What are the challenges facing labour institutions?



A few days after the International Labour Conference, I am still reflecting about the difficult questions posed by the ILO Director General Guy Ryder in his report “Towards the ILO Centenary”.

Among them, the decline of participation in representative organisations of workers, which can be ascribed to the cultural shift towards individualism that emerged in the 1980s, the fear of workers to lose their jobs because of precarious working conditions, the attack against the traditional “rights-based approach” with the current depiction of rights as privileges.

And yet, while it is upon the labour movement (and employers’ organisations) to rethink their ability to aggregate, representational bodies need to remain alive and need reinforcement not weakening.

Socio-economic shared governance structures are like political ones and I didn’t think that anyone would argue that an autocratic state or a dictatorship is better than a democratic parliament. Well, perhaps I should have read the paper “The Euro area adjustment: about halfway there,” issued by JP Morgan Europe on 28 May 2013.

The paper details the various “journeys” required to reach the final destination of a reformed continent, such as weakening socio-economic legislation and reducing the power of nation states, particularly in southern Europe. It then argues to go beyond the problem of national economic legacy to target “deep seated political problems in the periphery”. I quote:

“The political systems in the periphery were established in the aftermath of dictatorship, and were defined by that experience. Constitutions tend to show a strong socialist influence, reflecting the political strength that left wing parties gained after the defeat of fascism.

Political systems around the periphery typically display several of the following features: weak executives; weak central states relative to regions; constitutional protection of labor rights; consensus building systems which foster political clientalism; and the right to protest if unwelcome changes are made to the political status quo. The shortcomings of this political legacy have been revealed by the crisis.”

It is a sign of the times that this piece has not been discussed in the mainstreamed European media.

But some voices (to which I add mine) still stand by the fact that those constitutions –established mostly in the aftermath of World War II – created a democratic fabric, preventing the return to totalitarianism.

Through their specific reference to the defense of workers’ rights those constitutions were also able to create a balance of power which lead to mutual gains for states, private capital and workers, as well as the development of the continent – this includes the “periphery” of southern Europe to mimic JP Morgan’s Star Wars-style jargon.

Furthermore, it is difficult not to see references in the article to the ‘national’ translating to the international scene: the attack on “the constitutional protection of labour rights” translates into a grim fate for the ILO and its international labour standards; the “consensus building systems which foster political clientelism” is a way to discredit tripartism and social dialogue; the negation of “the right to protest” becomes an attack on the jurisprudence on right to strike.

Not everything is lost, though.

As the paper concludes: “the longer-term picture (beyond the next 18 months) is hard to predict, and a more pronounced backlash to the current approach to crisis management cannot be excluded.”

For me, that is not a threat, but a sincere expression of the hope for democratic renewal.