Right to Organize & Bargain

Workers around the world face serious threats for democratically organizing -- an internationally recognized freedom.

In more than 25 years in the field, ILRF has continuously found that where workers are empowered, they feel the most dignity in their work.  The freedoms to organize and collectively bargain are fundamental but, unfortunately, frequently violated rights.

One worker in a sea of many does not have a great deal of power in relation to the employer. By binding together in unions and other worker organizations, however, workers have been able to bargain for increased wages, better working conditions, improvements to health and safety, and the right to have a genuine voice in the decisions that impact their daily lives. Different unions coming together into a movement helped create the middle class and improved the lives of all Americans, including a minimum wage, social security, laws against child labor and anti-discrimination laws.  

But workers around the world face systemic barriers to organizing, including egregious acts of violence and intimidation. Companies and governments fire workers who attempt to organize, close or relocate factories and farms to eliminate union presence, criminalize activists, and hire migrants and children as replacements. Thousands of workers over the past decade have been arrested, harassed, and even killed for defending this internationally recognized freedom. ILRF works with partners around the world in some of the most dangerous and difficult places for workers to organize, supporting them in their quest for dignity and justice at work.

Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.  

-Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948

The right to organize is a fundamental human right, recognized in Article 23 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and identified as one of four fundamental principles and rights at work by the International Labour Organization. In the United States, this right is an expression of the first amendment of the Bill of Rights to freedom of speech, to assemble peacefully and to freedom to petition the Government. Workers have the right to gather together into groups and speak out to protect their rights, and to work toward passing laws that improve working conditions.

Using this right, unions have brought about substantial social change around the world. In industries and nations where unions are strong, wages are better, inequality is smaller and workers are less prone to injury and abuse. Collective bargaining ensures democratic organization in the workplace, empowers women, and even protects consumers (see our 2009 Freedom at Work Toolkit for case studies). In fact, we find that where workers have determiniation in their working conditions, child labor and modern slavery are prevented as well. Child labor, especially bonded child labor, is among the most egregious and exploitative labor practices. It emerges wherever workers have no say over their conditions or means to escape poverty. Thus, our work to protect children is closely tied to our advocacy for collective bargaining rights.

The primary purpose of organizing to collectively bargain is to ensure that employers and workers share equally in the benefits that their work produces. And the collective voice of unions provides a political counterbalance to the interests of industry, which are much more likely to influence government where union voice is weak. Thus, the attack on this right is constant. One tool unjust companies use to undermine workers’ ability to organize is the systematic replacement of permanent jobs with temporary contract jobs. Temporary workers are generally denied the right to join a union. Many workers are intentionally kept in “temporary” positions for decades. These workers rarely receive social benefits, are subject to lower wages, and often face more dangerous working conditions. While this practice is generally illegal, it persists worldwide. Read more about the Global Union Federation campaign to end precarious work.


We believe in the protection of trade unions and labor activists whose efforts are crucial to securing fundamental rights at work.

ILRF works to ensure that government policies support freedom of association and that workers do not face retribution for their organizing efforts. We are a leader in utilizing labor protections embedded in U.S. trade laws to support workers’ right to organize.  One tool is the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP), a program that allows duty-free access to U.S. markets for certain products from certain countries. To qualify for the program, countries are expected to meet certain labor basic labor standards.  See our Trade Justice and GSP pages for more information on how we use these tools.

ILRF also puts pressure on politicians and corporations to adopt legislation that guarantees workers’ rights to organize, publishes research reports that document cases of rights violations, and participates in alliances and networks that sustain labor rights and protections. We also engage with our brothers and sisters around the world in fostering global solidarity, arranging protests, letters of support and other joint actions when trade unionists’ rights are threatened around the world.

But ultimately, the only way to ensure the right to organize is protected is to empower workers to demand it. Which is why ILRF is involved with unions and other labor groups on every continent of the globe, engaging in capacity development programs, sharing information and resources, and creating space for worker voice in important national and international discussions. Our partners are dedicated to the workers they serve, and we are dedicated to ensuring they are heard.