IT IS becoming an accepted cliché that organized labor plays an important part in international affairs, but the idea it expresses is often misunderstood. Some circles both at home and abroad think that the interest taken by American trade unions in foreign relations is confined to devising ways of increasing the production of European industry. Now the experience of American unions is undoubtedly useful in helping achieve that special purpose, but American labor has far wider interests than that. Its work abroad is intended to help create, often against heavy odds, institutions which will enable masses of mankind to rise above the level of subsistence and participate fully in free and democratic societies.

The concern of the Congress of Industrial Organizations in international affairs was well summarized in a statement issued to the press in January 1951, when a small C.I.O. committee, headed by Victor Reuther, left for Europe. Mr. Jacob Potofsky, Chairman of the C.I.O.'s International Committee, explained that the group would study union problems particularly in France, Italy and Germany, and would consult with the leaders of all the non-Communist trade unions. "The consultations," he said, "will be directed toward the objective of finding methods by which the C.I.O. can most effectively further the programs of the non-Communist unions in the three countries to build their organizations, improve their collective bargaining functions and strengthen themselves generally as bulwarks of democratic society." The committee met hundreds of European trade unionists at all levels of administration, and in its report, which was accepted by the C.I.O. International Committee in March 1951, stated that it had not limited its contacts to any faction or movement, but had met with representatives of all the chief tendencies and unions. It concluded:

We are more convinced than ever, against the background of personal observation of these past several weeks, that the free labor movement of Western Europe is that continent's most reliable and most important bulwark against the inroads of Stalinist totalitarianism.

We are as strongly convinced that neither American policy makers nor the governments of the crisis countries have demonstrated adequate awareness of free labor's importance in the struggle for the mind and body of Europe.

We think it is axiomatic that Europe cannot be successfully defended merely by assembling divisions of soldiers and amassing quantities of munitions. It is clear to us, as it is clear to the hundreds of key unionists to whom we talked, that if Europe is to stand up against aggression from without and erosion from within, the metal workers, textile workers, mining and transportation workers, civil servants, clerks, and farmers who will constitute the heart and fiber of any European army must have something to defend more tangible than slogans, more substantial than promises of a better life to come.

The C.I.O. is now proceeding to operate abroad, along the lines of this report, within the limitations of its finance and suitable available personnel. It is fully conscious of the need to build up military strength in the free world against the aggressive imperialism of the Soviet Union, but it does not believe this can be done successfully unless these other goals named above are pursued effectively at the same time. The C.I.O. is fully aware, of course, that it has not made any startling discovery, nor does it have any sovereign remedy for the problems of European labor. But it also knows that not enough has been done by Americans to help solve them, and it believes that it can make a contribution.


From its founding in 1936, the Congress of Industrial Organizations rejected the concept of isolationism, both as a governmental policy and in relation to fellow trade-union centers abroad. Its predominant interest in international affairs was the traditional labor devotion to the cause of world peace. This is still the case today, when we are opposed to all appeasement of aggression. In a recent pamphlet calling for expansion of our foreign economic aid program, Walter Reuther proclaimed: "We cannot give up hope for peace. We must not lose faith in the cause of peace. We must be prepared to work and fight for peace." The trade union movement cannot act otherwise.

In a preface to "The C.I.O. and World Affairs," a recent pamphlet, President Philip Murray indicated the wider range of trade-union concern. He undertook to answer the questions of members who asked, for example, "Why should my union get excited about problems in Peru or India or Austria?" He replied: "By helping build the union movements of other lands, by helping their members enjoy a better life, we show that democracy does work. And we prove that Kremlin propaganda--which portrays America as a land of Wall Street imperialism and exploited serfs--is a fabric of Communist lies and slanders. In helping others, we are helping our America."

It was natural that the annual C.I.O. conventions in the early forties should adopt resolutions calling for the reestablishment of close coöperation between the trade-union centers of all the United Nations. In 1944, when American energies were devoted to the winning of victory over the totalitarian Powers, the C.I.O. convention authorized the acceptance of an invitation from the British Trades Union Congress for a conference to explore the possibilities of establishing a World Federation of Trade Unions.

