Free Speech and Freedom of Association: Finding the Balance

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[Excerpt] The fundamental right to freedom of association guarantees that workers are able to form and join trade unions free from any interference from employers and governments. This basic principle has been applied consistently by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) for over 60 years. However, the International Organisation of Employers (IOE) is now attempting to undermine that principle by arguing, in the name of freedom of expression, that anti-union campaigns meant to discourage workers from forming or joining a union are consistent with international standards. They even go so far as to argue that anti-union campaigns may be an obligation of employers. To accomplish this, the IOE relies heavily on a contorted interpretation of a 2010 decision by the ILO’s Committee on Freedom of Association (CFA) concerning Delta Airlines’ campaign to encourage workers to “shred” their union election ballots. Only by claiming that the Delta decision represents a radical departure from precedent can the IOE now argue the existence of an international right to wage anti-union campaigns worldwide. Indeed, the IOE had previously conceded that U.S.-style antiunion campaigns violate the right to freedom of association as established by the ILO. The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) recognizes that employers and workers have a right to express themselves; however, that right is not unlimited. The limit must be drawn where interference with the right to association begins. The vitriolic anti-union campaigns waged by U.S.-based employers cross that line. The fact that aggressive anti-union campaigns are considered legal under the domestic labour law of a country does not override international standards. Indeed, labour laws like those found in the U.S. are outliers among nations, permitting anti-union speech that is illegal (and unthinkable) elsewhere when workers seek to form and join trade unions.
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freedom of speech; freedom of association; labor movement; labor unions; worker rights; anti-unionism
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Required Publisher Statement: © International Trade Union Confederation. Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.
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