United States Joins International Labor Organization

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United States Joins International Labor Organization

United States 1934


After 15 years on the sidelines of the League of Nations and its sister organization, the International Labor Organization (ILO), the United States entered the ILO in 1934. Although the United States continued to show antipathy toward the League of Nations and Republican presidents shunned the ILO, the arrival of President Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR) and his New Deal measures fostered a change of attitude. Labor Secretary Frances Perkins convinced Roosevelt to seek congressional approval to join the ILO. New Hampshire governor John Winant become the ILO's first American director general, and the United States quickly became an influential member of the organization, with key leadership roles over the coming decades.


  • 1919: Formation of the Third International (Comintern), whereby the Bolshevik government of Russia establishes its control over communist movements worldwide.
  • 1924: In the United States, Secretary of the Interior Albert B. Fall, along with oil company executives Harry Sinclair and Edward L. Doheny, is charged with conspiracy and bribery in making fraudulent leases of U.S. Navy oil reserves at Teapot Dome, Wyoming. The resulting Teapot Dome scandal clouds the administration of President Warren G. Harding.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 1934: Austrian chancellor Engelbert Dollfuss, who aligns his nation with Mussolini's Italy, establishes a fascist regime in an attempt to keep Austria out of the Nazi orbit. Austrian Nazis react by assassinating Dollfuss.
  • 1934: Dionne sisters, the first quintuplets to survive beyond infancy, are born in Canada.
  • 1937: Japan attacks China, and annexes most of that nation's coastal areas.
  • 1939: After years of loudly denouncing one another (and quietly cooperating), the Nazis and Soviets sign a nonaggression pact in August. This clears the way for the Nazi invasion of Poland, and for Soviet action against Finland. (Stalin also helps himself to a large portion of Poland.)
  • 1942: Axis conquests reach their height in the middle of this year. The Nazis control a vast region from Normandy to the suburbs of Stalingrad, and from the Arctic Circleto the edges of the Sahara. To the east, the Japanese "Co-Prosperity Sphere" encompasses territories from China to Burma to the East Indies, stretching deep into the western Pacific.
  • 1945: April sees the death of three leaders: Roosevelt passes away on 12 April; the Italians execute Mussolini and his mistress on 28 April; and Hitler (along with Eva Braun, propaganda minister Josef Goebbels, and Goebbels's family) commits suicide on 30 April.
  • 1949: Establishment of North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

Event and Its Context

History of the ILO

The International Labor Organization (ILO) was founded in 1919 under the Treaty of Versailles, which established the League of Nations. The ILO's goal was to advance social and economic justice and ensure adequate human rights for working people worldwide. Ironically, although the United States was not among the 42 founding members of the ILO, the organization's founding conference was held in Washington, D.C. Samuel Gompers, president of the American Federation of Labor (AFL), presided over the conference and helped draft the ILO constitution. In a lengthy speech to delegates, Gompers hailed this attempt by workers as a measure that might enable them to engage productively in "the work of going further every hour of every day . . . of pressing forward the claims of labor for a higher and better life, for more freedom, for more justice."

The ILO's governing body was conceived as a tripartite entity representing governments, labor unions, and employers. British convention delegates, who cited industrial nations' successful mobilization of labor and capital in industrialized nations during World War I, successfully proposed this model at the convention. Gompers spoke out against the proposal based on his view of society as the sum of two groups: "the employed and the employing." Gompers, a former socialist, cooperated with Europe's labor unions but defended the idea that American unions should shun party affiliations and social movements and deal exclusively with concrete issues such as better working conditions, wages, and benefits. In 1919-1920 the U.S. Congress rejected entry both into the League of Nations and into the ILO.

Given that the U.S. Senate failed to ratify the Treaty of Versailles and Republican presidents were critical of both the ILO and the League of Nations, the United States could not take part in the new organization. Even without the participation of this key industrial nation, the ILO nonetheless prospered in its early years, becoming an effective and dynamic organization. In its first three years of existence, the organization adopted 16 conventions and 18 recommendations dealing with key labor issues. These included the eight-hour workday and the 48-hour workweek, night work for women and young people, maternity benefits, and protection for maritime and farm workers. When governments opposed ILO standards and rights, the ILO took them before the International Court of Justice, which recognized the body's authority in cases heard between 1922 and 1926. Research programs commissioned experts to perform extensive firsthand field research, conduct studies, and create a database, all of which served to reinforce the authority status granted by the International Court. Although the growing resistance of some governments to the labor organization's work slowed down lawmaking activities, the membership continued its outreach to less advanced economies in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. In 1930 the Forced Labor Convention (one of the ILO's "core" conventions) called for an end to forced or compulsory labor in all its forms.

Changing Attitudes

In the United States, sentiments toward the ILO began to change. Years of economic depression, the departure of Republicans from the White House, and the advent of Roosevelt's New Deal paved the way for entry into the international organization. In its 1932 and 1933 conventions, the AFL reversed its earlier stance to pass resolutions supporting U.S. entry into the ILO. Even so, the union was not united on the issue of membership. Favoring negotiation over legislative protections, a dissident faction argued that any conventions voted by the ILO were likely to be a lot weaker than the ones that American unions already had or should achieve through collective bargaining.

