International Confederation of Free Trade Unions

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International Confederation of Free Trade Unions

Worldwide 1949


After abandoning the World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU) to the communist states, the anticommunist unions, their allies, and clients (in the colonies or semicolonies), as well as the social-democratic, social-reformist, and business unions (with their allies and clients), created a new international confederation: the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU). Formed as the cold war peaked in 1949, the new organization shared with the West the epithet "free." Although the ICFTU was a product of the cold war, it was also a child of long-standing tensions between "pure and simple unionists," "reformists," and "revolutionaries" within the international labor movement. It was also, more directly, a child of the hot labor movement war that began after World War I and the creation of the Soviet-controlled Communist International and Profintern (or the Red International of Labor Unions). Hamstrung by tensions between major members, largely self-confined to international labor diplomacy and a community of interstate agencies, the ICFTU later lost the high profile it had attained at its dramatic founding.


  • 1931: Financial crisis widens in the United States and Europe, which reel from bank failures and climbing unemployment levels. In London, armies of the unemployed riot.
  • 1935: Second phase of New Deal begins with the introduction of social security, farm assistance, and housing and tax reform.
  • 1940: Hitler's troops sweep through Western Europe, annexing Norway and Denmark in April, and in May the Low Countries and France.
  • 1945: On 7 May, Germany surrenders to the Allied powers in World War II.
  • 1950: United States begins developing hydrogen bomb.
  • 1950: North Korean troops pour into South Korea, starting the Korean War. Initially, the communists make impressive gains, but in September the U.S. Marines land at Inchon and liberate Seoul. China responds by sending in its troops.
  • 1950: Senator Joseph McCarthy launches his campaign to root out communist infiltrators.
  • 1955: Over the course of the year, a number of key ingredients are added to the pantheon of American culture: the 1955 Chevrolet, the first of many classic models; Tennessee Williams's Cat on a Hot Tin Roof; Marilyn Monroe's performance in The Seven-Year Itch; Disneyland; and Bill Haley and the Comets' "Rock Around the Clock."
  • 1960: An American U-2 spy plane piloted by Francis Gary Powers shot down over Soviet skies brings an end to a short period of warming relations between the two superpowers. By the end of the year, Khrushchev makes a scene at the United Nations, banging his shoe on a desk. As for Powers, he will be freed in a 1962 prisoner exchange.
  • 1965: Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., and more than 2,600 others are arrested in Selma, Alabama. Three weeks later, in New York City, Malcolm X is assassinated.

Event and Its Context

The coincidence of the creation of the ICFTU in 1949, at a high point in the cold war, has often led commentators to reduce the organization to this fact alone. The split in the World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU; ostensibly over acceptance/rejection of the U.S. Marshall Plan offer to rebuild a war-devastated Europe) also must be understood in terms of working-class nationalism/internationalism, of competing labor and socialist ideologies (within the West itself), and of the universal state-dependence of trade unionism during most of the twentieth century. To this must be added the old conflict between international unionism as a relationship between national union centers and as an industrial/occupational relationship. Given that the International Trade Secretariats (ITS) were the oldest internationals, that they were closer to the unions and workers they represented, and that they had a higher practical and lower "political" or "ideological" profile, the foundation of the ICFTU (which recognized the autonomy of the ITS) had labor motives enough for its creation.

On the other hand, the split in the WFTU and the creation of the ICFTU were also, inevitably, an effect of the cold war between the liberal-democratic and capitalist West and the communist eastern bloc. At that time the West was dominated in many ways by the United States, which had been vastly strengthened by the war. The economically devastated communist bloc was relatively weak. An authoritarian and militaristic party-state—to which the unions were subordinate—and an ideology of proletarian rule and internationalism (for which wartime success and antiimperial movements still provided considerable attraction) attempted to compensate for this weakness.

The major tension in the creation of the ICFTU was between the United States and the western European unions. ICFTU member unions in the colonies and in newly independent countries long remained in a marginal and dependent position. A U.S. culture of unfettered freedom of enterprise; of military interventionism; and of hostility to communism, to social democracy, and even to liberalism, had by 1949 deeply influenced its trade union movement. In Europe the devastated capitalist economies were mostly prepared for a settlement with social democracy and the trade union movements and for the creation of the so-called welfare state, thus providing the labor movement with feelings of both protection and power.

At the moment of creation of the ICFTU, however, a common interest in social-reformism and in anticommunism (which, for the United States, was primarily a symbolic threat, as opposed to the political threat it represented for western Europeans) permitted participants to overcome differing orientations toward colonialism. The United States and its unions had no interest in formal colonialism and preserved their domination of, for example, Latin American unions in neocolonial ways. Meanwhile the European unions often shared the colonial attitudes of their states (and societies), with the British Trades Union Congress providing labor advisers to the colonial authorities and the French still having union affiliates in their increasingly restive overseas territories.

