The International Labor Organization is in crisis, a crisis in which the United States is deeply involved. The question now is whether the crisis can be used creatively. Conflict may open the possibility of changes which would never have been introduced into an institution pursuing its established routine. Such changes may never have been in the minds of those who initiated the crisis. But a crisis is a collective drama, in the course of which some actors may be able to redefine the issues so as to bring about a significant change in the dénouement.

The crisis was touched off during the summer of 1970 by a seemingly trivial matter, the appointment by a new ILO Director-General of a Russian as an Assistant Director-General. The U.S. Congress reacted to this event by refusing to approve the appropriation for the American contribution to the ILO budget. The character of the response indicates that the precipitating event was but a symbol of deeper concern with increasing Soviet influence in the ILO, a concern not limited to Americans. The action of the Congress has since been criticized on the ground that the United States has a legal obligation to pay its contribution to international organizations it belongs to and on the ground of the impropriety of a rich country using the financial weapon to try to influence the course of an international organization. Both objections are beside the point. The issue is neither legal nor financial. It is political. No one can seriously doubt that the U.S. government will meet its obligations and pay its membership dues. The question is whether it will pay up and leave or pay up and stay.

The issues can be defined in terms either of power or of purpose. Considerations of power lead to short-range tactical measures designed to maintain or strengthen the U.S.-or more broadly the Western-position within the ILO. Considerations of purpose direct attention to a long-range strategy for the use of the ILO. The creative approach will stress purpose.

The question of Soviet influence in the ILO has to be assessed in light of the fact that the Western countries have a proportionately stronger position in the ILO than in any other major international organization except the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. The ten states of chief industrial importance-eight of them "Western" in the common political use of that term-have automatic representation on the Governing Body which is the controlling organ of ILO programs and policies. The tripartite structure of the ILO, in which trade unions and employers as well as governments are represented, has also favored the West Trade union and employer members of the Governing Body have been predominantly sympathetic to Western viewpoints. The Soviets, however, with support from the third world, have sought to change ILO structures so as to weaken the Western position; and Western delegates in turn react defensively to the challenge of growing Soviet influence.

The attitude of the delegates of the United States toward the ILO now seems to be dominated by tactical considerations, such as the extent of support given to Soviet-inspired proposals for structural changes and the amount of anti-American propaganda made in public sessions. Such considerations are very short-term indeed. And the Congressional action to block payment of a budget contribution is an unwieldy weapon, which could probably be used credibly only once. If U.S. objectives are defined solely in tactical terms, success may be ephemeral, and the means of achieving it will have been expended. This tactic would lead back to the pre-crisis situation, but with the U.S. position in the ILO-and with it the whole Western position- much weakened.

The U.S. government, both the Administration and Congress, will during the coming months have to define anew its attitude toward the ILO, This is not an altogether novel question. The last time it arose was some 15 years ago, after the Soviet bloc came into the organization. In May 1956, a committee of distinguished individuals, mainly academics, was appointed by the U.S. Departments of State, Commerce and Labor to advise them on the future relations of the United States with the ILO. It was chaired by Joseph B. Johnson, then President of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. The two salient conclusions of the committee were, first, that the ILO is not of direct importance to American labor but, secondly, that it could be important to the United States in its foreign relations as "an instrument in the ideological contest." This report provided the rationale for continuing American membership in the ILO. In the intervening years nothing has occurred to alter the first conclusion, but the validity of the second is now being seriously questioned.

The government will review its commitment to the ILO in terms of the organization's usefulness to American domestic and foreign policy. Also relevant is the organization's usefulness to the international system. Since the United States has the largest single stake in the stability of the international system it will have at least an indirect interest in ensuring that the ILO contribute in some way to the orderly development of this system. The question of the ILO's potential for the future has to be answered in the light of the mutual compatibility of two sets of factors: one, the nature of the real issues with which an international organization in the labor field might usefully deal; the other, the likely political basis of support for the ILO.


A first step in rethinking the role of the ILO should then be to assess the evolution of the organization's activities during recent years in relation to the real issues of social policy. Such a review must begin by explaining how the ILO lost its relevance to domestic policy in the Western countries. During the 1920s and 1930s the ILO's elaboration of international labor standards in the form of legal norms corresponded closely with what was then understood as labor policy in Western Europe, i.e. protective labor legislation.

