World Federation of Trade Unions

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World Federation of Trade Unions

France 1945


A wave of popular internationalism and union self-confidence following the defeat of fascism in World War II led to the founding of the World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU) in Paris in 1945. Other influencing factors arose from the interests of the allied nations. Although the All Union Central Council of Trade Unions (AUCCTU) was self-admittedly a "transmission belt" for the Soviet state, in the West there had been increasingly intense collaboration between the unions, industry, and the governments during the war. There was a definite assumption in the labor movement that the unions would play a role in economic reconstruction and 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 founding of the WFTU, however, there was evidence of traditional union divisions (communist v. social democratic, left v. right, political v. economic, nationalist v. internationalist, imperial v. colonial). Elements of the overlapping capitalist/communist bloc divide that led to the cold war split in international unionism just four years later were already present as well.


  • 1925: In Tennessee, John T. Scopes is fined for teaching evolution in a public school. There follows a highly publicized trial at which famed attorney Clarence Darrow represents the defense, while the aging Democratic populist William Jennings Bryan argues for the state. The "Scopes Monkey Trial" symbolizes a widening divisions between rural and urban America, and though the court decides in favor of the state, it is clear that the historical tide is turning against the old agrarian order symbolized by Bryan-who dies during the trial.
  • 1930: Collectivization of Soviet agriculture begins, and with it one of the greatest crimes of the twentieth century. In the next few years, as Soviet operatives force peasants to give up their lands, millions will die either by direct action, manmade famine, or forced labor. Overseas, however, and particularly among intellectuals and artists of the West, Soviet collectivization and industrialization are regarded as models of progress for the world
  • 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. At the same time, Stalin-who in this year arranges the murder of Trotsky in Mexico-takes advantage of the situation to add the Baltic republics (Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia) to the Soviet empire, where they will remain for more than half a century.
  • 1945: At the Yalta Conference in February, Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin make plans for Germany after its by now inevitable surrender.
  • 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.
  • 1945: On 7 May, Germany surrenders to the Allied powers. Later in the summer, the new U.S. president, Harry Truman, joins Churchill and Stalin at Potsdam to discuss the reconstruction of Germany. (Churchill is replaced in mid-conference by Clement Attlee as Labour wins control of Parliament.)
  • 1945: United States drops atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in early August, and a month later, on 2 September, Japan surrenders.
  • 1945: Establishment of the United Nations on 24 October.
  • 1950: U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy launches his campaign to root out communist infiltrators.
  • 1955: African and Asian nations meet at the Bandung Conference in Indonesia, inaugurating the "non-aligned" movement of Third World countries.
  • 1960: Congo, along with several other African nations, becomes independent. But as the province of Katanga secedes, and pro-Soviet prime minister Patrice Lumumba disappears (he is later murdered), the country devolves into civil war. Soon UN troops will arrive to restore order.

Event and Its Context

Labor and Political Economy Background

Whereas labor had long been mobilized and incorporated into the Soviet state, the need for war production in the United Kingdom and the United States spurred recovery from the Great Depression and 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 United States 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 sociopolitical transformation. These movements often had a simultaneously national-democratic and internationalist character. In the colonial and semicolonial worlds of Africa, Asia, and Latin America, increased agricultural and industrial production, and the sometimes direct involvement in the war of workers (as second-class soldiers or merchant seamen), similarly raised nationalist (anti-colonial, anti-imperialist) and internationalist consciousness among workers. The "workers in uniform" of the Allied powers often witnessed the misery of the occupied and colonized, which produced contradictory feelings of national or racial superiority and anticolonial sympathy. At the end of the war, British soldiers in Egypt, India, and elsewhere revealed themselves to be markedly prolabor. Demonstrations and (near) mutinies helped to undermine renewed British imperial ambitions and upper-class self-confidence.

