top of page

Trade Unions and the Struggle for Democracy

Unless assuming power and relinquishing it are based on the will of the people, government cannot be legitimate. Although they have radically different histories, cultures, and structures, the peaceful transfer of power has been the centrepiece of recent conflicts in three different countries: Belarus, the United States, and Myanmar.

Guest blog

by Jim Baker

Belarus has been in a long transition to dictatorship and away from democracy. Myanmar has been steadily moving towards democracy. The United States is one of the world’s oldest and most stable democracies. In all three countries, however, there have been charges of election fraud and in all three, the military have played important roles.

Electoral fraud

In Belarus, the President claimed to have won with over 80 per cent of the vote, something that was patently false, and he could produce no evidence of his election, in other words, he committed fraud.

In the United States, it was the cleanest election in history and fraud charges were manufactured out of thin air by a sitting President. Again, there was no evidence.

In Myanmar, elections overseen by an election commission and witnessed by international observers verified the results, but like in the US, that did not block unsubstantiated allegations of fraud. Fraud charges in Myanmar where not decided by courts or democratic procedures, but by the seizure of power by the military. No proof was needed or provided.

The Military

In Myanmar, the military seized power in a coup. In Belarus, the military has backed an illegitimate President.

In the United States, false fraud charges did not produce a coup. However, the insurrection called for by the President, even though it ultimately failed, indicates that he might have engineered a coup if that had been possible. But the military made it clear, not just privately, but publicly, in a declaration by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, that they would follow the Constitution that they had sworn to respect.


Accountability is not just a question of justice. It is also a way to bring healing and to build consensus on democratic values. The most far-reaching process has been the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in South Africa. It cannot deal with all of the crimes of apartheid or its heritage nor did it try to do so, but it helped to lay a basis for a peaceful, multi-racial democracy.

In Myanmar, accountability of those who seized power, detained elected leaders and activists, and de-railed democracy could only come if the results of the election were to be respected and the Constitution were to be amended. However, even if the military were to recognise their folly and back down, they would be well-placed to negotiate immunity.

In Belarus, respect for the election results could mean accountability for the President and others who committed crimes and violated human rights, but again, a negotiation process might protect the guilty. His liberty might be the only way to get rid of a tyrant.

In the United States, there is a procedure for accountability. It is engaged now, with the second impeachment of the President. The leader of the insurrection is on trial. The repeated lies and the challenges to the validity of the election results were rejected by judges regardless of philosophy and by whom they were named.

However, the members of the Senate are the judges in this most important of trials. A majority will, undoubtedly, vote to convict, but not a two-thirds majority. Too many of those judges will be afraid of retribution if they make an impartial decision based on the facts. Their votes of that select electorate will prove, with a few notable exceptions, the wisdom of the words of Donald Trump in Iowa early in his 2016 campaign for the Presidency, “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn't lose voters."

Trade unions and solidarity, the sister of democracy

In Belarus, independent trade unions have become the most powerful and persistent force defending free elections. They have demonstrated and gone on strike, Leaders and activists have been detained, tortured, and suffered other violations of their human rights, but they have not been broken. They are not alone in their country or abroad. They have the solidarity of trade unionists from all over the world.

In the United States, the trade union movement played a critical role in the 2020 election. Commentaries focus on important demographic factors, however, trade unions registered voters, argued the issues, and significantly affected the participation and the voting behaviour of people of all races and ethnic groups, for men, and women, and for those with and without higher education. Without these efforts, President Biden would still have won the popular vote by a wide margin, but it would have been difficult, if not impossible, for the ticket to have won the electoral votes of critical states. This is the largely hidden story of the 2020 election. The domestic solidarity of American unions made the difference.

In Myanmar, trade unions have led civil disobedience and strikes, and have helped to organise and been visibly present in mass protests. They have the support and solidarity of trade unionists on all Continents. One indication of that support is today’s Day of Action. In different ways unions all over the world are making noise about what is happening in Myanmar and calling for justice.

This vital link between democracy and solidarity was described by Ambet Yuson, the General Secretary of the Building and Wood Workers’ International and one of the leaders of the Global Unions’ action on Myanmar as follows:

“Solidarity is the sister of democracy. Whenever and wherever democracy is threatened, trade unions must be there to defend it. Only in a democracy can workers build the foundations of a better future.”

Jim Baker is consultant for the trade union movement. He has served the AFL-CIO, the ICFTU, ILO/ACTRAV, the Council of Global Unions, and Global Unions Federations. Originally he is from the UAW in the United States.


bottom of page