Ninety years on from the Nazi ban on free trade unions, the lessons remain relevant to us today

By Paul Nowak, TUC General Secretary

Ninety years ago, the Nazis banned free trade unions. Nine decades later, we remember this step towards tyranny and recommit ourselves to the defence of free trade unions in thriving democracies.

On 2 May 1933, Nazis stormtroopers raided trade union buildings throughout Germany. Union leaders were abducted, imprisoned, and tortured. And union assets and properties were seized. Independent trade unions were replaced with a Nazi-controlled German Labour Front, which served as a propaganda tool for the regime and its hate-filled ideology.

The Nazi ban on free trade unions not only deprived workers of collective bargaining and representation, it also removed a bastion of democracy and freedom that stood in the way of the Nazis’ total control over German society. It was an early step in their rule of terror and antisemitism.

Pastor Niemöller’s poem, First they came, reminds us that trade unionists were among the early groups targeted by the Nazis. By banning free trade unions, the Nazis were removing potential organised opposition. And this was instrumental in enabling murder on a scale never seen before.

The Holocaust was the product of an antisemitic ideology, where the Nazis and their collaborators sought to kill all Jewish people in Europe. Building on centuries of antisemitism, it culminated in the murder of six million Jewish men, women and children by the Nazis and their collaborators.

The Nazi regime singled out many other groups who did not conform to their warped ideals, including Roma and Sinti people, trade unionists, disabled people, LGBT+ people, Black people, Jehovah’s Witnesses and non-Jewish Poles. Every year, trade unionists around the world remember the victims of the Holocaust on Holocaust Memorial Day.
Ninety years on, we can see once again, in countries such as Myanmar, Brazil, and Colombia, that suppressing trade unions is a red flag for democracy.

Organised labour continues to be one of the strongest defences against political extremism. Unions are strongholds of free association, and are able to act powerfully together in defence of their members and of civil society. Without unions, it is easier for authoritarian governments to undermine citizens’ fundamental rights.

Today, we still see the same pattern: many regimes that oppress their citizens based on race, religion, or sexual orientation also persecute trade unionists.
The International Trade Union Confederation’s global rights index reports that, in 2021, trade unionists were murdered in 13 countries, and workers were suppressed through violence in 50 countries.

In Myanmar, the military has murdered thousands of Rohingya Muslims since 2016, and hundreds of thousands have had to flee from the religious persecution. When the military junta launched a coup in 2021, trade unionists were targeted for intimidation, mass arrests, and murder.

In Brazil, the former president Bolsonaro denied indigenous people land rights and facilitated ethnic cleansing for logging, mining, and farming. He also unilaterally ended collective bargaining agreements, blocked union funds, and dissolved the Ministry of Labour.

Colombia has long been one of the most dangerous countries in the world to be a trade unionist. Thousands have been murdered by extreme right-wing paramilitaries, while far-right governments crushed democratic working-class self-organisation. And the same paramilitaries and governments have murdered indigenous people and Afro-Columbians too.

Thankfully, there is a more optimistic story to tell from Colombia and Brazil too. In Colombia, a peace deal was reached in 2016, supported by trade unions from Britain and Ireland. The new administration is attempting to improve labour and human rights. And in Brazil, trade union organising helped to oust the far-right Bolsonaro in last year’s election and legislation is coming to restore labour rights.

Trade unionists know that solidarity works. And that is why unions show solidarity for any groups whose human rights are abused, or whose democratic rights are denied.

Here in the UK, the trade union movement prioritises international solidarity and political education. Every year we train union reps and leaders to combat racism and antisemitism. It is why trade unions are vigilant in rooting out racism and antisemitism in our own organisations. And it is why trade unions build wider civic alliances against the far right, both at home and abroad.

And we know that societies where workers are fairly rewarded for their work, where they have a voice in their workplaces and safe and healthy working conditions, are societies that have some protection against the rise of the far right. Those with racist ideologies cannot find grievances to manipulate in their attempts to divide us against each other.
In a free society, there will always be disagreements between governments and trade unions. But the right of workers to organise, negotiate and speak freely is an integral part of thriving democracy.

Healthy democracies that protect all their citizens’ rights need free trade unions. Ninety years on from the Nazi ban, that lesson remains relevant to us all.

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