The preparatory conference of December 1944, and those which were held subsequently, paved the way for the establishment of the ill-fated World Federation of Trade Unions in Paris in November 1945. At this time, and throughout the history of the relationship of the C.I.O. to trade-union movements in other countries, the guiding theme has been our determination to remain in organizational connection with other leading free democratic movements. Many of us who participated sincerely in the early organizational work of the W.F.T.U. had grave doubts about future developments. Strong factors in the decision to go ahead, however, were the attitude of the democratic trade-union leaders of Western Europe and the particular quality of the social atmosphere in which they had to function. It is easy, with the aid of hindsight, to condemn the entire endeavor of democratic trade unions to keep in close association with the state-controlled "trade unions" of Soviet Russia in the postwar years, 1945-47. But governments and trade unions alike had to make the effort to coöperate with the Russians before alternative policies became possible. The strength of the universal desire to draw the Soviet Union into the United Nations organization at the San Francisco Conference illustrates the situation that existed when the W.F.T.U. was founded.

The democratic trade unions in the W.F.T.U. were greatly disadvantaged by the fact that their own organizations were not ideologically secure. Powerful trade-union groups from democratic countries echoed the line of Soviet foreign policy, and, in some cases, did so without realizing it. This was particularly true on all questions affecting Asia and the "backward" areas in general. Not until the Marshall Plan for European recovery made the issue plain in Europe were the lines clearly drawn. Then the W.F.T.U. split wide open.

Nowadays, when all international problems and relationships are necessarily related to the all-pervading East-West conflict, it is easy to forget the social climate of 1945-47. The economic and military might of the United States and the absence of any strong Left ideology in the United States labor movement rendered this country relatively immune from factors which were extremely important in the rest of the world. It is well to remember that our native Communists obtained what influence they had because their ideology was hidden. Their impotence was revealed when they were forced into the open by the Marshall Plan and the Wallace campaign. It is also worth noting that in most other countries, Communist trade-union leaders were known openly as Communists, whereas here that was so only in exceptional cases. For the defeated or war-shattered countries, however, the military might and potential industrial strength of the Soviet Union were impressive. At the same time, a steady, subtle revival of half-lost illusions about the Soviet state took place among progressive groups throughout the world. These two influences, which reinforced each other, have origins deep in the history and traditions of the world labor movement.

The ideological attraction of Soviet Russia has now vastly declined, but it has been a major obstacle to the rebuilding of a strong international trade-union movement with positive aims, devoted to strengthening the free-democratic world. It was the conviction of the C.I.O. that the obstacle could be overcome by working along with other national movements with tolerance and patience, rather than by contemptuous opposition to beliefs and attitudes treasured abroad. When the rift in the W.F.T.U. widened, the C.I.O. joined all the other major trade-union centers in the formation of the E.R.P. Trade Union Conference and Advisory Committee. Then having quit the W.F.T.U., in company with the British and the Dutch in January 1949, the C.I.O. proceeded to join with them and others in the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions, established at a conference in London, December 1949.


The I.C.F.T.U. presents some interesting differences from the prewar international labor movement, and these directly affect both the development of the new organization and the activity of the American trade-union movement in other countries. A large number of affiliates, although retaining the control of their own policies, do have a relationship to the governments of their countries unlike that of the members of the defunct International Federation of Trade Unions. Through the relative success of allied political parties, Labor or Socialist, which either form the national government or participate in government coalitions, the trade-union centers of many countries have acquired more power, more rights and more responsibilities. No longer, as in the prewar days, do the delegates to international labor conferences invariably come from opposition minority groups within their own countries. The delegates represent trade-union movements which have voluntarily assumed a certain degree of responsibility toward their own governments.

The sweeping generalizations developed by Socialists who were, it appeared, condemned to perpetual minority opposition are absent from the program of the I.C.F.T.U. Its decisions reflect the varying national social and economic development of the affiliated organizations. The Socialist tendencies are basically as strong as ever, but now lead to constructive, responsible and positive programs.

