rightsTo what extent does the struggle for workplace democracy overlap with the struggle for human rights? In this interview we speak with Roy Adams*, one of the world’s leading figures in the field of labour rights, former professor of industrial relations, founding member and chair of the Society for the Promotion of Human Rights in Employment, and member of the International Labour Rights Commission.

1] How do you see the outlook for workers and their unions today? Do you think the current crisis will have a major impact?

My concern has always been with the broad phenomenon of labour rights as human rights. It’s a concern that was relevant prior to the current crisis, and will be relevant long after the crisis is no more than a memory. In short,

*  Labour rights are human rights
* Human rights are universal and indivisible
* Human rights are non-hierarchical – each is equally sacred and deserves to be treated with equal reverence
* Collective bargaining is a human right
* The right to refrain from bargaining is as bogus as the right to enslave oneself, or the right of minorities to freely choose a racist society
* We need to be concerned about the rights not only of workers in countries with poorly developed democratic political systems but also about the rights of workers in countries that are widely acclaimed to be advanced political democracies such as Canada, the US and Britain where labour rights violations are all too common.

When companies publicize their union-free preference, they engage in a form of harassment that is no less illicit than sexual harassment. The objective of remaining “collective bargaining-free” is as wrong as seeking to remain Black free or Woman free, or Old free. The pursuit of freedom from unions and collective bargaining, though currently legal in the United States and Canada and many other countries, is as much of a human rights violation as producing goods and services with slave labour, or with young children.

2] Might a rights-based approach help unions to rethink the nature and function of management, and perhaps even argue for a new model?
We North Americans have been participating in a huge contradiction. Externally we preach compliance with the global consensus regarding core labour rights as human rights. However, internally, we fully accept the daily violation of one of those rights – the right to bargain collectively. I don’t think this contradiction can continue indefinitely. The more North Americans hear about the global human rights consensus and its implications, the less they will be able to project themselves as a defender of human rights.

Ironically, the global pressure to conform is greater on transnationals with regard to their involvement in developing countries. That is where most global unions and NGOs have focused their efforts. The better material conditions of workers in countries like Canada and the US and Britain have been accepted as a sort of trade-off for acceptance of the denial of labour rights. Apologists for industrial autocracy paint collective bargaining as entirely about money. In fact it is about much more. It is the vehicle for realizing at work many of the values that are critical for being fully human: democracy, autonomy, dignity, equality.

Going back to the duties of employers, in my opinion no employer seeking to be considered a good corporate citizen may credibly engage in behaviour offensive to the standards developed by the International Labour Organization’s Committee on Freedom of Association. The CFA’s jurisprudence has been accepted as definitive by nearly all institutions within the UN system. It provides a fairly detailed roadmap for what it means operationally to respect the right to bargain collectively.

But many large, well-known corporations (and government agencies too) in advanced, supposedly democratic countries offend that jurisprudence on a daily basis. Indeed, it is the policy of most North American corporations to “discourage” their workers from organizing and seeking to bargain collectively. Although contrary to international law, union avoidance is not only legally tolerated but accepted as the norm in Canada and the US. If we are to continue to move towards a more democratic and human rights compliant world, that behaviour is not sustainable.

At this point most legal scholars are of the opinion that international labour law is not directly binding on employers. But there is a rapidly strengthening set of international norms which hold that international human rights – of which collective bargaining is indisputably one – are morally binding on all organs of society. In short, no corporation that wilfully offends international collective bargaining standards should be considered a good corporate citizen. Nevertheless, firms such as Wal-Mart which aggressively oppose unionization and collective bargaining commonly appear on lists of the best places to work. This is a huge conundrum that needs to be aggressively exposed.

3] And you see this as a fundamental issue in determining the nature of management and workplace culture?

That’s right. Productivity is the key to our standard of living. The notion that involving workers in production decisions can produce better results than arms-length, command and control management is now a well established principle. There is also considerable research that indicates that involving unions in worker participation programs makes those programs more stable and effective. Armed with that research, some of my colleagues have attempted to convince management to refrain from union avoidance and instead accept unions as partners in productivity coalitions. Some unions, too, have attempted to represent themselves as being cooperative instead of adversarial in hopes of reducing union avoidance.

For the most part, unorganized management has turned a deaf ear to these pleas. Management opposition to unions is not fundamentally about better productivity, competitiveness, profits. It is instead about power. That’s why companies like Wal-Mart are willing to spend almost unlimited funds on lawyers to fashion strategies to keep unions out. After carrying out research both historical and contemporary on four continents, I am convinced that there are very few employers anywhere that will voluntarily share power. Either by law, custom or raw countervailing power such as strikes and demonstrations, they have to be made to do that.

That comprehensive unionism is compatible with economic excellence is indicated by the performance of the Scandinavian countries. In Scandinavia nearly everyone has collective representation. Nearly all conditions of work are the result of collective bargaining. For many years now, several of these countries have been acclaimed annually as among the world’s most competitive. The generalization that unions are bad for business is nonsense. The Scandinavian example suggests the exact opposite.

In my opinion, the end goal of human rights advocacy is not “free choice” as the Employee Free Choice Act, making its way through the US Congress, seeks to establish. Free choice legitimizes not only the right to organize and bargain collectively but also, in the alternative, the right of workers to defer to autocratic power unanswerable to the governed.

The latter choice is an abomination of democratic and humanitarian values. Industrial autocracy, whether benignly accepted or forcefully imposed, has no place in democratic, human rights respecting society. From a rights perspective, employers cannot legitimately dictate conditions. If they want to promulgate measures that have serious effects on employees, they must negotiate.

In 2007 the Supreme Court of Canada constitutionalized collective bargaining because, the Court said most eloquently, collective bargaining “reaffirms the values of dignity, personal autonomy, equality and democracy that are inherent in the [Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms].”  Those are values that all decent, democracy-loving people want for the entire world. Universal collective bargaining is a key to fully realizing those values.


Roy_Adams* Roy Adams is a foundation member of the New Unionism Network, and a former professor of industrial relations, with specialities in international and comparative IR and international labour rights. He is a founding member and chair of the Society for the Promotion of Human Rights in Employment, a member of the International Labour Rights Commission, and a frequent contributor to and editorial board member of International Union Rights. He works with Canadian and U.S. unions to promote recognition of labour rights as human rights, especially with regards collective bargaining.