The Fundamental Right to Strike: 20 Years After Genova, the Fighting Still Ensues

Francesco Felici
Right to Strike
The New Global Order
Source: IPLeaders

From July 18th – 22nd, 2001, thousands of people gathered in the narrow streets of Genova, Italy, to protest and strike against the G8 convention which was taking place in the city. Twenty years later, the legacy of this summit is characterized not by the content of the discussions of the G8 world leaders, but by the violence which ensued in the streets as young protestors and activists who had gathered from all over the world were met with brutal repression from the Italian police. Twenty years later, we still remember the death of Carlo Giuliani, a 23-year-old student who, on July 20th, was shot and killed by the police during a protest.

We still remember the raid against the Diaz School, where protestors were assaulted while taking shelter. We still remember, with vivid imagery, the total disregard on behalf of the Italian police force for the fundamental right to strike and protest. What started as a structured movement against the extremes of globalization in a matter of days turned into a global example of the severe disregard for the fundamental right to strike and protest, making the G8 of Genova a testament to the violation of what is nowadays considered an essential human right.

Therefore, it becomes fundamental to investigate the international recognition and function of the right to strike in order to understand the critical role this human right plays in both labour law and human rights law, as well as analyze how the erosion of the right to strike influences other social issues that characterize our times.

What Was the Reason Behind the G8 Protests?

The 2001 Convention, during which the Italian PM Silvio Berlusconi welcomed the likes of George W. Bush, Tony Blair, Vladimir Putin, and the other G8 leaders in Genova, was intended to entrench the political and economic mission of the new globalization which had boomed in the late 90s. As neoliberal globalization was at the peak of its hegemony in the early 2000s, global citizens were living under the false promise that this system of globalized capitalism would have closed the global inequality gap, instead of furthering it to what it is today.

However, not everyone seemed to agree with this view; certainly, the thousands of protestors gathered in Genova did not. Since the 1990s, there has been a plethora of debates on how to approach the “global era” and what it could entail. Indeed, many were concerned about the impact that globalization would have and they were there to voice their dissatisfaction with this new world order.

In Genova, students and scholars, workers and migrants, were all gathered to strike against mass deforestation, the growing issue of climate change, a world where 20% of the population held 80% of the wealth, and a system that appeared to foster inequality. On July 20th, 2001, all of the protesters were united under the slogan “a new world is possible”, and they were ready to take action to show that. However, at that time, any talk of breaking from globalization appeared to many as an unrealistic, if not an outright dystopian, prospect.

Right to Strike
The New Global Order
Anti-Globalization Protests
Source: Research Gate

Today, 20 years later, the premise could not be more different. After years of extremes, economic downturns, and capital-induced recessions, the idea that a globalized economy leads to collective prosperity has all but faded. By 2010, the Economist had highlighted how the “steam” of the train of globalization had run out. The trend of international trade decreasing continued until it fell by a staggering 7% during the Covid-19 Pandemic. This crisis highlights the fragility and inequality deeply rooted in a globalized system that promised equality while socio-economic barriers were being created around the world. Hence, this goes to show how the G8 movements are extremely relevant today and should draw our attention to the institutional responses with which these movements have been met.

In Genova, the fundamental right to strike was severely violated, as was the case with the Black Lives Matter protests in the United States and the Friday for Future movement. In what appears to be a cyclical disregard for how crucial it is to ensure respect for the right to protest, a fundamental human right, as we look back at the events in Genova it is essential to understand why the right to strike should be obliged.

The International Recognition of the Right to Strike

The normative framework and the role of striking and protesting in human rights law and labour law are fundamental. Indeed, the relation between labour laws and human rights is an extremely interesting phenomenon, with the first being majorly influenced by the rise of human rights discourse, in particular, due to the fact that the right to strike is a widely debated topic.

At the legislative level, the right to strike has been enshrined in a multitude of international bodies, such as the ILO Convention No. 87 (articles 3, 8, and 10), the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (article 8), the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (article 22), the European Convention on Human Rights (article 11), and the American Convention on Human Rights (article 16), as well as being recognized in the constitutions of at least 90 countries. Nonetheless, although its recognition at the international level is solid, the right to strike has been repeatedly violated over the years, making it fundamental to reiterate why such a right should not be obstructed.

