ILO Core Conventions. the web, and global trade union organizing

Back in the 1930s, CIO organizers in the American South would go to factory gates and hand out leaflets with pictures of President Roosevelt, decorated with the national flag. And the leaflets would proclaim in a very large type: “You have the right to join a union.”
At the time, the right to join a union, particularly in the South, existed on paper only. The newly-enacted National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) did guarantee the right to form and join unions, but in parts of the country where racial segregation was still practiced, and where the Ku Klux Klan waged a campaign of terror, the NLRA was little more than a scrap of paper.
Nevertheless, it was a very important organizing tool for the rapidly growing CIO unions. It told workers that they had a legal right to join a union. The law, which for so long had been used to suppress unions, seemed to finally be on their side.
The world today is a little bit like the 1930s in this sense: There is a law which guarantees workers the right to join and form trade unions — everywhere in the world. That law consists primarily of the eight “core conventions” of the International Labour Organization.


For trade union organizers, the most important of those “core conventions” are number 87 (Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organize, 1948) and number 98 (Right to Organize and Collective Bargaining, 1949). At the heart of these conventions is the assertion that workers everywhere in the world have “the right to establish and … to join organisations of their own choosing”.
In many countries, those conventions are little more than a scrap of paper, just like the NLRA was in many U.S. states seventy years ago. And this is the case even for countries which have ratified those conventions and which are bound to enforce them. For example, Colombia ratified both conventions 87 and 98 nearly thirty years ago, and yet remains today the most dangerous country on the planet for trade unionists.
Just as trade union organizers would use the law (even if unenforced) as a tool for recruiting members in the American South, so today unions around the world often mention the ILO core conventions.
They come up again and again; most recently, I heard them raised in a discussion about Iraq. The Iraqi unions are eager for the country’s new Labour Code to incorporate those conventions. Someone suggested that the website of the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions should even link to the texts.
So I went on the web to look for them. Imagine my surprise when I searched on Google for “ILO core conventions” and the first result (from the ILO website) produced a broken link. When I tried to view what is perhaps the best known of the core conventions, Number 87 (Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organize), I received an error message. Even if the link had worked, it was not the kind of web address that one easily remembers, beginning with http://ilolex.ilo.ch:1567/ — and so on. (The full address would take up a line or two of this article.)
Once I found the text of convention 87, I thought it would be interesting to see how many web pages linked to it — this being an indication of its popularity. According to Google, only 80 pages (nearly all of them pages on the ILO website), link to the web page with the text of convention 87. By comparison, well over 1,500 sites link to LabourStart’s front page.
It struck me that one would have to look rather hard to find the core conventions, and even harder if the languages you wanted them in weren’t English, French or Spanish. Though there are translations of the core conventions into a number of languages, these are scattered around the various ILO websites, including regional sites, in a somewhat haphazard manner. In some cases, such as Arabic, they exist only in PDF format, not as web pages, meaning that they will not turn up in many searches.
I think it’s essential that these core conventions be accessible to trade unionists everywhere. That means they should be easy to find, and available in as many languages as possible.
Towards that end, there’s now a new section of LabourStart located at http://www.labourstart.org/rights which will list in the simplest and clearest way possible all eight core conventions in every available language. As more languages become available, the list will expand. If you go online today and search Google for “ILO core conventions”, you’ll see a little ad in the upper right corner of the page reading “ILO core conventions: You have a legal right to join or form a trade union.” Click on that link and you’re taken to LabourStart’s new page with links to every ILO core convention.
This is a step forward, but only a very small step. We should be working to ensure that the core conventions are available in dozens of languages, including translations into many new ones. They should be in HTML format, and made easily searchable. There should be a facility to request that the texts of core conventions be emailed, particularly to people in developing countries without web access, or for whom access is expensive, or whose access to the web is censored by their governments. And of course there should be print versions of all the conventions, with explanatory text, available free of charge in many languages.
Back in the 1930s, millions of unorganized workers in the US learned about their new rights to join trade unions not from the government, but from union organizers. So it will be in the 21st century, as unions organizing globally take advantage of existing international agreements and laws. We must be sending out a loud and clear message to unorganized workers in places like Colombia, China and Iraq, saying “You have the right to join a union!”

11 comments

  1. Mark Kumwenda

    I congratulate the person who started the trade unions, many companies and organisations can not descriminate on the basis of gender,disability,race or unfairly dismiss an individual based on these conditions.
    In the past many Companies could get our with this but today everyone has the right to legal representation guided by the unions or the state.
    As a union we reprent workers rights in terms of their conditions of employments,increments and dismissals.
    Viva unions.

  2. John Daniel

    You say, “We must be sending out a loud and clear message to unorganized workers in places like Colombia, China and Iraq, saying “You have the right to join a union!” Quite correct, but you forgot to mention all the other capitalist countries (especially the U.S.), where merely stating those rights may get you fired. Time to organize – without illusions.

  3. Dave Smith

    John has made an important point.
    I live in Trinidad and Tobago and the right to freedom of association is written into the Constitution. In addition, our labour law makes it illegal to take action against workers for joining or becoming involved in unions. Try telling that to the employers who dismiss at will once they find out workers are organising.
    In addition, although our country, like many others, has signed up to most of the core Conventions, our domestic legislation makes organising difficult and puts serious and severe restrictions on the right to take industrial action.
    Whilst, understandably and rightly, we highlight places like Colombia, the reality is that in many countries that outwardly appear “free” and “democratic” there remain many real practical obstacles to organising.

