How does the economic crisis erode trade union rights?

A free and vibrant trade union movement is one of the most important pillars of democracy and a measure of a nation's sound development.

By campaigning to have their trade union rights met, teachers' trade unionists have - over the last decades - achieved a better position at the bargaining table. They have contributed greatly to a free and fair society where equal opportunities for all could be achieved.

Rights at risk

The economic and social crisis has put human and trade union rights at risk and has affected the unions' ability to claim those rights. Recent years have seen a serious drawback and an increase in violations of human and trade union rights of teacher organisations.

The measures that governments have taken in response to the crisis have eroded the right to organise unions and to collective bargaining worldwide.

Austerity measures have included:

  • Cuts in public spending and education budgets
  • Cuts in pensions and access to social security benefits
  • National agreements being ignored
  • A freezing of minimum wages
  • Wage increases covered by bargaining agreements being held back
  • Workers being laid off

These have all been adopted by governments and are used as an excuse to target trade union rights, particularly in the public sector.

The weakening of basic international labour standards is also a cause of growing inequality in our societies.

An essential service

An increasing number of governments are attempting to consider education as an essential service. Under international labour law, an essential service is one that society cannot do without, even momentarily, because of the potential for loss of life – such as health, fire and police services.

In doing so, governments are trying to severely restrict or undo the fundamental rights of teachers and their unions, in particular the right to strike action. The assumption that education is an essential service is, however, clearly contested by the International Labour Organisation.

Trade union rights are, to a large extent, protected by international legislation. States which sign or ratify that legislation must then ensure that these rights can be exercised.

But the legislation is not being implemented.

Governments are using increasingly sophisticated ways to limit the activities of teacher organisations. Education International (EI) has consistently supported its affiliates in their efforts to become aware of their rights, to extend the scope of trade union rights in their countries, and to make governments accountable for respecting core trade union rights.

The ILO has made various recommendations following complaints lodged by EI and its member organisations with the ILO Committee on Freedom of Association. These have all reaffirmed the union rights of teacher organisations.

EI maintains that:

  • Government should not suppress the check-off systems
  • Governments cannot refuse to register legitimate worker organisations
  • Minimum services have to be determined in full consultations with trade unions
  • Forced retirement and preventing participation of teacher unionists in international meetings is considered anti-union and discriminatory, all are considered a violation of fundamental trade union rights
Last modified on Thursday, 05 July 2012