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Freedom of Association: History

Early Forms of Association

The oldest independent associations were typically religious. The most significant, in medieval Western Europe, at least, was the Roman Catholic Church, which maintained its own structure and self-governance even in the many states where it represented the official religion. It also spawned a variety of affiliated religious societies to which clergymen or laypeople could belong, including the knightly orders that participated in the Crusades. One, the Teutonic Order, conquered pagan territories in northeastern Europe and established its own form of government (see Country Studies of Germany and Estonia). The Middle Ages also featured the development of commercial towns and cities that gained the status of autonomous corporations. They fostered merchants' associations, artisans' guilds, and other groupings, often with the blessing of the monarch. Trading associations with such royal charters later evolved to become instruments of state colonialism, as with the British East India Company and its Dutch counterpart.

Monument to the Freemasons in Augusta, GA

The Freemasons

The philosophical Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries featured the emergence of free associations with no economic, religious, or royal connection. Some of the most important were to be found in the Freemasonry movement. As the skilled trade of masonry declined after the completion of the great European cathedrals, masons' lodges evolved from centers for apprenticeship and employment into fraternal orders of the intellectual and elite classes, dedicated to brotherhood, equality, and peace. The first association of such lodges was the Grand Lodge of England, formed in 1717. Freemasonry then spread across much of the world, but mostly to countries of the British Empire, including what became the United States. Individual members played significant roles in the Enlightenment, the American and French Revolutions, and other historical events and movements. This fact and the lodges' rituals and secrecy have given rise to many conspiracy theories about Freemasonry, although its apparent influence owes more to the members' model of independent social organization and networking than to any master plan. The rise of more overtly political secret societies at the time of the French Revolution prompted the British Parliament to pass the Unlawful Societies Act in 1799, one of the first antiassociation laws of the modern era. The Freemasons were exempted from the ban on the condition that they report their membership and activities to the authorities, a requirement that was repealed only in 1967. The fear of social unrest in that period also resulted in the Combination Acts of 1799 and 1800, which banned trade union activity.

Civic groups and political parties arose out of America's colonial heritage of relative freedom and social purpose, and the nation’s new form of self-government relied greatly on such citizen participation.

Alexis de Tocqueville and the Importance of Civil Society in the United States The Reformation gave rise to many different Protestant denominations that favored the autonomy of individual congregations over hierarchical authority and unity. This tendency was especially pronounced in America, where the diversity of immigrant groups and the separation of church from state fostered a host of independent religious structures. The country's open economic environment also permitted the growth of businesses, corporations, and other commercial associations, as well as workers' and fraternal organizations. Civic groups and political parties arose out of America's colonial heritage of relative freedom and social purpose, and the nation's new form of self-government relied greatly on such citizen participation.

As the French politician Alexis de Tocqueville observed in his classic study Democracy in America (1835):

Americans of all ages, all conditions, all minds constantly unite. Not only do they have commercial and industrial associations in which all take part, but they also have a thousand other kinds: religious, moral, grave, futile, very general and very particular, immense and very small. (Volume II, Part II, Chapter V)

For Tocqueville, the importance of civil society lay not in its ability to carry out government functions, although it often did so. Rather, its importance lay in doing all the small things that government could not. Association in democratic countries, he wrote, was "the mother of science" upon which all other progress depended. Events in the 175 years since the publication of Democracy in America appear to support Tocqueville's observations. Today, civic participation, volunteerism, and the activities of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have increased significantly, and America's civic life is one of its most widely admired features among emerging democracies abroad.

The Clash of Economic Liberalism and Labor

Freedom of association has played a unique role in history through its often violent clashes with political and economic liberalism. As noted in previous chapters, the two aspects of liberalism were intertwined in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. John Locke's seminal theory of self-government, for instance, arose in part from his belief in the fundamental right of private property. The economic side of liberalism envisioned free individuals, including employers and laborers, entering into contracts without any interference. Thus many reformers who campaigned for the abolition of slavery were also opposed to collective bargaining and organized labor. For example, William Wilberforce, a great leader of the British abolitionist movement, supported the suppression of trade unions through the Combination Acts.

The British Battlefield

Great Britain was the first great battlefield in the clash between freedom of association and property rights, a clash workers most often lost. Agricultural improvements, population growth, and the rise of industry at the end of the 18th century combined to create horrific working conditions in the country's factories, and workers' attempts to organize were harshly suppressed. Radical reformer Francis Place described what he observed:

The suffering of persons employed in the cotton manufacture were beyond credibility; they were drawn into combinations, betrayed, prosecuted, convicted, sentenced, and monstrously severe punishments inflicted on them; they were reduced to and kept in the most wretched state of existence.

Overcoming the Combination Acts

Because of the threat posed by the Combination Acts and anticonspiracy laws, many early unions in Britain were formed in secret. Despite the risk of serious punishments, including deportation to penal colonies like Australia, numerous workers joined such groups and engaged in desperate acts to halt their declining standard of living. The most famous were the Luddites, textile workers who destroyed new industrial machinery that they blamed for lower wages and unemployment. Dozens of the saboteurs were executed after mass trials. Whigs and other reformers, although they opposed trade unions, eventually backed the repeal of the Combination Acts in 1824 because they feared that the measures actually drove workers to violent extremes.