The election of FDR had brought a new, prolabor message to the White House. For some, evidence of Roosevelt's concern for the plight of American workers came with his appointment of Frances Perkins, a social reformer known for her fight for improved workplace conditions, as secretary of labor in 1933. Perkins, as well as Commissioner of Labor Statistics Isador Lubin, had long been supportive of U.S. membership in the ILO. In June of that year, Congress moved further toward the ILO agenda with approval of the National Recovery Act, which aimed to eliminate child labor, limit workweek hours, and raise industrial wages. In 1934, with the Roosevelt administration continuing to push for economic recovery and improved worker conditions, Perkins convinced the president to present Congress with legislation authorizing him to apply for ILO membership. Perkins worked actively to mobilize congressional support, arguing that ILO standards would support the goals of the New Deal. On 19 June 1934 the Senate and the House of Representatives approved Joint Resolution 43, which gave approval for the United States to enter the ILO. The resolution authorized the president to accept memberships for the United States but not to assume obligation under the League of Nations covenant. On 22 June the International Labor Conference adopted a resolution inviting the American government to accede to the ILO. On 20 August, Roosevelt accepted the invitation.

Entry of the United States

Despite continued antipathy toward the League of Nations, the United States entered the ILO in 1934. The 1919 convention, nonetheless, was not a priority for either the federal government or the American public and was not ratified. Even so, Americans would hold leading roles in the organization for the greater part of the next half century. ILO membership would also serve as a means to monitor closely the League of Nations. Although the U.S. government would not officially enter the world organization, numerous Americans served on its committees.

In October 1934 Roosevelt contacted John G. Winant, third-term governor of New Hampshire, and asked him to consider representing the United States as its first representative to the ILO. Despite his Republican affiliation, Winant was a supporter of FDR and the New Deal and was sympathetic to ILO goals of improving the living conditions of workers worldwide. He had already had indirect contact with international labor as an officer of the American Association for Labor Legislation, one of the U.S. bodies pushing for social insurance. Harold Butler, the British director general of the ILO, embraced the idea with the goal of grooming Winant to succeed him. Although New Hampshire Republicans wanted Winant to run for the Senate in 1936 and many in the GOP saw him as presidential material, the governor was most interested in pursuing the cause of peace and economic justice internationally. In April 1935 Winant sailed to Europe to become the assistant director of the ILO. After just four months in Geneva, Winant was asked by Roosevelt to return to the United States to take on the post of chairman of the newly established, three-member, bipartisan Social Security Board (SSB). Winant accepted and returned to head the SSB in October. Winant had nonetheless done in four months what he could not achieve in New Hampshire in a decade: he got the ILO Conference to accept the 40-hour work-week as an international standard. In 1936 he took up his post as assistant director of the ILO and showed particular interest in the elaboration of social security programs worldwide. In 1939 Winant succeeded Butler to become the ILO's third director general (and the first American in that position). He served in that post until 1941.

The birth of Social Security in the United States had direct ties to the ILO. Winant was both ILO deputy director and chairman of the SSB. Grace Abbott, who served on Roosevelt's Council on Economic Security from 1934 to 1935 and helped plan the Social Security system, also served as the American delegate to the ILO in 1935 and 1937. The ILO provided technical support in designing U.S. Social Security legislation.

Despite the U.S. role in the ILO, many Americans continued to fight against membership. Some of those were isolationists who saw no reason to yield to a global organization. Others saw the ILO as a threat to freedom-of-contract provisions in the U.S. Constitution.

In 1944, the ILO met in Philadelphia to reaffirm its authority and plan its postwar agenda; the Philadelphia declaration revised the 1919 constitution but reaffirmed the ILO's original mission. The United States continued to play an active role in the ILO, though the cold war at times made it a challenge to maintain the ILO's global character. Although the League of Nations had been dissolved, the ILO survived to join the United Nations system in 1946. American leadership returned with David A. Morse, who served as director general from 1948 to 1970. The Soviet Union (which joined the ILO in 1934) halted participation in 1937 and did not resume until 1954. The United States, in protest over the perceived immunity of Soviet-bloc nations to criticism of their own working conditions and over the deterioration of the ILO's tripartite structure, withdrew temporarily in 1977. When ILO leadership had taken measures to return to its founding principles, the United States returned in 1980 and continued to support the organization. By the end of the century, the ILO had adopted more than 180 conventions and 190 recommendations.

Key Players

Abbott, Grace (1878-1939): An American social worker who specialized in child welfare and immigrant living conditions, Abbott served as a member of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's Council on Economic Security (1934-1935) and as U.S delegate to the ILO in 1935 and 1937.

Gompers, Samuel (1850-1924): Gompers was an English-born American labor leader. As head of the American Federation of Labor, he chaired the committee that drafted the ILO constitution at its founding convention in 1919.

Perkins, Frances (1882-1965): Perkins was an American social reformer who lobbied for better working conditions. Roosevelt appointed her secretary of labor in 1933, making her the first woman in U.S. history to hold a cabinet position. She pushed for U.S. entry into the ILO and helped design the Social Security system. She served until 1945 (longer than any other secretary of labor), resigning to head the U.S. delegation to the ILO conference in Paris.

Winant, John Gilbert (1889-1947): A former governor of New Hampshire, Winant was the first chairman of the Social Security Board. He was deputy director of the ILO (1935-1938) and later served as the organization's third director general, the first American to hold that position (1939-1941).



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—Brett Allan King

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United States Joins International Labor Organization