The right to strike is a human right!

For the moment Great-Britain is confronted with a wave of strikes across transport and other sectors.

Both RMT and ASLEF are organizing strike actions in rail, CWU is organising strikes for postal workers, ambulance workers are on strike with UNISON, … All of them are in action and the list is getting longer every day. As in many other countries inflation is skyhigh, prices raise without limits, salaries however are not. More and more families are unable to pay the bills at the end of the month. But there is more…

Workers that were considered as “essential” during the covid pandemic (some of them getting rounds of applause) have the feeling not being respected as they deserve to be.

Instead of negotiating with the unions, trying to work out solutions, and bargaining well balanced agreements to solve the crisis, the conservative government attacks the right to strike. On the 10th of January of this year, the UK government adopted the Strikes Bill, which imposes minimum service requirements during strike action on transport as well as public services. Rishi Sunac should realise that workers do not strike “just for fun”. They do so because they see no other solution to survive.

The UK already has amongst the most draconian restrictions on the right to strike in Europe, after the anti-union legislation that was passed by Margaret Thatcher to break the power of unions, of organised labour. And still, the Tories want to further break down the fundamental right to strike.

The UK is not a stand-alone case!

But the conservatives in the UK are not alone in their attack against the unions. It is no stand-alone reaction. All over the world the right to strike and the freedom to unionize is under attack.

Just checking the website of “Labour start” – an online global news service on unions - already gives several examples of how labour rights, freedom to unionize and the right to strike is under attack. Actually labour start is running six campaigns about violation of union rights. In Belarus 23 unionists are in jail or have limited freedom. They all face court trials and severe condemnations because of their union engagement. Also in Canada, Turkey, the Philipines, Pakistan and Kazachstan “Labour start” has active campaigns.

In December 2022, the Government of South Korea invoked emergency laws as a justification to issue ‘return to work’ orders against individual drivers during a strike action organised by KPTU Truck-Sol. A flagrant attack on the right to strike which legal experts say is unconstitutional and in violation of international law. Government agencies have used investigatory powers to intimidate union leaders and threatened strikers with criminal penalties and financial claims for damages. These actions are all subject to a complaint filed by unions to the International Labour Organization (ILO).

But also in my own country, Belgium, unions are confronted with attacks on the right to strike. The union president of ABVV-FGTB, Thierry Bodson, was condemned in court after a trade union strike action in Liège in the autumn of 2015. The regional president of ABVV Antwerpen, Bruno Verlaeckt, was also condemned after similar actions in June 2016.

Both Bodson and Verlaeckt were condemned to prison sentences (under suspension) and fines. Both times the arrest and condemnation was based on the heavy accusation “malicious obstruction of traffic”. This was a mere pretext to create a precedent condemning participants at picket lines, and so to intimidate unionists organizing or participating in industrial action.

The right to strike is a fundamental right…

The right to strike is however a fundamental right of workers to defend themselves. It is a crucial tool for achieving fair working conditions. It is about giving workers the power to collectively negotiate for better wages, benefits, and working conditions.

It is a necessary tool for workers to assure them to have their voice in the workplace heard. Without the right to strike, the right to stop work collectively, workers have no leverage in negotiations with employers. The right to strike is essential for maintaining a healthy balance of power between workers and employers.

A right guaranteed by the international Labour Organization.

That the right to strike is a basic human right for all workers is not solely the vision of the unions representing the working people. It is a recognised right by the ILO (International Labour Organisation). And ILO is not a club of lefties! It is a tripartite United Nations agency. Since 1919 the ILO brings together governments, employers and workers of 187 member states. The aim of the ILO is to set labour standards, develop policies and devise programmes promoting decent work for all women and men.

On the website of ILO we read: “The right to strike is recognized by the ILO’s supervisory bodies as an intrinsic corollary of the right to organize protected by Convention No. 87, deriving from the right of workers' organizations to formulate their programmes of activities to further and defend the economic and social interests of their members. The right to strike is also recognized in international and regional instruments.”

Also the “European charter of fundamental rights” of the European Union recognises the right to strike: “Workers and employers, or their respective organisations, have, in accordance with Union law and national laws and practices, the right to negotiate and conclude collective agreements at the appropriate levels and, in cases of conflicts of interest, to take collective action to defend their interests, including strike action.”

As is clear, the right to strike is (in)directly accepted and protected by several (European) texts. Consider, among others, besides Convention No. 87 also Convention No. 98 of the ILO, Article 6.4 and G of the European Social Charter, Article 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights and Article 8(d) of the Convention on Economic, Social and
Cultural Rights.

The reality is problematic: trade union rights go down!

Problematic however is how certain employers, multinationals and right wing and conservative parties are either denying the right to strike, either constantly try to undermine this fundamental right. By sacking unionists, by intimidating workers at strike, or simply by taking legislation that endangers or even annihilates the right to strike.

ITUC ( the International Trade Union Confederation) recently published its “global rights index”. This index shines a light on the practices of governments and businesses. 148 countries are monitored and evaluated on the respect they have for trade unions rights: 78% of these countries violated the right to strike, 97% violated the right to collective bargaining and trade unionists were killed in 13 countries!

The number of countries where authorities impeded the registration of unions increased from 59 per cent of countries in 2014 to 74 per cent of countries in 2022!

International solidarity

What governments and multinational companies do not like is “bad publicity”. They are aware that public opinion does not easily accept any more making excessive profits on the back of the workers and neglecting their basic rights. Where authoritarian leadership all over the globe is disrespecting human rights, the public opinion does not longer accept the corporate greed.

That’s why unions must be active and dynamic in defending the fundamental workers’ rights by shaming and blaming those who are not respecting these.

Unions must stand together and not accept that somewhere, at the other side of the globe, colleagues are persecuted just because of organizing industrial action, without anybody reacting. By opening the eyes of democrats worldwide regarding the attacks on union activists we can put pressure on governments and multinationals.

Like the International Transport Workers’ Federation did with the South-Korean case, ILO should be interpellated and triggered to react against every legislation or action that undermines the ILO conventions.

It is of the utmost importance that the ITUC (International Trade Union Confederation) continues to take responsibility and action in the defence of the labour rights and more specifically in the defence of the right to strike.

Because, if they attack one of us, they attack all of us!

Frank Moreels
ETF President


Download this text (pdf).

Stakingsrecht ENG