We all recognize the importance of the right to freedom of association: the right to form and join trade unions of our own choosing without interference from employers or governments. Without this right we would not be members and leaders of our trade unions, we would not be members of the IUF. We would not be here today.
Too often we treat freedom of association in terms of whether or not we have a recognized union. If our union is recognized we consider we have won the fight for freedom of association.
Of course recognition means different things in different situations. It could mean we have legal collective bargaining status, that our union is registered with the relevant authorities or simply that the employer allows our union to exist. In all these situations freedom of association is considered as having been won, and no more needs to be done. The remaining problems we face seem to be about management attitudes towards the union, bad faith in bargaining or getting our union to function properly.
Such a view risks reducing the meaning of freedom of association to simply an institutional or legal status. So our union is just an institution that represents workers. This sometimes leads to the absurd notion that we have a union because it is a natural counterpart in bipartitism and tripartitism. Or that tripartitism reserved a third seat for labour and our union fills that seat.
Let us be clear. Tripartitism exists because of struggle; because we forced our way in. Bipartitism or tripartitism in here exists because they fear what we can do out there. Cooperation grows not out of compromise but out of struggle and the respect and recognition won in that struggle. And while collective agreements reflect this struggle they cannot replace it.
This reminds us that freedom of association is not a status – it is a process. It is a process of continually defending our rights and interests, of continuously striving to access more rights to strengthen our union and to achieve the goals we (and generations of workers before us) set out to achieve when we formed the union.
One of the reasons we formed and joined the union was to have the collective power to improve working conditions, to make our jobs and our lives better and in doing so be treated with respect and dignity. Let us remember that in many of our countries workers sacrificed their jobs, their livelihoods, their freedom and even their lives to secure the right to freedom of association.
Our sisters and brothers were imprisoned and persecuted simply because they demanded their right to freedom of association – sacrificing their freedom in order for us to have our freedom; the freedom to have our unions and to be here today.
We must never forget our sisters and brothers – our comrades in struggle – who died for the right to freedom of association. If anything this sacrifice should remind us of the value of freedom of association. We must honour this sacrifice by defending freedom of association. We must honour it through our actions, every single day.
Yet many unions are defined by inaction rather than action. If they believe they are simply counterparts in relationships with employers and governments then there is no reason to take action, and there is no meaning in struggle. The struggle stops when they have two documents – a registration certificate and a collective agreement. At that moment they have forgotten their objectives; forgotten the purpose of the union. They have certainly forgotten the sacrifice.
Article 10 of the Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organise Convention, 1948 (No. 87) states:
“In this Convention the term organization means any organization of workers or of employers for furthering and defending the interests of workers or of employers.”
So the very notion of “organization” in freedom of association is defined by its purpose. It is not simply the fact that our union exists as an organization, but the purpose for which we organized: furthering and defending the interests of workers.
Furthering and defending our interests. That is why we created and joined our organization of workers. So if our organization – our union – is not able to further and defend our interests then we have not yet won our freedom of association. In other words anything that an employer or government does to prevent our union furthering and defending our interests is a violation of our right to freedom of association. It is not bad faith, it is not anti-union behaviour, it is not an unfair labour practice, it is a human rights violation.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) asserts:
Article 23 (4): Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his [her] interests.
This is not a suggestion or an option, it is a declaration of fact. Everyone. It does not say “for those whose employer is willing” or “for those whose government is ready”. It says everyone. And that is what makes the right to form and join a union a universal human right.
Again we see it is the purpose that matters. It is for the protection of our interests that we formed our union. So if the employer or government does anything to inhibit, restrict or undermine the ability of our union to protect our interests then it is a human rights violation.
No doubt we all agree that the right to freedom of association is a human right. But too often human rights are misunderstood as aspirational: “We aspire to the human right to freedom of association … one day … maybe.” There it is: doubt. We are not sure if we can actually secure this right now. Maybe later.
That is precisely what some parts of the ILO (and even some parts of the international trade union movement) suggest when they claim a government is “not ready” to ratify International Labour Conventions No.87 and No.98 and implement the laws, regulations and policies needed to guarantee freedom of association.
This suggests we can live our humanity in stages. Step by step we become more fully human. In the past (and sometimes even today) this was a concept integral to colonialism. We aspire to be civilized. We are not ready. It takes time. Step by step. We aspire to be civilized in the future, so for now we remain colonized.
That is the same misguided logic that underpins that part of the ILO (and the trade union movement) that believes governments are “not ready” to ratify and implement International Labour Conventions No.87 and No.98. They claim that technical assistance, projects, funding and training are needed to realize freedom of association. Step by step.
So once again we have gradations of being human. Where are we now? 45%, 67%, 72% human?
If in the past we had waited for military governments in several countries to be “ready“, then most of us would not be here today. We would be in prison, dead, missing or – worse – in a union that compromised with the military government and found a way to co-exist; a union that not only compromised our class interests but compromised our humanity. Under capitalism we are compelled to sell our labour power for wages. But we should not be compelled to sell our humanity too.