Union Background

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 heavily influenced 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, or Profintern). The RILU made a major appeal to the colonized areas 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), a body for which they had originally fought 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 impeded 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 v. North Americans) but by 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). In the West, different ideological traditions (e.g., socialist, religious) also militated against effective international union solidarity. The spread of fascism in the West further deprived international unionism of major national contingents (Germany, Italy, Spain, Austria, and 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 in or were involved with 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 February 1945 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). The new organization permitted attendance of more than one federation per country. The conservative American Federation of Labor (AFL) opposed this conference, while the progressive Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) supported it.

The founding congress of the World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU) took place in Paris in October 1945. It was much inspired by both union and state notions of a new world order and was organized in the spirit of both the communist Popular Front and the U.S. 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, and against colonialism, discrimination, and racism. It favored the extension of union rights, the improvement of working and living conditions, and the limitation and liquidation of monopolies.

For both the CIO and the AUCCTU, the creation of the WFTU was a way to break out of their previous international isolation. The Trades Union Congress (TUC) had doubts, the AFL was opposed, and the ITSs were strongly rusistant 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 U.S. Marshall Plan offer to Europe, which the communists and other leftists saw as establishing U.S. economic hegemony over Europe and as a major anti-Soviet initiative. The Soviets had considerable power within the secretariat of WFTU through Louis Saillant, procommunist general secretary of the French Confédération Générale du Travail (CGT). The AFL was maneuvering on the fringes through Irving Brown, later revealed to be a major Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) collaborator in 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 split on the lines of the cold war blocs and on the oppositions of communist and reformist ideology.

According to Tony Carew, "There was an irresistible wave of grass roots enthusiasm for a grand trade union alliance" but the tangible achievements of the WFTU and the approach of dealing exclusively with the labor movement through national centers failed to inspire the membership. The WFTU agenda became the concern of "a tiny elite of national leaders and officials" and as a result its demise passed almost unnoticed. "The essential weakness of the WFTU was that it failed . . . to develop a genuine trade union role."

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.

Key Players

Citrine, Walter (1887-1983): Born into a Liverpool, England, working-class family, he became an electrical worker and a union and Independent Labour Party activist. He rose through the union ranks, becoming assistant general secretary (1924), then general secretary of the Trades Union Congress (1924-1946). 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 beginning in World War II. He was president of the International Federation of Trade Unions (1928-1945) and president of the WFTU (1945-1946). He became a peer in 1946 and served on the National Coal Board, the Electricity Council, the Atomic Energy Authority, and other boards.

Saillant, Louis (1910-1974): A furniture worker, Saillant became active as a socialist within the Confédération Générale du Travail in the 1930s; he was involved in street struggles and suffered beatings and imprisonment. An active member of the French underground during World War II, he was coresponsible for the reunification of the previously divided CGT. He was CGT's 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, 1945-1969; though he resided in France, he remained active in the CGT when 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 until the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, which he, along with the overwhelming majority of the WFTU secretariat, temporarily condemned.

Toledano, Vicente Lombardo (1894-1968): An almost-forgotten figure of international unionism, Toledano was the most prominent Marxist union leader and politician in the history of Mexico. He was possibly the most prominent "southern" unionist in the history of the inturnational trade union movement. Toledano graduated in law in 1919, taught at his university, and received a Ph.D. from it in 1933. He simultaneously followed an extremely varied union, political, and journalistic career, and founded 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 (1926-1928) and later joined 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 (1934-1940), a radical-nationalist variant on the Roosevelt regime in the United States. Toledano was founder and president of the radical CTAL (1938-1961). As such he had intense contacts with the CIO in the United States, which was prepared at one time to grant him some kind of sovereignty over Latin American unions. He had a prominent position within the International Labor Organization (1944), was present at the World Trade Union Conference in London (1945), and vice president of the WFTU (1945-1963). An independent Marxist, Toledano moved to the left as Mexico moved to the right after World War II, and thus lost political and union influence nationally and internationally.

See also: American Federation of Labor; Confederación de Trabajadores de América Latina; Confédération Générale du Travail; Congress of Industrial Organizations; International Federation of Trade Unions; International Labor Organization; Red International of Labor Unions.



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McShane, Denis. International Labour and the Origins of the Cold War. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992.

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—Peter Waterman

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