Freedom of Association: History


Early Forms of Association

The oldest independent associations were typically religious in origin. In medieval Western Europe, the most significant was the Roman Catholic Church. It maintained its own structure and self-governance, including in the many states where it represented the official religion. The Catholic Church also inspired 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 as autonomous corporations. They fostered merchants' associations, artisans' guilds, and other groupings, often with the blessing of the country’s ruler, usually a monarch. 

Monument to the Freemasons in Augusta, GA

The Freemasons

During the Enlightenment (17th and 18th centuries), free associations emerged with no economic, religious, or royal connection. Among the most important were the Freemasons. When 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. These orders organized across all professional fields and religious denominations and dedicated themselves to the general goals of brotherhood, equality, and peace. The first known group was the Grand Lodge of England, formed in 1717. Freemasonry spread across much of the world, but mostly to countries of the British Empire. Individual members played significant roles in the intellectual Enlightenment, the American and French Revolutions, and other historical events. The lodges' rituals and secrecy gave rise to many conspiracy theories about Freemasonry, but in fact these were adopted to evade repression by state authorities who feared for their power and privilege. The Masons’ influence owes more to their model of independent social organization and networking than to any master plan.

The rise of other secret political societies at the time of the French Revolution prompted the British Parliament to pass the Unlawful Societies Act in 1799, one of the first laws of the modern era aimed at repressing free association. The Freemasons were exempt from the ban on the condition that they reported their membership and activities to the authorities (a requirement that was repealed only in 1967). The fear of social unrest in that period led the Parliament to also pass the Combination Acts of 1799 and 1800, which banned trade union activity.

Civic participation, volunteerism, and the activities of non-governmental organizations in the US have only increased from the time of Tocqueville’s observations. America's civic life is one of its most widely admired features among emerging democracies abroad.


Tocqueville: The Importance of Civil Society in the US

The Reformation gave rise to many different Protestant denominations that favored the autonomy of individual congregations over the hierarchical authority and unity demanded by the Catholic Church. This tendency was especially pronounced in America, where the religious 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 system 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, [and] 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, civil society is important not only to fulfill the purposes of democratic government but also to do all the small things that government could not do. 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. Civic participation, volunteerism, and the activities of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in the US have only increased from the time of Tocqueville’s observations. 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 clashes, sometimes violent, with political and economic liberalism. As noted in previous chapters (see especially Consent of the Governed and Economic Freedom), political and economic liberalism was 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 individual contracts without any interference. Thus, many liberal reformers who campaigned for the abolition of slavery were also opposed to collective bargaining and organized labor. William Wilberforce, a great leader of the British abolitionist movement in the early 19th century, also championed the Combination Acts noted above that suppressed the organization of workers into trade unions. Despite the clear history of trade union organization benefiting both workers and liberal economies, the principle of freedom of association is still challenged.

The British Battlefield

Great Britain witnessed the first great clash between freedom of association and property rights, a clash that initially workers often lost. Agricultural improvements, population growth, and industrialization at the end of the 18th century created horrific working conditions in the country's factories. Under the Comination Acts, workers' attempts to organize unions 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 [trade unions], betrayed, prosecuted, convicted, sentenced, and monstrously severe
punishments inflicted on them; they were reduced to and kept in the most wretched state of existence.

The harsh penalties imposed by the Combination Acts and related anti-conspiracy laws — these included imprisonment or deportation to penal colonies like Australia — meant that early unions in Britain had to be formed in secret. Despite the risk of punishment by the state and organized violence by employers, numerous workers joined such groups and often engaged in desperate acts to improve their dismal standard of living. The most famous group was dubbed the Luddites, a group of textile workers who destroyed new industrial machinery that they blamed for lower wages and unemployment. Dozens of the saboteurs were executed after mass trials. Today, “Luddite” is used pejoratively to refer to people who cannot accept technological change, but knowing the impact of the Luddites broadens an understanding of their importance. Whigs and other reformers realized that the repressive use of Britain's harsh laws by employers had driven workers to violent extremes and eventually backed the repeal of the Combination Acts in 1824.

