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ILO Agreement Will End 34 Years of American Inaction

November 17, 1987|HARRY BERNSTEIN

A rare agreement has been reached among widely disparate forces to finally end 34 years of stubborn, embarrassing inaction by this country on rules designed to help protect workers around the world.

Just imagine, those in agreement on this controversial question include the Reagan Administration, the AFL-CIO, most major employer organizations and most, if not all, Democratic and Republican senators.

They concur that after all these years, it is time for the United States to review its attitude toward the International Labor Organization, and they want to start by getting Senate approval for a seemingly innocuous ILO rule that actually could have far-reaching ramifications.

On Thursday, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is expected to approve that innocent-looking ILO rule, officially called Convention 147. It would be the first time since 1953 that this country ratified any of the ILO's measures, which first are adopted by the International Labor Organization and then are submitted for approval to the 150 member countries.

The pending rule, or convention, seems uncomplicated enough. It tells all countries to convene meetings of government, management and labor representatives to review all of the 161 other rules the ILO has adopted since it was created in 1919 to help safeguard rights of workers everywhere.

The significance of such a review is that all of the measures automatically will come up for ratification votes by the member countries: rules on everything from forced labor and minimum wages to improvements in health and safety standards.

The United States abides by most of the ILO rules. For example, we have minimum-wage laws and we prohibit child labor.

But this country violates some of the rules, and it even has refused to adopt ILO measures on child labor and others that conform with U.S. law, arguing that they amount to international law and can violate our sovereignty.

In fact, America has been among the least cooperative nations in dealing with the world's only international organization run by representatives of government, management and labor.

Over the last 34 years, the United States has ratified only seven of the 162 ILO rules. Senate ratification is required because ILO rules are regarded as international treaties.

Those approved dealt only with some safety and health issues for workers on the high seas and recognized that the League of Nations no longer exists.

If the Senate ratifies the new ILO measure and then reviews our compliance with the organization's other 161 rules, Congress may find it will have to revise U.S. labor laws before this nation can comply with some of the ILO standards.

Conservatives and moderates, especially in the State and Labor departments, want to become more active in the ILO because Communist countries taunt the United States for hypocritically refusing to ratify the rules while denouncing other countries when they do not obey them.

Liberals want to make more use of the ILO to improve labor laws in all nations, particularly this one.

If the United States becomes more active in the ILO, it would strengthen the much needed proposal by liberals for a trade bill provision that would declare the denial of basic workers' rights by foreign nations an unfair trade practice. Such a measure would block imports from the offending countries.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee, chaired by Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.), and the full Senate will almost surely pass the rule proposed by the Geneva-based ILO.

The potential importance of the review it will mandate can be seen in two examples: ILO Conventions 87 and 98. Known as "cornerstone conventions," they require ILO member nations to allow workers freedom of association and the right to form unions and to engage in collective bargaining.

That is reasonable, but not in the eyes of some ILO member countries such as Poland and the United States.

The Polish government doesn't like those two rules because, among other things, they were the basis on which the ILO condemned the brutal suppression of Solidarity, the Polish union headed by Lech Walesa.

The United States has refused to ratify those two valuable conventions because conservative politicians and many American employer groups worry that the ILO "freedom of association" rules might force Congress to do something sensible to bring us into full conformity with them.

Congress might, for instance, be told by the ILO that it must lift present restrictions on government workers' right to strike and give farm workers the right to have unions. (Now only farm workers in California and Hawaii have the explicitly recognized legal right to form unions and engage in collective bargaining.) American employers won an agreement from Moynihan's Senate committee that no ILO convention can be ratified by the Senate if it conflicts with federal or state labor laws.

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