Hesperian Health Guides
Using the law to support your campaign
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Workers gain the power to change their workplace when they know their rights and can organize to win them. Organizing requires ongoing discussion and problem-solving among workers, as well as bargaining with the employer.
Be familiar with your national labor law. Some countries have very specific labor laws created in response to worker organizing, while other countries have hardly any labor law. How your demands relate to the law can determine how, when, and about what you organize. When workers demand more than current labor law allows, it does not mean the demands are impossible to win, but that it will require more unity from the workers to win them.
So first learn about your labor law, and how it can help or harm you. Then talk with your co-workers and hold meetings to discuss everyone’s concerns.
Unions are often the only type of worker group recognized in labor law. The law may set requirements on how unions are run (rules for elections, who can be members, and so forth) and may regulate how unions and employers relate with each other. Community and womens’ groups are often easier to form and run. They can gain national and international recognition, especially if they are legally established as a non-governmental organization (NGO). Usually only a union can negotiate and enforce a collective bargaining agreement between workers and employers. But this does not prevent workers in a community organization from trying to negotiate with an employer over issues of mutual concern not covered in the workers’ contract.
Discussing changes you want to see in the factory and agreeing upon demands require good organizing and fluid communication among workers. Regular meetings, open discussions, and making compromises with your coworkers are important. Two people who work in the same factory may want to address different concerns about working conditions, and both may be equally important. Patience and a commitment to unity are important characteristics for an organizer. See Chapter 2: Learning and teaching about health at work.
And again, what the law says may be one thing and the enforcement of the law may be another. Despite the rights you may have on paper, the police or military may be used by the government and factory owners to prevent or break your organizing efforts. A hard lesson that many unions and organizers have learned is that the law is usually on the side of those with the most power.
The ILO can recommend changes to national labor laws, but achieving them is a long process. Organizing workers is the most fundamental condition in changing national labor law. Organizing makes your voices heard and demands that the employer, the brand, and the government protect the rights of workers and enforce good and just working conditions.