Over the past year a troubling global pattern has emerged. Social movements, including trade unions, have experienced intensified repression while under COVID-19 restrictions. To stifle opposition there has been an intensified attack on trade unions and human rights defenders. As workers lose their jobs, activists and organizers are being criminalized, illegally arrested, and detained to prevent them from organizing workers in the streets and into unions and associations.
Intensified repression is also being met with intensified and inspiring resistance. The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed how people’s needs are not being met by current public policies and the economic model that governs our lives, across the globe. Popular movements, such as women’s groups and unions, have taken to the streets around the world, demonstrating the power of the people. As the pandemic took hold, and the economic and social conditions deteriorated, organizing and unionizing workers was as critical as ever.
In Burma, the trade unions joined other social movements to reject the imposition of military rule. Workers in the public sector, including healthcare workers, were among the first in the streets despite the violence. In response to the forced eviction of Palestinians from their homes in Sheikh Jarrah, the attack on worshippers at the Al-Aqsa Mosque in East Jerusalem, and following days of bombardment on the Gaza Strip by Israel, Palestinians called for an historic general strike on May 18. The strike was an important show of strength and unity and exposed Israel’s reliance on Palestinian labour. In Nicaragua, activists are not relenting to the onslaught of government led legislative and personal intimidation tactics meant to instill fear and to undermine their work to support women factory workers during the pandemic. In India, a farmers’ mobilization calling for the repeal of the pro-corporate farm laws became the largest and longest sustained non-violent movement in Indian history. The protests garnered amazing solidarity in India and around the world.
In Colombia, the police used the pandemic curfew as cover to target activists. While Colombia was struggling with the third highest COVID infection rate in the Americas, the government introduced tax and health reform bills that were widely opposed by the population. Social movements, including unions, took to the streets in opposition and were met with terrible violence, including the murder of over 40 protestors. International solidarity helped to expose government violence and the regressive reforms have since been withdrawn as the violence continues.
In the Philippines, the government passed new anti-terror legislation in July 2020, at the start of the pandemic and during a strict lockdown. While isolated in their homes, trade unionists and dissenters became more vulnerable to state-sponsored harassment and violence. Education sector workers and union members with the Alliance of Concerned Teachers (ACT) were subjected to illegal surveillance and some leaders were visited by military personnel in their homes or work. According to ACT, “Despite the relentless attacks on our organization and our leaders, teachers have unwaveringly carried on in their just fights.” In the public water sector, Ramir Corcolon, the secretary general of WATER and a vocal critic of the water privatization policy of government was incarcerated for his activism in March 2021.
Under harsh conditions, leaders and activists are successfully resisting and fighting back. Margarita Lopez, president of SINTRACUAVALLE, a water workers union in Colombia shared with CUPE that “we see an opportunity in this emergency for a new awakening, for a new world, for a more humane world.”
It is in these moments when, in addition to collective bargaining, our role as the labour movement to promote policies and actions that benefit the entire society becomes clear and takes on greater urgency. This is also when international solidarity becomes essential.
Kelti Cameron wrote this article for CUPE, the Canadian Union of Public Employees. It was published in Counterpoint, CUPE’s quarterly national newsletter.