Today, however, for advanced Western societies, there is no such thing as labor policy in the old sense. Workers are concerned about employment, but the maintenance of acceptable levels of employment is a matter of general economic policy. It is pursued by manipulating the level of public saving and spending, by fiscal measures, by encouragement of investment in depressed regions, and so forth. Such measures fall outside the scope of labor departments. True, measures for training, retraining and relocation of workers through an active manpower policy can be a significant support to employment policy. But the main point is still valid: employment policy is a central function of government which requires the coördination of many instruments, only some of which are within the jurisdiction of labor departments.

A similar change has taken place in the broader concept of social policy. At the origins of the ILO the "social question" and the "labor question" were identical and their solution was seen to be in creating opportunities for the worker to improve his status in society. During the past two decades, the worker seems to have been taking reasonably good care of his own interests. Unions have matured and in maturing have lost the glamor of a cause which drew many intellectuals to their support in the heroic and oppressive days of the 1930s. This must be accounted an achievement of Western society. It has turned our attention to other, more pressing social problems. We are concerned about integrating into the mainstream of social life groups which have been marginal to the material growth and institutional development of modern societies. The current struggle of Blacks in the United States may be a harbinger of conflicts latent in the influx of Mediterranean, Asian and African peoples into northern Europe, to take up jobs the established members of those societies no longer are willing to accept. We are also becoming concerned about the quality of the collective goods available in our societies, with providing an urban environment conducive to healthy personal development, with clean water and clean air.

Workers are very much concerned about all these things, but more as citizens than as workers. As workers, however, they may be able to have a greater influence on action through their trade unions. Labor administration is to some extent involved in action directed to these problems, but is in no case the center of such action. The old-fashioned sectoral approach of government is ill-adapted to the problems at hand. And what is true at the national and local levels is true also at the international. The ILO has lost its relevancy to social policy-making because its structures do not correspond to the ways in which current social problems have to be defined.

Trade unions as well as governments in Western countries have also lost interest in the ILO, probably as a by-product of the maturing process mentioned. Union leaders have become more exclusively concerned with the immediate industrial objectives of their organizations and less with reformist goals of a more general and remote nature. The ILO has become peripheral to the concrete interests of unions-a kind of "good works" requiring perfunctory and increasingly symbolic support. Participation in the ILO then becomes the affair of one or two individuals, and all meaningful connection with the real activities of unions ceases. Where trade union interest in international affairs remained active, as it has in the AFL-CIO, this was generally because of a concern with global political and ideological struggles which had little or nothing to do with the real work of unions back home.

Some present tendencies in Western countries, however, suggest a new potential relevancy of the ILO. The unsatisfactory experiments many of these countries have made with incomes policies and in other crucial areas of public policy are evidence of a search for new ways of associating the nongovernmental forces represented in the ILO with government. Clearly government alone does not have the instruments necessary to control cost inflation so as to maintain an acceptable equilibrium between wages and other incomes, prices and employment. Public policy cannot be exclusively governmental and to be effective must carry the commitment of private organizations, notably unions and managements. The difficulty governments in liberal democratic societies have in regulating the economic behavior of these private organizations-and particularly of the less disciplined elements within them-has led to a new public preoccupation with industrial relations. The concept of participation has been advanced and its implications explored at the level of the work group and the plant as well as at the national level. Western societies have become laboratories in which politicians, industrial and trade union leaders and social scientists are searching for new patterns of social relations appropriate for the present. This is an area in which the Western countries might find a use for the ILO.


As the ILO became less relevant to the Western industrialized countries, the organization turned increasingly to providing technical assistance to less developed countries. The steady growth of these activities has been the salient feature of ILO program evolution since the 1950s. They have concerned principally manpower and productivity.

This change in the nature of ILO activities can be seen as one reflection of changes in the international system which gave more prominence to North- South relations and made international action for development a primary consideration in the policies followed by industrialized as well as less developed countries in the United Nations. This trend affected most international agencies, but it had a special meaning for the organizational politics of ILO. Manpower and productivity became the basis for program consensus in the ILO. Increased membership extending to the Soviet bloc and Africa brought more conflict of purposes into the organization; but all could agree to support manpower and productivity activities, albeit with varying degrees of enthusiasm. Other major programs such as setting labor standards and support for trade union freedom of association were divisive. These disputed areas were continued as subsidiary activities, sustained by the bond of common support for politically neutral development-oriented action.

Recently it has become apparent that there may be serious weaknesses even in this consensual bond. Many representatives from developing countries favor an agency like the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO), which they feel they are able to control through their voting majority, over ILO which they see as controlled by the rich countries. And this raises the question of whether those development activities which had become the central feature of the ILO's work could not as well be carried out by another agency which was purely intergovernmental in composition.

