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Freedom of Association: Essential Principles

"(1) Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.
(2) No one may be compelled to belong to an association."

UN General Assembly, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 20, 1948

"Democracy depends on stable, representative institutions. It depends on the right to organize. It depends on freedom of association."
Lane Kirkland, President, AFL-CIO, 1988

The exercise of freedom of association by workers, students, and others in society has always been at the heart of the struggle for democracy around the world, and it remains at the heart of society once democracy has been achieved. Without freedom of association, other freedoms lose their substance. It is impossible to defend individual rights if citizens are unable to organize around common needs and interests. As one labor leader put it, "Freedom of expression without freedom of association is the right to speak freely in the wilderness."

Without freedom of association, other freedoms lose their substance.

Most political theorists consider freedom of association to be essential to the development of civil society and thus to the strength of democracy. It is also an important bulwark against the rise of state tyranny. Dictatorships typically view free organizations as threats and target them for repression, takeover, or closure. Totalitarian states go further, not only destroying all existing forms of free association but coercing participation in state-controlled institutions and mass-mobilization campaigns.

Freedom of Association and Workers' Rights

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations in 1948, explicitly protects both freedom of association in general and the right to form and join trade unions in particular. Even before the United Nations existed, however, the world recognized the need to protect workers' interests. Negotiators at the 1919 peace conference that ended World War I authorized the creation of the International Labour Organization (ILO), which championed international labor standards for more than two decades before it became an agency of the newly formed United Nations in 1946.

Of all the aspects of freedom of association, it is trade union rights that have contributed most profoundly to the expansion of liberty and equality in the world. In recent times, free trade unions have been essential to the emergence and consolidation of democracy in Poland, Chile, Nigeria, the Philippines, Serbia, South Africa, and many other countries. They remain at the center of ongoing struggles for freedom from Cuba to China (see Country Studies). These examples show that even in the face of great risk and repression, workers seek to organize themselves in free trade unions. Once organized, free trade unions strive to overthrow dictatorships, expand democracy, and put an end to economic oppression. Not surprisingly, authoritarian governments try to prevent free trade unions from forming, often imposing state-dominated unions to control the workforce.

Free trade unions today are at times portrayed as economically and politically anachronistic, something belonging more to the era of heavy industry than to the modern age of high technology and globalization. But trade unions are of ongoing importance to democratic societies and are generally their largest, most diverse, and best organized associations. Historically, as the scholar Seymour Martin Lipset has noted, unions have led the great waves of economic improvement in industrialized countries, thus broadening the social foundation for democracy itself. Numerous studies, surveys, and scholarly examinations indicate that in democracies, strong trade unions correlate with the free exercise of democratic rights, an influential civil society, and high levels of both electoral participation and economic equality.