The point of accord between the western unions and the western states and between the European and the American unions was in the use of the word "free" to characterize the new international. This term was variously applied to favored liberal-democratic capitalist states or societies, to union-state relations that were bipartite or tripartite rather than state-controlled, and to union-member relations based on democratic procedures. Insofar as political liberty was here privileged above other terms in the democratic trinity (economic equality, social solidarity), this skewed the ICFTU, the ITS, and regional organizations in a particular political direction. Sharing the word with states and corporations allowed the new confederation to subordinate the other values to that of "freedom," which it narrowly defined as opposition to communism or radical nationalism, both of which had some attraction to labor in the Third World.

The increasing integration of the western trade union internationals into western capitalist states and societies, their varied compromises with corporate capitalism, their distance from the worker members of their national affiliates, and their focus on international and regional agencies were concealed at the founding of the ICFTU. This resulted from the western unions' recent escape from the communist embrace in 1949 and their continuing competition with both the WFTU and nationalist regional organizations such as the Organization of African Trade Union Unity, which lasted until the collapse of both the communist and the radical nationalist projects some 50 years later. At the moment of victory, however, the ICFTU was simultaneously confronted by the threat of a neoliberalized, globalized, and networked capitalism, for which its previous experience had ill-prepared it. Like its immediate predecessor and longtime competitor, the WFTU, the ICFTU represented both the extent and limits of a bureaucratic and corporatist notion of labor internationalism.

Key Players

Brown, Irving (1911-1989): A backroom specialist of U.S. international unionism, Brown is better known to international labor specialists than international union activists. Apparently marginal to the work of the ICFTU and even the AFL-CIO, Brown was the leading eminence grise of western union internationalism. He represented the clandestine, even criminal, fringe of cold war unionism in the West. Born into a trade union family in New York City, he became a communist and then left the party together with his friend and mentor, Jay Lovestone. Both spent the rest of their lives operating in the same clandestine international mode, but allied internationally with the U.S. government and corporations against communism, radical nationalism, and the left. After Brown worked in the union movement and participated in wartime government boards, the AFL's Free Trade Union Committee sent him to Europe. Starting by 1949, the Central Intelligence Agency funded Brown's activities. Fighting to wipe out communist dockers' unions in France and Italy, he collaborated with the Marseilles Mafia and thus with what became later infamous as the "French Connection." Some suggest that he not only used the drug trade to fund his activities but even ran drugs himself. In the 1960s Brown shifted his efforts to Africa and became director of the AFL-CIO's state-and corporation-funded African American Labor Center. No task was too humble for him: Brown even presented "dockers toilets" to Nigerian unions (which in practice were handed over to and later reserved for use by senior officers in the Ports Authority). In 1962-1967 he was director of the ICFTU United Nations Office in New York. He returned to Europe in 1973 to lead the U.S. campaign against détente in the international trade union movement, became director of international affairs for the AFL-CIO in 1986, and a senior adviser to its president in 1986.

Narayanan, P. P. (1923-1996): Narayanan, whose family emigrated from India when he was 14, was a leading figure within the Malayan Union of Plantation Workers and participated in the founding congress of the ICFTU. He became president of the ICFTU's Asian Regional Organization in 1960 and in 1975 the president of the ICFTU—the first in that office from the "developing world." He continued in this position until 1992. Narayanan's rise to prominence within the Malayan (later Malaysian) unions was a result of support from the British Trade Union Adviser, himself from the British trade union movement. As in other colonies, seconded British union officers collaborated with the local authorities—in this case with the Special Branch—in seeking out progovernment trade union leaders who would promote anticommunist unionism (limited to "reasonable" objectives). This was not an unusual background for the Third World unionists who became prominent within the ICFTU at either regional or international levels during the cold war.

Oldenbroek, Jacobus (1898-1970): Oldenbroek is one of many Dutch/Belgian unionists to have played a major role in international unionism. Long active in the Dutch social-democratic unions and then in the International Transport Workers Federation, he collaborated closely with the U.S. Office of Strategic Services during World War II. Like most of the International Trade Secretariat leaders, he was a bitter critic of the World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU), which wanted to turn these oldest and most resilient international union bodies into subordinate trade departments. Although the U.S. unions were suspicious of or hostile to most European social-democrats, Oldenbroek's background encouraged them to support him in becoming the first general secretary of the ICFTU. He later lost this support and resigned from his post in 1960.

See also: Red International of Labor Unions; World Federation of Trade Unions.



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Carew, Anthony. "Ideology and International Trade Unionism." In The Past and Future of International Trade Unionism: International Conference, Ghent (Belgium), May 19-20, 2000, edited by Bart de Wilde. Ghent, Belgium: AMSAB Institute of Social History, 2001.

Dass, Arokia. Not Beyond Repair: Reflections of a Malaysian Trade Unionist. Hong Kong: Asia Monitor Resource Centre, 1991.

De Wilde, Bart, ed. The Past and Future of International Trade Unionism: International Conference, Ghent (Belgium), May 19-20, 2000. Ghent, Belgium: AMSAB Institute of Social History, 2001.

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Valentine, Douglas. "The French Connection Revisited: TheCIA, Irving Brown and Drug Smuggling." Covert Action Quarterly 67 (1999): 61-64.

Waterman, Peter. "The Problematic Past and Uncertain Future of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions." International Labor and Working Class History 59 (2001): 125-132.

—Peter Waterman

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International Confederation of Free Trade Unions