Strong Unions Strengthen Democracies and Deliver Peace

My recent Nobel peace prize win for my contributions in Tunisia shows that giving working people a say is the best path toward a more equal and just world
Houcine Abassi and Richard L Trumka
November 5, 2015
We need to transform the global economic model so it benefits workers, not just multinational corporations.

Strong unions make strong democracies. It sounds simplistic, but each of us have experienced this fundamental premise in our nations. As labor leaders in the United States and Tunisia respectively, we know full well that when workers come together for a voice on the job, it boosts the economy, eases social unrest and creates the conditions for peace, prosperity and the protection of rights.

To be sure, we come from very different countries, each with its own set of economic and political challenges. But we have seen the healing power of unions firsthand.

In Tunisia, organized labor was the primary catalyst in winning and sustaining democracy as states around it descended back into totalitarianism. The coalition to build a strong, inclusive democratic alliance became known as the Quartet, bringing together labor, business, human rights and legal organizations. This effort earned the Quartet, with strong leadership from the Tunisian labor movement, the Nobel peace prize.

In former dictator Ben Ali’s regime, power resided in one party and wealth held by his family and cronies shored up that corrupt political oligarchy. As in so many countries in the Arab world and globally, political and economic power in Tunisia had become inseparable, the elite leaving everyone else behind.

As the largest and most cohesive civil society organization in Tunisia, the labor movement maintained its independence and had the network and infrastructure during the revolution to rally people to the streets behind the democracy movement.

And in the tumultuous post-Ben Ali era, trade unions time and time again mediated high stakes negotiations and crafted compromises to achieve consensus – skills labor unions have in droves. They employed direct action when mass mobilization was needed to shore up democratic principles like women’s rights and freedom of speech, and helped usher in a solid constitution and hope for the ongoing transition, all top priorities for Tunisian unions.

While the Tunisian democracy is still in its formative stages, the United States has been at it for more than two centuries. But it too has benefited from a robust trade union movement. Unions have helped workers negotiate better pay, safe working conditions, healthcare, retirement and protection from discrimination. And through strong and united bargaining, the labor movement presided over the greatest expansion of the middle class the world has ever seen.

Unions work. That’s why together with the global labor movement, we will continue to call out countries that are violating the fundamental right of their citizens to organize.

Awarding the Nobel prize to an organization led by the Tunisian labor movement was a recognition of the essential and potentially transformative role of labor in all of our nations. Economic inequality is rising among and within countries, most obviously where organizations that exist to protect the rights and wages of working people are under attack. It is baffling to watch the very institutions that advance the economic and political voice of working people be deliberately dismantled right when we need them most, exacerbating the wealth gap and undermining human potential.

In the United States, the attack on unions has been part of an overall strategy by the corporate elite and their political allies to consolidate wealth in the hands of the few. Labor is the last line of defense for working men and women who want nothing more than to support themselves and raise their families. Americans have seen their own standard of living decline while the rich get richer, so more and more people are standing up and speaking out. This is part of a growing recognition that we need to transform the global economic model so it benefits workers, not just multinational corporations.

Organized labor is uniquely positioned to give voice to Americans who want a better life, to support people’s movements like the one in Tunisia, and to be a champion for economic justice and an end to political autocracy worldwide.

Instead of policies that destroy worker organizations and minimize their political and economic role, we should embrace the Tunisian example, where labor has led, and actively pursue an agenda in all our societies that lifts up and empowers workers and their institutions. Our best path toward a more equal and just world is best formed by giving working people the strongest possible say in the policies that determine the course of their lives.


November 15, 2015