Keith Ewing – Workers’ rights are under threat across the world

Professor Keith EwingIn UK, US and Europe, the depletion of collective bargaining threatens workers’ economic security and their human rights.

Dr Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis on this day in 1968. He was there to support striking sanitation workers, fighting for the right to have their union recognised by their employer; fighting for the right to collective bargaining.

Today is also a day of international solidarity with the public service workers of Wisconsin, whose right to bargain collectively has been stripped away by legislation sponsored by state governor Scott Walker, a man who has led the great state of Wisconsin to pariah status.

But as we stand in solidarity with brothers and sisters in Wisconsin, we do so in the knowledge that theirs is not a struggle confined to a single US state. Nor – as the neoliberal strategy of Governor Walker stretches to other states – is it a uniquely US problem. It is a global problem, demanding a global response.

European workers too are seeing the erosion of hard-won collective bargaining rights, also as a result of the greed of the bankers, who have emerged from the financial crisis unscathed. In the UK the erosion of bargaining rights is taking place by stealth. Although collective bargaining machinery still exists in local government for example, friends in public service unions tell me it is a long time since they had a collective agreement on pay or on other terms and conditions of employment.

Public sector unions are finding themselves on the sharp end of “section 188 notices”, in which employers issue notices of mass dismissal (of thousands of employees at a time), and offer to re-employ the workers concerned on inferior terms. These new terms are imposed without the agreement of the trade union or the workers, who have no choice but to accept. Sometimes it involves a repudiation of a collective agreement, which the union is powerless to defend. Collective agreements in this country are not legally binding, and the only sanction open to workers and their unions – industrial action – is so fraught with legal dangers as to often be beyond use.

All this is being done under cover of an EU directive that was designed to protect workers facing redundancy by requiring the employer to give as much advance notice as possible and to consult with the union to find alternatives, to reduce numbers to be made redundant, and to ameliorate the consequences. Protective legislation is used as a licence by employers to undermine collective agreements and terms and conditions of employment.

But it is not only in the UK where the bankers are calling the shots. In Greece, workers and trade unions have been told by the European Commission that their labour laws are to be made more flexible, which means their collective agreements must become more decentralised, which means in turn that fewer people are to be protected by collective bargaining.

This marks a global assault on the human rights of workers everywhere. Claims about violations of human rights are not to be made lightly, for fear of devaluing a fragile currency. But workers’ rights are human rights, and the right to bargain collectively is recognised by international law as an essential aspect of the right to freedom of association.

At international level the right to bargain collectively is expressly recognised by the two core conventions of the ILO, the UN agency of which 183 countries are members, all bound by a constitutional principle to promote freedom of association. Conventions fleshing out that principle impose duties on member states, which include a duty to promote collective bargaining.

That principle is embedded not only in international standards, but in regional treaties as well, including the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights of 2000. But although there is now recognition at EU level of the right to bargain collectively, the European Commission is also promoting a “competitiveness pact” designed to reduce employment conditions and eliminate collective bargaining.

These attacks at EU level – undermining the post-80s Social Europe settlement – have attracted little publicity, though they have been strongly condemned. Even the traditionally mild–mannered and consensual ETUC has adopted an uncharacteristically strident position, condemning the EU “competitiveness pact” as an “attack on collective bargaining” leading Europe to a “dead end”.

On the day before he died on 4 April 1968, Dr King addressed the sanitation workers of Memphis and famously said:

“You are demanding that this city will respect the dignity of labour. So often we overlook the work and the significance of those who are not in professional jobs, of those who are not in the so-called big jobs. But let me say to you tonight that whenever you are engaged in work that serves humanity and is for the building of humanity, it has dignity and it has worth.”

Dr King’s vision of the dignity and worth of labour can only be realised by the very architecture that governments throughout the world now seem determined to destroy. In this country, our forebears saw clearly the importance of trade unions, and the role of collective bargaining as a means of raising wages, equalising incomes, stimulating demand, creating jobs and reducing unemployment.

But as Dr King realised, the case for collective bargaining is not simply an economic one. It is about social justice. It is about repudiating the idea that labour is a commodity, competing in a Darwinian “labour market”. Above all, it is about ensuring that everyone is treated with equal respect, and paid a fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work.

First published on the Guardian website.

Keith Ewing is Professor of Public Law at Kings College London


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