This is the draft of a piece that I wrote in the early 2000s. It may be of interest to those who do not know of the origins of what became the Communist trade union international after WW2. The WFTU of the present day - much reduced but still (pro-)Communist - is having a Congress April 2011. It is also striking a loud anti-reformist (meaning anti-ITUC, anti-ILO, etc, drum.
The WFTU website can be found at http://www.wftucentral.org/?language=en
Now read on:
The World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU) was established in 1945.
The Founding of the WFTU in Paris, 1945, was due to a wave of popular internationalism and union self-confidence following the defeat of Fascism in World War II (1939-45/6). It was equally due to the interests of the allied states (the UK, the USSR, the USA, and others) involved in that victory. Whilst the the All Union Central Council of Trade Unions (AUCCTU, VTsSPS) was self-admittedly a 'transmission belt' for the Soviet state, there had, in the West, been increasingly intense collaboration between the unions, industry and the state during the war. There was a definite assumption, in the labor movement, that the unions would play a role not only in economic reconstruction but also in the establishment of liberal or social democracies in the liberated countries. There was a similarly widespread assumption that such national corporatism (the functional cooperation of labor, capital and state in economic and political modernization) would be reflected in the new United Nations (1946). Even at the foundation of the WFTU, however, there could be seen traditional union divisions (Communist/Social-Democratic, Left/Right, Political/Economic, nationalist/ internationalist, imperial/colonial): these were not yet reducible to a binary division. But there were also present elements of the overlapping Capitalist/Communist Bloc divide that led to the binary Cold War split in international unionism just four years later.
Labor and Political Economy:
Whereas labor had long been mobilized and incorporated into the Soviet state, the need for war production in the UK and the US not only led to a recovery from the devastating Great Depression, but actually improved living conditions (rationing, fixed prices, full employment), raised working-class importance within the wartime culture, and drew new population sectors into the industrial working class (symbolized in the US by the 'Rosie the Riveter' recruiting poster for women workers). This intensified incorporation into the nation state was supplemented by involvement in 'the good war', and notions of sympathy, identity or solidarity with workers and nations abroad. In the occupied countries of Europe, wartime deprivation, brutal Nazi repression, and involvement in passive or active resistance movements, similarly raised labor demands for economic advancement, and even socio-political transformation. These movements often had a simultaneously national-democratic and internationalist character. In the colonial and semi-colonial worlds of Africa, Asia and Latin America, increased agricultural and industrial production, and their sometimes direct involvement in the war (as second-class soldiers, as merchant seamen) similarly raised nationalist (anti-colonial, anti-imperialist) and internationalist consciousness amongst workers. The 'workers in uniform' of the allied powers often witnessed the misery of the occupied and colonized, leading to contradictory feelings of national/racial superiority and anti-colonial sympathy. At the end of the War, British soldiers in Egypt, India and elsewhere revealed themselves to be markedly pro-Labour. Demonstrations and (near) mutinies helped to undermine renewed British imperial ambitions and upper-class self confidence.
Between the two wars, the major national (European, American, Soviet) unions had had complex and frequently changing relations of cooperation and conflict. These were heavily marked by the formal split of the traditional union internationals brought about by World War I and the Russian Revolution of 1917. They were even more marked by the decision of the Soviet Union and its Communist allies elsewhere, to create a highly-centralized Third International (Comintern), with a complete array of subordinate organizations, including the Red International of Labor Unions (RILU, Profintern). The RILU made a major appeal to the (semi-)colonized in Africa, Asia and Latin America, thereby challenging widespread Western union racism and collaboration with imperial states. Meanwhile, the Western unions were increasingly incorporated into the International Labor Organization (ILO 1919), a body they had originally fought for, but that the Western states had then conceded precisely because of Western labor unrest and the threat of the Soviet model. Cooperation between the Communist and Social-Democratic (and other social-reformist unions internationally) was made difficult by the centralized nature of the first and the pluralistic nature of the second.