The tenuous nature of the support for these activities on the part of developing country representatives was matched by luke-warmness on the part of the ILO's traditional clients. The ILO has not been able to involve its tripartite structure in a meaningful way in its technical assistance work. Employers prefer that the ILO should busy itself with aid rather than with the elaboration of more standards. Worker representatives regard aid given charitably as a good thing. But neither have any practical role to play in these activities other than to give them their blessing. They do not even approve the budgets or control the allocations.

The second U.N. development decade has opened in an atmosphere of general concern with the efficiency of international aid programs. The study on the capacity of the U.N. system carried out under the direction of Sir Robert Jackson recommended as a remedy greater centralization in the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and a lesser role for the specialized agencies as managers of major field projects. Thus, quite independently of the present crisis, the ILO may be faced with a substantial reduction in those activities which now form the largest part of its program and which have been the sole basis of consensus among its heterogeneous composite elements. Erosion of this consensus would tend to make conflict on other issues more prominent and to exacerbate the confrontation of opposing conceptions of the ILO.

Through a World Employment Program, the ILO now seeks to give priority to one aspect of development policy-the employment problem. It is not alone in recognizing the importance of this problem. Robert S. McNamara, President of the World Bank, has also drawn attention to the fact that industrialization, though raising production in developing countries, is not creating jobs fast enough to accommodate the increase in the labor force in these countries. Unemployment is growing with development. Seeing unemployment as one of the foremost causes of political instability in developing countries, David A. Morse, the former ILO Director-General, wanted to make employment the primary goal of ILO programs for the future.

The World Employment Program was intended to be more than a conventional technical assistance activity. It began with some intensive studies of the employment problem in particular countries, carried out by large interdisciplinary field missions. The question remains whether the ILO is the most appropriate agency to conduct such a program. Two aspects of policy-making should be distinguished in trying to answer this question. One is fixing the goals of policy. The other is coördinating instruments to attain these goals. The ILO has a natural concern with the first: with pressing policy-makers, both national and international, to accord employment a high priority among the goals of public policy. This is a matter of great concern to workers and employers and the ILO is the international organization in the best position to articulate the concern of these groups.

Governments should be encouraged to avoid a technocratic approach to planning which might seek to maximize growth in production, irrespective of the consequences for employment of the means used; and some capital- intensive means which are most effective in raising production are least effective for creating jobs. Left to themselves, the United Nations and other international experts might be expected to give the highest priority to production. The ILO does a service in pressing upon the United Nations and upon governments the importance of the employment problem. But it may do a disservice to its own cause if it attempts to become the world employment policy-maker because the tendency to separate employment policy from economic development planning at the national as well as the international level may help to perpetuate the secondary status of the employment goal rather than to see it given priority within a more comprehensive development policy.


Another aspect of development policy which would be very relevant to the ILO's tripartite structure but which has been largely unexploited as yet, is the emerging pattern of industrial relations in developing countries.

Industrial relations is a critical aspect of a broader process often called social mobilization, which means the uprooting of people from old social bonds, old loyalties and old structures and their induction into new ones. The choice between liberal or authoritarian modes of society and thus of polity is probably determined during the crucial stages of social mobilization. Industrial relations, according to the pattern of their growth, may incline either toward a diffusion of initiative or toward disciplined submission to the leadership of a national élite. The ability to influence the pattern of industrial relations during its formative stages is the ability to influence long-range political development.

At the outset of present-day bilateral and multilateral aid programs, during the early 1950s, the politicians and officials concerned tended to accept rather uncritically the assumptions that: aid would promote economic growth; economic growth would reduce poverty; reducing poverty in turn would favor and sustain democracy; and democratic polities would be conducive to the organization of world peace. Every link in this line of reasoning has since been contested. More particularly, the imputed connection between economic growth and inclination to democracy seems to be quite unfounded. This illusion has been challenged by the beginning of a political theory of development.

Political considerations have not been absent from the minds of those in industrialized countries who influence aid programs in industrial relations. The trade unionists among them especially tend to see their role as supporting developing country unions and union leaders who profess anti- communism. In addition, some powerful national unions now seek to create unions in developing countries which can be allies in confronting giant multinational corporations. In both of these cases priority is being given to short-range considerations of alliance-building.

