On July 9, 1948, the International Labour Organization signed The Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organise Convention. Unfortunately, the United States Senate never ratified it, showing the difficulty international standards, labor and otherwise, have always had in becoming law in the United States and the damage that can do for the effectiveness of these agreements. It also suggests just how limited labor rights really are in the United States compared to much of the world.
The International Labour Organization came to be in 1919 as a result of the Treaty of Versailles. As the U.S. never ratified that treaty, it did not join the ILO until 1934. The ILO became significantly more important after World War II as it became closely associated with the United Nations. The UN asked the ILO to create a series of conventions immediately after the war, making the request official in 1947.
The Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organise Convention is one of the 8 conventions that make up the core of international labor law. It is a very basic document. Article 1 urges all ILO states to follow the following direction:
Workers and employers, without distinction whatsoever, shall have the right to establish and, subject only to the rules of the organisation concerned, to join organisations of their own choosing without previous authorisation.
1. Workers’ and employers’ organisations shall have the right to draw up their constitutions and rules, to elect their representatives in full freedom, to organise their administration and activities and to formulate their programmes.
2. The public authorities shall refrain from any interference which would restrict this right or impede the lawful exercise thereof.
Workers’ and employers’ organisations shall not be liable to be dissolved or suspended by administrative authority.
Workers’ and employers’ organisations shall have the right to establish and join federations and confederations and any such organisation, federation or confederation shall have the right to affiliate with international organisations of workers and employers.
The provisions of Articles 2, 3 and 4 hereof apply to federations and confederations of workers’ and employers’ organisations.
The acquisition of legal personality by workers’ and employers’ organisations, federations and confederations shall not be made subject to conditions of such a character as to restrict the application of the provisions of Articles 2, 3 and 4 hereof.
1. In exercising the rights provided for in this Convention workers and employers and their respective organisations, like other persons or organised collectivities, shall respect the law of the land.
2. The law of the land shall not be such as to impair, nor shall it be so applied as to impair, the guarantees provided for in this Convention.
1. The extent to which the guarantees provided for in this Convention shall apply to the armed forces and the police shall be determined by national laws or regulations.
2. In accordance with the principle set forth in paragraph 8 of Article 19 of the Constitution of the International Labour Organisation the ratification of this Convention by any Member shall not be deemed to affect any existing law, award, custom or agreement in virtue of which members of the armed forces or the police enjoy any right guaranteed by this Convention.
In this Convention the term organisation means any organisation of workers or of employers for furthering and defending the interests of workers or of employers.
Yet this was too far for the United States. In fact, the United States has only ratified two of the eight fundamental conventions. The U.S. voted for the convention within the ILO and Harry Truman sent it to the Senate for ratification in 1949. Secretary of State Dean Acheson assured the Senate that the U.S. would need no legal changes to comply with it. But 1949 was not an auspicious time for international labor conventions and the U.S. Senate, not in the aftermath of the Taft-Hartley Act and the rise of McCarthyism. John Bricker, the isolationist and anti-union senator from Ohio led the opposition, saying the ILO “wants to become the economic overseer of all humanity.” The fear of international supremacy over American law also motivated many senators to not support the ILO and other international legal frameworks. Bricker, based in no small part on his opposition to the ILO, attempted to get constitutional amendments ratified that would significantly reduce presidential power to agree to international law and in 1954 his amendment failed in the Senate by one vote after Dwight Eisenhower personally intervened against it. The Senate never ratified the convention. Conservatives have occasionally spoke out for ratification over the years, including George Schulz, Elizabeth Dole, and even Orrin Hatch. But it has never again received serious attention.
Today, 153 nations have ratified the convention. Among the 30 nations who have not ratified it are North Korea, Belarus, and the United States. It’s not a dead letter either. Last year, Somalia signed it. But not the United States. It undermines American credibility on labor issues worldwide. When the U.S. lectures about democracy, as it has since the early days of the Cold War, labor issues and the freedom of association are usually part of that critique. Yet many at home and abroad have noted that, once again, the U.S. does not practice what it preaches because it won’t pass the basic ILO conventions. It’s not as if the U.S. never passes ILO conventions. For instance, in 1999, the Senate ratified an ILO convention against particularly exploitative forms of child labor. But a serious commitment to international labor rights is of little interest to many senators, indicative of a nation that has not passed major pro-labor legislation since 1938. In fact, the US has ratified only 14 of the 188 ILO conventions.
We might ask whether such agreements make a difference. Obviously Somalia does not all of a sudden lead the world in labor rights. Nor do other signatory nations Bangladesh, Guatemala (which signed it under the leadership of Jacobo Arbenz), or Honduras. Enforcement matters and the ILO doesn’t have enforcement rights. Yet in a world of rampant global labor exploitation, often led by Americans companies operating internationally, it’s quite telling that the United States refuses to sign on to basic international labor rights. Like any international agreement, it’s strength is largely determined by the most powerful members. In the U.S., whether in international law or international agreements to stop Bangladeshis from dying in factories making clothing for Walmart, the nation’s political and business leaders refuse to commit to anything that might hold the powerful accountable.
I borrowed some of this from Steve Charnowitz’s paper, “The ILO Convention on Freedom of Association and Its Future in the United States.”
This is the 150th post in this series. I guess that’s a sort of milestone. Previous posts are archived here.