Freedom of Association and the Right to Contest: Getting Back to Basics

Cynthia L. Estlund, NYU School of Law
Alan Bogg, University of Oxford - Faculty of Law


As worker participation through trade unions has declined across much of the developed world, especially in the US, the UK and Canada, scholars and activists have turned to the concept of "freedom of association" (FOA) -- defined in international labour law as the fundamental right of workers to form and join trade unions of their own choosing -- as a basis for reclaiming a voice for workers in economic governance. Much of this work pursues what we call a strategy of ‘ascent’: to what extent does the existing FOA as defined in international and national labour law encompass constitutionalised rights to collective bargaining and to strike, for example? This chapter adopts instead a strategy of ‘descent’: does FOA both rest on and help to support more basic rights of concerted protest in the workplace as a prelude to, or even a substitute for, trade union organisation? Drawing upon Philip Pettit's philosophical work on freedom as non-domination, the chapter contends for the recognition of an individual right to contest employer power, free from both state and employer interference. This fundamental labour right, coupled with an associational right or freedom to do jointly with others what one has the right or freedom to do as individuals, provides a normative foundation for protecting informal concerted activity as well as the more familiar trade union forms of FOA. This chapter maps the specific configuration of labour rights in Canada, the UK and the US from this perspective, and identifies some newly-apparent gaps in both the law and the scholarly literature regarding fundamental labour rights.