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People's Movement In The Middle East And North Africa

August 4, 2011

In Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa, worsening unemployment and economic conditions, especially among young people, combined with the lack of political freedom, have sparked popular mobilization against the existing corrupt and authoritarian regimes.

After enduring decades of repression exercised by governments with the support of the West, including the United States, the workers and people of Tunisia and Egypt have mobilized by the millions for democracy and fundamental rights. The AFL-CIO and the global labor movement salute the independent trade union movements in both of these countries and support their aspirations for social justice.

In Tunisia, the Tunisian General Union of Labor (known by its French acronym UGTT) played a key role in coordinating and supporting mobilization across the country to help express the demands of the Tunisian citizenry for an end to authoritarian rule and a more just economic system. The global labor movement, led by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), salutes the role the UGTT is playing to help bring about a democratic transition in Tunisia, and to fight for a more equitable economy.

Weeks later, the Egyptian people rose up in massive numbers led by the youth to demand change and to call for fundamental economic and political rights. Independent trade unions were among those demonstrating for 18 days in Tahrir Square and elsewhere around the nation. The seeds of a transition to a just, transparent and participatory political system have taken root and the AFL-CIO stands with the Egyptian people in this time of transformative change, and salutes the leadership role of the ITUC to bring the full force of the international labor movement in solidarity with Egypt’s new unions to help them solidify the promise of the revolution.

Since then, the movement for change in the region has spread. In Bahrain, the General Federation of Bahrain Trade Unions has been a leading voice in the political reform movement and has advocated strongly on behalf of more equitable distribution of wealth in the country. Despite the entry of foreign troops into the country to suppress the reform movement and sweeping arrests of Bahrain’s political and human rights leaders, the trade unions continue to stand up for basic principles of human dignity. They called a general strike in the wake of the government’s brutal crackdown on dissent. Brave independent trade unionists in Algeria, Iraq, Yemen and Oman also are speaking out for better jobs and wages, and for more political rights for the underrepresented and voiceless.

Over the coming months in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain and across the region, the voice of workers must be heard by policy makers working on reforming the political systems. All workers, irrespective of age or gender, must be represented in the discussions about the future of their countries.

Equitable and sustainable economic development, with decent work at its heart, is essential to meeting the aspirations of people in the region. Economic systems that expand opportunities for everyone to achieve satisfying, productive and secure jobs are crucial to a democracy that delivers for people, and these priorities are being articulated through the protest movement in the region. They also are the underpinning of the ILO’s Decent Work agenda, whose values and program should be expanded in the region.

Millions of people throughout the Middle East and North Africa are united in their demand for change. Throughout the region, unemployment and underemployment, low wages, lack of opportunity and political repression are the root causes of this growing movement for reform. Workers in particular have suffered repression due to severe restrictions on freedom of association and collective bargaining. This repression must end.

We stand by the region’s independent labor movements in their struggle for economic and political rights and a better life for all. Their tireless, visionary efforts on behalf of workers and their societies are an inspiration to us. Together with the global labor movement, we will continue to encourage and stand in solidarity with their efforts to help transform their societies.

We express deep appreciation for the many unions across the region that have stood in solidarity with America’s workers fighting for these same principles of justice and democracy for workers, right here in Wisconsin and throughout the United States.

The U.S. government historically has not stood up for the workers and the people of the Middle East and North Africa. It is time for this to change. The peoples of the region deserve better. The governments of the region and the United States need to be responsive to the demands of the people for political and economic reform, and prioritize them over narrowly perceived national economic or political interests that usually leave average working people in the Middle East and North Africa holding the short end of the stick.

We call on the U.S. government to make a clean break with past practice and strongly support freedom of association, human and workers’ rights in all its policies in the region as a matter of urgent priority. Democracy and social justice are not built by outside forces, but it is incumbent on the international community and the United States in particular to follow the will of the people who are risking everything for better futures.

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