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!”