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Organized Labor’s Role in Democratic Transitions

Limiting Labor Rights Can Threaten Emerging Societies

SOURCE: AP Photo

Anti-Syrian regime protesters shout slogans during a demonstration in Tripoli, northern Lebanon, Friday, June 17, 2011. As the Middle East and North Africa region continues to reshape itself, local policymakers and the international community need to remain aware of civil society’s important role in creating a stable democracy. Organized labor in particular has historically played a critical role in the democratic process.

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The Middle East and North Africa are entering a historic period. Revolutionary movements in Tunisia and Egypt already brought down autocratic governments, while popular uprisings in Libya and Syria continue to threaten authoritarian rule.

As the region continues to reshape itself, local policymakers and the international community need to remain aware of civil society’s important role in creating a stable democracy. Organized labor in particular has historically played a critical role in the democratic process, and policymakers must be mindful of the benefits of organized labor’s political participation.

Unions that are allowed to participate in the political process, collaborating with political parties or influencing policy for example, can facilitate the social compromise necessary to enact vital legislation at a crucial time for newly emerging democracies. Politically active unions are also more likely to work within emerging legal frameworks to resolve disputes, strengthening the new government’s institutional legitimacy and the rule of law.

Arguments for labor repression continue to find sympathizers despite growth in democratic governance worldwide and the increasing legitimacy of core labor rights standards, as illustrated by the growing number of signatories to the International Labor Organization’s conventions. To many, the experiences of the “Asian Tigers” (Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong, South Korea) suggest that labor repression is a necessary precondition to economic development even though there are a growing number of studies finding little correlation between labor repression and economic growth even in the East Asian context.

Not only has labor repression failed to promote economic development but excluding organized labor from the political process can undermine political development as well. As emerging democracies struggle to establish new institutions for popular governance, political participation, and dispute resolution, sidelining organized labor at such a crucial time threatens those very institutions. For fragile, unconsolidated democracies where democratic institutions are just beginning to take hold, such policies can actually threaten the very political stability and economic development they hope to foster.

Sri Lanka provides one such cautionary tale. A robust democratic society with an active labor movement, in the late 1980s Sri Lanka embarked upon a policy of heavy union repression as part of an effort to promote an export-oriented manufacturing center relying on low-cost labor. Rather than engender economic growth, however, the policy backfired. Denied access to normal democratic channels for dispute resolution such as freedom of association and collective bargaining, workers in Sri Lanka employed violent protest tactics, frightening off foreign investment, closing factories, and leading to more government repression, further undermining the nation’s democratic institutions. (For an excellent analysis of Sri Lankan labor repression during this time and its consequences, see Emmanuel Teitelbaum’s July 2007 piece, “Can a Developing Democracy Benefit from Labor Repression? Evidence from Sri Lanka,” in the Journal of Development Studies.)

Echoing the active civil society of Sri Lanka, the Middle East and North Africa revolutions have clearly demonstrated civil society’s desire for political participation in the region. Egyptian civil society continues to play an active role in the country’s demands for democratic reform, and organized labor is a crucial player in these events.

Prior to the revolution, the state-controlled Egyptian Trade Union Federation was the sole politically sanctioned union in Egypt. Groups such as the Center for Trade Unions and Workers Services have long been pushing for legal reform that would ensure the legality of independent trade unions. This now seems possible following the fall of the Mubarak regime.

Freedom of association and collective bargaining are crucial components of a well-functioning democracy. While it may seem tempting to limit the ability of organized labor’s political participation—either as a means to political expediency or economic growth—such actions can easily backfire, undermining the institutions for dispute resolution that are important in any well-functioning democratic society. As the international community and political decision makers seek to promote democratic reform, it is essential that all parties involved grasp the importance of labor’s political participation in this process.

Jeff Becker is a program officer at the International Labor Rights Forum. The ILRF is a member of the Just Jobs Network organized by the Center for American Progress in its Just Jobs program.

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