Peace and democracy require public services - and the workers who provide them 

Across the world this May Day, public service workers are the foundations of the struggle for peace, solidarity and democracy amidst escalating conflict and crisis.

“Solidarity is as important as a cup of hot tea for someone who is freezing, a ray of sunlight for those hiding in a basement.” - Yurii Pizhuk, State Employees Union of Ukraine 

Across the world this May Day, public service workers are the foundations of the struggle for peace, solidarity and democracy amidst escalating conflict and crisis.  

They are the world’s human rights defenders, providers of essential services, keeping everyone safe and rushing to the scene when disaster strikes. In times of pandemic, they put themselves on the line to save lives. In times of war, we are often all that stands between life and death. We aren’t just the world’s largest democratic organization: unions are the bedrock of just and democratic societies. 

Yet all too often, this puts us in the firing line.  

Reactionaries, war-mongerers, autocrats and right-wing populists know we are the biggest threat to their narrow interests. As they exploit the inequalities produced by our broken global economic system to fan the flames of hatred and division, they increasingly turn to violence to stop us from challenging their power. 

But, as our members across the world are showing, resistance is possible. 

They target union leaders. They trample over democracy. They resort to violence. But they will not break us.  

In Argentina, PSI affiliates organised a national strike which saw hundreds of thousands of workers take to the streets to challenge President Milei’s extremist policies. His government is attempting to shrink the state and repress wages while promoting privatization and precarious work. Like other right-wing populists across the world who profit from the suffering of ordinary people, he knows that unions won’t let this happen. That’s why one of the first things he did was try to undermine basic labour rights. Our affiliates have succeeded in exposing the unconstitutional nature of many of these attacks. They will not let fundamental rights and democratic principles be cheaply discarded. We will stand with them. 

In Kenya, PSI affiliates in the health sector are on strike, pushing for better employment and health outcomes for all. For months, they have been calling for the release of funding for the employment of over a thousand intern doctors who stand trained and ready to join the workforce. Dr Davji Atellah, General Secretary of Kenya Medical Practitioners, Pharmacists & Dentists Union, told CNN this struggle is about improving conditions and resourcing in the health service so that staff are equipped to save lives “rather than just supervise the deaths of patients.”  

In February, Davji was shot by a tear–gas canister while leading a peaceful protest. His life was only saved thanks to the quick action of his health worker comrades standing alongside him. Pressure is now mounting on the Kenyan government after PSI affiliates from across the world - including SEIU, Unison, NSWNMA and EPSU - shared our outrage at this attack and support for our comrades. The Kenyan Supreme Court has ruled the government can no longer take repressive measures against protesting workers.  We will stand with them. 

In Gaza, our members face scenes of unimaginable devastation. Water workers scramble to prevent dehydration after the destruction of pipes and aquifers. Hundreds of our comrades in the health and aid sector have been killed. At a recent Emergency WHO session, we made sure the voice of Ilias Al-Jalda, vice president of Gaza’s General Union of Health Workers to an Emergency Meeting, was heard. He shared his testimony from a church under bombardment, describing for global leaders how “the Gaza Strip has become a scene where human rights are routinely violated” and calling for an immediate ceasefire. Through our PSI Gaza solidarity fund, unions across the world are helping prepare for the day when Ilias and his colleagues can start rebuilding their union and the wider health system. We will stand with them. 

And as the war in Ukraine enters its second year, our members continue to save lives and have even helped prevent a nuclear meltdown. When the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Plant was bombed, members of PSI- affiliate Atomprofspilka put out the flames. As Atomprfspilka’s international officer Lesia Seminiaka points out “any explosion, any fire, any strike could provoke a big tragedy, another ecological disaster.” The deplorable Russian tactic of ‘double shelling’ represents a clear attack on our comrades in Ukraine’s emergency services who seek to rescue the injured and are targeted by follow-up strikes as a result. On a call we organised with Ukrainian unionists, Yuri Pizhuk of the State Employees Union told us, “This war is not only about territory. It is about the right to a free life, to decent work, democracy and freedom of choice… one can blow up a school or maternity clinic or burn down a building… but that will not break us.” 

They target union leaders. They trample over democracy. They resort to violence. But they will not break us.  

This May Day, public service workers and our unions are standing up for democracy, for society, for peace and for dignity. We remind the world of our past sacrifices during the pandemic and all that is being done today. We know the struggle is never easy.  

But solidarity is our ray of sunlight. We know when we stand together, we win.