Change comes from power; power comes from numbers

BWI Statement on the 2021 International Workers' Day

As the global trade union movement observes the 132nd anniversary of the International Workers’ Day, the Building and Woodworkers’ International (BWI) marks this historic occasion by putting forward the urgent and important tasks of workers and their trade unions amidst a world on the precipice of a global crisis of epic proportion.

The workers of the world are facing a dual existential threat. On one hand, the COVID-19 pandemic, which has already killed nearly 3.2 million working people and destroyed 250 million jobs, continues to ravage many parts of the world despite the massive rollout of vaccines. On the other hand, the rise of global authoritarianism has snuffed out the lights of democracy in many countries and threatens to obliterate nearly 200 years of hard-fought trade union rights and reforms. 

The two crises reinforce each other. The pandemic, while unparalleled in many ways, managed to kill so many and stay this long despite our advances in health and science, partly due to inept and authoritarian leaders who saw COVID-19 as the perfect excuse and/or opportunity to strengthen their grip to power and enforce draconian measures. 

We are all witnesses to and victims of this mutually-reinforcing cataclysms. In Hong Kong, Philippines, Brazil, Belarus, Myanmar and parts of Africa, tyrants of various shades and colours attacked human and labour rights; arresting, detaining and even killing trade union and women leaders, political oppositionists and democracy defenders. In India, the heartbreaking images of pyres rising from the country’s mass incineration of people who died from COVID-19 is a stark reminder not only of the deadliness of the pandemic, but also of the gross inequality in the access to vaccines and healthcare in general between developed and developing nations, and the profound incompetence and cruelty of populist authoritarian governments. 

BWI echoes the demand for a "new social contract"  wherein workers, job creation and the environment are at the front and centre of a global and inclusive recovery and resilience program. However, this is only possible if trade unions worldwide embark on new, bold and innovative organising efforts that consolidate our ranks, regain our membership and reach out to the vastly unorganised workers. Even as the pandemic has imposed severe limitations to conventional ways of trade union organising, it has also taught us to utilise and maximise new democratic spaces and technologies, particularly those available online, to reach out to one another and develop new methods to promote greater unity, solidarity and democracy. The struggles of workers in many countries, which effectively combined digital activism and mass mobilisations, are continuing sources of inspiration and lessons for many of us. 

As we mark this year’s May Day, let us be reminded of the power of organising. “Power concedes nothing without a demand.” And a demand is not given without a fight. Only by organising can trade unions and workers fight back and build their power and strength to neutralise the dual threat of COVID-19 and global authoritarianism. Only by organising ourselves can we build a better future. Change comes from power, and power comes from numbers.