Freedom of Association: Essential Principles

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."
Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 20

"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 achieving and defending democracy around the world. Without freedom of association, other freedoms lose their substance. It is impossible to defend individual rights if citizens are unable to organize in groups around common needs and interests. Tom Kahn, a noted civil rights and worker rights activist, wrote, "Freedom of expression without freedom of association is the right to speak freely in the wilderness." of expression without freedom of association is the right to speak freely in the wilderness.

Most political theorists consider freedom of association to be essential to the development of civil society and thus to the strength of democracy. Through his exploration of the United States, Alexis de Tocqueville came to believe that the manifold organizations and associations that made up civic life in every community were  "the mother of science" of any democracy, the social development upon which all other progress depended.

Civil society, by organizing citizens outside of state control, also guards against tyranny. Dictatorships typically view free organizations of citizens, and especially trade unions, as threats and target them for repression, takeover, or closure. Totalitarian states go further: they not only destroy all existing forms of free association but also coerce citizens’ participation in state-controlled institutions and mass-mobilization campaigns in order to exert control over the society.

Freedom of Association and Workers' Rights

Freedom of association covers all manners of organizations created by citizens to protect their individual and common or group interests. But it is most commonly defined as the rights of workers to organize in unions and to bargain collectively over the wages and conditions of their employment. It is these rights that have contributed most profoundly to the expansion of liberty and equality in the world (see History)., by leading the great waves of economic improvement in industrialized countries, have broadened the social foundation for democracy itself.

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 (see also section on Human Rights). Even before the United Nations existed, however, the international community recognized the need to protect workers' interests. Leaders at the 1919 Versailles peace conference, which brought a formal end to World War I, responded positively to the proposal by American labor leader Samuel Gompers and union leaders from Europe to create an International Labour Organization (ILO) as a distinct part of the League of Nations. The ILO’s aim was to create basic standards for the fair treatment of workers that all countries would observe and thus create conditions for social peace — it was the precondition that President Woodrow Wilson (and others) believed would make World War I “the war to end to all wars.” The ILO is the only institution to survive the demise of the League of Nations and later become an agency of the United Nations (see also History).

As the American sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset has noted, unions, by leading the great waves of economic improvement for workers in industrialized countries, have broadened the social foundation for democracy itself (see references in Resources). Indeed, by representing the shared economic and social interests of a wide range of groups in society, they tend to break down racial, ethnic and gender divisions and thus expand opportunities for all citizens. 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. Although free trade unions today are at times portrayed as economically and politically anachronistic, trade unions are still essential to democratic societies. Outside of religious institutions, they continue to be the largest, most diverse, and best organized associations.

In addition to expanding the scope and benefits for workers within democracies, tree trade unions and independent worker movements have been essential to achieving democracy in nearly all countries where it has been denied, such as Chile, the Philippines, Poland, South Africa, and many others. Free trade unionists played central roles in organizing resistance to tyranny in Nazi Germany and occupied France as well as in overcoming the great destruction of World War II and rebuilding democracy in postwar Europe. They remain important to the ongoing struggles for freedom from China to Zimbabwe among many others. These and other examples show that despite great risk and repression, workers seek to organize themselves in free trade unions. Once organized, free trade unions strive to overthrow dictatorships, expand democracy, put an end to economic oppression, and distribute wealth more equitably. Not surprisingly, authoritarian governments try to prevent free trade unions from forming and often impose state-dominated unions to control the workforce.

Although free trade unionism and free enterprise are usually portrayed as conflicting ideas, the history of their respective pursuit in democracies, as well as the experience of the ILO, indicate that the two can and do peacefully coexist and can be mutually beneficial. Indeed, free enterprise is unlikely to survive without the economic benefits and social mobility provided to workers by trade unions. By providing a vehicle through which working people can share in the fruits of their labors, unions boost consumption, promote community stability, and support a better quality of life. At the same time, the strictly command economics based on the Soviet model and other collectivist economic experiments once advocated by many left-wing trade union movements have failed. The economies of communist countries have either collapsed or, as in China and Vietnam, workers have been forced to adapt to a hybrid market economy. What is universally true, in both democracies and dictatorships, is that workers have sought to unionize to defend their economic, social, and political interests.