Global Rules

excerpts from the book

Global Village or Global Pillage

Economic Reconstruction from the Bottom Up

by Jeremy Brecher and Tim Costello

South End Press, 1994



International Worker Rights

It once was a crime to organize a union or call a strike in the United States and most other countries. Trade unionists were regularly fired, blacklisted, beaten, arrested, and sometimes murdered. Establishing the rights to assemble, organize, bargain collectively, strike, and participate in the political process was the focus of a century of struggle. That struggle was fought on the ground, strike by strike, region by region, and industry by industry; it was also fought in courts and legislatures in an effort to establish and enforce these rights as the law of the land. That struggle continues; in the United States, for example, thousands of workers are fired every year for trying to organize unions.

From Korea to Kenya and from Chile to China, workers in much of the world are today struggling to establish these same rights. An international labor rights movement has developed to support them. Like Amnesty International and other well-known human rights organizations, it publicizes abuses and mobilizes support for the victims. Beyond that, it aims to incorporate labor rights requirements in national and international trade, investment, and lending policies.

Labor Rights in History

In a sense, the first great struggle for international labor rights was the worldwide movement for the abolition of slavery. Abolitionism was driven both by moral and human rights concerns and by the fear of the downward pull that slavery would exert on the conditions of free labor. After a protracted struggle it succeeded in freeing millions of slaves and abolishing what was at the time one of the world's most venerable forms of property.

The struggle for the eight-hour day-a basic labor standard-galvanized the international labor movement throughout the 19th century. May Day became an international workers' holiday in commemoration of a general strike for the eight-hour day in Chicago and other American cities a little over a century ago. The demand for the eight-hour day unified workers across craft, ethnic, and even national boundaries.

The International Labor Organization

The victors of World War I, spooked by the Bolshevik revolution in Russia and fearing the spread of labor radicalism, included a ]list of worker rights in the Treaty of Versailles. These included the right of association, a wage "adequate to maintain a reasonable standard of life" the principle that men and women should receive "equal remuneration for work of equal value," and the eight-hour day for which the labor movement had so long striven.

They also established an institution to implement these rights, the International Labor Organization. The ILO has a tripartite structure in which each member nation receives four votes, two for government, one for employers, and one for workers. After World War II, the ILO was incorporated into the United Nations system. At present 169 nations belong.

Over the course. of seventy-five years, the ILO has established 174 "Conventions" defining basic labor rights and standards. The first dealt with hours of work, the most recent with the prevention of major industrial accidents. The Conventions go through a lengthy review process and must be passed by a two-thirds vote. Conventions cover basic human rights (such as freedom of association, abolition of forced labor, and elimination of discrimination in employment), minimum wages, labor administration, industrial relations, employment policy, working conditions, social security, occupational safety and health, and women workers. Where appropriate, the standards are adjusted for countries with different levels of development.

When a country ratifies a Convention it makes a formal commitment to apply its provisions and to accept a measure of international supervision. (The United States has voted for most Conventions, but has ratified only eleven.) While they are only legally binding on countries that ratify them, the Conventions, together with non-binding Recommendations, form an International Labor Code that provides a widely-accepted definition of labor standards. The ILO has no enforcement powers, but its official committees review national labor laws and alleged violations of basic labor rights and report their findings; since 1964, nearly 2,000 changes in national law and practice have been reported in response to ILO supervisory bodies.

The Labor Rights Movement

In the 1980s, the growing international human rights movement, combined with globalization of the economy, led to the rise of a new international labor rights movement. The labor rights approach tied together two important themes: the democratic concern with human rights and the need of workers for a level international playing field in which wages cannot be kept low through repression.

The tremendous success of Amnesty International and other human rights organizations in bringing human rights issues to international attention offered a strategic model Just as various UN declarations and agreements defined standards for human rights, so the International Labor Code of the ILO provided standards for labor rights. Publicity could be used both to curb the worst violators and build support for the standards. Public mobilization could build pressure for enforcement-both on the perpetrators and on countries and institutions that could affect them.

