After Amnesty’s huge payout to former Secretary General Irene Kahn and Executive Deputy Secretary Kate Gilmore (see “The Irene Kahn Affair”), Amnesty’s rank and file employees were understandably outraged. The discrepancy between top and bottom salaries within Amnesty had always rankled staff. In 2012, frustration over pay inequity was compounded by the knowledge that an uncertain percentage of 500 jobs within Amnesty’s International Secretariat (IS – the London-based center responsible for daily operations and global agenda-setting) were expected to be moved to international hubs as a result of Amnesty’s global restructuring.

The process of restructuring Amnesty was a massive undertaking, and staff concerns were not effectively dealt with, reflecting the machinations of a multinational corporation more than the activities of a human rights group. Along with the IS changes, large country sections were expected to increase financial contributions to the IS, forcing them to reduce spending in other areas, including staff. This would lead to widespread job cuts throughout the movement. Faced with these concerns, the Amnesty International employee union did not oppose the corporate restructuring, per se; however, it lacked confidence in Amnesty’s leadership ability.

There has been a failure of the senior leadership team to provide clarity about what the decentralization process aims to achieve, how those aims will be achieved, and how success will be measured concretely. Senior management has failed to address concerns that a permanent local presence could impede research, distort priorities or undermine [Amnesty]’s work with local partners. They have not defined the ways in which [Amnesty] is ineffective.1

Secretary General Shetty brushed off these concerns stating, “Any change creates uncertainty. That’s always difficult, it’s natural.”2 Tensions between IS staff and management led to three one-day worker strikes in the fall of 2012, the first strikes in more than 20 years.3 The union released the following statement after the first strike in October 2012:

The repeated breaches of negotiated agreements by management in recent years, combined with the threat to derecognize the union soon after the current Secretary General joined the IS, shows that the current senior management do not treat agreements as binding and do not respect the role of the union. This is of particular concern at a time of change and upheaval, and when new agreements are being negotiated.4

The statement continues by underscoring the irony of the treatment of Amnesty staff members:

Amnesty cannot be an effective or credible human rights organization if it does not respect the rights of its own workers, nor can staff be effective human rights activists if they are working in an atmosphere where their own rights are being trampled on. Amnesty’s supporters expect Amnesty staff to be treated decently wherever they work – there is a real risk to Amnesty’s reputation if it is seen as an organization that treats its own workers’ rights with contempt while paying out vast amounts of members’ contributions in “compensation” to its departing senior managers.”5 (emphasis added)

The union also noted that compensation to IS senior leadership amounted to roughly £1 million per year (approximately $1.6 million).6

In November 2012, Susan Lee, Amnesty’s program director of the Americas, resigned in protest. She was the fourth regional director to resign in the course of the year.7 The conflict escalated further on November 13, when “the union passed a resolution stating that it has no confidence in the Secretary General and the Senior Leadership Team to manage and lead Amnesty International in the defense and promotion of human rights globally, or to maintain good industrial relations with staff.”8 The union further commented “that members do not believe that the Senior Leadership Team have the necessary integrity and competence, or have ensured transparency and accountability.”9

IS staff protested outside the London headquarters and international offices, with banners quoting Amnesty’s own slogan, “Workers’ rights are human rights.10 One participant, Jo Cardwell, commented, “There have been so many breaches of trust at the organization that this was the last straw.”11 Another striker repeated the criticism of the IS’s financial priorities:  “Our senior leadership team earns £1 million between just eight people… And they are telling low paid people who’ve worked here for decades that they want to get rid of them on the cheap.”12 Strikers also noted that the IS withdrew from redundancy agreements immediately before announcing the plan to restructure the IS, which could result in massive job cuts (up to 50%).13

Similar criticisms were made regarding Amnesty International-UK (AIUK), whose staff went on strike due to the feeling that management had hypocritically undermined AIUK’s commitment to human rights. Shane Enright, an AIUK researcher on workers’ rights, argued that:

It’s no good Amnesty protesting at human rights abuses in Wisconsin, where public sector workers were denied collective bargaining agreements, when it then denies effective collective bargaining to its own employees… The organizations I work with are deeply troubled. The shortsightedness of management is putting our human rights work at risk.14

Three union strikes at the AIUK offices focused on, “Amnesty local groups and members… calling for an extraordinary general meeting to debate the crisis that could see up to 40 job losses. Unite [union] members at AIUK have already called for the resignation of the AIUK director, Kate Allen.”15 Staff complaints

centred on management’s failure to enter into meaningful negotiation over the planned redundancies. Despite the union’s offer of a pay freeze and assistance from staff throughout the organization in identifying ways to save money, management refused to discuss Amnesty International UK’s payments to the International Secretariat.16

One worker on strike said, “Management are the ones who get their message heard… They are able to focus on the dispute full time—but we have to do our work as well. All the human rights work that gets done here gets done by us, not them.”17

Those on strike described the cuts as reflecting fiscal mismanagement on the part of AIUK’s senior management. The amount of funding required to secure the jobs slated to be cut was similar to the financial loss from Amnesty’s gala event, the “Secret Policeman’s Ball.”18 That AIUK leadership would waste huge sums of money on a publicity event, and then fire the staff working for the group’s humanitarian goals, showed its disconnect from AIUK’s mission and priorities. The backlash on the issue was so great that Amnesty had to undertake an independent evaluation on “the performance of the Ball, in terms of its alignment with Amnesty’s brand and values and against its stated objectives.”19

Amnesty’s organizational restructuring created a great deal of tension within the movement, and revealed the hypocrisy of an organization claiming to focus on worker’s rights that denied collective bargaining and fair compensation for its own employees.  It also demonstrated the inability of its senior leadership to effectively manage the global restructuring while remaining true to Amnesty’s mission.