ALMOST everywhere in Europe, and in some of the countries of Asia, the position of labor has changed radically since the International Labor Organization was created after the First World War. The ideas dominant at that time will therefore have to be carefully reconsidered when, following the present conflict, the United Nations turn to the task of reorganizing the structure of the ILO and determining its future functions.

From the outset the policy of the ILO was strongly influenced by what might be called the philosophy of "evolutionary" Socialism. In terms of this philosophy, organized labor, as represented by the powerful trade unions, was charged with the task of defending -- and possibly enforcing, by means of strikes and otherwise -- the claims of the working class to better working conditions and an increasingly larger share in the social dividend. The ILO was thought of as an instrument for promoting social peace by assisting labor to win this fight. The assumption was that, in principle, the interests of labor were identical in all countries. It was further assumed that an international labor front existed and that it could serve as a bulwark against the aggressive policies of nationalistic political parties. This united front was formally represented by the International Federation of Trade Unions, with headquarters in Amsterdam. In practice, the Amsterdam federation largely determined the policy of the ILO.

Another assumption was that the interests of the employers were strongly influenced by international relationships. It was argued that substantial and continuous progress in the improvement of labor standards might be frustrated without the enactment of collective agreements under which the costs of such improvements were imposed upon all competitors for international markets. In practice, as employers' representatives participated regularly in the work of the International Labor Organization, a kind of united front of employers developed as a counterweight to the international labor front. Where conflicting views developed, the governments were assigned the task of influencing the discussions and decisions in accordance with the general interests of their respective countries.

The validity of these assumptions must now be reconsidered. The war has considerably affected the ILO's external structure; it has also modified deeply the social and economic conditions under which it must function.


The General Conference of the ILO held in New York in the fall of 1941 was a remarkable demonstration of the organization's inherent strength and vitality and of the fact that in the democratic countries the war has not impaired faith in social progress and in the promotion of it through international coöperation. But in spite of the coöperative spirit which animated the Conference, there was evidence that the international labor front which had been the backbone of the ILO had been destroyed by the ruthless suppression of the trade union movement in all the countries dominated by extreme nationalistic parties or subjugated by totalitarian conquerors. The international trade union movement seems to have lost its rallying-point and, along with it, its cohesive strength. The labor organizations which exist today pursue separate policies determined by local conditions. Several groups, however, can be distinguished.

One group is formed by the strong trade unions of the British Commonwealth. These trade unions are intent primarily upon doing their part in the great task of winning the war. Where necessary, they have temporarily subordinated specific interests of the working class to the accomplishment of this task. At the Conference, the delegates of British workers as well as of employers solemnly confirmed their respective intentions to work together, fully and unequivocally, until victory has been achieved. The social structure of Great Britain appears to be undergoing far-reaching changes under the impact of war and as a result the present views of the British trade unions on reconstruction and the postwar position of the working class seem rather vague. They seem to be influenced almost exclusively by the particular British situation and very little by international considerations. In the British Dominions and India the labor organizations are preoccupied to an even greater degree with their own specific problems. All the British trade unions are undoubtedly willing to participate in international action; but they can hardly be expected to assume constructive leadership in this field.

A second section of the trade union movement consists of the workers' organizations in the Latin American countries. Many of these still do not enjoy the right of free association or are controlled by political parties. They are fighting for recognition, in some cases even for existence. They, therefore, are not yet in a position to establish and maintain effective international relationships. The encouragement and strengthening of these trade unions may in the future be one of the important tasks of the International Labor Organization. At present, they are incapable of assuming international leadership.

The trade unions of the United States form a class by themselves. They are absorbed by their own problems, specifically by those arising out of the rivalry between two conflicting groups of almost equal strength. More or less effective coöperation between these groups has been established for the duration of the war; but the respective leaders do not appear to be willing to give much consideration to the international aspects of social problems in devising their policies.

We must also take into consideration the trade union leaders of countries conquered by Germany. Many of these have found refuge in England or in the United States, and some of them were appointed as workers' delegates to the New York Conference by the governments-in-exile of Belgium, Czechoslovakia, Greece, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland and Jugoslavia. They made impressive speeches at the Conference, demanding effective action to liberate their unfortunate countries. But as things are, of course, they are in no position to assume leadership.

