June 1981: Mr. Lech Walesa at the 67th session of the International Labour Conference

This historical photo depicts a highlight in the history of Conventions No. 87 and No. 98: the story of Solidarnosc – arguably Poland's most famous trade union, led by Lech Walesa, who became Polish president after the end of communism. In 1957 Poland ratified both conventions, but when martial law was declared in the country in 1981, the government suspended the activities of Solidarnosc and detained or dismissed many of its leaders and members. After the case was examined by the Committee on Freedom of Association, a complaint against Poland was filed at the 1982 International Labour Conference. The resulting Commission of Inquiry found grave violations of both Conventions, and the ILO with numerous countries and organizations put pressure on Poland which finally, in 1989 gave Solidarnosc legal status. 

The Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organise Convention was adopted by the International Labour Conference (ILC) in June 1948. Convention No. 87 forms a fundamental part of the ILO's mandate and structure and is critical in promoting social dialogue between the actors of the world of work. It establishes the right of workers and employers to organize freely and to join other organizations of their own choosing.

The roots of this Convention may be traced to Europe's Industrial Revolution in the 19th century, where the social impact of industrialisation was being increasingly felt by workers and their families. Against a backdrop of widespread dissatisfaction with workers' welfare, organized labour movements sprang up across Europe in the second half of the 19th century. Trade unions were formed in which workers from a specific field joined to represent their common interests and fight for better living and working conditions. These trade unions were often closely linked to the workers' political parties: socialists, social democratic or communist, which were growing in number and popularity at this time. The conflict between class confrontation and a reformist approach based on social dialogue was a major challenge for the left wing labour movement. Other trade unions were created on a different basis, such as the Christian social doctrine.

By the end of the 19th century, trade unions had diversified and were forming federations on both national and international levels. In reaction to the workers' increasing unionisation, the employers, particularly the leading industrialists, also began to form national organisations to defend their own interests and oppose the claims of the labour movement.

Despite these associations, social dialogue was far from being established. While trade union laws achieved freedom of association in many European states, in other countries state interference frequently restricted or even prevented trade union activities.

World War I accelerated the desire for freedom of association and when the ILO was founded in 1919, the "recognition of the principle of freedom of association" was included in the preamble of its Constitution.

The following decades witnessed significant threats to the principle of freedom of association, especially in fascist states, such as Italy, Germany and Spain. In reaction to this, the ILO adopted its Declaration of Philadelphia (1944), which affirmed that "freedom of expression and of association are essential to sustained progress" as one of the fundamental principles of the ILO. Just four years later, in June 1948, the International Labour Conference adopted in its 31st Session Convention No. 87 on Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organise. The same year, freedom of association was also proclaimed as a right of every human being in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Article 58).

Convention No. 87 has marked the transformation of a key ILO principle into an internationally recognised legal standard which is essential for the ILO's tripartite constituency: governments, employers' and workers' organizations. A year later, in July 1949, the International Labour Conference adopted another important Convention on the Right to Organise and Collective Bargaining (No. 98). These two legal instruments represent the most comprehensive set of standards on freedom of association to be found at international level. They form a reference point within the broad area of trade union law and practice and are now among the eight fundamental ILO Conventions

The ILO promotes and oversees the application of Convention No. 87. A special procedure allows governments, workers’ and employers’ organizations to submit complaints concerning violations of trade union rights by States, even without adoption of Conventions No. 87 and 98. In addition, complaints from workers’ organizations are received almost daily by the International Labour Office, more than 70 years after the adoption of Convention No. 87.


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