Stuart Appelbaum (29184)
Stuart Appelbaum

2021 has been a brutal year for workers and activists in Colombia and Myanmar, where ongoing protests and labor strikes against repressive regimes have been met with astounding bloodshed. These attacks on workers and unions abroad need our attention here in the U.S.; these courageous protestors are not only standing up for all working people, but for all who hold pro-democratic ideals.

In Colombia, protests have raged for weeks after a now-canceled proposal that would have expanded taxes on basic groceries such as bread and eggs while also increasing taxes on many middle-class Colombians. In late April, a national strike organized by a coalition of unions brought thousands of protesters into the streets of Colombian cities. While the tax plan has now been canceled, tens of thousands of people have joined the movement––students, educators, activists, workers, and more–– speaking out against the brutal repression of protestors and calling for economic support for the pandemic-ravaged public. As the actions entered their third week, dozens of protestors have been killed and over 900 injured in violent police actions.

The situation in Myanmar––where a military coup overthrew the elected government and halted a decade of ongoing democratic reforms––is even worse. As the country reached 100 days in early May since the Feb. 1 military coup, the death toll for protestors stood at almost 800 civilians, while almost 4,000 have been detained. It’s a human rights, economic, and humanitarian crisis that has grown daily since the military junta overthrew the elected government in Myanmar, and there is no end in sight. With an economy in tatters and rising inflation and hunger, and anger growing over the violent and brutal junta response to protests, experts fear a full-scale civil war is brewing.

Workers and unions have been under assault in Myanmar since the start of the crisis, with the junta declaring most of the country’s labor organizations “illegal.” Myanmar’s garment workers were among the first to take to the streets against the military junta, and they were quickly joined by other workers including medical workers, teachers, utility workers, and others. They were met with arrests and violence.

In early May, more than 11,000 academics and other university staff were suspended after going on strike in protest against military rule, endangering education institutions and bringing a fresh round of protests. Many students have been among those killed during the protests, and at least 47 teachers are among those who have been arrested by the junta.

America’s labor movement stands firmly behind the protesters in Colombia and Myanmar, and calls for the U.S. government to forcefully condemn the violence and support the courageous workers, unions, students, and civil society and democracy activists who are the backbone of these social movements in these countries. America’s unions have called upon international companies operating in Myanmar to demand the immediate reinstatement of democracy and release of political prisoners.

In Myanmar, labor leaders and activists have said international solidarity matters; the international support they’ve seen has helped keep their spirits up as they fight back against the oppressive military junta. Attacks on workers and unions anywhere is an attack on all workers, and we will continue to use our collective voice to support those who are fighting for reform, human rights, and justice across the globe.

Stuart Appelbaum is president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. Twitter: @sappelbuam.