The Origins of Convention No. 87 on Freedom of Association and the Right to Organize

By Dunning, Harold | International Labour Review, January 1, 1998 | Go to article overview
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The Origins of Convention No. 87 on Freedom of Association and the Right to Organize


Dunning, Harold, International Labour Review


Harold DUNNING*

During 1998, trade unionists in virtually all countries of the world will commemorate the 50th anniversary of the adoption (on 9 July 1948) by the International Labour Conference of the Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organise Convention, 1948 (No. 87). There will be meetings, speeches, ringing declarations, publications, dedications of a wide variety of forms.

Why is this so? Were there similar events on the 50th anniversary of the adoption of Conventions Nos. 7, 17, 27, 37 and so on? In fact, there is no precedent. Very few trade unionists could identify by name these other Conventions. Yet it would be all but impossible to find any trade union office in the world where Convention No. 87 is not only well known but also held in high esteem.

The very foundation of the trade union movement is the need for workers to join forces in their collective defence and for the advancement of their interests. Convention No. 87 does not guarantee these objectives; what it does is to promote the recognition that workers have rights related to the establishment and the functioning of trade unions, and the adoption by all ILO member States of laws or regulations which protect those rights. The Convention covers the rights of employers in parallel with those of workers, but there is no comparison between the two. Cases of the alleged infringement of employers' rights to associate freely arise rarely, whereas, as will be seen later, complaints from workers' organizations are received almost daily by the International Labour Office even now, fifty years on.

Convention No. 87 is normally referred to, for convenience, as the Convention on Freedom of Association, but it goes far beyond the simple right to join a trade union (or an employers' organization). Other important rights included are the right of workers' and employers' organizations to draw up their own constitutions and rules, to elect their own representatives, to formulate their own programmes, and to join federations, national and international; and to do this without interference by the public authorities. The Convention is therefore an important element in the protection of civil and political rights, namely the right to democracy. Freedom to form and join employers' or workers' organizations would be of only limited value if such organizations were subject to governmental or other external control over their internal administration. Respect for the law of the land is another matter - that is covered by Article 8' and, except in certain cases where the law is seen to be oppressive, has given rise to no objection on the part of employers' and workers' organizations.

The strength of feeling among workers, in particular, on the subject of trade union rights under Convention No. 87 cannot be ignored. The (unpublished) document, The ILO towards the 21st century, submitted to the Director-General by the Workers' Group of the ILO Governing Body as a contribution to the debate on the ILO's 75th anniversary celebrated in 1994, could not be more explicit, for example:

Human rights. The ILO's mandate in respect of fundamental and inalienable human rights must remain a sustained priority. Its particular responsibilities are in respect of the right to organize and to bargain collectively, the struggle against discrimination in employment, and the abolition of forced and of child labour. Many conflicts and tensions in the world have their origins in denials of these very rights...

Trade unions have been to the fore in the democratic advances of recent years in which the ILO itself has also played an important, and often historic role. They have opened the way to the exercise of basic freedoms. Nevertheless, gross violations continue, and in too many cases are increasing.

In some countries, killings and disappearance of trade unionists are commonplace. Often those responsible act with impunity (Workers' Group of the ILO Governing Body, 1993, pp.

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