Academic journal article The Economic and Labour Relations Review : ELRR

Collective Bargaining as a Minimum Employment Standard

Academic journal article The Economic and Labour Relations Review : ELRR

Collective Bargaining as a Minimum Employment Standard

Article excerpt


In recent decades, collective bargaining has emerged as a prominent human right at work. A strong global consensus has been achieved that, as a minimum condition, all of the world's workers are entitled to negotiate collectively their conditions of work. The right of workers to bargain collectively has been recognised by essentially all of the world's governments in respect of their membership in the International Labour Organisation (ILO). 'Effective recognition of the right to collective bargaining' is a principle goal of the ILO mentioned in The Declaration of Philadelphia which forms part of that organisation's constitution. (1) In the ILO's 1998 Declaration of Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work, affirmed without a negative vote by all members, collective bargaining was affirmed to be a fundamental human right. (2)

While the principle is generally accepted, the meaning of the term and the behaviour called for by States and employers in order to respect the right is open to different interpretations. In the economically advanced English-speaking countries of Australia, Britain, Canada, New Zealand and the United States, the common understanding is that the right to bargain collectively implies a reasonable and legitimate right to refrain from bargaining. In this essay, contrarily, I will argue that no such right should be recognised as legitimate. Instead the end game of collective bargaining policy should be universality, made evident when all firms large enough to have standardised conditions of work negotiate those terms with independent employee representatives rather than imposing them unilaterally. The concrete presence of collective bargaining should be embraced as a minimum condition of employment. Authoritarian enterprise governance should be rejected as inconsistent with a democratic, human-rights-compliant world.

Interpreting the Right to Bargain Collectively

In his recent book entitled The Democratic Aspects of Trade Union Recognition, Alan Bogg explicates the rationale behind the policy of Britain's Labour government between the years 1997-2010 (Bogg 2009). The essential argument is that the state should not impose its notion of the good life on its citizens. Rather, citizens should be able to formulate their own version of the good life and choose the path that they consider appropriate towards its attainment. With respect to collective bargaining, this means that each individual should be able to choose whether or not to become a union member and through the union to bargain collectively terms and conditions of work. Under this philosophy, refraining from collective bargaining is a perfectly appropriate choice that the state should both respect and protect. 'It is the worker's capacity to choose whether or not to associate that is paramount, and the state must be neutral with respect to that choice' (Bogg 2009: 91). The policy is a success if workers are able to make the choice freely without fear of negative consequences.

This is the reigning philosophy not only in the UK but also in the other English-speaking countries. In the United States, although anti-union intimidation is common in practice, worker choice under 'laboratory conditions' is endorsed in theory not only by the state and society as a whole but also by the trade union movement. The philosophy was strongly evident in the 2007-2010 US campaign by organised labour in favour of the Employee Free Choice Act which was designed to protect choice more effectively against illicit employer intimidation. (3)

A principal defect with this philosophy is that it implicitly regards collective bargaining as an economic issue and one not to be regarded as a human right. It is seen to be an option for workers who are dissatisfied with conditions being offered to them. If workers are generally content with their conditions and with the way that they are treated by management--so the reasoning goes--it is perfectly acceptable and proper for them to leave well enough alone. …

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