Unions Asking ILO to Run U.S. Workplaces

By November 14, 2007Briefly Legal

Last April, NAM President John Engler wrote a letter to House Ways & Means Chairman Charles Rangel supporting Rangel’s efforts to advance free-trade agreements in Congress. The letter said the NAM regarded provisions about foreign labor standards to be a legitimate area to address, but manufacturers strongly objected to anything that would turn over federal and state labor law to the control of the Geneva-based International Labor Organization (ILO). Key paragraph:

Many of our labor laws, though of very high quality, do not follow ILO standards. Trade agreements that applied an ILO standard to U.S. labor laws would allow trading partners to challenge our laws through bilateral dispute settlement proceedings. We believe that our nation’s labor laws must not be put at risk as efforts are made to improve our trade opportunities through additional free trade agreements. The Tripartite Committee representing U.S. government, labor and business that has been reviewing the core ILO conventions over the past 20 years has consistently shared this concern regarding the protection of American labor laws.

Chairman Rangel took umbrage at the letter, but consistent with his continued leadership on trade, congressional discussions moved forward and the new free-trade agreements, like the U.S.-Peru pact, include labor provisions.

We’re not particularly worried that some U.N. goons will seize control of factories or bureaucrats will start issuing septlingual edicts about work conditions. It’s more a concern the ILO becomes an accepted arbiter, setter of standards, or final say on U.S. labor law. Organized labor then ratchets up its demands on business and congressional policymakers, pointing to the ILO as sufficient justification.

U.S. labor unions have been pursuing this international strategy for some time now. Doug Bandow has a lengthy piece in a recent Human Events piece — “Unions Want UN Affiliate to Decide U.S. Labor Policy.” Bandow documents the years of appeals by organized labor to the ILO, asking the organization to weigh in against U.S. “oppression.” Labor leaders want the ILO to rule on the unionization of TSA employees and on NLRB decisions about what constitutes a supervisor. It’s a pattern of using a foreign outfit to put pressure on governments here in the United States to determine domestic labor policy.

Bandow posits that any labor language in the free-trade agreements will strengthen labor’s case. Legally? We have our doubts. But politically? Bandow has a point.

Which is why the NAM wrote the letter in April, a letter that served its purpose of registering manufacturers’ concerns and understanding of the issues. We remain engaged — and very appreciative of all the work that leaders of both parties are putting into the free-trade agreements.

From Bandow’s article:

The ILO’s Committee on Freedom of Association boasts that it has handled more than 2,300 cases over a half century. The ILO has a role to play when it draws attention to the policies of countries where workers have no rights, where unions are forbidden, strikes are banned, courts are subservient, speech is controlled and elections are rigged.

But that isn’t the case in the United States. Indeed, the Democratic victories in 2006 show the political power of the U.S. labor movement. It’s one thing to be oppressed. But U.S. labor unions have only been on the losing side of a political fight. It’s too bad that the ILO and, more importantly, the AFL-CIO, can’t tell the difference.

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