Democracy Conference: Trade unions unite to shape a better post-pandemic world

published 1 July 2020 updated 15 July 2020

Leading progressive thinkers and union leaders came together in a joint Education International-Public Services International online event to discuss the post-COVID-19 future and how to shape it. Union leaders from around the world were addressed by high-profile keynote speakers at the Democracy Conference on 29 June.

EI president Susan Hopgood: Globalise social justice

In her opening remarks, Susan Hopgood, president of Education International, 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 also stressed that trade unions are about democracy: “Unlike investors and corporations, we cannot thrive in dictatorships. Democracy is the air that we breathe.”

On the teaching profession, 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 pointed out that the Democracy Conference was a tool for Education International and Public Services International (PSI) to enhance global trade 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.

PSI president David Prentis: We must set up our agenda for public services

Also welcoming participants, David Prentis, PSI president and general secretary of UNISON in the United Kingdom, stressed that “unfortunately, in many parts of our world , the lessons from previous epidemics have not been learnt. In Europe, for example, many countries have seen 10 years of austerity clamping down on public services and democracy. It has left vital public services with inadequate resources, including vital personal equipment, respirators, medicine, etc. And PSI has major concerns about the ability of healthcare systems in Africa to cope as the virus shows signs of gaining ground in that continent.”

One of the lessons of the pandemic, he added, has been the failure of populist politicians to respond to the crisis. In the US, in Russia, Brazil and the UK, they denied that COVID-19 was a serious threat and then applied half-hearted measures. Finally, they have been pushed to reopen their economies too quickly; producing spikes of the infection.

Prentis concluded: “As countries move into recession, unless we are strong, global union federations representing public service workers, and work together in PSI and EI, it is our public services that will pay the price, whether it is in healthcare, social care, or education. We have got to set up our agenda and make sure people listen around the world.”


The conference was addressed by two keynote speakers: Reverend Al Sharpton, president and founder of the National Action Network in the USA, and Mariana Mazzucato, Professor in the Economics of Innovation and Public Value at University College London in the United Kingdom.

Reverend Al Sharpton: Labour at the heart of protest movements

“We must join those in the streets and show them how labour must be the foundation of protest movements and not an add-on,” said Reverend Sharpton.

He told attendees that this is a singularly important time for the world, where COVID-19 has highlighted the class and racial disparity that was always present but was ignored and marginalised.

"In the midst of the pandemic,” he said, “people started pouring into the streets in protest against systemic injustice and racism. We need long-term sustained indignation that leads to real change.”

There has always been a marriage between the union movement and those fighting against injustice and racism, said Sharpton. “Labour is part of the foundation. We must work together across racial and national lines. It could be none other than us.”

Economist Mariana Mazzucato: Workers need to be at the table

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 stressed.

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”.

She went on to say that “we need to go from thinking of essential workers to an essential economy and society and re-imagine the welfare state. We only look at the cost of public services, we haven't figured out a way to measure the value they produce.”

She also underscored that bailouts must come with conditions on working conditions, climate and more. While stakeholder governance is essential and trade unions are fundamental to getting this governance structure right, there is now an opportunity to do that, she told participants.

The COVID-19 crisis has exposed extreme weaknesses in the structure of our economy, and “states must step in and govern the landscape through a public value lens”, she added.

Human and trade union rights defenders at the forefront

Union leaders from different regions of the world shared powerful stories and messages about showing leadership in the fight for democracy and the price to be paid.

Introducing them, Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers and member of Education International’s Executive Board, said she felt inspired by the strong links developing between unions and protest movements. “The protest movements which we see – from Black Lives Matter to the Climate Justice Movement – are essential in changing the game. They are just as important as elections. And unions are a vital advocate within these movements.”

She also explained that at a time when the world is facing three interconnected crises – a health crisis, an economic crisis, and a political crisis – unions must “work to advance democracy, social justice and equality at a critical time”.

Global response

The leading trade union contributors were:

  • Mugwena Maluleke, general secretary of the South African Democratic Teachers’ Union and vice-president of Education International for Africa. He shared his perspective on the importance of education in reinforcing democracy against the forces of the far right: “As a trade union movement, our power is mobilising and organising activists to fight for social justice. We now need to pursue a transformational agenda that ensures funding for public services”.
  • Annie Geron, general secretary of the Public Services Labor Independent Confederation (PSLINK) in the Philippines. She highlighted how global solidarity is the tool to fight autocracy: “Through solidarity and broad alliances internationally, we will mobilise to counter the narrative of Duterte and those like him”.
  • Jalila Al-Salman, of the Bahrain Teachers' Association (BTA) and member of Education International’s Executive Board. Arrested and condemned by a military court for demanding educational reforms and organising teachers, defending human and trade union rights has meant sacrificing her freedom and safety: “We know that trade unions are often the only institutions that give a voice to workers and their communities who are neglected by those in power. More important still, we are the organisations that stand against authoritarian regimes and social injustice”.
  • Carolina Espinoza Tapia, vice-president of PSI’s Inter-America Women's Committee and gender officer of CONFUSAM, the Confederation of Municipal Health Workers in Chile. She made the case for a rebalance of power and resources: “Chile is probably an extreme example of the application of the neoliberal model. In the USA, the richest one per cent accumulates 20 per cent of the GDP [gross domestic product]; in Chile, [they accumulate] 36 per cent.”

Solidarity is the way forward

In his concluding remarks, Education International's general secretary, David Edwards, emphasised that “now is the time for transformational leadership. Trade unions and civil rights activists stand together in the fight for social justice, for the planet, for the kind of world we want. We know what solidarity can do and we are going to do it.”

Sharing ideas on how to change the game, post-COVID-19, Rosa Pavanelli, Public Services International’s general secretary, indicated that “as public service workers, we are the factory of human rights. This is why we are targeted by authoritarian governments. We are the barrier against anti-democratic tendencies.”

Watch the video of the Democracy Conference: