HERE IS some genuinely good news about the United Nations that we missed when it happened in June. The International Labor Organization, a venerable member of the U.N. system, has been turned around with a vengeance. You remember the ILO. That's the agency in which things got so bad--so tyrannized by a Communist-Third World majority, so unabashedly pro-Soviet in policy and procedure--that in 1977 Jimmy Carter withdrew. By 1980 the organization, properly sobered by the American absence, had altered its ways enough to permit the United States to return. But that was only a taste of what was to come.
In 1977, a small group of Soviet workers had attempted to organize an authentic free trade union, one responsive to their interests in a way that the official unions of the "workers' paradise" have never been. For their pains, this brave band paid heavily, being sent to psychiatric hospitals and the like. The International Confederation of Free Trade Unions and the World Conference of Labor took up their case, charging the Soviet Union with violating the basic ILO convention on freedom of association. This is the same Convention 87 invoked, successfully, last year by Poland's Solidarity. The complaint worked its way through the organization, and in June the ILO's governing body issued the first rebuke it had ever delivered to the Soviet Union.
No more than other international agencies can the ILO reach inside the borders of a sovereign state to enforce its reprimand. So different are the Soviet and Polish contexts, moreover, that it is idle to believe the suppressed Soviet group is a precursor to Solidarity. But it is cause for genuine satisfaction that the Soviet workers have been stood up for by the organization created to advance the cause of social justice through the improvement of labor conditions around the world. International organizations are supposed to work that way. They rarely do.
In the 1970s American withdrawal from the ILO was seen by many as alarming and self-defeating. But the AFL-CIO--labor has its own separate voice in ILO proceedings, along with management and govern ment--pushed hard for withdrawal, and it was right. When the United States did return, it was in a position to put through procedural changes, including secret balloting and pre-screening of intrusive political resolutions. These allowed the organization to get back to the work that Samuel Gompers had in mind when he established the ILO in 1919.