Penningtons Manches partner and Employer member of the International Labour Organisation (ILO), Chris Syder, explains the background.

Wednesday, 18 February 2015 is a global day of trade union action. The purpose is to defend “the right to strike, which is under attack by employer groups at the ILO”. The timing is notable as it precedes an important meeting of Employer Experts in the ILO who will specifically discuss the disputed ILO “right to strike” between 23 and 25 February in order to hopefully resolve the dispute.

The unions are globally coordinated and making good use of social media ahead of 18 February. Amongst others, the following action is expected:

  • Protests outside government offices where governments oppose the right to strike or referral to the rule of law through the International Court of Justice
  • Public protests against employers’ organisations
  • Public demonstrations
  • Social media actions including a planned “Thunderclap”.

This has arisen because the national employer organisations and national trade unions participating in the ILO have seriously fallen out in recent years over whether the “right to strike” and its modalities form part of Convention 87’s freedom of association obligations. Wednesday 18 February marks an unprecedented public escalation of the dispute.

The trade unions’ long held position is that the “right to strike” is already an intrinsic part of freedom of association and, therefore, part of Convention 87 regardless of its absence in the Convention 87 text itself. The unions consider the strike laws of many ILO members, including the UK, to be in serious breach of Convention 87. 

THE EMPLOYERS’ VIEW

The employer organisations do not dispute that a “right to strike” is recognised at the national level in numerous countries. They do, however, object to the development of an ILO “right to strike” and broad modalities via either the ILO Experts and/or the Committee on Freedom of Association into Convention 87. Indeed, when Convention 87 was originally negotiated after the Second World War, it was expressly agreed by the governments, employer organisations and trade unions not to include “right to strike” principles.

What is not in dispute is that the freedoms to associate and to bargain collectively are fundamental rights. However, the dispute has now grown to such an extent that some argue that the ILO’s constitutional principle of freedom of association intrinsically includes the “right to strike” so membership of the ILO obliges member states to comply with the “right to strike” regardless of whether they have ratified Convention 87. This would affect countries like USA and China who have not ratified Convention 87. 

CRITICAL MOMENT IN ILO HISTORY

The ILO is at a critical moment in its history. If the decision is made to accept that Convention 87 does include a “right to strike”, then will we see governments, like our own, amend their national laws and practices in order to comply with their ILO obligations? If the decision is made to accept that Convention 87 does not include a “right to strike”, then can the ILO constituents work together to provide coherent international guidance to national governments concerning strike action modalities that protect the freedoms to associate and to bargain collectively?

Time will tell whether the global day of action is effective in resolving this important legal, political and social dispute. 

Chris Syder is one of the 16 Employer Experts participating in the ILO meeting from 23-25 February and also the Employer Vice-Chairperson of the ILO’s Committee on Freedom of Association.