Fundamental Rights At Work

Posted by on March 11, 2011

As Wisconsin public employees reorganize for a long fight in the wake of the state GOP’s “midnight strike” at collective bargaining rights, it brought to my mind one of guest blogger Heba El-Shazli’s posts on Egypt. In it, she notes that Egypt’s new, independent unions are demanding reformed labor laws that incorporate the International Labor Organization’s Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work.

For many people, this reference probably begs the question: What the heck is actually in the Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work?  The startlingly intense loathing of collective bargaining rights by Gov. Scott Walker, the Wisconsin GOP, and their supporters, is incentive enough to elaborate on this document.  

Adopted in 1998, the Declaration commits ILO members “ to respect and promote workers’ rights and principles”  in four categories:  freedom of association and the effective recognition of the right to collective bargaining; the elimination of forced or compulsory labor; the abolition of child labor; and the elimination of discrimination in respect to employment and occupation. These are the “core” principles of the ILO, and are incorporated into its “conventions” – an expression of the ILO labor standards. This is the heart of this venerable, tripartite organization, in which business, labor, and government representatives share a place at the table.

These conventions are not simply some amorphous “rights” dreamed up by union leaders. They are well-established international law, approved and reviewed by employers, unions, and government representatives.

Convention 87 on Freedom of Association and the Right to Organize  dates to 1948 and  states that workers “…. without distinction whatsoever, shall have the right to establish and … to join organizations of their own choosing…” Convention 98 on collective bargaining, approved in 1949, states that  ”Workers shall enjoy adequate protection against acts of anti-union discrimination in respect of their employment”.

There is a body of work and legal precedent on these Conventions that stretches back decades. It is worth noting that the ILO is no fly-by-night organization. It is the only United Nations agency that was also a part of the League of Nations.  Samuel Gompers, the first president of the American Federation of Labor, chaired the international commission that established it in 1919.

The Declaration insists that these rights, long embodied in international law, are “universal” – applying equally to all people everywhere, no matter how rich or poor the country. Most controversially, I suppose, for Gov. Walker and others, it asserts that economic growth alone will not ensure equity (i.e. fairness in opportunity) or social progress, nor will it end poverty. In other words, it takes more than the free market to grow a country.

ILO members (the United States is a founding member) have promised to respect these principles, whether or not they have ratified the conventions that embrace them. (The U.S. has only ratified the conventions dealing with the abolition of child labor and forced labor.)  

What is the U.S. view on the Declaration? Why hasn’t it ratified the conventions on freedom of association and the right to organize and bargain? Ratification of ILO conventions apparently is a complex thing for us, in light of our federal system.  Accordingly, it is U.S. policy not to ratify conventions unless all the states and the federal government are in conformity with them.  In this context, the business community has marshaled an impressive array of arguments opposing ratification, and arguing that that protecting freedom of association and the right to organize and bargain collectively conflicts with U.S. federal law and the laws of many states. These detailed legal arguments, intentionally or not, serve also to buttress critics’ case that the U.S. – both in law and in practice – has failed to adequately protect workers’ right to freedom of association.  

Our country enjoys an international reputation as a place that is hostile to workers’ rights, and especially to the right to organize and bargain collectively.  Anyone who has been paying attention to Wisconsin now knows why.  This is an unhappy, even dangerous moment for U.S. democracy. As Ronald Reagan put it, in a 1980 Labor Day address:

….where free unions and collective bargaining are forbidden, freedom is lost.

Of course, Reagan was referring to Poland’s Solidarnosc trade union, then repressed and harassed by a communist dictatorship. And we all know how that struggle turned out. In the end, the workers of Solidarnosc won.  The tempo of history has speeded up over the past 30 years. Perhaps Wisconsin’s GOP legislators should not sit easy in their seats.


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