Can the international civil service thrive without staff unions?
Let’s explore the challenges, their legitimacy, and the concrete actions that await them
1 Feb 2022

Can the international civil service thrive without staff unions post-COVID?

A wave of voluntary resignations of many employees has been reported post-COVID, called the “Great Resignation” in the USA. There is also an increase in strikes and unionisation. These phenomena are probably linked to many months of ‘work-from-home’, or unemployment benefits due to COVID-19. Many people are rethinking their work-life balance, and workers have taken a fresh look at commuting, schedule flexibility, pay, working conditions, long-term career goals, and the long-term emotional and mental cost of work-family imbalances. Studies suggest that Millennials and Generation Z are more likely to be dissatisfied with the old routines of ‘work first’.

International civil servants (ICS) have been required by the employing organizations, not the government, to work from home or even stay redundant. What if these Organizations were to cease to pay for work-from-home or redundant jobs? The usual protections that non-ICS employees can claim from governments in many countries would not apply to ICS, and ICS would not be able to turn to social media to apply indirect pressure on their employers due to their ‘duty of reserve’ inscribed in the staff regulations, and the immunity of their employers from national laws. Yet, today, there is widespread recognition that fundamental human rights include voting, economic interests, the right to organize, the right to bargain collectively, the right to protest, and the right to express opinions through many media. ICS stand out in their inability to exercise such fundamental human rights. While the administrative tribunals, to which ICS may file disputes, pay lip service to the applicability of international human rights conventions to ICS, few instances can be found, if any, where resort to such conventions resulted in a favorable judgment for an ICS.

Without staff unions, where can ICS find a legitimate forum to state their needs, negotiate their claims, and present issues often described as ‘class actions’? What reason would there be for staff to accept that their labour relations should be governed by distant, corporatist, authoritative rules written unilaterally by management? And how much trust can the administrative tribunals gain when judges are appointed and paid by those administrations?

Practice what you preach!

Experience with collective bargaining at the ILO two decades ago may offer some valuable pointers for today. My reflections draw on my experience as the President of the ILO Staff Union for two years (from December 1999 to December 2001) and as Chairperson of the ILO’s Joint Negotiating Committee (JNC) (which conducted collective bargaining) until 2003.

My first observation is that staff unions should be selective on the topics for their collective bargaining demands. Considering that wages and pension rights are dealt with at the common system level, the management of the specialized agencies would be unable to do more than agree to present staff claims at the common system level. Staff should not content themselves with such indirect representation of their demands. They have both the right and the obligation to represent organization-specific demands, which can happen when the union is recognized as the bargaining agent.

My second observation is that, in addition to representing collective issues, one of the essential roles of the ICS staff union is to ensure a constructive organizational climate that influences each person every day. We should not confuse ‘culture’ with organizational climate. Where all ICS find common ground, despite their different origins and culture, is the organizational climate. This describes recurring patterns of behaviour, attitudes, and feelings that characterise life in the organization. In my days as an ICS, offensive behaviours (e.g., harassment at work) were not suitably dealt with and hurt staff at all levels (G, P, and D levels). The staff union needed to devote considerable attention to defending the interests of individual ICS who were the victims of offensive behaviours that the existing rules did not adequately and effectively remedy.

My third observation is that while the staff union cannot usually negotiate wages or conditions of work, as these are decided for the entire UN system by central bodies (ICSC and the UNJSPF), it can nevertheless improve the well-being of many staff members through the conclusion of agreements on career planning, personal development, and promotions through fair evaluation of people’s job content and performance. The ILO staff union concluded several agreements to obtain results on these topics, and as a result of these agreements almost one-third of the ILO staff received a grade promotion.

As ILO staff representatives, we were concerned with improving labour practices within our own organization, the ILO. At the same time, we shared the information on our activities and achievements with the sister unions/associations in other organizations. And, when the UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, visited ILO, I gave him a copy of the signed agreements and invited him to apply collective agreements and the provisions we signed at the ILO in the UN more generally. My pitch was that the organizations could only gain efficiency and renown by becoming ‘best-in-class’ employers. And, while Kofi Annan did not act on this suggestion, in fairness, the onus is with the staff. Therefore, I still think it is in everybody’s interest to have a staff union of international civil servants.

Just do it!

Post-COVID, it seems self-explanatory why the UN agencies practicing ‘business as usual’ risk losing their attraction for staff, mainly those from developed countries. The management of UN agencies must wake up to the changed reality, where promoting justice to people and peace to countries can occur credibly only if those organizations provide the reasonable practice of internal democracy and justice for ICS. Relevance, like charity, begins at home. This is more relevant when UN salaries are less attractive than in the past and when short-term (precarious) contracts are no longer a rare exception.

When signing their employment contract, ICS must receive a fair return for the sacrifice they make when they liberate their employer from abiding by national labour laws and protection from both the scrutiny of public opinion and the national judiciary. Staff associations and other clubs cannot deliver the results that staff unions can when bargaining binding collective agreements. It is in everybody’s interest that staff unions of international civil servants should be recognized as bargaining agents, and that all aspects of labor relations are legitimate subjects for collective agreements within the United Nations Organizations.

* David Dror is Former ILO Senior Official. Member of the Executive Committee of Greycells.
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