Labor unrest at the United Nations and its affiliated agencies dates back nearly to its creation in 1945.
By March 1947, grievances had become so corrosive that 2,000 staff members convened a protest rally attened by the late Trygve Lie, the first secretary general.
"There is a total lack of confidence and understanding between you and the staff," a spokesman told Lie.
Pleading a tight budget, Lie uttered a warning in response: "Everything you say will be used against this organization by the enemies of the United Nations." The implication was clear: to criticize the United Nations could be to imperil the possible last hope of mankind for world peace.
Neither Lie nor his successors did anything fundamental to cure the lack of trust, principally, to agree to consult staff members in advance, fully and in good faith, on matters that deeply affect them.
That "is at the heart of almost every problem we face in our common relations," U.N. union President Lowell L. Flanders told Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim shortly before a recent strike.
An episode that left a poisonous legacy of distrust began in 1949, at the outset of the era of frenetic anti-communism best symbolized by the late senator Joseph R. McCarthy (R-Wis.).
Part of the story was told by Lie in his memoirs, where he disclosed that he consented to a request by U.N. administrative chief Byron Price to the FBI to provide "any derogatory information" on Americans seeking jobs in the U.N. bureaucracy.
He omitted noting what most U.N. employes didn't know until critic Shirley Hazzard's book came out in 1973: he had, in the fall of 1949, made a secret agreement with the U.S. State Department for FBI screening, without their knowledge, of U.S. citizens either applying for or holding U.N. staff jobs, as a check on their political views and private lives.
Yet, Hazzard wrote, Lie had taken an oath to uphold the U.N. charter, which forbids U.N. officials from seeking or taking instructions from any government.
The FBI established an office on U.N. premises. The United Nations started to -- and still does -- keep secret dossiers on staff members. And, in 1951, the Lie administration dismissed several Americans who had invoked their constitutional protection against self-incrimination.
Backed by their union, which Price accused of "disloyalty and self-seeking," and by hundreds of colleagues who signed petitions for them, the Americans asked Lie to reinstate them. He refused, writing in his book that he had "no question in my mind that the cases involving the Fifth Amendment ought to go, as a matter of policy."
Not to be outdone, the Soviet Union demanded equal treatment, in the form of dismissal of so-called White Russian interpreters and translators. But Lie refused the demand, saying that the Soviet Union had "submitted no facts which indicated that these people have done anything wrong."
The American employes protested to the U.N. Administrative Tribunal that Lie had produced no facts to show that they had done anything wrong, either, and thus had denied them the most elementary due process of law.
If this was a double standard, it didn't seem to bother Lie. The secretary-general, he emphatically told the tribunal in a deposition, "is under no obligation whatsoever to specify his reasons for termination of staff members."
The tribunal ruled for the American employes, but Lie refused to reinstate them. Instead, he paid them dismissal indemnities.
The episode left a never-eradicated "demoralizing infection of fear, cowardice, indifference, and bureaucratic restriction," wrote Hazzard, who worked at the United Nations in the 1950s.
Leaving aside political issues, that infection was only one of the United Nations' debilitating illnesses. Management expert Sir Robert Jackson revealed another in a 1969 report on his 18-month, $500,000 study of the U.N. Development Program for Third-World Nations.
Jackson wrote that he had trekked through an "administrative jungle" looking for but not finding the system's "brain," that the administrative machinery was becoming "slower and more unwieldy, like some prehistoric monster," and that a corps of aging administrators -- "many of them 'experts' in the art of describing how things cannot be done" -- run projects of which 20 percent were valueless deadwood.
Two years later, Hugh L. Keenleyside, a former top U.N. official, described the U.N. secretariat (bureaucracy) as "organizational chaos."
A few years ago, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace reported that in Ethiopia, field workers for the U.N. Children's Fund (UNICEF) "cabled, argued, fought and finally resigned from its reluctant bureaucracy" because it suppressed information on a drought and famine in which an estimated quarter-million persons died.
"Women continue to be severely under-represented in the "professional ranks," the Senate Government Operations Committee said in a 1977 report. Notably, UNICEF's record is the worst. Despite protests, it recently hired a male retired Coca-Cola executive: The United Nations' record is the best.