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2016 Meany-Kirkland Human Rights Award

Richard Trumka • December 14, 2016 • Washington, D.C.

Brothers and sisters, welcome and thank you for being here. Congressman-elect Raskin, thank you for your remarks. Congratulations on your victory. We look forward to having a close working relationship in the years ahead. And thank you to the many leaders of our own movement I see here as well as partner organizations.

If you’re anything like me, you might be seeing this annual award, and perhaps the entire world in a different light since Donald Trump’s election.

Human rights. The ideals that sparked the formation of the United Nations. Even truth itself. All of these are under siege.

If truth be told, the dangers we see here in the United States and abroad have been growing for years, for decades, because the suppression of basic human rights and the growth of income inequality create fertile ground for the resurgence of authoritarianism and the breakdown of civil society.

This trend is the main reason the United Nations Special Rapporteur created the Freedom of Assembly and Association mandate in 2011, and I could not be more pleased with the powerful work of its first mandate holder, Maina Kiai.

You see, our global labor movement relies on the ability of people to freely associate and assemble, and our labor unions are an important part of civil societies everywhere. We refuse to allow authoritarianism to rise unchecked. We are committed to following the inspirational path of Mr. Kiai, who has been an effective watchdog against crackdowns on freedom of association and assembly in repressive environments like Russia, Zimbabwe and Egypt. And this is equally important: He has put a spotlight on human rights and freedoms in the United States, the United Kingdom and South Korea.

Mr. Kia inspires the advocates and workers who struggle to defend, maintain and grow the institutions of civil society around the world. I’m talking about those who organize for women’s rights and workers’ rights, for indigenous people, immigrants, religious freedom and economic justice.

Here’s something I love about Mr. Kiai. He speaks with the same passion and force with workers as he does to the United Nations General Assembly. He speaks with dignity. He stands up to power. In fact, his integrity and ability to communicate have earned him the respect of both the world’s largest and most influential human rights organizations, including Human Rights Watch, and the smallest and scrappiest grassroots organizations.

Mr. Kiai goes after glaring contradictions, which you can see in his recent report to the UN General Assembly. Allow me to give you an example. Almost anywhere, you can incorporate a business in no time at all—as little as one day—and government officials will bend over backwards for investors. Yet it often takes weeks and months to register a non-governmental aid organization, and officials will crack down on them in a heartbeat. Mr. Kiai has laid out these facts in a clear and compelling manner.

Mr. Kiai isn’t only concerned with developing countries. He witnessed serious violations of the right to freely assemble here in the United States, and we have heard from Daniel and Lee about violations in their own communities and workplaces. Mr. Kiai’s upcoming report focused on the United States highlights migrant workers, those trying to form unions and the targeting of legitimate protesters like Black Lives Matter.

The violators don’t even pretend to honor cornerstone freedoms. The government of Mississippi touts its lack of unionization when courting investors. Georgia openly sent police to harass and ticket union organizers for distributing leaflets outside a company’s gates. These aren’t exceptions but absolutely commonplace violations.

We live in an era when the truth is becoming elusive. That’s why we must read Mr. Kiai’s report. It’s full of documentation. It’s full of real people, real voices, real truth.

For this reason, in the best tradition of American unionism, I am proud to give to you the 2016 recipient of the George Meany-Lane Kirkland Human Rights Award, Maina Kiai.

We must, we will, meet the challenge of our times. Everything we love and everything we stand for will be put to the test.

On behalf of the AFL-CIO and the Solidarity Center, thank you for your ongoing advocacy for working people around the globe.

Thank you, and God bless you all.

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