Sunday, 1 March 2015

Securing the Right to Strike: ILO Convention 87 on Freedom of Association


Buy it: Read it
In his lifelong analysis of industrial conflict and strike action the eminent industrial relations academic Richard Hyman was attempting to tackle his central concern around the relationship between industrial action and class consciousness. This analysis is epitomised best in his 1972 publication Strikes.

On first reading the book as a student at Ruskin, and just previously having organised and led a strike with CPSA members at the then Equal Opportunities Commission in Manchester, I was particularly struck in the chapter on the sociology of strike action by what I considered to be the simple, matter of fact notion that structural influences condition workers' conscious understanding of the implications of strike action.

Hyman argues that there exists a 'structured dialectic of social structure and social consciousness'. Having first become a trade unionist when Thatcher was Prime Minister and experiencing her early experiments on marketisation with the civil service as the laboratory, and thereafter campaigning against the banning of trade unions at GCHQ, you couldn't but understand that any trade union resistance during this era was predicated on a response to the early phase of neo-liberalism in Britain.

Wind forward 30 years' later and the 'structured dialectic' was being realised at an international level through the assault by the employer's group at the international labour organisation (ILO) on the right to strike as it was framed in ILO Convention 87 on freedom of association.

There is an summary excellent article (written as a GLU Labour Column piece) by Jeffrey Vogt (legal adviser to the ICTU) which links to a much more detailed report he wrote on the employer's stance:

Interestingly the strategy of the employer's group is revealed in a YouTube interview with Chris Syder who is spokesperson for the employer's group at the ILO: ttp://

As Syder reveals in this 2011 video UK employers and the Coalition understand that any attempt to dismantle the right to strike in the UK (which is being threatened by the Tories) will trigger an appeal to the ILO. Thus the dismantling of the right in Convention 87 would diminish the possibility of the ILO agreeing with the UK labour movement that there had been a Convention breach.

See the Syder video interview here:

Thankfully, the employer's strategy has failed and, as announced late last week, they employer's capitulated as they were wary of the ILO dispute being referred to the International Court of Justice  (ICJ) which is a requirement of the ILO constitution in such situations.

In criticising the employer's group actions, and celebrating the victory, the ITUC General Secretary, Sharan Burrow justifiably said:  “Having created the crisis, employer groups and some governments were refusing to allow the issue to be taken to the International Court of Justice even though the ILO Constitution says it should be. We’ve now managed to negotiate a solution which protects the fundamental right of workers to take strike action, and allows the ILO to resume fully its work to supervise how governments respect their international labour standards obligations.”.

For most workers the 'structured dialectic' will be understood in local terms, although typically for public sector workers, like me as a CPSA activist in my much younger days, national political considerations are key influences also. The failed attempt by the employer's group at the ILO reveals that, as we have always known and understood, that there are critically important international influences at play undermining the political and economic status of workers' right.

How and whether workers can gain a conscious appreciation of this in the context of strike action is a critically important role for trade unions, because, on the back of any such education, is the need for workers anywhere in the world to understand that their strike action (and its outcomes) is irrevocably associated with the action of others.

Whilst it's unlikely that Hyman et al make for bedtime reading for  those that comprise the ILO's employer's group, it is clear that they understand the dangers of the dialectic, and the assault on Convention 87 was a brazen attempt to ease national deregulation of industrial action rights further.

We must be alert to the next stage in their strategy.

In Solidarity


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