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International Trade Union Confederation

Action at the ILO to Defend
the Right to Strike

Global Employer Crusade Against Convention 87 and the Right to Strike
Workers need Governments to stand up for workers’  rights at the ILO and resist the aggressive attack of employers, who are using the ILO as a Trojan horse to erode workers’ rights everywhere starting with an attack on decades of jurisprudence on the right to strike”
The ITUC 2013 global opinion poll, conducted by international polling firm TNS, revealed that more than 90% of people support rights with 99% support for the right to strike for better wages, conditions and health and safety
Despite the overwhelming public support, global employers have launched a crusade to undermine rights, starting at the International Labour Organisation. The ITUC general Secretary has written to affiliate leaders to request them to take direct action in regard to this matter. Link to the letter.
The ILO, which is the UN body responsible for employment and rights at work, has served as the ultimate reference point for international law on labour issues since it was founded in 1919.  As early as 1927, the ILO explicitly recognised that the right to strike existed and was linked directly to freedom of association – a recognition which was not challenged by employers for more than 60 years.
The ILO’s tripartite structure ensures that governments, employers and trade unions alike are represented in its decision-making.  It has highly-developed and reliable “supervisory” mechanisms for assessing whether the laws of each member government complies with the basic requirements of ILO membership, as well as the provisions of ILO Conventions (treaties developed through its tripartite discussions) which the government has ratified.  Of the 189 Conventions, Convention 87 (Freedom of Association) and Convention 98 (Collective Bargaining) are the most important in terms of balancing the rights and interests of employers and workers.  Indeed, they are considered “fundamental” and their principles to be respected even if the government has not ratified them.
Amongst the ILO’s supervisory mechanisms, two have special importance:
*The tripartite Committee of Freedom of Association (CFA), which examines complaints made by unions or employers against governments where laws on freedom of association and/or collective bargaining violate Conventions 87 or 98 – the few governments which have not ratified these Conventions can still be subject to judgements by the CFA;
*The independent Committee of Experts (CEACR*), which is comprised of 20 top-level international legal experts from around the world, including Supreme Court judges, labour law specialists and legal scholars.  It reports on how ILO member-governments adhere to Conventions they have ratified, and also provides analysis on key issues affecting the entire ILO membership.  It was set up to provide an independent “umpire” on labour issues.
Both of these Committees have, for many decades, affirmed that ILO Convention 87 recognises the right to strike.  The CFA, which includes employer representatives, first published its jurisprudence supporting the right to strike in 1952.  137 of the 151 governments which have ratified Convention 87 did so since 1952, so they clearly understood that in ratifying the Convention, they recognised that the right to strike exists in ILO jurisprudence.  The CEACR, beginning in 1959 and on many occasions since, has recognised that Convention 87 does include the right to strike.
The CFA reports to the ILO Governing Body (which is also tripartite) and the CEACR reports to a Committee (Committee on the Application of Standards, CAS) which meets each year during the ILO annual Conference.
In 1992, employer representatives in the Committee on the Application of Standards took the first steps to try and eliminate decades of ILO jurisprudence, arguing for the first time that Convention 87 does not mean that workers have any right to strike.  Prior to that, employers had argued that the right to strike should be limited and subject to conditions, but they had not challenged many findings of both the CFA and the CEACR that support the right to strike in international law and specifically ILO Convention 87.  In 1994 and 1997 they adopted a more reasonable approach.
However a “new breed” of employer representatives, some of them lawyers rather than employers as such, have now begun a new crusade against labour rights beginning with the right to strike at the ILO annual conferences in 2012 and 2013.  In 2012 they brought the whole CAS to a standstill, putting forward legal arguments at odds with decades of employer recognition of ILO findings, and stopping the 2012 ILO Conference from hearing cases of severe and in some cases life-threatening violations of workers’ rights.
If the “new breed” employer delegates succeed in their mission to re-write history and eliminate a central pillar of the ILO’s legal findings, the role and effectiveness of the ILO as one of the most successful UN agencies will be severely undermined.  Link to the legal briefing of the ITUC
But it doesn’t stop there.
Many countries have adopted laws and even written Constitutions which protect the right to strike, based on the very ILO jurisprudence that employers are now trying to eliminate. This could open the way to challenges to the very bedrock of labour legislation in many countries – good news for employer-friendly law firms and unscrupulous employers, but very bad news for workers and for governments which rely on mature and balanced industrial relations systems.
The ILO is also a persuasive voice in favour of decent labour laws in countries that don’t yet have them – countries such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar, where millions of migrant workers are subjected to appalling exploitation.  A strong ILO, rooted in the realities of the global labour market with all the obligations and rights of decent employment standards, is a powerful force for reform.  Weakening the ILO would deprive those workers of hope, in countries where the absence of the right to strike is at the root of abuse and dangerous working conditions.
The world displayed wisdom and maturity when it founded the ILO in 1919, providing working people with an international framework and an alternative to open conflict between workers and employers.  Weakening the ILO and eliminating the right to strike, especially at this crucial time when workers are increasingly vulnerable to exploitation, would turn the clock back 100 years and leave working people at the mercy of employers.
History has shown, with the defeat of apartheid, the struggles against dictatorships and for liberation from political and economic repression, that working people will show their determination for justice against intolerable odds.  Whether “new breed” employers like it or not, workers will continue to take strike action when there is no alternative.
Governments need to recognise and understand the risks.  They need to stand up to the bully tactics employers are using at the ILO, and side with their own peoples on this most fundamental issue.  So far, this latest fight for the right to strike and the integrity of the ILO supervisory system has mainly been confined to the protocols and procedures of the ILO, but extensive dialogue between employer and union representatives has not resulted in agreement.  The right of all workers to take strike action, against dangerous and unhealthy work and for dignity in the workplace is at stake. Link to the ITUC General Council document
The ITUC General Council has taken a decision to secure the support of Governments and where possible reasonable employers. Link to the ITUC General Council document
We request affiliates to:
  1. Send the model letter attached to their Government leader; link to the model letter
  2. Request a discussion with the head of government and minister responsible and report back to the ITUC on their support or otherwise; and,
  3. Organise an official meeting with employer organisations to discuss the consequences of the position being taken by employer representatives at the ILO and consider follow-up action.
*CEACR = Committee of Experts on the Application of Conventions and Recommendations