In general, workers’ rights are codified as human rights to the extent that they protect individuals from exploitation and servitude, and guarantee fairness and respect in the workplace. Therefore, the right to strike plays a pivotal role in this process, as giving workers the possibility to unite and manifest their discontent is the core of the democratic and social bargaining that allows for an equitable workplace. This then spills over into other sorts of gatherings and protests, such as student movements or political action, which are meant to practice social bargaining. In this regard, Mr. Maina Kiai, Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Assembly, writes,

“The right to strike is also an intrinsic corollary of the fundamental right of freedom of association. It is crucial for millions of women and men around the world to assert collectively their rights, including the right to just and favorable conditions of work, and to work and live in dignity and without fear of intimidation and persecution”.

Maina Kai, Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Assmebly

Hence, to strike is not limited to workers, but to all of those who are dissatisfied with their current situation and are determined to take action to bring about change by making their voices heard and their demands clear.

Thus, the international recognition of the right to strike appears to be the culmination of all the efforts that began in the midst of the Industrial Revolution and were carried out for the last two centuries to achieve equitable wages, sustainable working hours, and the surpassing of racial and gender discrimination in the workplace. These achievements have influenced other protest movements from the Civil Rights Movement to student protests in Genova. However, even though this achievement deserves recognition, the reality of the influence of the right to strike tells us quite a different story. A study conducted by Eldira Xhafa and the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung in 2016 shows how, both at the national and international level, the fundamental right to strike is repeatedly violated. In particular, the survey,

“Shows that most (23 countries) of the 35 countries which are OECD members have enacted legal provisions and/or case-law rulings and/or have adopted practices which restrict the right to strike above and beyond established international standards”.

Eldira Xhafa, Fredrich-Ebert-Stiftung, 2016

These violations encompass the exclusion of certain groups of workers from the right to strike, prohibition/restriction on strikes, excessive sanctions on legitimate strikes, and, as in the case of Genova, the violent repression of strikes and gatherings. Hence, it appears that the right to strike, although solidly established and recognised at the international level, is often defied when actually put into practice.

As such, the right to strike is a very particular type of human right as it is subject to many limitations. These limitations occur when a governing body fails to properly adhere to and respect such a fundamental feature of workers’ rights, and constitute a major disrespect of the validity of these movements. As Xhafa writes,

“The erosion of the right to strike represents a major setback for the labor movement, further weakening it and the means to challenge rising inequality and other economic and social problems. In times of concerted attack on workers’ rights, including the right to strike, the vision of ›economic democracy‹ has become a distant utopia”.

Eldira Xhafa, 2016

Therefore, we can notice how the right to strike does not represent only a fundamental resource for workers, but it is also a social power utilised to manifest the demand for equity and respect.

The act of striking is a political tool to demand and protect other fundamental human rights; an act meant to send a clear message of dissatisfaction that is difficult to ignore. This, of course, has often led to strikes becoming violent acts, which have sometimes discredited their validity in the face of the law.  However, perhaps if it were not for these powerful, and sometimes not completely peaceful, actions, our society would have not reached some of the milestones it has. Therefore, it is important to contextualize and understand labour rights and, in this case, the right to strike as a wider struggle for a democratization of both the workplace and in the act of social bargaining.  

Thus, to strike is not necessarily to wreak havoc; it means establishing a dialogue when nobody bothers to listen to you. In the words of Frederick Douglas, a pioneer of the labor movement, “Power concedes nothing without demand”.

  • What do you think: is it okay to smash vehicles for social and democratic bargaining, or is violent protest the cause of more harm than good?
  • Why is the right to strike such a contentious topic, and how can we normalize the discourse around it?
  • Looking in hindsight at the G8 protests of Genova, was the anti-globalization movement ahead of its times?

Suggested Readings

The Right to Strike as a Fundamental Human Right

ILO principles concerning collective bargaining

The Right to Strike, an Essential Component of Workplace Democracy: Its Scope and Global Economy

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The Fundamental Right to …

by Francesco Felici time to read: 7 min
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