International Transport Workers' Federation

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International Transport Workers' Federation

Europe 1896


In 1896 maritime workers from unions from several European countries formed an organization that would eventually become known as the International Transport Workers' Federation (ITF). Although the ITF would later incorporate laborers in other transportation industries, such as railroad and streetcar workers, seamen and dockworkers initially formed the ITF. In response to the conditions endured by workers in their unions, leaders of several of the British maritime trade unions began to call for an international federation. Strikes in places such as London and Rotterdam inspired these union leaders to create such an organization. After much initial enthusiasm, however, the ITF fell into a period of decline that resulted from its inability to win a strike in Hamburg, Germany. After the failed Hamburg strike, the British leaders lost much of their power. German union leaders took control of the ITF and moved its headquarters to Hamburg. Although the German leadership succeeded in improving the organization of the ITF, the federation once again fell into a period of inactivity during World War I.


  • 1876: General George Armstrong Custer and 264 soldiers are killed by the Sioux at the Little Big Horn River.
  • 1880: Completed Cologne Cathedral, begun 634 years earlier, with twin spires 515 feet (157 m) high, is the tallest structure in the world and will remain so until 1889, when it is surpassed by the Eiffel Tower. (The previous record for the world's tallest structure lasted much longer—for about 4,430 years following the building of Cheops's Great Pyramid in c. 2550 B.C.)
  • 1885: Belgium's King Leopold II becomes sovereign of the so-called Congo Free State, which he will rule for a quarter-century virtually as his own private property. The region in Africa, given the name of Zaire in the 1970s (and Congo in 1997), becomes the site of staggering atrocities, including forced labor and genocide, at the hands of Leopold's minions.
  • 1891: French troops open fire on workers during a 1 May demonstration at Fourmies, where employees of the Sans Pareille factory are striking for an eight-hour workday. Nine people are killed—two of them children—and 60 more are injured.
  • 1894: French army captain Alfred Dreyfus, a Jew, is convicted of treason. Dreyfus will later be cleared of all charges, but the Dreyfus case illustrates—and exacerbates—the increasingly virulent anti-Semitism that pervades France.
  • 1895: German physicist Wilhelm Roentgen discovers X-rays.
  • 1895: Brothers Auguste and Louis Lumière show the world's first motion picture—Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory—at a café in Paris.
  • 1895: Guglielmo Marconi pioneers wireless telegraphy, which in the next three decades will make possible the use of radio waves for commercial broadcasts and other applications.
  • 1895: German engineer Rudolf Diesel invents an engine capable of operating on a type of petroleum less highly refined, and therefore less costly, than gasoline.
  • 1898: Marie and Pierre Curie discover the radioactive elements radium and polonium.
  • 1901: U.S. president William McKinley is assassinated by Leon Czolgosz, an anarchist. Vice President Theodore Roosevelt becomes president.
  • 1905: In the industrial Ruhr region in Germany, 200,000 miners go on strike.

Event and Its Context

Early Organization of Maritime Workers

The ITF originated as an outgrowth of the early organization of British seamen and dockworkers in the late nineteenth century. Working conditions for these transport workers were often very poor. Seamen and firemen on steamships were often subject to harsh discipline, cramped accommodations, and poor food. It was not uncommon for them to be cheated of their wages. For their part, dockworkers generally received low pay.

In particular, the 1889 Great London Dock Strike served as an inspiration for future organization and activity of British maritime workers. The strike closed the city's docks, and the employers eventually gave in to the demands of the workers, in part because the strikers had financial support from Australian workers. Two of the strike's leaders later helped to create the ITF. Ben Tillet helped to organize unskilled dockworkers, and socialist labor leader Tom Mann also lent support to the strike. In part because of the activities of these two men, the London dockworkers organized a strong union and committed themselves to class struggle.

Another key leader of the early organizational activities was John Havelock Wilson, who led a British seamen's union. Originally, Wilson was more traditional in his views of labor organization, believing that his union should play more of a social role rather than lead a class struggle. He also only allowed seamen and not the other related trades, and was hostile to foreigners. Wilson, however, later changed his views and began to organize workers who were not seamen and who were not British. Thus, in 1890 he changed the name of his union to the Amalgamated Seamen's Union of Great Britain, Ireland, and Other Nations. This new organization had branches in northern and western Europe, Istanbul, the Suez Canal, and Malta. Indeed, 25 percent of the members were non-British. However, the union was not successful and soon ceased to exist.

The Rotterdam Strike and the Birth of the ITF

In 1896 Wilson revived his idea of an international federation of sea and dockworkers. In May several British sailors in Liverpool informed Wilson of a Dutch dock strike in Rotterdam, Netherlands. They reported that they had been told that if they did not break the strike, they would be fired. In Rotterdam the largest employer in the port attempted to establish a fixed weekly wage that would effectively cut earnings by 25 percent. Furthermore, extra money earned through piecework would only be paid once a year. In response, the maritime workers in the city went on strike.

Upset by this situation, Wilson began a campaign to support the strike and even traveled to Rotterdam, where he found the entire port on strike. The situation was tense, and the government had called in the military to keep order. Upon his arrival, Wilson found about 40 British ships in Rotterdam. He succeeded in convincing British crews not to handle cargo in the Dutch port. He also requested that British dockworkers boycott ships that had been loaded in Rotterdam by strikebreakers. He even set up a branch of his own union in Rotterdam.