The Rise of the British Labor Movement

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

Employer violence, lockouts, dismissals, and other actions against unions continued throughout the 19th and early parts of the 20th century. Workers used such strategies as mass petition campaigns (like the Chartist movement of 1838–48), national strikes, and creating a Labour Party, but in fact trade unions in Britain failed to achieve much decisive political power before World War II. Although it had participated in government coalitions previously, the first majority Labour Party government took office only in 1945, at which point major social legislation like national health insurance was passed. The issue of freedom of association and its scope continues to be debated in the United Kingdom. The enactment of several laws under Conservative Party Prime Ministers in the 1980s and early 1990s, which unions strongly opposed, established certain limits on trade union influence. Despite these infringements, the Trades Union Congress still represents more than 25 percent of the workforce and remains a strong force in the United Kingdom’s politics and economy.

The Rise of the US Labor Movement

US 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 resistance, including the use of violence, repression, and restrictions on union organization. These restrictions were especially directed at unions motivated by anarchist and socialist parties, which generally sought industry-wide or general workers' unions and advocated a radical change in government. Craft unions, the mainstay of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) formed in 1886, were also under severe pressure. But their closer-knit organization based on individual skilled trades restricted the options of employers to replace strikers with unskilled workers. Craft unions were thus better able to obtain 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 worker mistreatment related to industrial production. The first safety and workers' compensation laws were enacted in New York State following the Triangle Shirtwaist fire of 1911. The employers had blocked the exits of the factory in order to prevent employees from leaving. The textile workers, mostly young immigrant women, were trapped: 146 workers perished in the fire or jumped to their deaths trying to escape it. This tragedy, the worst industrial accident in American history, resulted in the first real safety laws for workers in the US. It also propelled the growth of garment unions.

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

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 established the eight-hour workday and the minimum wage.) As a result of the Wagner Act, union membership increased more than fourfold from 1933 to 1947. At the initiative of business groups, more restrictive laws were passed after World War II that limited the ability of workers to organize into unions (the Taft-Hartley and Landrum-Griffin Labor Acts). These laws and general employer resistance to unions (at least 10,000 workers are fired every year for trying to organize unions) has resulted in a decline of union density from a high of 33 percent of the workforce in 1955 to 11.5 percent in 2015. Still, even today, unions in the US represent nearly 15 million members (not including professional associations like doctors and lawyers) and continue to be influential in policy debates, political elections, legislation, and overall social life.

The International Scope of Freedom of Association

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. Despite such practices, 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 general economic and social progress, and fostering democracy. In the last 150 years, workers' movements were central in achieving democracy in many countries (see recent cases in Country Studies of Chile, Poland, South Africa, and Tunisia, among others). As noted in Essential Principles, free trade unionists also played significant roles in organizing resistance to tyranny, such as in Nazi Germany and occupied France, and in rebuilding democracy after the destruction of World War II. In both the pre- and post-war period, free trade unions within established democracies enhanced living standards and workplace safety but also defended workers’ democratic freedoms. As a result of all of these worker struggles, basic welfare and labor standards have been adopted in developed and developing countries alike. Today, the International Trade Union Confederation, the largest grouping of national trade union federations, has 316 affiliates in 158 countries with a total membership of 170 million workers.

The International Labor Organization

The adoption of improved labor standards can also be attributed in large part to the work of the International Labour Organization (ILO). After World War I, longtime AFL president Samuel Gompers and other labor leaders had pressed US president Woodrow Wilson and other Allied leaders 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. 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 unique tripartite structure that includes representatives of government, business, and labor, which has allowed the organization to adopt international standards accepted by everyone. Initial conventions of the ILO endorsed the eight-hour day and the 48-hour week as an international norm and called for the abolition of child labor (under age 14), the institution of maternity leave (a minimum of six weeks), and the establishment of a national employment service.

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.

