful rejection of globalization. But the report also affirms the importance of democracy as the way to address these issues. Democracy serves as a mediating mechanism to help address and resolve the differences between cultural traditionalism and globalization.

To the extent that trade unions serve as institutions that contribute to that cultural mediation, to the extent that they establish solidarity with workers based on issues of shared prosperity rather than religious intolerance, trade unions can help to bolster democracy in the Muslim world.

Similarly, in China, the huge social and economic changes going on there are beginning to confound a central government that craves stability, control, and ordered growth. The Chinese leadership will soon have to realize it is unsustainable both grant economic freedoms to its citizens and suppress the pent-up political yearnings that come with the greater economic freedom.

In the context of growing economic turmoil, it is important to establish viable and accountable institutions for workers to assert their interests in a positive way.

DRL is putting its money where its mouth is. We have set aside $5 million of our Human Rights and Democracy Fund (HRDF) for programs in the Muslim World and China, including programs to develop trade union capacity in these areas. We will work with groups like the Solidarity Center and others who have been leaders in worker rights promotion.

We see the HRDF as a vanguard for future democracy programming. We are using this fund to embrace the risks of innovative programming on democracy and human rights issues with the hope that this may show the way towards greater democratic development.

Allow me again to affirm DRL’s and the Department’s support in your work as Labor Officers. We look forward to assisting you in your work.

Thank you for this opportunity to address you and I wish you a successful conference.



Released on July 30, 2002

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