International Federation of Trade Unions

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International Federation of Trade Unions

Netherlands 1919


One consequence of World War I was the splitting of the trade union movement of various nations into three camps, with two representing the countries involved in the combat and one neutral. After the armistice, the wounds of the war years ostensibly healed very rapidly. Already in February 1919, when peace negotiations in Versailles, France, were still in full flow, representatives from the three blocks met for a conference in Bern, Switzerland. The representatives reached agreement on the need for a new international of labor organizations to be the instrument by which the social struggle would be internationalized. This new and ambitious international trade union, the International Federation of Trade Unions (IFTU), was established formally a few months later in Amsterdam, Netherlands, the city to which it would always remain connected.


  • 1900: China's Boxer Rebellion, which began in the preceding year with attacks on foreigners and Christians, reaches its height. An international contingent of more than 2,000 men arrives to restore order, but only after several tens of thousands have died.
  • 1907: U.S. markets experience a financial panic.
  • 1912: Titanic sinks on its maiden voyage, from Southampton to New York, on 14 April. More than 1,500 people are killed.
  • 1915: At the Second Battle of Ypres, the Germans introduce a terrifying new weapon: poison gas.
  • 1917: The intercepted "Zimmermann Telegram" reveals a plot by the German government to draw Mexico into an alliance against the United States in return for a German promise to return the southwestern U.S. territories taken in the Mexican War. Three months later, in response to German threats of unrestricted submarine warfare, the United States on 6 April declares war on Germany.
  • 1919: With the formation of the Third International (Comintern), the Bolshevik government of Russia establishes its control over Communist movements worldwide.
  • 1919: Treaty of Versailles is signed by the Allies and Germany but rejected by the U.S. Senate. This is due in part to rancor between President Woodrow Wilson and Republican Senate leaders, and in part to concerns over Wilson's plan to commit the United States to the newly established League of Nations and other international duties. Not until 1921 will Congress formally end U.S. participation in the war, but it will never agree to join the League.
  • 1919: The Eighteenth Amendment, which prohibits the production, sale, distribution, purchase, and consumption of alcohol throughout the United States, is ratified.
  • 1919: In India, Mahatma Gandhi launches his campaign of nonviolent resistance to British rule.
  • 1919: In Italy, a former socialist of the left named Benito Mussolini introduces the world to a new socialism of the right, embodied in an organization known as the "Union for Struggle," or Fasci di Combattimento. Composed primarily of young war veterans discontented with Italy's paltry share of the spoils from the recent world war (if not with their country's lackluster military performance in the conflict), the fascists are known for their black shirts and their penchant for violence.
  • 1921: As the Allied Reparations Commission calls for payments of 132 billion gold marks, inflation in Germany begins to climb.
  • 1925: European leaders attempt to secure the peace at the Locarno Conference, which guarantees the boundaries between France and Germany, and Belgium and Germany.
  • 1929: On "Black Friday" in October, prices on the U.S. stock market, which had been climbing wildly for several years, suddenly collapse. Thus begins the first phase of a world economic crisis and depression that will last until the beginning of World War II.

Event and Its Context

From relatively early on in the development of the labor movement, economic and political zealots had driven trade unions toward forging international contacts. Even so, it was not until the founding of the Second International in 1889 that international associations for this purpose came into being. The first international trade unions were umbrella organizations of national industrial unions, the so-called International Trades Secretariats. As of 1914, there were 28 such groups. Beginning in 1901, national trade union federations commenced to undertake steps toward international cooperation. At the suggestion of the Danes and with the support of the strong German labor movement, the International Secretariat of National Trade Union Centers (IS) was founded. The founders' aim was to limit the activities of the organization to the exchange of information and the encouragement of personal contacts during its congresses. The purpose of this explicit decision to confine the terrain of the labor international to purely trade union affairs was the avoidance of divisive political debate, something that had come to dominate the political International. This strategy, however, proved unsuccessful, owing to the participation of syndicalist groups with action-oriented and politically inspired programs. The IS thus became the theater of confrontation between the German reformist and the French syndicalistic models. In addition to the French and German organizations, the other members of the IS also were drawn mainly from continental Europe. The British Trades Union Congress (TUC) remained absent, thus leaving the matter of international contacts to the much smaller General Federation of Trade Unions (GFTU). In 1911 the IS significantly expanded its sphere of influence thanks to the addition of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) to its ranks.