As for the International Federation of Trade Unions, its power had begun to be gradually whittled away from the moment one government after another, beginning with that of Italy, was seized by extreme nationalistic parties. To the extent that trade unions were tolerated at all they were either rigidly controlled by the public authorities and deprived of the right to join international associations or, as in Italy, were made constituent elements of the administrative machinery. This process, which reached a climax in the destruction of the German trade unions, seemed to indicate that the ideas which had been instrumental in creating, spreading and strengthening the trade union movement on the continent of Europe had slowly lost their hold on the working class. The trade unions had been transformed from organizations designed originally to unite the workers for an impending fight over radical changes in the capitalist order into peaceful instruments of collective bargaining equipped with large and frequently cumbersome bureaucratic machinery. What they had gained in size and financial resources they had lost in vigor; thus they lacked sufficient power of resistance when they were attacked by aggressive nationalist parties.

Can it be assumed that the old trade union movement will be revived in these European countries after having experienced such a crushing defeat and after having been suppressed entirely for many years? Can the principles of an evolutionary trade union policy find renewed allegiance from the generality of European workers, most of whom have been so bitterly disillusioned? Is it not more probable that when the moment for overthrowing the totalitarian régimes comes, the working class, at any rate in Germany and Italy, will be gripped by extremist revolutionary movements? In that case, the reëstablishment of freedom of association and other democratic institutions in the countries in question might be impossible for a considerable period of time. Workers' organizations might still be kept under strict government control and might be prevented from entering into relation with similar organizations in other countries. There is a very intricate situation in France, where both the Communist labor groups and the leaders of the Confédération Générale du Travail share responsibility in the eyes of the public for the weakening of French economic and military power which contributed so largely to the French defeat.

On the other hand, the traditional trade union movement may be revived, perhaps under new leaders, in the Scandinavian countries, the Netherlands, Czechoslovakia, and perhaps in Belgium. But it is doubtful whether a strong and efficient international federation could develop out of the combined efforts of organizations representing such a small number of countries; and their activities might in any case be hampered by the emergence of rival unions of various types.

If, as will probably be the case, the ILO admits all states regardless of their constitutional forms of government, the organization may be subjected to a heavy strain. The present tripartite method of representation could hardly be maintained if the representatives of employers and workers from a considerable number of countries were deprived of freedom of action by their governments.

There is little prospect, then, that during the war or even for a considerable period after it, any strong group of trade unions will emerge, able and willing to determine the policy of the International Labor Office. Nor can the Office expect effective backing if it evolves a strong policy of its own. We must take account of the probability that for some time after the war no united international labor front can be established comparable in strength to that which the Amsterdam Federation represented in the heyday of European trade unionism.


If the trade union movement is unlikely to supply effective international leadership, the International Labor Office will have to turn for guidance and backing to the democratic governments, and especially to those of Great Britain and the United States. This may not be an undesirable temporary solution of the problem, even though it is very different from the intentions of those originally responsible for the creation of the International Labor Organization and its administrative agency, the International Labor Office. Unlike the Secretariat of the League of Nations, the Labor Office was not intended to be guided in its policy by powerful governments. Rather it was meant to stand for the cause of labor and of progressive social legislation even in the face of resistance or reluctance on the part of governments. But no statutory provisions can safeguard the distribution of power within an international organization. In the postwar period, workers' organizations may be destined to exert their influence upon the policy of the International Labor Organization and the Labor Office indirectly, through their governments, rather than directly, through a united international labor front. But labor, at least in the democratic countries, will doubtless be more influential than ever in the determination of public policies, particularly in the economic and social fields. What is perhaps even more important, public opinion in all countries, democratic and totalitarian alike, is demanding a greater degree of economic security than heretofore, and as part of this a far-reaching improvement in the labor standards and living conditions of the working class.

Hence, if social progress on an international scale is to be achieved in accordance with democratic principles, new methods of social action will be required to meet the exigencies of the postwar situation. The traditional method has been mainly to establish standards of labor legislation, which then shall be adhered to by all states, or at least by the industrialized states whose manufactured products compete in international markets. Observance of those standards has been relaxed for the duration of the war; but in democratic and highly industrialized countries like the United States, Great Britain and the British Dominions they probably will be restored when peace comes. In the totalitarian countries, however, and now in the countries conquered or controlled by Germany, not only are these standards being disregarded, but it is doubtful when, and with what modifications, they will again become applicable. The prospects of any higher standards being adopted there are correspondingly remote.