Thus, the Western unions were not only divided by national differences and rivalries (Europeans versus North Americans), but of the confederations of national union centers (such as the International Federation of Trade Unions - IFTU) versus those of the – older and more grounded – industrially-specific confederations, the International Trade Secretariats (ITSs). Within the West, different ideological traditions (e.g. socialist, religious) also militated against effective international union solidarity. The spread of Fascism within the West further deprived international unionism of major national contingents (Germany, Italy, Spain, Austria, then others).
The War, heightened class, democratic and international consciousness led to renewed efforts for international and cross-ideological trade union unity. This was largely facilitated by the profound incorporation of the unions into the national economies and polities, combined with the wartime coalition of the allies. Trade union leaders were not only involved at the highest public national levels. They were sometimes granted diplomatic roles, or involved, in significant cases, in clandestine military intelligence operations within Nazi-occupied Europe.
Directly following the Nazi attack on the Soviet Union, the British Trades Union Congress, with the collaboration of the British Government, began negotiations to create an Anglo-Russian Trade Union Council (1941). In 1944 London hosted a World Trade Union Conference, addressed to unions of the 38 United Nations, including the left-nationalist Confederación de Trabajadores de América Latina (CTAL). And it permitted attendance of more than one federation per country. The conservative AFL opposed this conference, the progressive Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) supported it.
The founding congress of the World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU) took place in Paris, October 1945. It was much inspired by both union and state notions of a new world order, organized in the spirit of both the Communist Popular Front and the US New Deal. 346 delegates represented some 64 million unionists. Unions of the 'colonial and semi-colonial' countries were for the first time heavily represented at an international union conference. Foremost, perhaps, was the major continental confederation of this group of countries, the CTAL. The Congress claimed to represent 90 percent of the world's unionists. It declared itself against every form of Fascism, against war and its causes, for the right of self-determination, against colonialism, discrimination and racism. It favored the extension of union rights, the improvement of working and living conditions, and for the limitation and liquidation of monopolies.
For both the CIO and the AUCCTU, the creation of the WFTU was a way of breaking out of their previous international isolation. The TUC had doubts, the AFL was opposed, and the ITSs were strongly resistant to being reduced to departments of the WFTU. The WFTU hoped to become a member of the UN General Assembly. Meanwhile, the new world order was turning into the Cold War order. The breaking point came with the US Marshall Aid offer to Europe, which the Communists and other leftists saw as establishing US economic hegemony over Europe, and as a major anti-Soviet initiative. The Soviets had considerable power within the Secretariat of WFTU through Louis Saillant, pro-Communist General Secretary of the French Confédération Generale du Travail (CGT). The AFL was maneuvering on the fringes through Irving Brown, later revealed to be a major Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) collaborator within the international union movement. Cold War policies and ideology played back into the national unions, with both the TUC and the CIO moving away from the WFTU. By 1949, the international trade union movement was again split on the lines of the Cold War blocs and on the oppositions of Communist and Reformist ideology:
There had been an irresistible wave of grass roots enthusiasm for a grand trade union alliance… But [t]he concrete achievements of the Federation were too limited to enthuse the millions of members. Relating exclusively to the labor movement at the level of national centers and above, it had no immediate relevance for the rank and file. Debates and arguments within the WFTU were the concern of a tiny elite of national leaders and officials. In such circumstances, the demise of the organization would pass almost unnoticed […] The essential weakness of the WFTU was that it failed…to develop a genuine trade union role. (Carew 2000:183).
This epitaph is true enough, even if the WFTU continues a shadow existence today, a decade or more after the collapse of the State Socialism to which it subordinated itself. The epitaph, however, is not only applicable to the Communist-dominated union internationals of the later-20th century.
Louis Saillant (1910-74). A furniture worker, he became active as a socialist within the CGT in the 1930s, was involved in street struggles, suffered beatings and imprisonment. As an active member of the underground movement during World War 2, he was co-responsible for the reunification of the previously-divided CGT. He was its representative in the National Council of the Resistance, of which he became President. He also gained a seat in the Consultative Assembly that recreated the French Republic. He was General Secretary of the WFTU, 1945-69, though remaining resident in France and active in the CGT, whilst the WFTU moved to Czechoslovakia. He received a number of French state and Communist awards. Although not a member of the Communist Party, he remained identified with Communist unionism and Soviet Communism till the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, which he, along with the overwhelming majority of the WFTU Secretariat, temporarily condemned.
