The International Labour Organization (ILO) - The issue of independent worker and employer representation



Since its early days, the ILO has been troubled by a basic constitutional issue: can the organization, without violating its own principles, countenance the seating of workers' and employers' delegates from countries where workers' and employers' organizations are not free from domination or control by the government?

Challenges to the Credentials of Workers

When, in the early 1920s, a member of the Italian Fascist labor corporations appeared at Geneva to take his seat as the workers' member of the Italian delegation to the ILO, his credentials were challenged, though unsuccessfully, by the workers' group, which maintained that he was not a true spokesman for Italian labor. Every session of the conference from 1923 to 1938 saw the credentials of one or more workers' delegates challenged on the grounds that these delegates did not represent an independent labor point of view. Among them were workers' delegates from Austria, Bulgaria, Germany, Greece, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland. In all cases, however, the delegates were seated.

Since World War II, the conference has on several occasions actually refused to seat a workers' delegate whose credentials had been challenged. In 1945, it refused to seat the workers' delegate chosen by the Perón regime in Argentina on the ground that workers' organizations in Argentina did not at that time enjoy freedom of association, action, or speech. In 1950, it refused to seat the workers' delegate appointed by the government of Venezuela on the ground that the delegate could not have been nominated in agreement with the country's most representative workers' associations since the government had at that time dissolved all trade unions. Challenges to the credentials of Argentinian and Venezuelan workers' delegates on other occasions were overruled by the credentials committee, however, as was a 1955 challenge to the credentials of the Chilean workers' delegate.

The Question of Employers' Delegates from Communist Countries

Much greater difficulties arose in the past over the seating of employers' delegates from former communist countries. When the first employers' delegate from the USSR, Mr. Kaoulin of the People's Commissariat of Water Transport, appeared at the 1936 maritime conference, the employers' group acquiesced in his seating but requested an examination of the constitutional questions involved. A study duly carried out by the International Labour Office concluded that the ILO constitution did not require an employer to be a private person and that in countries where the state was the chief employer, it was for the state to choose the employers' delegate. The employers' group at the conference voted unanimously to reject this interpretation.

At the 1945 International Labour Conference, held in Paris shortly after the end of World War II, two constitutional amendments were proposed that aimed at increasing the size of the national delegations so as to give representation to both the public and private sectors of the economy. Both proposed amendments were, for a variety of reasons, rejected by the conference. The employers' group, however, issued a declaration stating that if the USSR, which had withdrawn from the ILO in 1940, were to resume membership, "it would naturally appoint as employers' delegates a representative of the socialized management of the USSR."

At the 1953 conference, the employers' group challenged the credentials of the Czechoslovakian employers' delegate and, when the USSR did rejoin the organization in 1954, challenged those of the Soviet employers' delegate as well. On both occasions, the group was overruled by the credentials committee, which held that the delegates in question performed executive and managerial functions corresponding to those normally exercised by employers under other economic systems.

When the Governing Board met in November 1954, it was sharply divided on the question of employers' delegates from countries with nationalized economies. In hopes of facilitating a compromise, it appointed a special fact-finding committee, headed by Sir Arnold McNair, former president of the International Court of Justice, to report on the "extent of the freedom of employers' and workers' organizations" in ILO member countries "from government domination or control." The lengthy report, which the committee submitted in February 1956, was based on a study of the situation in 59 countries, including five in the Soviet bloc.

The report recognized at the outset that the unique feature of the ILO—cooperation among representatives of government, employers, and workers—could only be meaningful if the latter represented their constituents in the true sense of the word and had the right "to speak and vote freely without government control." On the other hand, the report noted, major changes had occurred in the economic structure of many countries since 1919, with governments participating in their countries' economic and social life in a wide variety of new ways. The ILO had long maintained that the principle of freedom of association is violated if the right to organize is subject to government authorization. However, the report found, the constitutions of no less than 21 ILO countries subjected the right of association to statutory regulation.

The Hungarian uprising of 1956 had sharp repercussions in the ILO, which were reflected in the credentials dispute. The Governing Body expressed solidarity with the Hungarian workers "who were struggling to secure their fundamental rights," and the 1957 International Labour Conference rejected the credentials of the employers' and workers' delegates appointed by the Kádár government, which had, in effect, restored the Hungarian status quo ante. In 1958 and 1959, the conference took the unprecedented step of not only rejecting the credentials of the Hungarian workers' and employers' delegates, but also refusing admission to the government delegates.

In the meantime, various attempts were made to find a general solution to the problem that would satisfy all concerned, including the Western employers' delegates. Involved in the problem was the fact that, under the International Labour Conference rules, each group—government, employers, and workers—could refuse to seat delegates whose credentials it did not accept. In 1959, acting on a plan proposed by a tripartite committee headed by Roberto Ago of Italy, the ILO established a five-member Appeals Board composed of persons of "internationally recognized independence and impartiality" to rule on such matters.

The demise of the Soviet bloc in the late 1980s heralded the arrival of a new era of consensus. Now that so many formerly communist governments no longer adhere to a managed economy, challenges to credentials are much less significant.

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