On International Workers’ Day 2023, we celebrate the struggle of independent, democratic trade unions against oppression and exploitation; courageously defending the rights, interests and livelihoods of working people. Only democratic trade unions formed by workers, for workers, and accountable to workers are truly committed to this struggle. They are relentless in the fight for racial, ethnic and gender equality; for economic, social and cultural justice; and for democracy and democratic rights. These are our unions.
Trade unions directly or indirectly controlled by employers, governments or political organizations cannot succeed in defending and advancing the rights, interests and livelihoods of working people. Because their purpose is to control workers – to use workers. It is just another layer of exploitation, another form of injustice.
Trade unions that act as an apparatus of political parties may promise a better future for workers, but they will always betray this promise. They will always subordinate the interests of workers to higher political goals. Goals that sacrifice the rights and well-being of workers and their communities. Goals that serve political elites and their constant infighting.
There are many organizations around the world declaring support for workers – especially workers in poorer countries and impoverished communities of workers in rich countries. No doubt many of these organizations are genuinely committed to economic and social justice, and to democracy and freedom. But all too often this solidarity (expressed politically and financially) becomes a substitute for workers organizing themselves and collectively representing their own interests.
Unless workers organize themselves and build their collective self-confidence, there is a risk that solidarity from these outside organizations will become a substitute for workers’ self-representation. If that happens then this solidarity becomes another form of control over workers – using workers for another purpose.
In recent years we have seen too many instances where international solidarity shifted from genuine solidarity (struggling together with national and racial equality, side by side, in an expression of compassion and a shared sense of justice) to workers in poorer countries being used to win trade union fights in rich countries. Workers in poorer countries are used in geopolitical conflicts, or as leverage in bargaining or international trade deals. Or simply as measured outputs of international aid projects.
We must recall that for many workers around the world, freedom from the inhumanity and brutality of colonialism was achieved less than two generations ago. For indigenous and First Nation workers, colonialism persists today in all its brutality. It is in this context that we are reminded that workers must organize themselves to continue the fight for freedom from all forms of oppression, including any and all expressions of colonialism, neo-colonialism and imperialism. For international solidarity to be a genuine expression of workers across borders struggling together in equality and mutual respect, we must ensure our trade unions are accountable to their members – to workers – and not to the sources of external funding or political support.
On International Workers’ Day 2023, we are reminded of the universal human right of all workers everywhere to form and join trade unions, and that the purpose of these trade unions is to defend and advance the rights and interests of workers. Workers themselves must do this with their own power, not the power borrowed from others.
To declare, “Our union, our power!” takes great courage. This is why on International Workers’ Day 2023 we celebrate the tremendous courage of each and every worker who has formed or joined a trade union. It is the collective expression of this courage through trade unions formed by and for workers that gives us hope in these difficult and challenging times. Internationally we must respond to this courage not with control, use and abuse, but with genuine equality, respect and an unconditional commitment to end all forms of oppression and exploitation. This must be driven by a shared sense of justice, empathy and compassion – not self-interest.
In the face of escalating war and military conflict, the threat of nuclear war, the rise of right-wing extremism, and the resurgence of fascism and militarism, the convergence of genuine independent, democratic trade unions and genuine international solidarity is needed now more than ever.