A longer range view of the implications of industrial relations for political development would consider the possibilities for organizing the unmobilized sectors of society-the peasantry and the large numbers of people in all developing countries who have left the countryside for the cities but still have only a marginal relationship to the urban economy. The future of industrial relations merges with the question of broader popular participation in the economy and in the making of public policy. Since bringing new social groups into effective participation alters the balance of social power, it is likely to be resisted by established groups holding a monopoly of power.

It would have been a bold choice had the ILO made industrial relations the cutting edge of its development effort. Industrial relations would be seen as an institutional underpinning of a participant polity, in which politics is the process whereby the aims and interests of different social groups are reconciled in an orderly way through public policy. This approach therefore would have involved the organization in some of the most controversial issues within emerging nations. To have adopted such an approach, the ILO would have had to be sure of continuing support from a powerful sector of its constituency, prepared to maintain this support in the face of the kind of political obstacles likely to arise. It could not be the policy of a universal organization in which universality was interpreted as the lowest common denominator of agreement among all sectors of the constituency.

In fact, this was a policy advocated by David A. Morse in the mid-1950s after the Soviet bloc had returned to membership in the ILO. While some employer and trade union representatives at that time took the stand that the Soviet system was incompatible with the ILO's tripartite constitution, Morse suggested that all states be accepted as members while the ILO more actively pursued programs and policies to give expression to the tripartite idea. He proposed a program to promote labor-management relations as the central feature of the ILO's growing concern for development. Once created, however, the new instrument of ILO policy never attained the central place envisaged. In retrospect, the failure can in part be explained by the cooling of relations between the AFL-CIO and the ILO during the late 1950s which deprived Morse of a powerful support for the kind of program he had proposed. The ILO subsided into a lowest common denominator form of universality.

Finally, transnational issues vitally concerning labor now arise from the development of what can be called the world free market economy, i.e. the global area open to private international capital movements. Looking to the future, it is possible to discern a changing international division of economic activities, in which manufacturing is increasingly situated in less developed areas of the world while the more advanced societies concentrate on high productivity activities, research and development, information processing and science-based industries. The trend does not imply any lessening of the relative deprivation of the third world, but it will accelerate its economic growth.

Many less developed countries are offering attractive conditions for foreign investment in what are sometimes referred to as "pioneer industries." Cheap labor is foremost among these advantages. The great expansion of multinational corporations has given impetus to the trend. These corporations are able to manufacture components in one country, assemble in another and sell in a third, their production being planned according to the most advantageous economic conditions.

Export of jobs from the richer countries is seen as a threat by organized labor in those manufacturing sectors affected. Their natural recourse is protectionism. In a few of the richer countries which have state-supported retraining and relocation schemes this protectionist tendency is less evident. The issue of protectionism in the rich countries will be determined to some extent-and perhaps in the main-by the way in which the labor aspect is handled. Less developed countries have, for their part, to face the issue of their dependence upon foreign employers who wish to make use of cheap local labor. As a strategy for development, this method contains the seeds of its own destruction. When carried out by tough local oligarchies, it will almost certainly, as social mobilization proceeds, lead to a nationalistic revolutionary response.

Despite the essentially transnational nature of these issues, the ILO has not yet come to grips with them. The explanation is in large part temerity before issues on which powerful forces are in conflict.


The conclusions from this review of ILO programs are not encouraging. They may be held to counsel that the ILO has come to the end of its usefulness. The evolution of ILO activities has led to a situation where tripartisin- the ILO's characteristic feature-is unnecessary and unrelated to most of what the organization is now doing. A concept of universality based upon consensus has emptied the program of activities which might have given expression to tripartism, in favor of neutral technical services. The contradiction between universality and tripartism, whether or not it is one of principle as was debated within the ILO in the 1950s, has become one of practice.

The purposes of the ILO as expressed in its programs are now in conflict with the political base of the organization, which remains today in the Western countries. Within these countries, it lies with the trade unions. Employers participate because the ILO exists, because they have to defend their interests. Western governments, though they have long since lost interest in ILO work, support the organization because of their trade unions. In Western Europe, union loyalty to the ILO has been steadier, in the United States more volatile. The present crisis arises because the AFL- CIO has questioned its commitment to the ILO. If the AFL-CIO were to conclude that it was no longer interested in participating in the ILO, no other significant force within the American political system could persuade the Administration and Congress to continue in membership. But in general the Western nations agree that if the ILO is to exist, it must be tripartite.

Tripartism is not nearly so important a consideration for many third-world countries. The services their governments expect of the ILO might as well be provided by a purely intergovernmental organization. For a few of these countries such as India, where trade unions had an early growth and remain influential, the appeal of tripartism is nevertheless significant. The Soviet position is a peculiar one. The legitimacy of its régime's participation as a full-fledged member of ILO has been challenged by the adherents of tripartism; but at the same time the opportunities which the ILO's tripartite structure gives the Soviet delegates for contacts with trade union leaders of different ideological persuasions and from different countries (particularly developing countries) is probably what makes membership interesting to the Soviet Union.

If the present crisis is to be used creatively to redefine the purposes and thus the programs of the ILO, this can only come about through a Western initiative to make a more active use of tripartism. No other political basis for a reconstruction of the ILO makes sense. But serious questions first have to be answered as to the feasibility of such an initiative and its desirability from the standpoint of Western governments.

The first and most basic question is whether Western governments want to take this initiative. At present, they still control the ILO, but have left the initiative to the Director-General and the Office; and the pressures these feel come mainly from the Soviet bloc and less developed countries. This situation is not unique to ILO. There has been a general withdrawal of Western initiative in the worldwide international organizations during the past decade. The West has come to accept the view that the main function of these organizations is to give expression to the demands of the third world or to take the temperature of East-West relations. Western countries have created their own parallel organizations such as OECD to deal with their own problems, showing no particular desire that these problems be discussed in a global forum. The very idea of Western initiative in a universal organization may thus conflict with an acquired habit which may almost have the status of a policy. Nevertheless, recently there have been some signs of irritation among Western delegates at the way this abdication of initiative has weakened their position. It has taken the form of resistance to rising budgets, a rather negative exercise of influence. But would Western countries be ready to attempt to exert a positive influence? There are risks as well as benefits. As a first step, the United States could take the lead in exploring the readiness of other Western countries to join with it.

The elements of a program which would respond to real issues have been sketched above. Within the sphere of industrial relations the ILO would deal with problems of advanced countries concerning the role of trade unions and management in regard to public policy, notably in the control of cost inflation and in managing technological change. Related issues concern the reform of structures, from the enterprise to the national level, so as to increase participation in decision-making. Developing country problems would include the promotion of participation by as yet unorganized social groups in the life of the nation and of patterns of industrial relations which in the long run would support democratic polities. Finally, there are the labor problems inherent in the growth of the world market economy, particularly those associated with the expansion of multinational corporations.

The ILO is at present doing virtually nothing about any of these problems because they are controversial. An organization open to universal membership could deal with them only if it were assured of consistent Western support. It is questionable whether Western governments really want a tripartite international organization to become active with respect to these issues, or whether they would prefer that tripartisrn remain merely formal.

To pursue its programs, the ILO would have to use methods appropriate to assisting the process of national policy-making. It should be able to mobilize the best talent and experience to help national policy-makers. Whereas now, the dominant pressures within the staff are toward avoiding controversial thoughts and producing anodyne publications, the ILO's staff ought to be of the highest competency and enjoy freedom for inquiry and independence in the expression of its ideas. Setting new labor standards might continue to have some place but probably a minor one; the administration of large field projects of technical assistance would no longer be such an important feature of the organization's programs, since they may be managed more effectively through a centralized U.N. aid program in which the ILO would have an advisory role.

Would a reinvigorated tripartism be compatible with universality? Non- Western countries would have to answer this question. Some less developed countries may not welcome international programs dealing with delicate internal issues, such as promoting peasant organization, ILO action would be regarded as subversive. Soviet delegates have already expressed disapproval of ILO action in the industrial relations field. Would the Soviet Union quit an ILO which had made industrial relations its central theme?

Finally, what kind of an international organization would the ILO become, were the Western countries to take this initiative? Two distinct patterns of international organization can be distinguished for comparison. In one, the initiative lies with a permanent international staff, national delegates acting as a control over its work. In the other, the initiative lies with national representatives, who define the work of the organization in relation to their current policy preoccupations. This work is shared among independent specialists, government experts and an international staff of rotating composition. The advantage of this pattern is involvement of policy-makers in activities that matter to them and fuller interpenetration of national and international staff work. The historical growth of the ILO has followed the first pattern, stressing organizational autonomy. It has paid the price in that the makers of social policy now find little of interest in the ILO. Representation has become formal, often the concern of a handful of ILO professionals, some of them having little or no connection with labor affairs at home. The organization is highly institutionalized, with rich tradition; but participation in it lacks depth. To redirect the organization on the lines sketched above implies a change in the character of the organization, in the direction of the second pattern. In short, the ILO needs less autonomy and more involvement.

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