The Rise of the British Labor Movement

The repeal of the Combination Acts resulted in a large increase in trade unions, their grouping into national unions, and, in 1833, the organization of the first national federation of unions. The General National Consolidated Trades Union had some 500,000 members at its height, but it collapsed almost immediately, partly as a result of punitive actions against strikes. It was later replaced by the annual meeting of local trades councils called the Trades Union Congress (TUC), launched in 1868. The TUC remains today the central federation of the British labor movement, representing nearly seven million workers.

Vladimir Lenin

Employer violence, lockouts, dismissals, and other actions against unions continued throughout the 19th century. Mass petition campaigns, national strikes, and related working-class efforts, like the Chartist movement of 1838–48,2 failed to give trade unions decisive political power. This occurred only when the first majority Labour Party government took office in 1945, after years of wartime suppression of industrial strikes. Even today, the issue of how great the scope of freedom of association should be continues to be debated. The enactment of several laws under Conservative Party prime ministers Margaret Thatcher and John Major in the 1980s and 1990s established certain limits on trade union influence. The unions strongly opposed the measures, arguing that they infringed on the right to strike and other association rights.

U.S. and International Labor History

U.S. labor history is similar in many ways to the British experience. As in Great Britain, the labor movement in the United States was marked by employer and government violence, repression, and restrictions on union organization. These restrictions were especially directed at syndicalist, anarchist, and socialist unions, all of which sought industrywide or general workers' unions and advocated a radical change in government. Craft unions, the mainstay of the American Federation of Labor (AFL), which formed in 1886, were also under severe pressure, but their tight-knit organization based on individual skilled trades restricted the options of employers and thus yielded improvements in wages and working conditions.

As labor concerns gained attention in politics, legislation was enacted to protect the right of association and curb the excesses of industrial production. The first comprehensive safety and workers' compensation laws were enacted in New York State following the Triangle Shirtwaist fire of 1911.3 More significant, President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal reform program during the Great Depression completely changed the legal balance for workers. The National Labor Relations Act of 1935, also known as the Wagner Act, established a federally recognized right to organize trade unions and bargain collectively. The Fair Labor Standards Act, passed in 1937, established the eight-hour workday and the minimum wage, among other national standards. As a result of the New Deal, union membership increased more than fourfold from 1933 to 1947. After a more restrictive law, the Taft-Hartley Labor Act, was passed in 1947, unionization rates began to decline.

Struggles for freedom of association in all parts of the world share a common history. Most countries have seen violent suppression of worker actions, repression of trade unions, and intimidation of workers through demotion, dismissal, or other means. At the same time, workers in all countries have organized unions to represent their interests before private and government employers, with the aim of improving conditions of work, securing progress in the general economic and social situation, and fostering democracy in their homelands. In the last 150 years, workers' movements have been central to the achievement of democracy in many countries, and free trade unions within established democracies have succeeded in enhancing living standards and workplace safety. As a result, basic welfare and labor standards have been adopted in developed and developing countries alike.

In the last 150 years, workers' movements have been central to the achievement of democracy in many countries, and free trade unions within established democracies have succeeded in enhancing living standards and workplace safety.

The International Labor Organization

The adoption of improved labor standards can also be attributed in large part to the work of the International Labor Organization. After World War I, longtime AFL president Samuel Gompers and other labor leaders had pressed U.S. president Woodrow Wilson to endorse the creation of such an organization in the belief that "universal and lasting peace can be established only if it is based upon social justice" (ILO Constitution preamble). Wilson and the other negotiators at the Paris Peace Conference agreed that labor peace was central to world peace, and they accepted the proposal to establish an international institution to help mitigate the poor working conditions that gave rise to social unrest. The ILO adopted a structure that included representatives of government, business, and labor, allowing it to adopt international standards that would be accepted by everyone. Initial conventions of the ILO endorsed the eight-hour day and the 48-hour week as the norm and called for the abolition of child labor (under age 14), the institution of maternity leave (six weeks), and the establishment in every country of a national employment service.

The right of free association itself, although included generally in the ILO Constitution's preamble, was not part of the organization's fundamental principles until 1944, when it adopted the Declaration of Philadelphia (the cataclysm of World War II, like its predecessor, had weakened employer objections). In 1948, the ILO adopted Convention No. 87 on freedom of association, followed in 1949 by Convention No. 98 on the right to bargain collectively. As noted above, freedom of association and trade union rights were also recognized in the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights. ILO Conventions 87 and 98 have been adopted by 148 and 158 countries, respectively. The two are among eight "fundamental" ILO conventions, which also include prohibitions on forced labor, child labor, and discrimination in employment. The United States has adopted one of the two conventions on forced labor and one of the two on child labor, in 1991 and 1999, respectively, but none of the other six fundamental conventions.

