Trade unions are essential to the post-2015 development agenda


Among the various worthy but obscure parts of the United Nations system, among the worthiest and most obscure is the UN Non-Governmental Liaison Service (NGLS).

According to its website it is “mandated to promote and develop constructive relations between the United Nations and civil society organizations.”

Anyway, one of the things that it has been up to recently has been carrying out a consultation among civil society organisations about what the UN’s overall development strategy should be after the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) deadline of 2015 has passed.

The 239 contributions that NGLS received from 118 organisations, networks and individuals were distilled into a short document that you can read here.

The document concentrates the content of the contributions into seven recommendations.

What’s interesting is that every one of these either points directly to the importance of active independent worker organisation or would be easier to put into practice if unions were present.

It seems pretty clear that one of the best ways to pursue these recommendations would be for the major unilateral and multilateral development funders to shift from a policy of (at best) exaggerated neutrality about trade union organisation and recognition to one of positive encouragement for trade unionism and collective bargaining.

1) Adopt a human rights‐based approach

The NGLS paper argues that the interests of ordinary people are often neglected in favour of those of powerful groups and that a rights-based approach is essential to deal with this problem. As Roy Adams argues (paper available here), the ability of workers to organise independently is in itself an important human right, but it is also the key to unlocking a series of other economic and political rights.

2) Address growing inequality and mainstream equity

Trade unions are known to increase the wage levels of the lowest-paid and to limit income inequality. They have also been at the forefront of global struggles to enforce the rights of the most disadvantaged.
3) Promote social protection

Unions are in themselves a form of social protection, but they have also been historically influential in the development of social protection floors across the world.

4) Involve and lead to participatory processes and decision making

Unions bring participatory processes directly into the workplace, giving workers a say in the management and development of the businesses that are at the heart of their communities.

5) Prioritise capacity building and local management of development

Unions involve ordinary people in the decision-making processes that will most affect their communities, but also connect them to labour representative structures at the national and global level that specialise in building the capacity of local organisations.

6) Protect
 Earth’s ecosystems and equitable access to resources

Unions are uniquely well-placed to represent ordinary people in debates and decision-making about the use of natural resources. They are among the very few organised groups whose perspective simultaneously covers economic development, equity and the protection of the local environment.


7) Enable job creation and investment in the poor and marginalised.

Economic development frequently fails to promote and protect the interests of the most marginalised simply because their voices are rarely heard. Unions allow the poor to speak for themselves.