When employer representatives dropped their bid to prevent the International Labor Organization (ILO) from recognizing the right to strike, it was an important victory for workers. Unfortunately, it may turn out to be a short-lived one, as employers may open a new front in the long-running battle over workers’ rights.
The two-year agreement on February 24 ends the ILO employer representatives’ boycott of discussion of strike-related cases by the organization’s Committee of Experts, allowing the ILO to continue examining the policy and practice of governments around the world regarding strikes. While employers have dropped their opposition to talks, they continue to argue that the right to strike is not a fundamental right under ILO Conventions, even though the ILO had recognized that right for decades.
An unusually powerful statement by the United States paved the way for the compromise. The US abandoned its earlier ambivalence and strongly defended the right to strike as “one of the essential means through which workers and their organizations may promote and defend their economic and social interests.” Trade unions hailed the agreement and suspended plans to move the dispute to the International Court of Justice.
But the new deal will face a test as early as this week when a separate ILO body – the Committee on Freedom of Association – takes up a new set of complaints and cases, including some involving the right to strike. Some observers fear employers might try to challenge this committee’s mandate and competency to address such cases, as it did with the Committee of Experts. That would paralyze the other half of the ILO supervisory system.
The new agreement should extend to both bodies so that the ILO can do its work on the right to strike. Governments, such as the US, should continue to strongly support the right to strike and the ILO supervisory system, especially if this dispute migrates to the Committee on Freedom of Association. The right to strike is too important and the consequences for workers too severe to let employers continue trying to eviscerate this right.