Walter Citrine (1887-1983). Born into a Liverpool working-class family, he became an electrical worker, a union and Independent Labour Party activist. He rose through the union ranks, becoming Assistant General Secretary (1924), then General Secretary of the TUC (1924-46). He wrote extensively, including reports of official trips to Russia and Finland and two volumes of memoirs. His best-known work is his ABC of Chairmanship. He was continually involved in national-level industrial relations, and held government and semi-governmental posts from the beginning of WW2. He was President of the International Federation of Trade Unions (1928-45) and President of the WFTU (1945-6). He became a peer in 1946 and continued to serve on such boards as the National Coal Board, the Electricity Council and the Atomic Energy Authority.
Vicente Lombardo Toledano (1894-68). An almost forgotten figure of international unionism, he was the most prominent Marxist union leader and politician in the history of Mexico. He was possibly also the most prominent 'Southern' unionist within the history of the international trade union movement. Toledano graduated in law in 1919, taught at his university and gained a Ph.D. from it in 1933. But he simultaneously followed an extremely varied trade union, political and journalistic career, as well as founding a Workers University that continues his tradition. He was early associated with the Mexican Regional Confederation of Trade Unions (CROM) and its political expression, the Mexican Labor Party (PLM). He was a parliamentary deputy in Congress, 1926-8, later joining the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). In the 1930s he moved to the left, eventually becoming General Secretary of the Confederation of Workers of Mexico (CTM). He came to prominence under the reformist regime of Cardenas (1934-40), a radical-nationalist variant on the Roosevelt regime in the USA. He was founder and President of the radical CTAL (1938-61). As such he had intensive contacts with the CIO in the USA, which was prepared at one time to grant him some kind of sovereignty over Latin American unions. He had a prominent position within the ILO (1944), was present at the World Trade Union Conference in London (1945) and became a Vice-President of the WFTU (1945-63). An independent Marxist, Toledano moved to the left as Mexico moved to the right after WW2, thus losing political and union influence, nationally and internationally.
Álvarez, Luis Fernando. 1995. Vicente Lombardo Toledano y Los Sindicatos de México y Estados Unidos. Mexico: Editorial Praxis. 158 pp.
Carew, Tony. 2000. ‘A False Dawn: The World Federation of Trade Unions’, Marcel v.d. Linden (ed). The International Confederation of Free Trade Unions. Bern: Peter Lang. Pp. 165-86.
McShane, Denis. 1992. International Labour and the Origins of the Cold War. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 324 pp.
Silverman, Victor. 2000. Imagining Internationalism in American and British Labor, 1939-49. Illinois University Press. 298 pp.
Lane, Thomas (ed). 2000. Biographical Dictionary of European Labor Leaders. Westport: Greenwood. 2 Vols.
Weiler, Peter. 1988. British Labour and the Cold War. Stanford: Stanford University Press. 431 pp.
Hyman, Richard. 2002. 'The International Labor Movement on the Threshold of Two Centuries: Agitation, Organization, Bureaucracy, Diplomacy'. Industrial Relations Department: London School of Economics. 12 pp.
Waterman, Peter. 2000. 'Union Internationalism 1939-45: Limits of the Bureaucratic Corporatist Imagination'. Global Solidarity Dialogue, The Hague. 3 pp.
Saville, Richard. 1990. 'Politics and the Labour Movement in the Early Cold War', Our History Journal (London). No. 15, pp. 27-35.
You're more than welcome, MCW. Unfortunately there is no history of the WFTU nor, I think, biographies of its leaders in the later period. There is a book by a former leader, the Indian, Debkumar Ganguli, 2000, but after tryiing to track it down in India for years, it turned out to be more of a chronological account of conferences and declarations, written by a true believer, and with absolutely no depth. I have a chapter on the WFTU of the mid-1960s (including its contortions during after the Soviet invasion of Prague) in my forthcoming autobiography. Most of this chapter is online, under the title, 'Workers of the World, Forgive Me!' on the site of the Transnational Institute, Amsterdam at http://www.tni.org/archives/archives/waterman/prague1968.pdf.