The right of free association, although included in the ILO Constitution's preamble, was not part of the organization's established principles until 1944, when it adopted the Declaration of Philadelphia. 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 of 2013, ILO Conventions 87 and 98 have been adopted by 152 and 163 countries, respectively, making these among the most widely accepted international treaty documents. The two are among eight core ILO conventions, which also include prohibitions on forced labor, child labor, and discrimination in employment. The United States Senate has generally been suspicious of adopting international standards treaties. It has adopted just 14 of 189 total conventions and only two of the eight core conventions (on forced labor in 1991 and on child labor in 1999).

Freedom of Association and Totalitarian States

Soviet-bloc countries, on the other hand, ratified ILO conventions without ever observing 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, workers in Communist countries had no say in who would represent them. Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin likened trade unions to "transmission belts" designed to carry out party directives. Soon after the Russian Revolution in 1917, 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 party officials or secret police agents whose chief job was to spy on workers and report on anyone expressing dissent. Workers were often sent to labor camps to perform forced labor simply to fill arrest quotas during ideological campaigns. Soviet officials also oversaw "labor quota" campaigns in which "superworkers" (called Stakhanovites) set impossibly high production standards against which pay scales were set. Workers would have to meet the higher quotas or get less pay. Trade unions also compelled submission by controlling distribution of food, housing, vacations, and rare goods like refrigerators.

Soviet trade unions were 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’s practices were systematic in scale — an essential part of the totalitarian system. The Soviets imposed their model on satellite states in Eastern Europe and exported it to Communist countries around the world. The largest country still operating an official Communist Party–dominated trade union system is the People's Republic of China (see Country Study).

The "Polish Revolution"

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 the fulfillment of Conventions 87 and 98 and establishment of the right to form free trade unions. The movement's success — 10 million workers joined within one month of the establishment of Solidarity — marked the first time a free trade union was recognized in a Communist country. The "Polish Revolution" was an epochal event that affected the entire Soviet bloc. The rise of Solidarity repudiated not only the official Communist unions but also the Communist regime itself. In December 1981, the Polish government imposed martial law to destroy Solidarity, but the union survived the crackdown by re-organizing underground. After seven years of peaceful resistance, Polish workers launched national strikes that forced the government to relegalize Solidarity and accept semi-free elections, which were held in June 1989 and ultimately 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 (see Country Study of Poland).

Despite the long tradition of democratic trade unionism . . . freedom of association is not secure in many parts of the world.

Employers Strike Back

Despite the long tradition of free 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, notable among them the United States, also fall short of international standards (see Resources). In general, worker rights have often been curtailed in recent decades in the name of economic freedom amid a revival of classical economic liberalism (see Economic Freedom).

At the international level, the revival of economic liberalism is associated with lower trade barriers and globalization. Multinational employers are increasingly able to abandon countries with high worker rights standards for countries with cheaper labor and little or no respect for workers’ rights. They find these conditions in communist countries like China and Vietnam, which systematically prevent any free trade union organization, but also in authoritarian countries like Egypt and Malaysia, where governments suppress trade unions that do organize. Manufacturers also take advantage of weak labor standards or poor regulatory enforcement in new and developing democracies in Latin America, Eastern Europe, and Asia (see Resources for The New York Times news story on Bangladesh worker tragedy).

Business groups and conservative political parties in many democracies have grown increasingly hostile to trade unions, harking back to the early patterns of confrontation between capitalism and labor in the 19th and early 20th centuries. In the US, 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 US, United Kingdom, 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 by the ILO in recent years for new laws that it determined violate international standards and discourage collective bargaining in favor of individualized contracts between workers and employers. France just adopted a similar law encouraging individual contracts. The United Kingdom adopted a new law in 2015 restricting strikes.

Free market and pro-business economists usually attribute falling unionization rates in developed democracies to a natural economic shift from industrial manufacturing to services and information technology, as well as to increased global competition. This view has been critiqued by labor economists and trade unionists, however, who believe that unfavorable legal and regulatory changes are largely responsible for the trend and that anti-union laws and ineffective protection of freedom of association has brought about a high degree of inequality, both in wealth and in labor-management relations. These advocates point to northern European countries (Scandinavia, Germany, and the Benelux countries) where there are more favorable labor laws and much higher unionization rates. All of these countries achieve high levels of production, productivity, and standards of living.