The Rotterdam strike inspired Wilson to continue his efforts to form an international organization of transport workers. Thus, Wilson and others began to consider the idea of calling an international meeting to establish such a group. They used the meeting of the Socialist International in London in June 1896 as the basis for their meeting. In June 1896 labor leaders including Wilson, Mann, and Tillet met in London to discuss a possible international federation of seamen and dockworkers. To this end they formed the International Federation of Ship, Dock, and River Industries. They set up a provisional central council, with Mann as president and Tillet as secretary. Mann and Wilson later traveled to Rotterdam and Antwerp, Belgium, to convince the continental unions to join the federation.

These labor leaders met again in London on 27 July in what is sometimes considered to be the first meeting of the ITF. Delegates from Great Britain, Sweden, Belgium, Holland, France, Germany, and the United States attended. Two days later they held another meeting in which leaders of the maritime workers heard reports from 87 ports throughout Europe. They then drew up demands for the shipping and port employers.

ITF leaders often had a difficult time when they attempted to intervene in the labor movements in other countries. Mann and Wilson were both banned in Belgium. In 1896 Tillet was arrested in Antwerp. Then Mann was arrested and deported during the 1896-1897 dock strike in Hamburg.

The Hamburg Dock Strike and the Decline of the ITF

The 1896 dock strike in Hamburg highlighted the contrast between the optimism of the leaders in international solidarity and the reality of the situation. In response to poor conditions, the Association of Port Workers in Hamburg first made demands on the employers in November 1896. Although management did make a few concessions, the workers were not satisfied. On 21 November the stevedores walked off the job, later followed by other dockworkers and the seamen. By the end of the first week of the strike, some 8,000 workers in Hamburg were on strike. The owners refused mediation, and the workers turned down a government proposal to return to work while an inquiry was made into conditions at the port. The employers had modest success in their attempts to bring in strikebreakers. Finally, after 11 weeks, the striking workers returned to work because of the threat of starvation in the winter months. Although they did gain some concessions, the strike was mostly a defeat for the dockworkers. However, a government inquiry later confirmed many of the workers' complaints, and changes followed.

The fact that the ITF had been unable to stop the flow of strikebreakers during the Hamburg strike led many to question the effectiveness of the organization. At the 1898 meeting in London, at which the name was officially changed to the International Federation of Transport Workers, there were many calls for organizational changes. Yet the ITF soon entered a period plagued by problems and ineffectiveness. After the initial enthusiasm and activity of the early years, several issues caused the ITF to decline. The discontent was especially evident at the meetings in 1900 at Paris and in 1902 at Stockholm. At both meetings, there were complaints about the ITF's lack of activity and the disorganization of the leaders based in London.

The London leaders responded that there was not enough money, which in fact was one of the key problems. The leaders were all volunteers who had to earn a living from their jobs. Tom Mann had even tried to run a pub in London. At the 1900 Paris meeting, the union contributions to the federation were cut in half, worsening an already precarious financial situation. The situation was so bad that when Mann was offered the chance to go to Australia to work as a union organizer, he jumped at the chance and left in 1901.

German Unions Take Control

The defeat of the Hamburg strike hurt morale and lessened the appeal of the federation. Many national federations turned increasingly inward. This prompted many to call for more and better organization. In particular, a conflict arose between the Germans and the British. Although the British leaders continued their idealistic call for action, the Germans felt that the federation must first build up its organizational strength before embarking on strikes and other activities. In light of this conflict, a new all-German central council was selected at the 1904 meeting at Amsterdam, with Hermann Juchade as the new president. The headquarters of the ITF was also moved to Hamburg.

When the Germans took over control of the federation, the federation's policy changed such that it stressed a buildup of organizational strength and nonintervention in national disputes. This new attitude did, in fact, succeed in attracting new members to the ITF. Among those who joined the ranks of the ITF were more European maritime workers, railroad workers from Italy, the International Longshoremen's Association, and the International Seamen's Union of America. In 1907 the ITF had 150,000 members. By 1907 that number had increased to about 500,000. By the start of World War I, the ITF had more than one million members.

Despite this growth in membership, the internal conflicts did not disappear. Many within the federation criticized the German leadership for a lack of actual activity. In particular, many Italian, French, and British labor leaders wanted to see less organizing and more direct action. The point became moot, however, with the outbreak of World War I. During the war the ITF largely fell into a period of inactivity. It would not be until after the war that the federation would regain its strength and expand its membership.

Key Players

Mann, Tom (1856-1941): Known for being an inspirational orator, Mann was a key leader of the British maritime workers. Largely self-educated, Mann had started working the mines at age 10. He was jailed during his involvement in the labor movement. A key player in the 1889 London dock strike, he was later selected as the first president of the ITF upon its formation in 1896.

Tillet, Ben (1860-1943): A London dockworker, Tillet served as the leader of his dockers' union for 30 years. Like Mann, he spent time in jail for his labor activities. He was a leader of the London dock strike in 1889. Influential in the creation of the ITF, he served as the first secretary of the organization. Later, he became a Member of Parliament for the Labor Party.

Wilson, John Havelock (1858-1928): British labor leader who was influential in organizing maritime workers. Wilson took many of the first steps toward creating the ITF by organizing workers beyond England in a single union. After the formation of the ITF, he continued to attempt to attract unions and workers to the federation.

See also: Dockers' Strike.



International Transport Workers' Federation. Solidarity: The First 100 Years of the International Transport Workers' Federation. London: Pluto Press, 1996.

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

—Ronald Young

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