May Day 2021: Time for a Foreign Policy for the Global Working Class?

Photo Credit: Solidarity Center

President Biden’s first 100 days have shown this Administration’s commitment to America’s workers. From the direct support for workers seeking to organize at an Amazon warehouse in Alabama to the announcement of a new White House task force on unions to investments for workers in the care economy, the President’s messages have been a lifeline to America’s working people. As someone who has advised on labor issues around the world, I’ve seen the ways in which working conditions in the US have increasingly come to resemble work in other developing countries. Working people are increasingly falling into poverty, and women and people of color are especially vulnerable.

It’s no accident that conditions for some American workers look not that different from conditions in Mexico or Morocco; we live in a globalized economy. For this reason I’ve also been enthusiastic about the Biden Administration’s call for a foreign policy for the middle class. Many of our global allies agree: the global economy needs a reset. We need a foreign policy that recognizes the fate of our workers is tied to the fates of workers everywhere, and we need a development policy that fosters inclusive and equitable economies. Fortunately, the Biden Administration has the building blocks to lead the way.

I had the privilege of serving as a labor advisor for US development just a few years ago, at a time when our government joined with global allies to put forward an ambitious new set of Sustainable Development Goals. Those goals, which include ending inequality, promoting gender equity, and decent work for all are now more critical than ever. Working with other donors, I realized that US investments played a unique role: we were one of the very few bilateral donors willing to partner directly with the global labor movement.

Social movements, and particularly labor movements, are critical to healthy economies and democracies. Independent trade unions and other civil society groups focused on workers give voice to disenfranchised and vulnerable populations, ensuring that the voices of the working poor are heard. This is not just true in industrialized economies. It is even more relevant for informal and precarious workers in developing countries. Women, in particular, have won important economic gains from having a voice at work and now make up over half of global union membership. And inevitably, as women and marginalized groups find their voice, powerful interests are threatened and push back. When international movements stand behind courageous women workers like those in Bangladesh who were fighting for their lives in the wake of the Rana Plaza tragedy, it gives them a chance to be heard in the face of powerful actors that would silence them.

It’s critical for the Biden Administration to continue these investments and connect them back to the vision of a foreign policy for the middle class, particularly as it prepares for a global Summit for Democracy. Importantly, the threats to democracy are transnational. The pro-democracy side also needs strong transnational movements, and the global labor movement remains among the strongest. That’s why the US development approach to global labor, which has always been positioned to build solidarity among literally thousands of local and national labor organizations, is so unique and so important. It’s why our development work on civil society broadly has long relied on labor movements as an anchor in broader democracy movements. It’s also why there have always been detractors who argue that labor movements don’t belong in our development agenda; they fear what a strong social movement can achieve, not just for its own members, but for everyone.

The unity and solidarity of many partners, coming together to support both national and global agendas, has also contributed to other objectives. I had a chance to witness how unions in Liberia stepped up as an important conduit of public health information during the Ebola crisis in 2014. We worked with unions in the eastern part of Ukraine that same year to disseminate information around elections even in the face of rising conflict. Importantly, we saw groups from different countries reach out and help one another across borders because they were part of a cohesive movement. When it came to addressing transnational challenges like conditions for migrant workers, this network was invaluable. Our long term development goals on other fronts, from addressing global health challenges to countering violent extremism, will benefit from our ability to rely on a strong and cohesive approach and a global network designed to reach millions of working people.

Development and foreign policy challenges will continue to transcend national borders, and will, as the Biden team has recognized, look a lot like our challenges here at home. This is a great time for the Administration to reaffirm leadership for a foreign policy for the global working class, and as we reengage globally, encourage other governments to do the same.