Obviously, any consideration of alternative methods implies abandoning the traditional assumption that a clear distinction can be drawn between social legislation in the strict sense of the word -- legislation adapted to the specific interests of labor -- and legislation of other types designed to serve the economic interests of the community as a whole. The validity of this assumption has been questioned repeatedly by the International Labor Office, on the ground that there are many purely economic questions which assume specific aspects when examined from the point of view of the working class. For this reason the Labor Office has insisted, time and again, upon being given an appropriate rôle in the international discussion of such economic problems. This issue will become still more significant when, with the defeat of the Axis Powers, the moment comes for concerted international action for the political and economic reconstruction of the world. The New York Conference, which was attended by delegates from more than thirty nations, clearly realized the gigantic social tasks involved.


In its external arrangements this Conference followed pretty closely the traditional Geneva pattern of assemblies composed of representatives of governments, employers and labor. In other respects, however, it was significantly different from its predecessors. It was not a regular annual session of the Organization and consequently did not consider the adoption of draft conventions or recommendations.

The special aim of the Conference was to renew contact between the International Labor Organization on the one hand and the various government, workers' and employers' groups on the other. The two items on the agenda of the Conference were particularly adapted to this purpose. One was the report submitted by Edward J. Phelan, Acting Director of the International Labor Organization, which will be referred to in a moment. The second was a consideration of methods of collaboration between public authorities and organizations of workers and employers. This problem had been on the agenda of the Conference which was to have met in Geneva in June 1940, but which because of the war was never held.

The Conference insisted upon the need for effective collaboration among the three elements represented in the ILO as an indispensable factor in the economic and social reconstruction of the world. It declared collaboration of this kind to be impossible unless freedom of association of workers and employers was guaranteed within the framework of democratic political institutions, while recognizing, however, that the methods of collaboration might vary from country to country according to national experience. The Governing Body was asked to take the necessary steps to secure for the Organization its proper place in the preparation and execution of reconstruction plans. Another resolution endorsed the economic, social and political principles laid down in the Atlantic Charter and pledged the Organization's full coöperation in carrying them into effect. The Organization considers that it is particularly fitted to help in such tasks as feeding needy peoples, reconstructing devastated countries, restoring economic activity, reopening trade outlets, resettling workers and their families, changing industry over to a peace-time status, maintaining employment and raising living standards throughout the world.

The rôle of the Organization in world reconstruction was discussed in greater detail, but in more cautious terms, in Mr. Phelan's report, mentioned above. On the basis of nearly 20 years of experience, the Acting Director drew the conclusion that labor legislation "in the old narrow sense" is only a partial remedy for the social evils which the ILO was created to combat. Since conditions no longer exist in which it could be hoped that adequate economic standards would be provided for all members of the community "by the interplay of blind economic forces," self-preservation dictates that national and international policy be directed deliberately to that end. In terms of this economic philosophy a "social mandate" was claimed for the ILO. If granted, this "would constitute a general declaration of international social policy and give the Organization a program to implement." This new social policy would be directed toward promoting economic planning on a national and international scale and toward increasing governmental interference with the operation of economic forces. Some of the methods to be applied were indicated and the items to be included in the "social mandate" were tentatively enumerated and analyzed.

These items can be divided into several groups. The first would include propositions which are covered by the traditional concept of social measures to be accomplished through social legislation and administration in the strict sense of the terms. Among them are such matters as the improvement of social insurance systems and the extension of such systems to social risks of all types; operation of minimum wage requirements for those too weak to secure proper wage levels for themselves; measures to secure generally improved conditions of work; measures to promote better nutrition, to provide adequate housing and to supply facilities for recreation and culture. It remains to be seen, of course, to what extent the Organization will be able to contribute directly to the achievement of these objectives. Social unrest might delay the reëstablishment of peacetime conditions; the necessity for resettling the victims of ruthless nationalistic policies might also be an important factor in delaying the process of readjustment.

