Wednesday, 18 February 2015

The Right to Strike is a Human Right

The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) have called for a day of action on the 18th February in support of the right to strike. Currently employer organisations, including the CBI, are opposing the accepted consensus- that has functioned well for the last 60 years- that the right to strike is implied by the core conventions of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and that the ILO should be able to rule on whether government restrictions on that right are fair or reasonable. The effect of this dispute has been to throw the normal workings of the ILO into disarray and to sabotage its ability to criticise many of the world’s worst regimes, leaving working people and trade unions vulnerable to brutal oppression.

For more information on this dispute see Stephen Russell’s excellent blog, available here.

In Europe the right to strike is covered under Article 11 of the European Convention of Human Rights. In a landmark case Wilson and Palmer V the United Kingdom (yup you can always rely on the UK to provide the landmark rulings!) the court ruled that:

“the Convention safeguards freedom to protect the occupational interests of trade union members by trade union action, the conduct and development of which the Contracting States must both permit and make possible. A trade union must thus be free to strive for the protection of its members' interests, and the individual members have a right, in order to protect their interests, that the trade union should be heard”.

It also stated that

"The grant of the right to strike, while it may be subject to regulation, represents one of the most important of the means by which the State may secure a trade union's freedom to protect its members' occupational interests."

It went on to say:

"The Court agrees with the Government that the essence of a voluntary system of collective bargaining is that it must be possible for a trade union which is not recognised by an employer to take steps including, if necessary, organising industrial action, with a view to persuading the employer to enter into collective bargaining with it on those issues which the union believes are important for its members' interests. Furthermore, it is of the essence of the right to join a trade union for the protection of their interests that employees should be free to instruct or permit the union to make representations to their employer or to take action in support of their interests on their behalf. If workers are prevented from so doing, their freedom to belong to a trade union, for the protection of their interests, becomes illusory. It is the role of the State to ensure that trade union members are not prevented or restrained from using their union to represent them in attempts to regulate their relations with their employers."

In this way the Court makes a very clear ruling that trade union freedoms are not simply about the freedom to exist or the freedom to recruit members, but genuinely turn on the ability of trade unions to defend their members’ interests. A trade union that is prevented from doing so, is prevented from accessing one of its fundamental freedoms under a democratic society and every trade union member within that organisation has suffered a breach of their Human Rights.

It is useful to consider the status of trade union freedoms within international law and to remember that trade unions are recognised at an international level to play a key role in defending the rights of vulnerable people, and are key to making the economy work for those at the bottom.

A quick glance across our own economy tells us that: wages have been stagnating for a decade; foodbanks are growing and low paid workers are the second largest group using them; use of zero hours contracts is widespread and growing; and the minimum wage falls quite far short of a living wage. All of which stands in stark contrast to the fact that the richest fifth of households have increased their share of total income from 35% in 1979 to 42% in 2011 and if this trend continues we will be back to Victorian levels of inequality within 20 years.

Our economy does not function well for those at the bottom and trade unions have a key role to play in reversing this picture, as institutions that help to balance out the power differentials that exist between employers and workers.

Yet rather than seeing a championing of trade union rights at a political level, we are often seeing regressive action and further restrictions on trade union freedoms, and the painting of trade unions as anti-democratic or suspicious organisations.

Just consider the recent debate about ballot thresholds for trade unions which the Prime Minister has declared ‘on the table’ for after the general election as he wants to see ‘fewer unnecessary strikes’ (whether the strike being necessary or not clearly being a matter for the Tory party rather than the workers affected by the industrial issue). The 50% turnout threshold, with no precedence in any other part of our democracy from General Elections to decisions taken by boards within companies, would have the effect- explicitly desired by the Prime Minister- of limiting the right to strike and thus further limiting the rights of trade unions to defend their members.

At what point do these actions become Human Rights breaches? Well that is for the court to decide but what is clear from the above judgement and many others taken by the court is that trade union rights and freedoms are considered in the round and if the right to strike is curtailed there would need to a compensatory increase in collective bargaining rights in order to protect the Human Rights of workers.

Given the state of our economy and the crisis that exists in living standards these rights seem ever more crucial. Currently the situation in Scotland seems better with the Government’s Working Together Review and the creation of a new Cabinet Secretary for Fair Work. While this is certainly positive there is still much to do to make the recommendations of the Review a reality, much a which may well run up to the sort of employer response which is having such a devastating impact at the ILO.

Whatever lies in front of us, however, it is important to remember that the right to strike is a Human Right but more than that the right of trade unions to defend their members’ interests is a Human Right and should not only be respected but facilitated.

Helen Martin- STUC


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