Freedom of Association and Totalitarian States

One of the ILO's most significant influences on history was its inspiration of and support for Poland's Solidarity movement, in which millions of workers rose up beginning in 1980 to demand free trade unions and the fulfillment of Conventions 87 and 98. The movement's success marked the first time a free trade union was recognized in a Communist country.

Communist states claimed that workers had no need for free trade unions because their interests were represented by the Communist Party and its affiliated workers'

The so-called people's democracies of the Soviet bloc had ratified the ILO conventions without ever intending to observe them in practice. Communist states claimed that workers had no need for free trade unions because their interests were represented by the Communist Party and its affiliated workers' groups. In fact, no one in these Communist countries had a say in who would represent them. Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin likened trade unions to "transmission belts" designed to carry party directives to the masses. All independent worker organizations were destroyed, and official, all-encompassing trade union federations were created to help the state control the workforce. Officials in these organizations were generally party operatives or secret police agents whose chief job was to spy on workers and report on anyone expressing dissent. In some countries, workers were imprisoned simply to fill arrest quotas during repressive ideological campaigns. Usually they were sent to labor camps to perform forced labor. Soviet officials also oversaw "labor quota" campaigns in which "superworkers" called Stakhanovites would set impossibly high production standards against which pay scales were set. Workers would have to meet the higher quotas to get the same pay. Trade unions compelled submission by controlling distribution of food, housing, vacations, and rare goods like refrigerators.

Soviet trade union organization was thus an "anti–trade union" model, the reverse of freedom of association. Rather than protecting workers from exploitation, the official unions drove them to work harder and faster to meet state demands. In democratic countries, private employers sometimes adopted a similar model called "company unionism," but the Soviet Union engaged in such practices on a grand scale as an essential part of the totalitarian system. Worse, the Soviets imposed and exported their model to satellite states in Eastern Europe and Communist countries around the world. Today, the largest country still operating an official Communist Party–dominated trade union system is the People's Republic of China.

The "Polish Revolution"

The "Polish Revolution" was an epochal event that affected the entire Soviet bloc. The rise of Solidarity, with as many as 10 million members, was a repudiation not only of the official Communist unions, but also of the Communist regime. This significance was not lost on the Polish government, which imposed martial law to suppress Solidarity in December 1981. But the spirit of free association survived the crackdown. After seven years of underground struggle, Solidarity forced the government to accept semifree elections that quickly resulted in the fall of the regime. Soon thereafter, the Soviet bloc itself collapsed, allowing a number of new democracies to emerge. The entire process began with small underground publications that explained to workers their rights under ILO conventions.

Employers Strike Back

Despite the long tradition of democratic trade unionism, the adoption of ILO conventions, and the impact of Poland's Solidarity movement, freedom of association is not secure in many parts of the world. Dictatorships are the most frequent violators of workers' rights, but many democracies also fall short of international standards. Indeed, trade union rights have often been curtailed in the name of economic freedom in recent decades, amid a revival of classical economic liberalism.

The rise of Solidarity, with as many as 10 million members, was a repudiation not only of the official Communist unions, but also of the Communist regime.

At the international level, this revival has been associated with a lowering of trade barriers and the phenomenon of globalization. Multinational employers are increasingly able to abandon countries with high standards for freedom of association and instead seek cheaper and more compliant workers abroad. They find these conditions in places like China, Burma, and Vietnam, where workers who attempt to organize free trade unions are brutally suppressed by authoritarian governments. Manufacturers also take advantage of weak labor standards or poor regulatory enforcement in new and developing democracies in Latin America, Eastern Europe, and elsewhere.

At the domestic level, business groups and conservative political parties have grown increasingly hostile to trade unions, harking back to the early patterns of confrontation between capitalism and labor rather than the postwar era of conciliation. Many conservative think tanks argue that trade unions are incompatible with economic freedom, violate individual rights, and are predisposed to clash with pro-business political parties. In the United States, Great Britain, and a number of other democratic countries, laws governing trade unions now partially restrict their rights to organize, represent workers, and mount strike actions. For example, Australia has been admonished in recent years for new laws that allegedly violate ILO standards and discourage collective bargaining in favor of individualized relations between workers and employers. Economists usually attribute the fall in unionization rates in developed democracies to a natural economic shift from industrial manufacturing to services and information technology, and to the increased global competition noted above. However, trade unionists and others believe that unfavorable legal and regulatory changes are also responsible for the trend. They point to stronger labor laws in certain Western European countries, where unionization rates have not fallen as drastically despite exposure to the same economic forces.


Although free trade unionism and free enterprise are often presented as being in conflict, their respective histories, as well as the experience of the ILO, indicate that they are mutually beneficial (see also chapter 7, "Economic Freedom"). Indeed, it is unlikely that free enterprise could survive without the economic benefits and social mobility provided by trade unions. At the same time, the strictly socialist and collectivist economic experiments once advocated by many trade union movements have collapsed or been forced to adapt to the needs of a market economy. While ideologues on the right or left might challenge those assertions, it is clear that freedom of association is an essential right that enables individuals to protect one another from both state tyranny and economic exploitation.