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From London to Geneva ‘organisation’ is the key
Angie Birtill is a tutor at the Trade Union Studies Centre of South Thames College and has previously been a Labour councillor at the London Borough of Camden as well as working for the London Irish Women’s Centre. She recently ran sessions on branch organisation for United Nations staff representatives in Geneva
In October 2012 I had the opportunity to run two workshops for United Nations staff representatives in Geneva. The training was organised by the Federation of International Civil Servants’ Associations (FICSA) and was held over four days at the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO).
FICSA has been representing the interests and defending the rights, of international civil servants for nearly 60 years. International civil servants are public sector employees who work for international organisations such as the United Nations. UN FICSA was set up in 1952 by a handful of staff associations and unions in the UN system. The Federation provides a voice for international civil servants throughout the world and has a long-standing relationship with the TUC which regularly provides tutors for its courses.
This was my first time working with FICSA and my first visit to Geneva.
The training was hosted by WMO which provides governments with information about the weather and climate change and co-sponsored the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize winner, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Twenty two staff association reps. took part in the FICSA training at WMO. These included reps. from other organisations as varied as the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (CERN), the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), the United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) and the World Health Organisation (WHO).
The majority of the learners worked in Geneva but some had travelled from France, Italy and Spain. Based further away were reps. from the UN Organising Stabilizing Mission (MONUSCO) in the Democratic Congo Republic and from the UN Development Programme (UNDP), World Food Programme (UNWFP) and Population Fund (UNFPA) in South Sudan. Their input was particularly interesting and enabled us to make comparisons between African and European countries.
Staff Associations represent a range of occupations from interpreters and lab. technicians to doctors, nurses and scientists. Our workshops included mainly professional staff and the training focused on the rôle of the staff rep and developing the local branch organisation. The sessions provided a valuable opportunity for the representatives to share their varied knowledge and experience. Discussions ranged from cutbacks and unfair recruitment practices to the fragmentation of the workforce creating inequalities between full-time and part-time, long-term and short-term staff, not to mention the considerable numbers of interns in many organisations. The failure of employers to adequately consult reps. was a big issue for some.
I could have been back in London hearing these problems. What made these workshops really challenging though is the unique circumstances in which UN staff associations operate. UN employers are bound by neither domestic nor international law. The organisations for which they work are sovereign which means that national labour laws do not apply. Instead staff conditions of service are governed by UN Rules and Regulations. FICSA’s role is to protect and further the rights of all international civil service employees. The Federation has access to key decision makers. It addresses the UN General Assembly and the General Conference of the ILO and meets with the executive heads of international organisations.
Staff automatically become members of the association when they start working for UN organisations, but unlike trade unions, which are autonomous bodies, UN staff associations are funded by the employer and are part of the UN structure. Over the years United Nations staff associations have established a degree of independence by collecting financial contributions from members. Today they have both contributory and non-contributory members. The circumstances of staff associations may be different from trade unions, but the principles underlying these organisations are exactly the same. Just as trade unions reach out to both members and non-members, staff associations organise all staff in order to build a strong presence.
The workshops provided plenty of examples of reps. organising and negotiating improvements at work. Two staff associations had obtained 100% contributory membership and successfully resisted job cuts. Others had negotiated training courses for their members and improved their workplace policies and procedures. One association had conducted a stress survey and maintained an extremely informative website. FICSA’s advice on problem areas including salaries, allowances, contracts, grievance procedures, gender issues and health and safety was clearly important to this work. We were fortunate to have FICSA officers present who explained the Federation’s structure and usefulness.
I left Geneva full of ideas, inspiration and energy. As labour laws in the UK and other European countries are increasingly being undermined by Governments who are tied to neo-liberal agenda, I found myself questioning the degree to which UK trade unions really differed from UN staff associations. One thing I came away with full certainty is the importance of organisation for both.