Unions unite to shape post-pandemic world

Union leaders and progressive thinkers, including US civil rights activist Reverend Al Sharpton, joined an international online democracy conference at the end of June where trade unions from around the world shared ideas for an improved post-pandemic world.

The conference was co-convened on 29 June by global peak unions, Education International and Public Services International, for union leaders to discuss the post-COVID-19 future and how to create it.

Reverend Sharpton, founder of the National Action Network in the US, said COVID-19 has highlighted class and racial disparity that was always been present but was ignored and marginalised.

He emphasised the power of unions and civil rights movements, such as Black Lives Matter, working together to end systemic racism and address the glaring socio-economic inequalities fuelling division around the world.

Speaking of the protests during the COVID crisis, he said: “We must join those in the streets and show them how labour must be the foundation of protest movements and not an add-on.

Reverend Sharpton, a keynote speaker for the conference, said there has always been a symbiotic relationship between the union movement and the fight against injustice and racism. “Labour is part of the foundation. We must work together across racial and national lines. It could be none other than us.”

In her opening remarks, President of Education International Susan Hopgood stressed that the years following the COVID-19 pandemic will be full of challenges, and opportunities. “The last thing people want is a return to a normal that did not work. We need a sweeping change so that social justice is globalised,” she said.

“Education is our vital contribution to stimulate critical thinking, to oppose segregation, and to build equity, diversity, and inclusion, democratic values and competencies to construct a better present and future.”

She said the conference, Unions standing for Democracy, Social Justice and Equality, was a tool for Education International and Public Services International to enhance global union solidarity for strong public services, fairer societies, and to defend and enhance democracy. “In a mobilisation for a better world, we are an essential and critical force for democracy, social justice, and peace,” Hopgood said.

Mariana Mazzucato, Professor in the Economics of Innovation and Public Value at University College London, argued that now is the time to re-imagine the role of the state in order to tackle societal challenges and deliver public purposes. She shared ideas on how to build the positive influence of state policy in the COVID-19 response.

She highlighted the powerful forces that have tried to shape public and political views about the size and function of the State  — and have ultimately undermined confidence in it and in its ability to support democracy. “Our job is to change that  —  but first we need to understand it,” she said.

Professor Mazzucato was adamant that trade unions are fundamental in changing governance and markets, as “we must have a workers’ voice at the table to frame the transition to a healthier and sustainable post-COVID-19 economy”.

David Edwards, General Secretary of Education International, said: “Now is the time for progressive forces to stand together. Going back to business as usual is not an option. We must mobilise and organise so that the world that emerges from this crisis is better and fairer for all. We are taking the lead to make it happen.”