Freedom of association: Battering ram or Trojan horse?

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Integrating core labour standards (CLS) into the operations of the Bretton Woods institutions and the WTO has become a primary goal of the international labour movement. The International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) and the ILO have persuaded the IMF and the Bank to accept CLS, including freedom of association and collective bargaining. Since they can impose painful sanctions on violators, incorporating labour rights enforcement into the international organixations that regulate the international economy has great appeal for the labour movement. I argue that there are potential dangers in this effort. The ILO's understanding of freedom of association is distinctly liberal and promotes the formation of 'free' as opposed to powerful trade unions. In this liberal conceptualization, many labour regulations that enhance labour's power by limiting union fragmentation and increasing bargaining power are considered to be violations of freedom of association. In practice this has meant that the ILO makes policy recommendations that encourage union competition and that discourage centralized collective bargaining. Although framed in different language, these policies mesh well with the agenda of the Bretton Woods institutions. An analysis of Indonesia and Argentina shows how the ILO's understanding of freedom of association has mixed consequences for the strength of the labour movement.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)210-232
Number of pages23
JournalReview of International Political Economy
Issue number2
StatePublished - May 2006


  • Core labour standards
  • Freedom of association
  • International Monetary Fund
  • International labour Organization
  • Labour rights
  • World Bank


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