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United Nations Forces a Showdown—With Its Own Workers

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Posted on Sep 24, 2013
United Nations Photo (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

In an odd twist of irony, the United Nations—whose International Labor Organization backs labor rights worldwide—is being accused of union busting by its own rank-and-file members after a move to marginalize collective bargaining for its workers, and the subsequent collapse of contract negotiations this summer.

In These Times has been following the developments, and reports that “the labor standoff could undermine its ability to uphold the rights of others around the globe.”

The central issue sounds a bit bureaucratic. In the spring, the General Assembly directed Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to change rules that deal with the Staff Management Coordinating Committee, which is the body through which collective bargaining talks were held with the staff union, the UNOG Staff Coordinating Council. Ban’s response was to simply reduce the committee’s status to an advisory capacity, effectively pushing collective bargaining to the side. During talks over the issue in July, union representatives resisted the change; Ban’s representatives walked out of the session, and Ban imposed the new conditions unilaterally.

The result, In These Times reports, has been both a freeze in talks and decreased morale among U.N. workers, from those handling bureaucratic details in New York City and regional offices to those delivering humanitarian aid in hot spots around the world. The move also coincides with the U.N.’s growing reliance on private-security contractors in such places, raising fears that the U.N. is moving toward a private-army approach to international peacekeeping.

Many labor issues are effectively on hold due to the breakdown of the talks. The staff union had wanted to address concerns over the UN’s the growing reliance on private security contractors in its military missions. Unions were also demanding “better protection for whistleblowers” and stronger oversight mechanisms, and “a workable screening system” to prevent agencies from employing people convicted of war crimes and other human rights violations.

Critics have stressed the irony that the UN’s own humanitarian campaigns often cite labor rights and collective bargaining as part of its founding human rights principles. (By contrast, the staff of the 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 its recent criticism of Bangladesh’s weak worker protections following the Rana Plaza factory disaster. The UN Global Compact, an initiative that advises businesses on human rights issues, proclaims that “Businesses should uphold the freedom of association and the effective recognition of the right to collective bargaining.”

The union representatives lay out their position here. And although the union-busting move has been little noted by U.S. media—or major unions, for that matter—it has been denounced by the British Trades Union Congress.

—Posted by Scott Martelle.


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