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Discontents at the UN: An Exchange

In response to:

'The UN and Its Discontents': An Exchange from the April 26, 1990 issue

To the Editors:

In answering Brian Urquhart’s criticism of her book on the UN, Countenance of Truth [” ‘The UN and Its Discontents’: An Exchange,” NYR, April 26], Shirley Hazzard observed that “Urquhart is aware that the plight of the UN staff under Waldheim was desperate, and that the staff opposition to Waldheim’s misconduct in office was emphatically expressed and amply documented.” In his reply, Mr. Urquhart said be was “puzzled” by Ms. Hazzard’s “overheated but unsubstantiated assertion” about the desperate plight of the UN staff under Waldheim.

Since Ms. Hazzard’s assertion was based, in part, on my experiences in the late Seventies in representing the UN staff union in New York and those of the UN Agencies in Geneva (see pages 108–110 of Ms. Hazzard’s book), I write to confirm that, if anything, Ms. Hazzard’s assertion was underheated and fully substantiated.

I was retained by the staff unions to challenge Mr. Waldheim’s repudiation of a collective bargaining agreement they had negotiated with the UN. The negotiations were conducted under Mr. Waldheim’s auspices and he formally approved the agreement. It was repudiated as being overly generous, in effect, a confession of error on Mr. Waldheim’s part. Regardless, an agreement duly negotiated and executed is a sacred document in labor or international relations and must be honored unless modified by agreement of the parties. I thought that was a principle the Secretary General of the UN would thoroughly endorse. I soon found out, however, that Mr. Waldheim would not even meet with me to discuss the agreement. Letters I sent him were referred to subordinates who, in turn, referred them to their subordinates.

In the absence of an opportunity to meet with Mr. Waldheim or any UN official with authority to speak for the UN, we were forced to seek relief through the UN’s cumbersome grievance procedures whose final step was an appeal to a five member Administrative Tribunal all of whom were appointed by the UN. One of the UN Agencies in Geneva, the International Labor Organization, had its own Administrative Tribunal which, surprisingly, decided in our favor. But our victory was short lived. The Administrative Tribunal for all the other UN Agencies sitting in New York reached an opposite conclusion and the ILO Tribunal immediately reversed itself. The staff unions here and in Geneva were shocked and chagrined but there was nothing they could do about it. Their plight, obviously, was desperate.

But they were already desperate about the way they were being treated by Mr. Waldheim at the UN in New York. They were desperate about the length of time it took to process even the simplest grievances. Indeed, they were desperate about the entire system of labor relations at the UN. It had been imposed on them and there was no effective way for the staff unions to obtain modifications. True, the system was introduced long before Mr. Waldheim arrived on the scene. But he made no effort to administer the obsolete system in a decent way. By comparison with the systems we have in The United States for the relations of public agencies with their employees, the UN system, which should have been a model, was far out of date.

For one thing, the staff unions were financed by the UN. Under our laws, a union financed by an employer is considered to be a company dominated union, and rightfully so. The officials of the staff unions were all UN employees beholden to the UN for their jobs and advancement. They had no independent representatives or outside advisers. They were unaffiliated with any other labor organization. Union officials with any degree of independence quickly became frustrated and quit; supine officials were encouraged and rewarded to stay. Desperation was rife and UN officials knew it but were loath to recommend change in view of Mr. Waldheim’s attitude.

Why Mr. Urquhart was “puzzled” by Ms. Hazzard’s assertion about the desperate plight of the UN staff under Mr. Waldheim is hard for me to understand. He was on the scene long before I arrived and remained long after. But if beauty is in the eye of the beholder, then we shouldn’t be surprised if desperation or its absence is also in the eye of the beholder.

Theodore W. Kheel
New York City

Brian Urquhart replies:

Theodore Kheel, who was retained by the United Nations staff union in the late Seventies during Kurt Waldheim’s secretary-generalship, questions my being puzzled by Shirley Hazzard’s statement that “the plight of the UN staff under Waldheim was desperate.” My puzzlement was with Hazzard’s use of the word “desperate.” For me, the word “desperate” describes people who have lost their means of support, their homes, their families, their freedom, and who have little hope for the future. There are, unfortunately, large numbers of such people in the world. With all due respect for the rights and the wishes of my former colleagues in the United Nations Secretariat, a failure to get an increase in salary does not put them into this category. Nor, I think, do they see themselves as “desperate.” This is why I called Shirley Hazzard’s language “overheated.” Such a grotesque exaggeration of the “plight of the UN staff” is not in any way helpful either to the welfare and the future of that staff, or to the institution itself.

Collective bargaining was never a means for setting salary scales at the United Nations. In the 1978 case brought by Mr. Kheel on behalf of the nonprofessional staff in Geneva, Switzerland, he argued that the secretary-general had a collective bargaining agreement and then, two years later, had broken that agreement by adopting a salary scale recommended by the newly established International Civil Service Commission (ICSC), a group set up by the General Assembly to review and make recommendations on the salaries, allowances, and other conditions of service of the UN staff. Mr. Kheel’s position was unanimously rejected by the UN Administrative Tribunal, the members of which are elected by the General Assembly. The panel deciding that particular case was composed of Francis Plimpton, former president of the New York Bar Association, Suzanne Bastide, a French authority on international organization law, and R. Vankataraman, an Indian jurist. The tribunal found the actual agreement to have been honored and a collective bargaining system to be inapplicable to UN staff/management relations. In refusing to consult with UN administration officials on the ICSC recommendations as they might, and ordinarily would, have done under the staff regulations and rules, the Geneva staff representatives had, the tribunal felt, relied mistakenly on the contention that the 1976 agreement could not be altered except by a new agreement.

As regards Mr. Kheel’s unsuccessful efforts to meet personally with Waldheim, I am told that while Waldheim himself had no objection to Mr. Kheel being on the premises as an adviser to the staff, the under secretary-general for administration and management at the time, a Canadian, advised strongly against accepting the principle that the staff could be represented by an outside counsel in negotiations with the UN administration. He felt this attempt to bring American labor practices into the United Nations could not be accepted, since it would run counter to the provisions of the staff regulations regarding staff management relations as set forth by the General Assembly. For these reasons, Mr. Kheel was not accepted as the spokesman of the staff by the UN Administration.

Pace Shirley Hazzard, I doubt that the situation of the staff under Waldheim was significantly better or worse than on other occasions in the past, or indeed in the present, when a large shortfall in the United States contribution makes staff reductions necessary and meeting the payroll precarious. As chief administrative officer of the UN the secretary-general has to respond both to the understandable wishes of the staff to improve their salaries and conditions of employment and to the attitudes of the member governments which approve and pay the budget of the United Nations. It is no secret that some governments, including the government of the United States—in my opinion quite wrongly—have sometimes regarded the United Nations staff as overpaid and inflated. This is very unfair, but it is a point of view which cannot be totally ignored by the secretary-general in his efforts to get governments to agree to adequate salaries for the United Nations staff.

The UN staff in the 1970s certainly had a number of legitimate grievances, some of which Mr. Kheel mentions. I doubt, however, that the UN staff can be easily equated with workers in American industry, or that a system of independent trade unions and collective bargaining, as found in American industry, is necessarily appropriate for an international civil service. Incidentally, collective bargaining does not serve as the basis for determining salaries in the United States federal civil service either.

Such points are debatable, but I continue to believe that Hazzard’s description of their “desperate plight” was a foolish and, for them, damaging exaggeration of the situation of the UN staff.

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