Employers around the world are challenging the right to strike 70 years onwards!

Article by Petros Petrou, member of the Office of the General Secretary of the WFTU and member of the General Council of the Pancyprian Federation of Labour (PEO) of Cyprus

Sunday 24 March 2024, “Haravgi” newspaper

Employers all over the world, after seven decades, have “discovered” that the Right to Strike is not covered by the International Labour Organization Conventions!

The International Labour Organization (ILO) is the UN’s tripartite organization on labour issues with the participation of the governments of its member states, the “Workers’ Group” and the “Employers’ Group” represented through the – admittedly problematic and unrepresentative – ILO’s operating procedures and regulations.

A brief historical reference

Since 1948 the right to strike has been covered and protected by ILO conventions. More specifically, with the decisive role of the World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU), Convention 87 on the Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organise (C87: Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organise) was created which has since been commonly accepted as protecting the right to strike.

Around 1989, the Employers’ Group tentatively begins to raise “questions” about whether Convention 87 covers the right to strike. This questioning gradually escalates until 2012, when – 70 years after the Convention was concluded – employers actively deny and obstruct the supervisory procedures of the ILO Committee of Experts related to Convention 87.

On 10 and 11 November 2023, during the 349th Session of the ILO Governing Body at its headquarters in Geneva, two special meetings were held, which concluded with a majority decision to refer Convention C87 to the International Court of Justice to rule on the issue. The decision of the International Court of Justice is binding under the ILO Constitution.

What applies in reality

For the World Federation of Trade Unions it is clear that the sacred and non-negotiable right to strike is directly and inextricably linked to the right to organise and engage in trade union activity. The right to strike is enshrined and is full in line with the spirit and framework and in the light of the object and purpose of Convention 87. Furthermore, it does not lead to a result that is manifestly unreasonable or unjustifiable especially as Article 3(3.1) and 3.2 are concerned which state the following:

1. Workers’ and employers’ organisations shall have the right to draw up their constitutions and rules, to elect their representatives in full freedom, to organise their administration and activities and to formulate their programmes.

2. The public authorities shall refrain from any interference which would restrict this right or impede the lawful exercise thereof.

It is obvious that the effective exercise of the freedom of association and the right to organise, as well as the effective ability of worker’s trade unions to organise their administration and activities and to formulate their programmes cannot be perceived and implemented without the resulting unimpeded use of the most decisive form of trade union struggle, namely the strike.

The above self-evident position is in line with the interpretation given to date by the ILO’s own Committee of Experts, an interpretation which for almost half a century has been accepted even by the Employers’ group.

The crux of the matter

It is no coincidence that the questioning of the right to strike had begun around 1989, when the balance of power and the international correlation of forces were changing drastically and a deliberate attack was launched by capital and the employers at all levels against labour, trade union and social gains.

It is no coincidence that in the long period of the many successive capitalist crises we are experiencing, along with the vicious and all-out attack on working people’s wages and other labour and social rights, the attack on the violation of trade union and democratic freedoms is intensifying.

Particularly in conditions of rising prices and inflation, where labour power is being devalued and working people’s living standards are deteriorating, the attack on democratic and trade union freedoms is growing which aims to silence working people, limit their ability to defend their class interests and put forward their just demands.

The nature of the disagreement

The World Federation of Trade Unions unequivocally declares that despite and beyond any procedures provided for in the ILO Constitution and Rules of Procedure and despite the referral of the interpretation of the Convention to the International Court of Justice, the nature of the disagreement is not, and cannot be exhausted in a legalistic debate and procedure which always involves risks and clouds the real substance of labour issues and disputes. The class-based trade union movement denounces the questioning of the right to strike and fights for its legal, institutional and contractual safeguarding in all countries across the world.

Nevertheless, it is well known that even the conventions whose interpretation is not disputed are being violated on a daily basis in countless workplaces, even in countries that have ratified them and are therefore obliged to apply them. At the same time, violations are still being recorded in areas and rights covered by the ILO’s “five fundamental rights” which the member states are obliged to apply, which underlines the need for effective methods of safeguarding working people’s gains and rights in practice.

It is quite clear that the existence of a class- orientated and militant trade union movement is the essential, decisive and irreplaceable parameter to ensure that both the right to strike, as well as contracts, collective bargaining, labour legislation and working people’s gains and achievements are not mere declarations, but are actually implemented in practice. The WFTU calls for a struggle to be waged in every country, sector and work place to secure the sacred right to strike in practice.

Regardless of whatever decision the International Court of Justice takes, history has fully demonstrated that when working people are united and realize their power, regardless of whatever institutional and legal framework may be in place, they can enforce their right and just cause in practice.