Susan L. Kang, Human Rights and Labor Solidarity: Trade Unions in the Global Economy

By Shilton, Elizabeth | Labour/Le Travail, Fall 2013 | Go to article overview

Susan L. Kang, Human Rights and Labor Solidarity: Trade Unions in the Global Economy


Shilton, Elizabeth, Labour/Le Travail


Susan L. Kang, Human Rights and Labor Solidarity: Trade Unions in the Global Economy (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press 2012)

INTERNATIONAL HUMAN rights standards governing trade union rights (often labelled rights of freedom of association) have contested meanings, and frail-to-nonexistent enforcement mechanisms. Skeptics argue that they have neither normative nor political traction within national boundaries, and play no meaningful role in workers' national struggles to advance their interests through collective action. Political scientist Susan Kang's book challenges that view, arguing that through what she calls a "normative negotiation process," international standards can influence state policy and produce positive outcomes for domestic labour law and policy. Her book seeks to identify "the political conditions under which the transnational normative negotiation process may lead to a change in state behavior." (8) Kang's claims for the effectiveness of this process are very modest; she argues that it is effective only when leveraged by contingent political/ economic imperatives, and even then works better at protecting individual rather than collective rights. Kang nevertheless sees international instruments and institutions as meaningful tools in a comprehensive strategic arsenal for confronting state attacks on freedom of association.

The book opens with two useful survey chapters. The first outlines the historical evolution of international norms governing the right to freedom of association, the right to collective bargaining, and the right to collective action, including the right to strike. The second identifies key international institutions that support and administer these norms, including the International Labour Organization (ILO) and its Committee on Freedom of Association, various UN committees, such European institutions as the Council of Europe and the European Court of Human Rights, and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), an institution with no formal role in enforcing international human rights instruments but with increasing influence on international labour market policy through its standard-setting function. While most of this is familiar material, Kang's clear summary account is a helpful backdrop to the chapters to come.

Kang then develops her main argument through three national case studies from South Korea, the UK, and Canada. In South Korea, she examines how domestic trade unions used international labour norms to advance their interests during the two decades prior to 2008, during which the country transformed itself from an economically under-developed dictatorship into an industrialized, high-income democracy. Despite the South Korean government's persistent refusal to ratify ILO conventions and other important international labour instruments, Kang argues that its desire to solidify the country's place within such international institutions as the OECD was an important factor in its willingness to engage with the ILO and other international institutions over state policy initiatives. She recounts a lengthy "negotiation" process that produced gradual and modest changes in national labour law, as various South Korean administrations removed the monopoly of the conservative and anticommunist Federation of Korean Trade Unions, reduced state regulation of "solidarity activities," and provided government employees with some limited access to collective bargaining rights.

In the UK, Kang's focus is on the role of international law and international institutions in the litigation which Kang calls the Wilson/Palmer cases, challenging the private-sector practice of negotiating employment contracts requiring individual employees to give up the right to be represented by a trade union in exchange for higher pay. Her account of the escalation of this practice and government responses to it offers an interesting mini-history of the evolution of UK labour law and policy from the Thatcher era to the Blair years. …

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