Coincident with the full emergence of the United States as a World Power, the American trade-union movement has become a major force in the world labor movement. The A.F. of L., the C.I.O. and the independent United Mine Workers make a solid and dynamic addition of 16,000,000 workers. Not only is this American affiliation to the international organization much larger than ever before, but the American movement is more sure of itself, partly as the result of its own development and partly because of the setbacks suffered by so many other national groups. The ideological gulf between the old American trade unionism and socialistically-minded groups from other countries has also almost disappeared. What remains is a matter of terminology rather than of any striking differences in practice.

The Socialist tradition still persists and presents some problems. Although it is correct to say that, on the whole, the tremendous faith in democracy of European Socialists makes them the best fighters against Communist infiltration, there has been a crippling ambivalence among some of them in the face of Soviet Communism. Even today (though with decreasing persuasiveness) the Russians claim to be the spokesmen and heirs of a hundred years of Socialist agitation, propaganda and theorizing--a century of thought and work which is cherished by all Socialists. This, of course, explains the enormously greater appeal which red totalitarianism has for workers as compared with the black variety, despite all the similarities between the two. It is natural that the terrible reality of Soviet practice is the determining factor in the judgments of American trade unionists, who lack strong Socialist traditions. But in many countries, social theory and Socialist traditions have enormous importance in labor movements, particularly when the local democracy is weak.

Many left-wing Socialists are so subject to this influence that the facts of Soviet life which conflict with their theoretical beliefs are minimized or ignored. It is this attitude which leads a number of European labor leaders to attribute all the undeniable horrors of Soviet Communism to the lack of culture and general backwardness of Russia. If only they, these West Europeans, composed the Politburo, how wonderful things would then be! Happily this kind of thinking is becoming less and less common as trade unions abroad become conscious that the preservation of political democracy is the prerequisite to further progress on the road to social justice.

In short, the international labor movement has come out of the postwar doldrums, and is regaining its democratic energy and faith. That is why American trade unions must find ways of assisting the struggle of their fellow groups to win back the workers' allegiance from Stalinist control.

The C.I.O. Committee which recently visited Europe reported that the most striking aspect of the French labor scene is the continuing grip of the Stalinists on the largest segment of organized workers, through their control of the General Confederation of Labor (C.G.T.). There are, of course, local exceptions to this rule, but the fact is that the non-Communist French unions have not made substantial inroads on Communist strength.

It is disheartening to see the conditions under which the free French labor movement must work in the provinces. Some of the fault for the situation lies with the national officers; but the dingy, cold, barren, unequipped local union offices are a reflection of the general lack of funds. In many areas, there was not a single mimeograph machine to enable the non-Communist workers to hold their own with the Communists in publicity and propaganda. There were no full-time organizers in situations where the equivalent of $25 a week would keep them in the field. Help from American trade-union sources is essential in these cases if free European labor is to be more than a paper movement. But permanent subsidy is not a practical solution. The root cause of the poverty of the French labor movement is the poverty of the French workers, and their failure to pay regular union dues.

In Italy, as in France, the Stalinists control the largest single segment of organized workers, through the General Confederation of Italian Labor (C.G.I.L.). This ascendancy of the Stalinists does not flow from any traditional loyalty of the workers to a particular organization, as in France where the C.G.T. has been the classic instrument of the workers. Both the Italian Confederation of Labor Unions (C.I.S.L.), the Italian trade-union movement headed by Pastore, a Christian Democrat, who has made a powerful effort to build a nonsectarian, non-political movement, and the Italian Union of Labor (U.I.L.), the newer movement of Socialist tendencies, should be assisted and encouraged to develop joint activity against the Stalinists whenever possible. U.I.L. leaders argue that the masses of Italian workers, with their militant tradition, having abandoned the C.G.I.L. because of its subservience to the Communists, will not permit themselves to be captured by any movement which, in their opinion, is so bound by right-wing, official allegiance that it lacks the force to press home the just demands of wage earners.

