At the start of the 2017 Governing Body meeting of the International Labour Organisation (ILO), the Director General Guy Ryder stated that ‘the first signal we need to transmit is that tripartism works, and works well’, and that ‘the shared commitment to compromise and find consensus is what makes tripartism work.’ The ILO is the only UN organisation that makes decisions and sets standards through dialogue between workers, employers, and governments. And yet, there is a spectre at this feast of social dialogue: namely, whether these standards encompass a right to strike.
The 1948 convention on Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organise (C87), and the 1949 convention on Right to Organise and Collective Bargaining (C98) were for a long time presumed to implicitly include a right to strike. This presumption was first challenged by the employers’ group in 1996, and then again in 2011 when the UN explicitly linked the ILO’s 1998 Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights of Work to C87 and C98. These expressions of discomfort with the specifics of C87 culminated at the 2012 Conference, when the proceedings of the Committee on the Application of Standards (CAS) were halted by a refusal from the employers’ group to consider any cases put forward to the CAS that referenced strikes. To make the point that C87 should not be interpreted as protecting a right to strike action, the employers’ representatives utilised tactics often pursued by workers in situations of conflict: firstly causing a work stoppage and, secondly, leading a walkout. No cases were discussed – the employers’ group had brought the machinery of the ILO to a standstill.
To resolve the dispute, a sentence stating that the employers’ group did not agree with the inclusion of strikes in C87 was added to judgements on cases, but the workers’ group opposed this addition in 2014. Government representatives attempted to bridge the divide in opinion between employers and workers over C87 by noting that, while protecting strikes is an essential part of freedom of association, it is not an absolute right and is regulated by nation states. However, it was a government policy that led to a worsening of the situation in 2015, when the UK government’s Trade Union Act was challenged by the Trade Union Congress on the basis of C87. In response, the UK employers’ group, the Confederation of British Industry, expressed their discontent by quitting. Although the largest employers group in the UK, they no longer participate in the ILO secretariat to the employers’ group, the International Organisation of Employers.
From conversation at the 2017 Governing Body, it appears that the three groups have now reached a tacit consensus over C87 by avoiding the topic of strikes — or, as one representative put it, only mentioning strikes sotto voce. Yet the responses to Guy Ryder’s budget proposals demonstrate a continuing potential for disagreement between the tripartite bodies: a trade union representative emphasised the importance of building ‘respect’ for freedom of association and collective bargaining, and an employers’ representative expressed concern that tripartism and social dialogue were under threat. Taking into account the disagreement over C87, these concerns could be contradictory. If building respect for freedom of association includes respect for strike action, it could threaten tripartism by causing more work stoppages, walkouts and quitting by the employers’ representatives. On the other hand, if tripartism is to be defended by side-lining a right to strike action, then is freedom of association really being respected?
Grace Whitfield is a postgraduate taught student in a 1+3 ESRC doctoral course at the Sheffield Methods Institute at the University of Sheffield where she is studying Social Research.