United Nations workers spend their time on the front lines of the global struggle for human rights, but now they are battling for rights in their own workplace. The UN has come under fire for union-busting, and the labor standoff could undermine its ability to uphold the rights of others around the globe.
All summer, the United Nations’ staff unions have beenÂ clashing with managementÂ over a new policy aimed at curtailing the staffâ€™s collective bargaining rights. The Staff Coordinating Council, the union leading theÂ opposition campaign, contends that the loss of this negotiating power, enacted by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, would deal an unprecedented blow to the unionâ€™s power to negotiate contracts and working conditions.
The dismantling of union power, in turn, may signal a gradual shift away from democracy and toward neoliberalism throughout the institution often hailed as the world’s watchdog.
The conflict began last spring, after the General Assembly issued aÂ general orderÂ for the secretary general to revise rules for the Staff-Management Coordinating Committee, the current forum for collective bargaining talks. Ban then issued reforms that reduce the committeeâ€™s roleÂ in the negotiations to, essentially, an advisorâ€”which theÂ Council saysÂ is tantamount to â€śremoving the right of staff unions to negotiate.â€ť
According to the unions, when they declared the reforms unacceptable, management broke off talks. In July, the UN went ahead and enactedÂ the rules. According to theÂ Staff Coordinating CouncilÂ , Ban had made far more drastic policy revisions than what the General Assembly had mandated. They sayÂ the order simply serves as a pretext for Ban to undermine the unionâ€™s influence, and that he has operated outside of theÂ UN legal framework, which would require him to â€śseek mediation before consolidating this mandate.”
Now, UN employeesâ€”from office staff to peacekeepers to humanitarian aid workersâ€”are waiting anxiously to see how the reforms will affect their power to determine the conditions of their work in a massive global governing structure.
Prior to the new policy, UN staff’s contract negotiations were similar to that of civil service unions in many member states, though the negotiations were not completely binding since the General Assembly could technically override the labor agreements. The loss of these collective bargaining rights has provoked international outcry from labor advocates, including theÂ International Trades Union Congress.
Collective bargaining: A human right?
Union advocates say cutting collective bargaining willÂ impact workers’ ability to respondÂ effectively to crises, especially in war and disaster zones, where the UN is often the most dependable source of relief:
In order to continue this work, staff must feel valued and treated with the same dignity the UN encourages other organisations to treat their staff. Without a fully motivated and engaged staff, the results on the ground will change dramatically. The workforce of the UN is dedicated to its missionâ€¦. Everyone has the same goal.
Many labor issues are effectively on hold due to the breakdown of the talks. The staff union had wanted to address concerns over the UNâ€™s the growing reliance on private security contractors in its military missions. Unions were also demanding â€śbetter protection for whistleblowersâ€ť and stronger oversight mechanisms, and â€śa workable screening systemâ€ť to prevent agencies from employing people convicted of war crimes and other human rights violations.
Critics have stressed the irony that the UNâ€™s own humanitarian campaigns often cite labor rights and collective bargaining as part of its founding human rights principles. (By contrast, the staff of theÂ International Labour Organization, the global labor-rights monitoring body, is unionized with collective bargaining.)
The anti-union shift at the UN seems to run counter to its outspoken stance on labor rights in the private sector, such as itsÂ recent criticismÂ of Bangladeshâ€™s weak worker protections following the Rana Plaza factory disaster. TheÂ UN Global Compact,Â an initiative that advises businesses on human rights issues, proclaims that â€śBusinesses should uphold the freedom of association and the effective recognition of the right to collective bargaining.”
The Staff Coordinating Council citesÂ longstanding decrees on the right to union representationÂ that enshrine collective bargaining as a universal right for all workers. Speaking by phone from Geneva, Staff Management Committee Vice President Ian Richards tellsÂ Working In These Times, “We think it’s clear that whether you’re bound by national laws or not, you should have the right to collective bargaining.â€ť
This is, of course, not the first time the UN has come under fire for political hypocrisyâ€”in recent years, agencies, both staff and leadership,Â have been scandalizedÂ by various cases of human rights violations, includingÂ misconduct by peacekeeping forces.
But the new labor policy is more than just the UN’s failure to walk the talk on labor rights. The reforms seem to reflect a global neoliberal trend among some member states. The undermining of collective bargaining at the UN follows labor crises in public sector unions in Europe and echoes Wisconsinâ€™s pivotal anti-union law.
Unions argue that it reflects a general pattern of eroding job quality and security at critical agencies, and ultimately, will damage the staff’s effectiveness. In Richards’s view, UN workersâ€™ rights have been quietly deteriorating amid a trend toward privatization: WhileÂ agency budgetsÂ are threatened by deep cuts, the UN’s military missionsÂ increasingly rely onÂ controversial private contractorsÂ like UK-based security firm G4S. Many staff have chafed at the administrationâ€™sÂ restrictive â€śmobility policy,â€ťÂ which governs staff membersâ€™ freedom to change positions within the organization.
The situation is especially precarious for local field office workers. In conflict or disaster-stricken areas, Richards says: â€śFor those who are locally employed… those [UN jobs] are about the only reliable kind of jobs you can get, especially if you have some kind of education.â€ť ButÂ they are vulnerable to violence and the volatility of geopolitics. In Iraq, for example, if the UN withdraws foreign personnel and local workers are left behind, Richards warns, â€śWho looks after them? Are they going to be retaliated against?… There’s no current way of negotiating with [the management] on that.â€ť
Ironically, the labor dispute has emerged just as the UN revisits a historical moment of crisis facing its workers: Last month the UNÂ marked the tenth anniversary of the bombing in BaghdadÂ that killed 22 staff members. Ban’s commemoration speech, quotedÂ in the New York Times, specifically referenced the need to address security threats to field staff : “We have learned from our lossesâ€¦ We are changing the way we operate around the world.”
But the UN staff’s advocates see the loss of collective bargaining rights as a change in exactly the opposite directionâ€”a measure that will make staff physically, as well as economically, less secure, in working conditions that are by definition fraught with instability.
Given its symbolism on the global stage, Richards says, â€śThe UN is supposed to set an example to the world. Right now on labor rights, it isn’t.”
This article was originally printed in Working In These Times on September 16, 2013. Â Reprinted with permission.
About the Authory: Michelle ChenÂ is a contributing editor atÂ In These Times, a contributor to Working In These Times, and an editor atÂ CultureStrike. She is also a co-producer ofÂ Asia Pacific ForumÂ on Pacificaâ€™s WBAI.