  4. Kenneth L. OKE

    We are all in this together!(Red Green). Unions must care about ALL Workers, even those without a contract. Everything of value has a contract, what is more valuable then your lifes Labor? Money in the economy, is like the blood in your body, it most flow constantly to all parts & can be not be stopped or you will die. A contract covers a value given, for a value received. Money is not the only thing of value, there is also the dignity of Labor. Without dignity. there is no value – KLO

  5. Lewis Wright

    IM a retired longshoremen in the US I am trying to help stop an attack against Chilean dockworkers. What the companies were unsuccessful in getting at the bargaining table they are trying now to get through the courts (both civil and military). My question is are there laws or treaties related to singling out and attempting to murder a union leader in the international trade arena. Do trade treaties give preference to companies that meet certain levels of behavior?
    See story below.
    Thank you.
    Assault on Chile’s main trade union leader
    Police brutality in Chile
    Simply demanding economic rights has become a high-risk activity in Chile. In Iquique, the dockworkers’ leader Jorge Silva, one of the founders of the International Dockworkers Council (IDC), was brutally attacked by the Chilean police – the carabineros

  6. Rajiv Dabhadkar

    Dear Eric;
    I appreciate your efforts in making an attempt to preclude the cause by sending out a message to workers.
    However, in the capitalist nations,emphatetically the US, having an organization for “imported technology workers” simply doesn’t work for fear of a backlash.
    Though I feel educating the workers could necessitate the ‘why’ behind forming an organization.
    And I share your beliefs as well
    Good Work, Eric

  7. Rick Grylls

    Keep up the good work Eric.
    Our local has been working at organizing the last two years and we have four new contracts for 300 workers. The time is now and this information will help and your efforts are bringing people of the world together.
    Workers of the World Unite
    Rick Grylls President of The Canadian Mine Mill and Smelter Workers Union Local 598/Canadian Auto Workers in Sudbury Ontario.

  8. James Freeley

    Good Article, obviously the more information that workers have about their rights the better their chances of organizing. While all the comments are good, I am especially intrigued by Kenneth Oke’s
    statement of the necessity of unions taking up the struggle for all workers. This is something many of us have believed for years.
    There is no doubt that workers around the world are in for hard times in the immediate future. Your efforts in providing valuable resources will be of immense help in the struggles to come.
    Jim Freeley NPMHU Local 300 (Retired)

  9. Stuart Black

    Your comments on Iraq and the lack of translation
    into accessible languages with web links in relation to ILO conventions are excellent and hit very squarely at Bush’s claim for democracy in Iraq. I am interested to know if people who made Iraqi printworkers were intimidated and indeed those making publicity for the various different parties. Comments on an accessible and so democratic election is impossible if in Iraq the voters were unable to understand the various
    languages and so different points of views of the various parties.
    I am a humble & not always very good poet myself
    and am trying to link with other poets to write
    a series of short poems which contain all the phonectic sounds of various languages within one book as a tool to pronounciation working on the principle that poems are easier to remember and they would be short which saves time in pronounciation. This is an impossible task to complete on my own of which I am glad with my not brilliant English and limited French. At present I am awaiting for a reply from Oxfam to enable any future book and indeed any CD or possible web downloads to be created as a possible fundraiser for the organisation. If you are interested in this idea anyway, especially if you are an educational psychologist than please get in touch Stuart Black scribbbleabc2001@yahoo.co.uk
    I am sure talking about work related issues could assist union democracy

  10. Anne Marie MacInnis

    Dear Eric
    I have been given the opportunity to work as a community based organizer with our local and national union for the past six months. Unorganized workers are fearful of lossing their jobs if company representatives find out they are involved in an organizing drive. NO ONE will know whether a union card has been signed or not, this information is confidential. Workers ask how much union dues they will have to pay. Once our structure is explained we speak about dues being like a car or house insurance. You may never have to use the insurance but it is there in the event you need assistance or security. We recently held a meeting for members of a newly organized workplace and our national representative commented that companies own the property, the business, the machines etc and they also own the workers if there is no collective agreement. So true! A collective agreement ensures you have rights in your workplace and a process to correct grievances.As activists we must lobby the government for change regarding our current labour laws in Ontario. I believe I am fortunate to belong to a progressive union that protects ALL workers and advances their needs and promotes a healthy, safe workplace and community.
    In Solidarity
    Anne Marie MacInnis
    Mine Mill 598/CAW

  11. Rob Landow

    I can foresee other communication problems – especially the lack of access to the internet and censorship by some newspapers. These will combine to help Governments & businesses indoctrinate the workers. We are “Union bashed” in Australia by most of the (Packer – Murdoch) media & Government. AND this is a developed lucky country (we have a large percentage of internet users)!! I wonder how many workers in India, Iran, Iraq, South America, etc have the same ability to access a variety of different points of view?
    Looks like standing outside work places, delivering information to members is not as ancient as one might think!! (I, personally, did this last year in Australia as laws prohibit me handing out material which criticises my employer on the grounds of my work place!!). Aren’t some of these countries being Governerned under “Classical Liberalism” economics (C. 1600′s)? Handing out leaflets is then quite modern!!!