The response from others is often that “the situation is complicated”. Of course it is complicated. Colonialism was complicated. Child labour is complicated. But that does not mean we accept it. That does not mean we simply aspire to a day when there is no child labour. It means we take concerted action to eliminate child labour and rescue children from exploitation regardless of how difficult it might seem. Human rights cannot be put on hold.
Like all human rights the right to freedom from child labour is interrelated with other rights. Secure the right to education, the right to health care, the right to food, the right to housing and the right to a living wage for children’s parents, and we can secure the universal human right to freedom from child labour.
Another crucial aspect of securing access to our human rights is certainty.
The right to be here today. To assemble, to speak out, debate, make decisions. To know that this is our organization and no one can stop us from deciding on our policies and action plans. Certainty.
There can be no law or regulation to constrain us or to force us to second guess, “Is this legal?” If we have to ask “Is this is in accordance with the law?”, then the law fails to guarantee our rights and must be changed. If it is for any reason not legal or if the legal ramifications are unclear, then that already is a human rights violation in itself.
The right to food cannot be realized if there is uncertainty about the availability of food. The availability and accessibility of food is inherent in the right to food.
The right to water means there is water and if access is restricted then that restriction must be removed. If the cost of water is excessive to the point of restricting access then this is a human rights violation. So there must be certainty of access to water in order to exercise the human right to water, and the certainty it will not be taken away or obstructed tomorrow. That is all part of this human right.
Every obstacle, every uncertainty, is a human rights violation.
So the full realization of our rights is premised on certainty. The certainty that if we exercise our rights we will not hit a wall of restrictions, reprisals and retribution (or excuses). It is the certainty that if we seek to exercise our rights then we will access our rights.
We also need to restore the full meaning of freedom of association as a human right and to bring this into the everyday activities of our unions.
Too often when our universal human right to freedom of association is violated we call it union-busting, bad faith or an unfair labour practice.
Let us be clear what this means. Our human rights are violated. Rights that are universal. Rights that are integral to our very humanity. Rights that are absolutely necessary for us to defend and advance our interests in a system geared towards the exploitation and oppression of workers. And we call this brutal, vicious human rights violation an unfair labour practice?
In the bleak future portrayed in George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four (published in 1949) citizens are forced to use Newspeak. New words that strip everything of emotional or political meaning, of an awareness power, and of dangerous thoughts.
To refer to the violation of our universal human right to freedom of association as an “unfair labour practice” sounds very much like Newspeak. It is stripped of the dangerous thought that we must struggle. It is stripped of the notion that we are deprived of something essential to our humanity. It suggests a legal case – a correction – rather than a struggle for justice.
So file a legal case – that is also our right. But struggle too.
In many of our countries “freedom of association” is incorrectly translated in official policies, laws and regulations. Even the ILO Conventions and Declaration of Principles are incorrectly translated (and the local ILO offices apparently have done nothing to correct this).
In these official translations “association” is literally translated as an organization with membership. So freedom of association only means the freedom to be a member of an organization (to associate with others). There is no reference to the process of freedom of association – the right of workers to combine with the purpose of defending and advancing their interests. What is lost in translation is that the right to freedom of association includes the right to engage in those activities necessary to protect and advance our members’ interests.
This is one reason why the recent debate in the ILO on the right to strike is so fundamentally flawed. The employers’ group in the ILO claims that ILO Conventions No.87 and No.98 do not explicitly refer to the right to strike, so this right is not guaranteed. This position is absurd because the very meaning of freedom of association includes the right to engage in those activities necessary to defend and advance the interests of workers. Strike action (the withdrawal of our labour-power) is one of these activities. So the right to freedom of association includes the right to organize and bargain collectively and the right to strike. Moreover it includes the certainty that we can resort to such action whenever necessary.
Instead of trying to compromise with the employers’ political attack on universal human rights, we must restore the right to freedom of association to its full meaning both in words and in action. We must constantly defend trade union rights; constantly defend and widen the scope and reach of recognition; constantly defend the organizing space we have won and expand that space.
The right to freedom of association includes everything from union notice boards, trade union leave, the election of union committees, the structure and composition of union committees, the composition of bargaining teams, our freedom to choose how our union organizes and bargains and the right to strike.
In this sense we must fight for freedom of association every single day. Every trade union activity, every bargaining demand, every negotiation, every protest action – even collecting union dues – must be expressed in a way that defends, consolidates and expands the rights related to freedom of association.
We must always remind ourselves that our union exists because of the struggle for freedom of association.
We must always honour the sacrifices made by our sisters and brothers past and present whose struggle made freedom of association a fundamental part of our lives today.
We must always continue this struggle because future generations of workers need freedom of association to defend and improve their lives. Their fight for freedom of association is their hope for tomorrow and our responsibility today.
So let’s fight for the right to freedom of association every single day.
Hidayat Greenfield, IUF Asia/Pacific Regional Secretary