With the right to strike being attacked globally, trade unions have declared an international day of action on 18 February.
The day of action in support of the right to strike was announced by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) following a dispute with the employers’ group in the International Labour Organization (ILO), who are denying the very existence of the right.
Since 2012, the employers’ group has insisted that ILO convention 87 on freedom of association does not actually guarantee workers any right to strike.
Jeffrey Vogt, head of the legal department at the ITUC, told Equal Times the employers group was “denying decades of consistent jurisprudence and in fact their own past support.”
He added that they had “challenged whether the ILO even had the competency to interpret their own conventions” in an apparent attempt to undermine the ILO’s international authority and ability to extend fundamental rights, including to strike, to workers in many countries.
“Despite the employers’ insistence, they have refused to test their beliefs before the International Court of Justice, leaving the ILO deadlocked,” he said.
“The ITUC has called for a day of action on 18 February to make it clear that workers will not give up their internationally-protected right to strike, and expect governments to respect this right both at the national and international level.”
Global attacks on the right to strike
The right to strike is already frequently restricted in law and violated in practice around the world, according to the ITUC’s Global Rights Index, with shocking examples found on every continent.
When the Korean Railway Workers’ Union (KRWU) called a strike at the Korea Railroad Corporation (KORAIL), KORAIL responded by firing more than 6,700 workers, meaning almost all the workers who went on strike lost their jobs.
There are reports of a repressive anti-union climate in the country, with the current government known for siding with the country’s major corporations on labour issues.
After deadly protests in Cambodia’s garment sector last year, local business groups took out advertisements in the local press which repeated the claim of ILO employers’ groups that “the right to strike is not a fundamental right” and is not provided for in the ILO’s Convention 87.
In Swaziland, five leaders from the Swaziland Transport and Allied Workers Union (STAWU) were prosecuted under the country’s Road Traffic Act for holding a union gathering in the airport car park. These charges still hang over them today.
In Spain, 260 workers are also currently facing prosecution for taking part in strike action.
The economic crisis has been cited by the current Spanish government as the reason for rolling back labour rights, particularly those of young people.
According to Jesús Gallego, International Coordinator with the public sector union FSP-UGT in Madrid, the current Spanish government has started a process with the sole aim of “criminalising the right to strike and to demonstrate.”
“Forty years have passed since people in Spain got their right to strike and demonstrate. Many took these rights for granted. Now it seems we might have been wrong,” he said.
“Today, Spain is re-joining a shameful blacklist of countries where the criminalisation of trade union rights is a reality: Guatemala, Algeria, Belarus, South Korea, Greece, Honduras, and Colombia, among others.”
Regressive measures also exist in the USA.
Loopholes and weaknesses in the National Labor Relations Act mean employers have been able to replace striking workers permanently, or effectively prevent them from forming a union.
Federal government employees are prohibited from striking, as are most other public employees covered by state laws.
By contrast, in Canada a landmark ruling by the Supreme Court earlier this year asserted that the right to strike is an essential part of a meaningful collective bargaining process and is protected in the Canadian constitution.
The Court found that a law which denied a number of public sector workers the right to strike for was unconstitutional.
At the same time there is new hope in Greece, with the new Syriza-led government deciding to reverse the dismantling of labour laws by the previous government.
Actions on February 18 have so far been planned by members of trade unions in countries including Thailand, Cambodia, New Zealand, Pakistan, India, Korea, Russia, Turkey, Uganda, Botswana, Colombia, Spain, France, Belgium, Slovakia and Ukraine.
Announcing support for the action, Rosa Pavanelli, the General Secretary of Public Services International (PSI), stated: “Labour clauses that refer to ILO standards are no guarantee for the respect of workers’ rights if the ILO’s authority continues to be undermined. That is why this is a priority issue for all workers.”
In March 2015, the ILO Governing Body has to take a decision on the resolution of the conflict between the workers and employers’ groups. If no agreement can be reached, the ITUC will demand a referral to the International Court of Justice for an advisory opinion.