A classic example was the international campaign to pressure 3M and the South African government to release Amon Msane, chief steward at the 3M plant near Johannesburg, from prison. With the cooperation of many organizations, thousands of letters were written, company offices were picketed, and 3M officials lobbied. Msane was freed after 50 weeks; he attributed his release to the pressure of this campaign.

Similarly, when Salvadoran union official Humberto Centeno was seized and beaten by the Salvadoran air force, local unions all over the United States were immediately alerted. Within one day, 60 members of Congress were contacted, 1,000 telegrams were sent to the U.S. embassy and the Salvadoran government, and demonstrations were held in five cities. The next day Centeno was released.

Such efforts continue-with increasing support from modern communications technology. On the night of October 3, 1993, for example, Moscow police arrested three leading members of the Russian Party of Labor. They were systematically beaten to try to get them to confess to killing two policemen. The next night the wife of one discovered where they were and contacted a union officer. Within minutes, a message appealing for protest calls was posted via E-mail on a series of international computer conferences. Boris Kagarlitsky, one of those imprisoned, later described what happened.

"We were watching from the cell as the phone calls came in. One of the fist was from Japan. The police didn't seem able to believe it. After that, the calls seemed to be coming from everywhere-there were quite a few from the [San Francisco] Bay Area in the United States."

When police told the callers that the prisoners had been released, the prisoners yelled at the top of their lungs that they were still being held. Within a few hours, most of the detainees were released and the frame-up charges were abandoned.

Labor Rights and Trade

In the early 1980s, labor rights advocates began focusing on trade policy and international trade agreements as vehicles for enforcement. Tying labor rights to trade was not entirely unprecedented: Nearly a century before, for example, the McKinley Tariff of 1890 had prohibited imports manufactured by convict labor. The linkage of labor rights to trade got an inadvertent push in 1982 when the Polish government banned the Solidarity union. The next day U.S. President Ronald Reagan said Polish officials "have made it dear that they never had any intention of restoring one of the most elemental human rights-the right to belong to a free trade union." The United States retaliated by withdrawing Poland's most-favored-nation status.

In 1983, a coalition of labor unions and human rights organizations formed the International Labor Rights Working Group. Their first target was the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP), a program designed to encourage economic development by reducing tariffs for developing countries. Noting that GSP was encouraging countries like Korea and Taiwan to produce goods for the U.S. market under tyrannical conditions, labor rights advocates in 1984 persuaded Congress to declare a country ineligible for GSP if it "has not taken or is not taking steps to afford internationally recognized worker rights." The rights specified, drawn from key ILO conventions, were:

* the right of association

* the right to organize and bargain collectively

* a prohibition on the use of any form of forced or compulsory labor

* a minimum age for the employment of children

* acceptable conditions of work with respect to minimum wages, hours of work, and occupational safety and health.

Labor rights advocates in the United States, now institutionalized as the International Labor Rights Education and Research Fund (ILRERF), won another victory when Congress in the 1988 Trade Act defined the denial of internationally recognized labor rights as an "unfair and unreasonable trade practice" against which unilateral action could be taken under international trade rules. Denial of labor rights was declared, in effect, "social dumping.''

Former Secretary of Labor Ray Marshall, President of the ILRERF, indicated the aspirations of labor rights advocates:

"Eventually, the United States could push for all its global trading partners to protect freedom of association, permit collective bargaining and prohibit forced labor. Also, foreign nations could be called on to establish a minimum age for employment and impose acceptable standards for wages, hours and occupational safety and health."

So far, most US. government evaluations of labor rights violations have been patently political, marked by the same double standard hypocrisy that characterizes so much official human rights policy. The first countries cut off by the Reagan Administration were Rumania, Nicaragua, and Paraguay. For obviously political reasons, the Reagan Administration rejected petitions calling for reviews of labor practices of such blatant violators (but U.S. "friends") as El Salvador, Guatemala, Indonesia, Thailand, Turkey, and the Philippines.


Global Village or Global Pillage