With the prospect of a cleavage within Italian Communism, U.I.L. may now prove an attractive refuge for the homeless dissidents. American labor should seize this opportunity to support a movement which, in the present crisis of Italian Stalinism, may have enough appeal to attract a large section of the disillusioned and embittered wage earners and unemployed, who have no basic loyalty to Communism or the Communist-dominated C.G.I.L. In Italy, as to some extent in France, one sees the paradoxical situation of a Communist-controlled trade-union federation, at the service of a foreign Power, enjoying facilities provided by governmental authorities. In Italian small towns it is usual to find solid, commodious buildings at the disposal of the Communist union organization, often with banners and posters proclaiming that the top floor is the headquarters of the regional Communist Party. The C.G.I.L. also enjoys a favored position in the administration of the social security system, including the all-important unemployment benefits. Many of these advantages date from the wartime united resistance movement and are continued under strongly anti-Communist governments because one out of every three Italians still votes Communist.

Corrective action would be much easier to take if the non-Communist movement gained more strength. It is important that American labor, together with the European regional organization of the I.C.F.T.U., find ways to help the genuine Italian trade unions to build up their membership. Governmental action against the C.G.I.L. must not have the appearance of being simply anti-trade union. The C.I.S.L. and the U.I.L. must be strong enough to assume the functions of defending Italian workers in their economic and social struggles. Then the Italian authorities will be able to act without making the situation worse than it now is.

In the outlying areas of both France and Italy there is an almost pitiful eagerness on the part of local leaders and active members to learn the facts about the American labor movement, its history, its recent progress, the details of union activity, the provisions of contracts, the life of the shops. The C.I.O., through its European office, will endeavor to meet this need and bring the story of American labor to the attention of the great political audience of Italian and other European workers.

Throughout continental Europe, the old antagonism between nonreligious (predominantly Socialist) and Christian (predominantly Catholic) unions is a thorny problem, and one, of course, relatively unknown in our American experience. Although reports suggest that direct and close relationships with the Church hierarchy continue in the Dutch and to a lesser extent in the Belgian groups, evolution in France and other European countries has been away from such ties. In Italy and Germany, the old, separate, religious organizations were not reconstructed after the war. Since the Socialist groups have lost much of their dogmatism during recent years, it is often as hard for Americans to understand why these two groups cannot unite as it is for Europeans to understand why the major divisions of the American trade union movement cannot do so.

The C.I.O. is determined to be even-handed in its treatment of the different democratic non-Stalinist unions. Unity of organization has long been a compelling motive for workers in most countries, but this desire for unity need not hinder advances toward the practical goal of helping all democratic forces which are capable of drawing strength away from the Communists. The principal aim of American labor is to galvanize, not simply to unify. This policy is consistent with the I.C.F.T.U. effort to gather into its ranks all divergent democratic trade-union centers. It seems possible that French and Italian leaders, and officials of the I.C.F.T.U., can work out ways of developing organizing drives in vital industrial centers, in conjunction with the International Trade Secretariats concerned with the respective industries. A similar campaign in some ports has already been initiated by the International Transport Workers Federation, the local unions and the A.F. of L. But a large number of such centers are still controlled by the fifth column agents of the Soviet Union and militant trade unionism is neglected in favor of political adventurism.


The spread of trade unionism in the Middle East, Africa and Asia has naturally vastly modified international labor work. Both the A.F. of L. and the C.I.O. maintain permanent representatives in Asia and send other trade-union leaders out there whenever possible to attend conferences, survey the situation and make recommendations as to future programs. The vast revolutionary upsurge throughout the East makes this activity of great importance. Labor movements in the East are compounded of national, social and economic strivings; they have always had Marxist tinges, and have received the closest attention from the Stalinists. The relatively successful stabilization of the Soviet Union, coupled with the internal troubles of the West European Powers, reinforced and speeded up Asia's revolutionary development. At the same time, the new techniques of the Soviet Union for infiltration have been used to gain control of many of these mass movements.

