The right to organize must be recognized for all workers: ILO

GENEVA: More unions and collective bargaining are crucial to help countries recover from the pandemic and overcome crippling income inequality around the world, the United Nations said on Thursday.

Amid isolated but high-profile efforts in the United States to unionize Amazon and Starbucks, the International Labor Organization (ILO) released a report detailing the benefits of collective bargaining.

In its first major report in a series on the importance of social dialogue, the UN agency emphasized that collective bargaining ensures fairer wages in companies, sectors and industries. “Countries with more workers covered by collective agreements are also countries with lower wage inequality,” ILO chief Guy Ryder told reporters, insisting the benefits of practice should be viewed as “a public good”.

The report found that the benefits of employees having a seat at the table and having access to negotiate wages and working conditions have become clearer amid the pandemic and other dramatic changes in the world of work. “Where collective bargaining has been supported and an accepted practice, it has played a key role in building resilience during the COVID-19 crisis,” Ryder said.

“It’s an extremely powerful and useful problem-solving tool.” He pointed out how such negotiations have helped create safeguards for frontline workers, secure jobs, protect incomes and prevent the spread of COVID in the workplace thanks to paid sick leave, among other things.

Arrangements aimed at facilitating teleworking during the pandemic are evolving into more permanent frameworks for ensuring appropriate hybrid and teleworking practices, the ILO said. A number of agreements have re-examined working time, for example by mandating rest periods through a right to separation.

“With the ongoing changes in the world of work … we need to ensure that the right to collective bargaining is effectively recognized for all vulnerable workers,” Ryder said. However, this is far from the case at present.

Thursday’s report, which examined collective agreements and union practices in 80 countries, found that about a third of workers have their wages, hours and other working conditions set through collective bargaining between unions and employers or employers’ associations. But there were significant differences between countries.

In the United States, where union representation in the workforce has steadily declined over the past few decades, data showed that only 6 percent of workers in private and commercial services were unionized, compared with over 60 percent in Sweden and Denmark.

Still, a recent poll showed that 68 percent of Americans are pro-union—the highest level since 1965. “I’m seeing an upsurge (in the United States) in understanding of the importance and value of union work,” Ryder said.

Recently there have been some high-profile achievements for unions across the country, with Starbucks and Amazon seeing workers in some US locations voting for union organizing for the first time.

When asked what recommendations he had for workers at the two companies who are debating whether to unionize, Ryder stressed that “collective bargaining remains a voluntary process.” But, he added, it is “fundamentally important that when workers make the decision whether or not to organize … (they) should be free from external pressure, threats, coercion.”

Ryder, a former trade unionist, said he was “a firm believer in collective bargaining”. “If you’ve worked in environments where collective agreements are enforced and environments where they aren’t… believe me, you know there’s a difference.”

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