Moscow faces double embarrassment at ILO meeting in Geneva
The annual conference here of the International Labor Organization is proving embarrassing to the Soviet Union. First, Lech Walesa, leader of Poland's free trade union, Solidarity, showed up as a member of the Polish delegation. He promptly showed off the independence of his union organization, an independence that troubles Moscow very much -- by holding a press conference.
Second, and even closer to home, the Soviet Union itself has been advised to alter its labor laws.
This recommendation was made by the so-called "committee of experts on the application of conventions." This is an international committee of jurists that investigates complaints that a government is in one way or another violating an ILO convention it has signed.
Mr. Walesa's appearance at the Palais des Nations in prosperous Geneva prompted considerable fuss at the opening of the three-week convention June 3. Government officials, trade unionists, capitalists, and the press crowded around this man with the walrus-style mustache who was helping change history.
Only 10 days earlier, ILO director-general Francis Blanchard had traveled to Warsaw to discuss the inclusion of Solidarity in the Polish delegation. Like all ILO delegations, the Polish group consists of representatives of government, employers, and trade unions.
Mr. Blanchard also reviewed draft labor legislation to be considered next week by the Polish parliament.
"The legislation which they are in the process of polishing up," Mr. Blanchard said in an interview, "is something which represents enormous progress . . . very much in line with Convention 87."
ILO Convention 87 deals with freedom of association -- the right of workers or others to form trade unions or other organizations as they wish.
The Soviet case deals with the same convention. The International Confederation of Free Trade Unions and the World Conference of Labor in its complaint to the ILO held that the Soviet labor law and Constitution violated this convention, which the USSR ratified in 1956. The committee of experts in essence agreed with the complaints.
The committee spoke of "the necessity of an amendment of the [labor] legislation in order to allow organizations independent of the existing trade union structure to be formed and legally represent the interests of their members. The committee considers therefore that the provisions at present in force are liable to impair the free establishment of workers' organizations."
The report continues, "Consequently, the committee requests the government to provide information on any measure which may be taken with a view to recognizing clearly the right of workers to establish the organizations of their choice."
Moreover, the committee spoke of how the Soviet Constitution imposes a link between the Communist Party and the workers' organizations in their entirety, and "thus restricts the right of the trade unions to organize their activities and to formulate their programs, as provided for in Article III of the convention."
Of course, the tight control the Soviet Communist Party holds over the nation's labor organizations is no secret to Western analysts. They know well that workers in the USSR have no possibility of organizing independent trade unions. Soviet annoyance with Solidarity may well stem from concern that Soviet workers might be tempted some day to follow the Polish example and weaken the enormous powers of the Soviet Communist Party.
The report pleases the United States delegation. When the US withdrew from the ILO for two years between 1977 and 1979, one charge the US made was that the ILO followed a double standard: toughness on violations by rightist regimes but laxity on violations by leftist governments.
"This is the beginning of the breaking down of this double standard," said Irving Brown, leader of the US labor representatives. "No United Nations body has ever gone that far."
The report must still be considered by the conference committee on the application of conventions. Mr. Brown would like to see the Soviet Union put on the "special list" -- a sort of blacklist of those in violation of human rights. But this is not considered likely.