The advent of World War I meant an immediate end to any possibility of a unified international labor movement, which split into three camps: a neutral camp that included the Netherlands and (until 1917) the United States; an Axis powers camp whose main member was Germany; and the Allied camp with France, Great Britain, and as of 1917, the United States. Until the American entry into the war, AFL president Samuel Gompers tried to act as mediator between the various camps, but from the moment that the United States joined the Allies, the AFL traded its traditional position of pacifism for one of unadulterated patriotism. Domestically as well as on the world stage, Gompers became a prominent advocate of the war. He would subsequently refuse any contact with the German labor movement, which he accused of having sold out to Kaiserist militarism.

Accession of the AFL to the Allied camp had the immediate effect that a proposal formulated by Gompers, which had already been written at the beginning of the war, to organize an international trade union congress concurrent with the peace conference, indeed struck a common chord. In 1918 the notion that the world of labor would have an important contribution to make to peace negotiations was generally accepted. Meanwhile, Gompers endeavored to dampen the inclination within the Allied camp to favor negotiated peace. With this aim in mind, the AFL sent two delegations to Europe. The first had little effect. The second, led by Gompers himself, was successful in having its views accepted during the inter-Allied conference held in London in September 1918. This conference mandated that Gompers, together with the Briton Arthur Henderson, the Frenchman Albert Thomas, and the Belgian Emile Vandervelde, must organize an international labor conference to be held at the same place and during the same timeframe as the coming peace conference.

The idea that peace negotiators would come together in a city where socialists of all plumage would also be present was anathema to many in diplomatic and governmental circles. Gompers's assurance that he had no intention of meeting with political groups of any shade fell on deaf ears, though it was made known to him that the powers-that-be had no objection to a labor conference convening in another city. This opened the way for Henderson, who wished to organize a meeting of all socialist organizations—labor unions as well as parties—at the earliest opportunity. To this end he contacted organizations from all camps and succeeded in arranging a conference of socialist parties and unions at Bern in February 1919. The American AFL, the British GFTU, and the Belgian labor movement refused to attend, but the British TUC and the French Confédération Generale du Travail (CGT) did participate along with delegations from 17 other countries. This conference put forward a broad program of social reforms. The principal demands were the freedom of association, the eight-hour workday, a minimum wage, unemployment insurance, and the protection of women and children in the workplace. This program was to serve as the touchstone for labor's representatives to the Versailles peace conference, which was then already in progress. Gompers, however, rejected the Bern program, and, as chairman of the Commission on International Labor Legislation of the peace conference, followed his own course. This commission nonetheless booked important gains, which were more or less in keeping with the demands formulated in Bern. Furthermore, the participants made provisions for the organization of an International Labor Congress to be held in Washington in the autumn of 1919 and the establishment of an International Labor Organization (ILO) as an agency of the League of Nations, wherein unions and employers would be represented on equal footing. For Gompers this was an affirmation of his policies, for which he had already gained general recognition in his own country. At that time more than ever he wished to assume leadership of the international labor movement, and he planned—in the name of the AFL—to send out invitations for the founding congress of a new trade union international. In Bern, however, Léon Jouhaux of France and Jan Oudegeest of the Netherlands took on precisely the same task. This pair succeeded in reconciling the rival British organizations, the TUC and the GFTU, and also persuaded the German labor movement to neutralize remaining aversions to its participation by offering a public apology for its wartime stance. For the AFL there remained no other choice than to resign itself to this state of affairs, and Gompers accepted the invitation to take part in the founding congress of the International Federation of Trade Unions (IFTU) from 28 July to 2 August 1919 in Amsterdam.

