Global Labor Justice - International Labor Rights Forum (GLJ-ILRF) hosted its 12th annual Labor Rights Defenders Awards Ceremony on October 1, its first event since the merging of the two organizations. With over 700 views globally so far, the online event celebrated labor rights leaders and activists from across the globe who have committed their lives to defender worker rights and build power across a range of sectors and communities. You can watch the recording of the awards ceremony here.
Awardees included Sharan Burrow, General Secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), Dr. Lorretta Johnson, Secretary-Treasurer of the American Federation of Teachers, The Chicago Teachers Union, and The General Agricultural Workers Union of Ghana (GAWU). “In the midst of this pandemic, we’re both more isolated and more aware of how we’re linked across borders,” said GLJ-ILRF Executive Director JJ Rosenbaum, who moderated the evening. “We will honor the importance of expanding the spaces for voice and leadership of those workers who have historically been excluded from labor rights and worker organizations.”
Beginning with the music of Los Jornaleros del Norte, a band of day laborers that was established after an ICE raid in Los Angeles, the evening brought together international activists, organizers and allies from Bangladesh, to Honduras, to India, to Ghana and more. Many engaged in supportive banter and commentary on the YouTube channel throughout the event, which facilitated a feeling of camaraderie that can be difficult to replicate in the era of online gatherings.
Each of this year’s Labor Rights Defenders were selected for their long term engagement in the labor rights movement. “In these incredibly momentous times, with so much at stake, we must find new ways to join together, to protest, to march, and in other ways to join arms across borders in solidarity and mutual reciprocity,” Rosenbaum said.
Sharan Burrow has had a long career of visionary leadership at ITUC, including the passage of groundbreaking ILO Convention on the elimination of gender-based violence and harassment and the advancement of a social contract for all workers. As the first woman to hold the position of General Secretary at ITUC, Burrow has represented workers and civil society groups in global policy discussions at numerous UN bodies, the ILO, the World Bank, and the IMF. “We are the biggest democratic force on earth, and we have all peoples in the world,” Burrow said. “I’ve always come away with the dignity and the strength from those union men and women.”
As a lifelong labor organizer for paraprofessionals and school-related personnel, Lorretta Johnson has committed her life to advancing the rights of educators and children in the U.S. and globally. Johnson began her career rallying for better pay for paraprofessionals in Baltimore, and rose through the ranks of the American Federation of teachers – including serving as the president of AFT Maryland for 17 years – before becoming the Secretary Treasurer of AFT. Emphasizing the power of the Black Lives Matter movements and the labor activism of 2020, Johnson expressed, “In this exciting hopeful moment, let us be sure to look inwards at ourselves, into our unions, and our own organizations, because there is a basic fundamental value of labor, and it is the source of our strength.”
The Chicago Teachers Union, a union that represents over 20,000 teachers and clinicians, is a model of 21st-century labor organizing and a powerful voice advocating for educational and community justice in Chicago. Chicago became the birthplace of unionization among teachers in 1898. In 2019, CTU led an monumental 11-day teacher strikes demanding reforms including decreased class sizes, raising salaries, hiring more social workers, nurses and librarians, offering sanctuary to undocumented students on campuses, and expansion of affordable housing for teachers and students. President Jesse Sharkey and Recording Secretary Christel Williams Hayes underscored the collective efforts of all the union members in order to achieve wins for their students. “We have to continue to be prepared to do some type of work stoppage or an action to show them that we’re going to fight, we’re going to fight to the end,” Williams Hayes said.
The General Agricultural Workers Union of Ghana (GAWU), an affiliate of the Trades-Union Congress Ghana, is recognized for advocating for cocoa farmers rights and working to elimate child labor, impacting hundreds of thousands across West Africa. Founded in 1959, GAWU pushes to protect workers through supply chain management across supply chains in West Africa and community development programming. GAWU began its work on Child Free Labor Zones (CFLZs) in 2007, using a strategy that hinges on strengthening trade union structures and increasing wages of union members. “It is possible to produce cocoa without child labor, it is possible to do agriculture without child labor, and it this is possible when farmers can organize,” said Andrews Tagoe, Deputy General Secretary of GAWU.
Judy Gearhart, the former Executive Director of ILRF, was honored with an additional award in recognition of her dedicated service and enduring commitment to the labor movement. “We know that no amount of international policy will make a difference unless our allies can use those policies to advance their struggles on the ground,” Gearhart said.
Amidst the global pandemic, we are thrilled to have offered a forum to bring together so many activists, workers, organizers, and allies to virtually celebrate our 2020 Labor Rights Defenders.