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At UN, Tour Guides Go On Strike, World Body's Labor Double Standards Protested

Byline: Matthew Russell Lee of Inner City Press at the UN: News Analysis

UNITED NATIONS, December 6 -- The visitors' lobby at the UN was filled with complaints Thursday morning, as people seeking tours confronted a "Closed" sign, "No guided tours today." The guides, who work at the UN but are technically not UN staff, had for months sought to negotiate with UN management but were rebuffed. Finally Thursday they called in sick en masse. The supervisor behind the tour counter, questioned by Inner City Press, said "We have no staff today."

            "And tomorrow?"

            "We hope so."

            UN Staff Union sources contacted by Inner City Press predict that the job action will continue indefinitely. The tour guides had asked that the Staff Union be allowed to attend a meeting they requested with management, but the request was denied. An appeal to the Under-Secretary General for Management Alicia Barcena on November 29, from the president of the UN Staff Union, was never responded to. Inner City Press' request for Ms. Barcena's comment on Thursday morning was taken down by a receptionist but Ms. Barcena, in a meeting, was not available for comment, as an hour passed. In the interim, sources say that a Guided Tours Unit Working Group, requested for a year, may now finally be convened.

            A German tourist who came expecting to see the UN, Thomas Grieskamp, told Inner City Press that while he was inconvenienced and would not be able to see the UN, he supported the guides' right to strike. "They have to fight for that rights," he said, questioning their treatment given, among other things, the dues that Germany pays to the UN.

UN tour guides earlier in 2007, more stories to be told

            Visitors to the UN take over 436,000 guided tours a year, with a satisfaction rate near 100%, according to a position paper prepared by the Staff Union. The UN charges adults $13 for each tour. The guides, however, are kept at 30 hours a week, to remain technically part-time, a strategy similar to that of Wal-Mart and other embattled retailers. Additionally, according to the position paper, the guides are "not guaranteed adequate long-term sick leave. The result has often been the onset of far more serious illness due to a lack of sufficient recovery. The service contract does not afford consideration for pregnant women." A situation in this regard, described as "heart-wrenching" by several guides, played a role in triggering the job action.

            Another looming issue is that when the UN Headquarters closes for renovations, the tour guides will all be out of work, as they currently understand it. They have asked to be represented, even if only informally, by the UN Staff Union, but management has refused.

            One guide who asked for anonymity for fear of retaliation told Inner City Press, "They ask us to be the public face of the UN, then they treat us like this. It's hypocrisy and a scandal they world should know about." And on Thursday, there were no tours. Developing.

* * *

Click here for a Reuters AlertNet piece by this correspondent about Uganda's Lord's Resistance Army. Click here for an earlier Reuters AlertNet piece about the Somali National Reconciliation Congress, and the UN's $200,000 contribution from an undefined trust fund.  Video Analysis here

  Because a number of Inner City Press' UN sources go out of their way to express commitment to serving the poor, and while it should be unnecessary, Inner City Press is compelled to conclude this installment in a necessarily-ongoing series by saluting the stated goals of the UN agencies and many of their staff. Keep those cards, letters and emails coming, and phone calls too, we apologize for any phone tag, but please continue trying, and keep the information flowing.

Feedback: Editorial [at]

UN Office: S-453A, UN, NY 10017 USA Tel: 212-963-1439

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Other, earlier Inner City Press are listed here, and some are available in the ProQuest service, and now on Lexis-Nexis.

            Copyright 2006-07 Inner City Press, Inc. To request reprint or other permission, e-contact Editorial [at] -

UN Office: S-453A, UN, NY 10017 USA Tel: 212-963-1439

Reporter's mobile (and weekends): 718-716-3540