Coming to Amsterdam were delegates from 14 countries representing nearly 18 million union members. Gompers was there on behalf of the AFL as well as the Pan-American Federation of Labor (established 7 July 1919), which drew its members from both North and South America. This founding congress would be Gompers's swansong on the international stage. The congress reaffirmed the Bern program and rejected the results of Versailles. The European trade union leaders wanted an action-oriented international with a strong political agenda. Although the trade union international had declared itself independent of the Socialist International, which for that matter had not yet been redrawn, the IFTU in principle oriented itself only toward organizations of socialist bent. The Dutchmen Edo Fimmen and Jan Oudegeest became the organization's general secretaries, and the Briton W. A. Appleton became chairman. The AFL, fearful of losing its independence and the connection with radical socialist groups, would not take part.

The "Amsterdam International" came to have quite an eventful history. After the radical early years when internationalism seemed to offer hitherto unknown possibilities for the development of social legislation, there occurred a fairly rapid change in climate. In most countries the trade union movement came under increasing pressure, lost many members, and faced a communist-inspired dissident opposition and splinter movements within its own ranks. Amsterdam found itself in a crisis that originated in differences of political opinion, power struggles between leading officers and structures, and having to operate with a paucity of means as well. Calm would not return until 1928. By that time the IFTU had rid itself of its most extreme elements and had traded socialist radicalism for a program of pragmatic reform. This change cleared the way for AFL membership, but in the end their accession took place only in 1937, concurrent with an escalation in the AFL's conflict with the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). The IFTU moved to London during World War II and, in 1945, made way for the World Federation of Trade Unions, a united labor movement that included communist organizations. The World Federation soon fell victim to the cold war and dissolved in 1949. That same year, the noncommunist unions would band together to establish the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions.

Key Players

Fimmen, Edo (1881-1942): Fimmen was a Dutch trade-union leader who in 1919 became general secretary of the International Transportworkers Federation (ITF) and of the International Federation of Trade Unions (IFTU). He combined both functions until 1923, when a dispute with the IFTU executive over possible cooperation with communist organizations forced Fimmen to resign. Thereafter he concentrated wholly on the ITF, where he was an active campaigner against fascism and Nazism.

Jouhaux, Léon (1879-1954): French trade union leader, Jouhaux was general secretary of the French Confédération Generale du Travail (CGT; 1909-1947) and vice president of the IFTU (1919-1945). After World War II, with American backing, he became founder and chairman of Force Ouvrière. He received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1951.

Oudegeest, Jan (1870-1950): Dutch labor leader and socialist politician, first chairman of the Dutch trade union central, NVV, and general secretary of the IFTU (1919-1927), Oudegeest was also secretary of the employees group within the International Labor Organization (ILO; 1919-1928).After his international trade union career, he became chairman of the Dutch Socialist Party.

See also: American Federation of Labor; International Labor Organization; Second International; World Federation of Trade Unions.



Milner, Susan. The Dilemmas of Internationalism, French Syndicalism and the International Labour Movement, 1900-1914. Oxford, UK: Berg, 1990.

Taft, Philip. The AFL in the Time of Gompers. New York:Harper, 1957.

Van Goethem, Geert. "Conflicting Interests: The International Federation of Trade Unions (1919-1945)." In The International Confederation of Free Trade Unions, edited by A. Carew, M. Dreyfus, G. Van Goethem, R. Gumbrell-McCormick, and Marcel van der Linden. Bern, Switzerland: Peter Lang, 2000.

Additional Resources

Bush, Gary. Political Role of International Trade Unions. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1983.

Radosh, Ronald. American Labor and the United States Foreign Policy: The Cold War and the Unions from Gompers to Lovestone. New York: Random House, 1969.

Reinalda, Bob, ed. The International Transportworkers Federation, 1914-1945: The Fimmen Era. Amsterdam: Stichting Beheer IISG, 1997.

—Geert Van Goethem

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