The list included another group of items which could be put into effect only if the existing economic order were considerably modified. In this category belong such proposals as the elimination of unemployment, the institution of wage policies aimed at securing a just share of the fruits of industry for the worker, and greater equality of occupational opportunities. It remains to be seen whether the economic changes involved can be brought about by international action or whether they must be dealt with within the scope of national economic policy. But the report seems somewhat overoptimistic in its declaration that, faced with the task of eliminating cyclical unemployment, "statesmen can now see their problem with sufficient clarity and can work out a constructive policy not on this or that vague theory or doctrine but on knowledge and experience greatly exceeding that heretofore available." Only one type of knowledge is reliable: that which is based on a theoretical understanding of the causal relationships of the phenomena under observation. The problem of how to eliminate unemployment is yet to be solved.

Mr. Phelan's report contains, finally, two proposals in a field where concerted international action can really be expected to produce results. They contemplate the adoption of an international works policy for the development of world resources, and the organization of migration for employment and settlement under adequate guarantees. Any attempt to carry out these tasks must obviously wait upon the establishment of comprehensive international machinery and, to be successful, would require the coöperation of the various governments. Representatives of workers and employers could assist in an advisory capacity. The relation of the International Labor Office to this machinery would have to be defined more clearly than is possible under present circumstances. An international works policy, as understood by the report, would mean not simply the adoption of measures of the work relief type, but the coördination of national efforts to remedy the economic dislocations brought about by the war. In a broader view, it would also include the international planning and execution of public works programs as a means of mitigating the effects of prolonged and recurrent worldwide depressions. This kind of international works policy would tend to establish or promote secular economic trends. International colonization schemes belong in the same sphere.

In connection with the "social mandate" claimed for the International Labor Organization, the report raises a further question. In the case of large industries the development and prosperity of which depend largely upon the behavior of world markets and international trade relationships, should not international action be taken to coördinate their national sectors? Such coördination, it was argued, is prerequisite to any attempt to secure lasting improvement of the economic and social conditions of the workers employed in those industries. Agriculture, the mercantile marine and the textile industry were mentioned as fields of economic activity in which some work of this kind has already been attempted by committees of the Organization.

These discussions emphasize the need for redefining the functions of the ILO. Under pressure of wartime developments, both political and economic, the Organization has outgrown its original statutory limitations. The Versailles Treaty assigned tasks primarily in the sphere of political international relations to the League of Nations. The International Labor Organization, loosely connected with the League, was restricted to promoting social progress. This restriction was based on the erroneous assumption that such progress depends exclusively or primarily upon the adoption of legislative and administrative measures of specific types, measures which can be clearly distinguished and segregated from those covered by the broad concept of economic policy. The mistake grew out of the demarkation of the functions of labor ministries or departments of labor in various countries. It was overlooked that such agencies form integrated parts of fully organized government machines which are directed by unified policies. No such machinery was created in the international field, nor were provisions made for coördinating international economic and social policies. The need for international standards of economic policy has by now been fully recognized and an attempt to set them up will have to be made. A first step in this direction was taken at a recent meeting in London of members of the Governing Body of the ILO. A special advisory commission will be nominated to study the measures essential to the attainment of full employment and a rising standard of living.


To sum up. The social and economic conditions of the world have changed, and many of the original assumptions upon which the guiding philosophy of the ILO was based are no longer valid. Its structure and functions, therefore, seem almost sure to be different in the future from what they were in the period between the two great wars. Its primary mission emphatically will not be to establish new international standards of labor legislation. The concerted international action which will be necessary to improve the economic and social conditions of the working class in countries which have suffered heavily from the war will be in the field of administration rather than legislation. Large-scale public works programs and resettlement and colonization schemes are examples. Such projects might be initiated by the General Conferences of the ILO; but the tasks of planning them in detail and supervising them in operation would fall upon the administrative agency of the Organization, the International Labor Office. The necessary changes in the structure of the Office and its methods of work might well receive preparatory study now.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • KARL PRIBRAM, chief of the Statistical Section of the International Labor Office, 1921-1928; Professor of Economics at the University of Frankfurt, 1928-1933; now Principal Economist of the U. S. Tariff Commission, Washington; author of works on cartels, unemployment and other problems
  • More By Karl Pribram