Civil Society

International Workers' Day: 3 ways trade unions are driving social progress

International Workers' Day, or May Day, marks the labour movement's efforts to uphold workers' rights and improve working conditions. Image: Unsplash

Giannis Moschos
Community Specialist, Civil Society, World Economic Forum
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  • International Workers' Day, or May Day, marks the labour movement's efforts to uphold workers' rights and improve working conditions.
  • Against a backdrop of geopolitical uncertainty and rapid technological change there is an urgent need to create sustainable industries.
  • Trade unions represent the voices of millions of workers around the world – here we highlight three ways they are driving social progress.

Some 135 years ago, workers were achieving monumental progress towards what we now recognize as an eight-hour working day. During that time, factory workers (and in many cases children) endured grueling 14-16 hour shifts days in appalling working conditions that would in often lead to a series of health issues and high mortality rates among the working class.

Celebrated around the world – in the US Labor Day is celebrated in September – International Workers Day, or May Day, signifies the labour movement’s struggle for better working conditions, fair wages, the rights of workers and efforts in driving social progress. The 1st of May commemorates the Haymarket affair in Chicago in 1886, where a demonstration for an eight-hour working day turned violent, leading to the deaths of several workers.

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Today, while working conditions have improved globally and after a year of heavy industrial action, workers are amidst various transitions as the imperative to shift towards more sustainable industries and economies is combined with rapid technological advancements and geopolitical fragmentation impacting supply chains. These transitions require more collaboration between stakeholders in order to be managed successfully and in ways that promote shared prosperity.

As Atle Høie, General Secretary, IndustriAll Global Union puts it “Major changes and transformations need strong unions and constructive cooperation between unions, governments and employers as equals.”

Here are three perspectives from trade unions on driving social progress today:

1. Upholding democratic values

With over 4 billion eligible voters worldwide, the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) is making democracy a cornerstone of its agenda this year. Recognizing democracy as pivotal to addressing five critical challenges facing working people — climate change, sustainable peace, public health, technological advancement, and economic precarity — the ITUC further underscores the significance of promoting democratic principles within workplaces. Here, trade unions stand as bastions of participatory processes like collective bargaining, ensuring fair wages, improved working conditions, and equitable treatment.

Since March 2024, the global labour movement has been standing behind the For Democracy campaign spearheaded by the ITUC, which prioritizes three key areas: democracy within workplaces, democracy within societies, and democracy on a global scale. Moreover, trade unions are often hailed as "schools for democracy" for their role in fostering political engagement. They facilitate participation in voting on various issues and candidates encourage collective decision-making and deliberation, and nurture the development of argumentation skills — all essential components of meaningful democratic participation.

In fact, evidence from the US suggests that areas with high union membership also boast higher voter turnout rates, indicating a correlation that transcends typical get-out-the-vote (GOTV) initiatives. What's equally noteworthy is the spillover effect observed in these areas, where even non-union members exhibit elevated turnout rates. In essence, higher union density appears to positively influence the political engagement of entire communities, extending beyond union members to their families and beyond.

2. Leading innovative partnerships around AI and technology

In January 2024 at The World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting in Davos, Christy Hoffman, General Secretary of UNI Global Union, emphasized that “If we don’t want anxiety to preclude progress around AI and its impact on jobs, workers must be included in the process around its risks and deployment through collective bargaining.” Similarly, SAG-AFTRA’s National Executive Director and Chief Negotiator, Duncan Crabtree-Ireland when talking about his reflections around the year of strikes in the US maintained that businesses should talk to their employees to navigate the AI transition together and effectively.

Less than a month before that, Microsoft had announced a groundbreaking partnership with the American Federation of Labor–Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), representing 12.5 million workers in the US.


This partnership aims to maintain neutrality in future worker organizing efforts while integrating worker perspectives into AI development and advocating for public policies that address the technological needs of frontline workers. While the partnership is still in its early stages and its practical implications remain to be seen, it underscores the movement's commitment to innovation, ensuring that workers actively engage with and shape industry changes.

Likewise, amidst the booming semiconductor industry, the American Federation of Teachers, in collaboration with Micron Technology, the Governor of New York, and other educational organizations, is preparing to revolutionize high school education. They're creating a direct pathway for students into the semiconductor industry.

Their collaboration is exemplified in the New York Advanced Technology Framework, a $4 million programme, which aims to equip students with the skills needed for high-tech careers through immersive, industry-focused curriculum and hands-on learning. Starting later this year, the pilot programme will launch in 10 strategically selected school districts, catering to students from diverse backgrounds. From semiconductor manufacturing to data analytics and robotics, students will access various opportunities, preparing them for the modern workforce.

Ultimately, the initiative aims to expand this model statewide, providing countless more students with the skills for lucrative careers in the semiconductor industry. By doing so, it not only supports workforce development but also addresses broader social and economic justice concerns.

3. Ensuring a just transition

As economies and industries shift toward environmentally friendly production models, it's no secret that unions have long advocated for a successful and just transition, emphasizing the creation of more and better jobs alongside a focus on equality.

Veronica Nilsson, General Secretary of the Trade Union Advisory Committee to the OECD, contends that if managed effectively, the green transition can indeed generate improved employment opportunities. Luc Triangle, General Secretary of ITUC, underscores the crucial role of developed countries in financing climate action in developing nations to prevent exacerbated inequalities and the emergence of winners and losers.


The internationally endorsed concept of a "just transition" highlights the necessity of government and business collaboration with unions to ensure fair change management. This entails social dialogue on regional and industrial policies, employment and education strategies, and collective bargaining regarding restructuring at both company and workplace levels.

Policies promoting a just transition encompass investments in education and skills, enhanced social protection, and active employment initiatives. A socially equitable transition to a climate-friendly and digital future is vital for instilling public confidence in the prospects of improved and plentiful employment opportunities for future generations.

Brazil’s CUT, the largest trade union centre in Latin America which represents 7.4 million workers in Brazil, in partnership with ITUC’s Just Transition Centre, has developed a guidebook contextualizing Just Transition in Brazil in an effort to stress the significance of upholding both workers' rights and environmental protection, underlining their interconnectedness. According to Stephen Cotton, General Secretary of International Transport Workers Federation (ITF) "The exclusion of workers from high-level decision making erodes trust and undermines the legitimacy and the potential for success of decisions being made."

In practice, Canada has committed to establishing Sustainable Jobs Partnership Council to foster the sustainable job creation and support workers nationwide with the participation of both unions and industry. Similarly, in Spain, the government, trade unions, and the Federation of Coal Mining Businesses inked an agreement to gradually eliminate coal production. Meanwhile in Italy, ENI has reached an agreement with unions to jointly navigate the transition process.

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