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Unionism and Democracy: The Experience, the Legacy, The Future

Saturday, Apr 02, 2005 | 12:00am

The Institute received a grant from the ILGWU Heritage Fund in April 2005 to help sponsor this three-day seminar aimed at educating new AFT leaders on the rationale and history behind labor’s support for democracy and worker rights in the world.

The American labor movement has a long and proud tradition of opposing dictatorships of every stripe and supporting the spread of democracy and free trade unionism. International solidarity on behalf of freedom of association, worker rights and political democracy is the very basis of trade unionism.

Albert Shanker, who as AFT president also chaired the AFL-CIO’s International Affairs Committee in the late 80’s and early 90’s, stated the case plainly in a 1990 interview:

The very idea of unionism is solidarity. It means, “I’m not strong enough to do things alone. I’ve got to band together with brothers and sisters.” And then you realize, well it’s not just enough to do it in one city, you have to do it in a state, then you have to do it in a country, because there are problems you can’t solve locally. Then you realize you can’t just do that with teachers. You’re not strong enough. So you are in a general labor movement with other workers. And pretty soon you find that the same thing is true on a worldwide basis.

From its original motto — “Education for Democracy, Democracy in Education’ — to its on-going international affairs work in union-building, civic education and fostering civil society in developing democracies, AFT’s identity is closely linked to its promotion of democratic ideals at home and abroad. This conference seeks to build on that strong tradition.