The world economy has been in the doldrums since the financial crash of 2008. Employers are coordinating attacks on unions around the world in an attempt to shift the cost onto working people.
The attacks on workers’ right to organise has manifested itself in different ways: the trade union bill in the UK, attacks on collective bargaining in Finland, and major institutional attacks in the US: the freeloaders’ charter of “Right to Work” with the Friedrichs vs California Teachers Association judgement, and the decimation of public sector union’s bargaining rights in Wisconsin.
But the coordinated nature of the attacks is most obvious at the International Labour Organization (ILO); At the ILO, employers’ representatives – and supportive states – have attacked the right to strike since 2012.
The ILO is a tripartite body, made up of unions, employers and governments. It was created after the First World War, to “reflect the belief that universal and lasting peace can be accomplished only if it is based on social justice.” The world’s leaders realised that inequality and poverty were major causes of war and revolution. In the aftermath of the war, with the threat of the revolution hovering over much of the world, countries realised reform was necessary, and so they agreed to create a body of worldwide labour law, including basic texts on freedom of association and the right to strike.
The ILO works on consensus, and since 1919, it has developed global standards for rights at work, including recent campaigns to have domestic workers protected by labour law, and to end modern slavery. Collectively, these agreements have provided a global framework that countries have used as a basis for domestic labour law, and unions and companies have used in negotiations. ILO standards have inproved working conditions for millions across the world.
But employer representatives have stopped playing ball. In an interview in the Global Labour column, ILO worker representative and former general secretary of the French CGT union confederation, Bernard
Thibault, explains that “there’s an element among the employers’ organisations that no longer wants to have anything to do with a worldwide labour code.”
This is most evident in attacks on the Right to Strike, which has been implicit in ILO Convention 87 on union organising since 1948. Since 2012, employer bodies have engaged in a sustained and coordinated attack on this right in case after case.
According to Thibault,
“This is a general offensive. The employers’ position of principle is that there should be fewer laws and more enterprise-based collective bargaining – in other words, fewer rules that apply to all and more of a pick-and-choose rights menu – whereas in practice, wage-earners are far from being able to negotiate within their own workplace about the development of their own rights. At the world level, all of this translates into the argument that we should stop trying to achieve global uniformity on social issues and accept that we’re in an open, deregulated economy.”
Employer representatives attacking unions also have the support of some member states, notably Qatar, which is trying to defend and advance its model of modern day slavery.
Ultimately, the Workers’ Group at the ILO – made up of union representatives – has been able to fight off the assaults, with the support of some states. But we are seeing the chilling effects of this assault everywhere:
In Spain, a group of trade unionists is facing 8 years in jail after a strike against austerity measures. The workers were arrested at a picket of an Airbus factory, and convicted under a law from Franco’s dictatorship that hasn’t been applied since 1972.
In South Korea, there has been a major assault on unions, with activists currently holed up in union offices to avoid arrest. In Turkey, union workers have been shot by security forces. At Marikana in South Africa, striking miners were shot dead by police.
There are countless examples of this around the world: unions are the main force defending workers from total corporate dominance, and so it is open season.
We need universal employment rights now more than ever. Global unemployment stands at 215 million. One in every two workers does not have an employment contract; only 1 in 4 has a stable employment relationship; 21 million people are subjected to forced labour; up to 168 million children are known to be working; and 23 million workers die every year due to work-related illnesses or accidents. Global companies have a hidden workforce of 116 million in their supply chains.
At a time when we ought to be even more demanding about respect for standards, employers have launched an offensive in the name of economic competitiveness and have gone so far as to turn basic rights, such as freedom of association, into bargaining chips.
Of course it’s not all doom and gloom: workers are fighting back, and winning too. But we can’t afford to be complacent: we need to share our successful strategies, and coordinate a response. We all need to think globally and engage with our global unions.
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