The 2012 George Meany-Lane Kirkland Human Rights Award will honor the Tunisian General Union of Labor (UGTT) and the General Federation of Bahrain Trade Unions (GFBTU)—two unions whose struggles over the past year are emblematic of labor’s role in the Arab uprisings, the AFL-CIO Executive Council announced at its annual winter meeting in Lake Buena Vista, Fla.
Workers' issues such as high unemployment and lack of opportunity, declining living standards and the arrogant abuse of political and economic power by the corrupt few spurred the Arab uprisings, the council said, and unions and workers’ rights activists were engaged in some of the most important union organizing in the region’s history.
As Tunisians took to the streets in January 2011, the UGTT emerged at the forefront of the peoples’ movement for dignity, coordinating actions across the country demanding political change and a more equitable society. After 23 years of authoritarian control, President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali fled the country, paving the way for democratic transition. The extraordinary events in Tunisia set in motion an unprecedented rise in protests, with working women and men from Morocco to Yemen raising their voices for change.
In Bahrain, the council said, as popular calls for equity and democracy were violently repressed, "the GFBTU has remained a constant and unwavering voice for peace, democratic change and dialogue."
The courage of these two federations represents a broader movement for justice in the region. In Egypt, workers and independent unions led unprecedented strikes and job actions, which gave strength and power to the protests in Tahrir Square that successfully brought down the dictator, Hosni Mubarak. Unions in Morocco continue to stand with protest and youth movements in that country to advance their longstanding demands for meaningful political reform, and independent unions in Algeria are at the forefront of citizen struggles for democracy, economic justice and workers’ rights in that authoritarian state. Despite government hostility, workers in Iraq are holding fast to demands for worker rights; in the Gulf, protests and strikes such as those in Kuwait are making gains for workers and pressing for real political change. In Yemen, hundreds of thousands of Yemeni citizens bravely rejected their government’s half-hearted reforms through rallies and protests they sustained for months in one of the world’s poorest nations.
Aided by unions, the Arab Spring has been a beacon for workers worldwide and gave inspiration to workers' movements in Wisconsin and Ohio as well as the global Occupy movement.
Read the full council statement here.