The fact that Soviet-inspired propaganda is insincere and is designed to spread Soviet totalitarianism, not to promote national development, does not, unfortunately, militate against it in these turbulent areas. It tends to be accepted at its face value, and thus achieves its purpose--the creation of fifth columns for use in promoting revolutionary upheavals. In the immediate postwar period, before the Russian Communists had openly revived their Cominform activities, their fronts in this part of the world were rechristened "trade unions." All of these swelled the membership of the W.F.T.U. Subversive and revolutionary activity, in accord with Soviet policy, acquired the respectable name of "trade-union work" in the council halls of the Federation: members of that organization were asked, for example, to protest to the United Nations Economic and Social Council and other bodies the arrest of any subversive agent, on the grounds that he was a trade-union leader and that trade-union liberties were being attacked.

The unmasking of this myth of "trade-union" activity is the major work of the free trade-union movement in these areas. All the reports which the C.I.O. receives from its representatives, however, emphasize that it can be carried on successfully only by building up organizations strong enough to struggle effectively on behalf of their members, and to compel their own acceptance as normal forces in democratic society. There seems room for considerable gain in sophistication by members of the American Foreign Service in this respect, as well as for a thoroughgoing reexamination of labor programs by American corporations established in these areas.

American technical assistance by itself is relatively useless in meeting this situation. A familiar saying in Southeast Asia is: "We want a social revolution, and you give us D.D.T." Even when American aid is substantial and results in better economic conditions for the workers in these countries, it is often successfully disparaged by Communist propaganda, which describes it as a sop to divert the Asian people from the riches that could be theirs were they to follow Communist leadership. That this is an appeal to irresponsibilty is true enough--and that indeed is just the point. Such Stalinist techniques can be countered only by the development of responsible labor organizations. That means organizations widely based among the local populations, working for the legitimate aspirations, both political and economic, of the peoples, and able to achieve results.

The debates of the Second World Congress of the I.C.F.T.U. held in Milan last July illustrated some of these difficulties. The Congress itself surprised even the more optimistic of its supporters by the extent to which it showed that after only 18 months the free world union was firmly established and well started on its mission of strengthening genuine trade unionism throughout the world. The most impressive achievement reported to the Congress was the progress made in setting up regional organizations, not only in Europe and the Americas but particularly in Asia, the Middle East and North Africa. Headquarters of the Asia group will be in Colombo, Ceylon.

The proportion of delegates from these areas at the Milan Congress, and the emphasis in the proceedings on their problems rather than on those of Europe, revealed the world nature of the I.C.F.T.U. It is worth noting also that the delegates from Asia, North Africa and the Middle East were outspoken in their resentment of any implication that they had not come of age. They did not hide their need for assistance from the more experienced and richer movements, but were quite obviously suspicious that limitations might be placed on their freedom and self-determination.

Following the visit of a delegation to Asia in July 1950, the I.C.F.T.U. appointed an able Indian trade unionist, Dhyan Mungat, as its representative in the Far East. Already familiar with the scene, he was able to prepare the way for the regional conference called in Karachi, May 1951. The trade-union movement in Asia, although still young, acquired importance as a vital force in the struggle for national independence. The Karachi Conference was attended by more than 30 delegates representing 10,000,000 union members in India, Pakistan, Malaya, Ceylon, Formosa and Japan. Most of the delegates revealed a strong "political" bias, but they also showed the decline in appeal of Stalinist slogans and the desire to carry on the industrial and economic functions associated with trade unions in the West. Plans were drafted for a permanent regional organization to coordinate activities and assist in further educational and organizational work.

The Asian regional organization of the I.C.F.T.U. provides a real opportunity to prevent Stalinist inroads among the mass movements of Asia. It will require much material help and disinterested technical assistance. But above all it will require patience and understanding. It will make mistakes and even follow what many in the West feel are illusions, but it is an important force in world affairs. The International Confederation of Free Trade Unions will establish labor colleges in Asia, and will reprint its publications in the local languages. Meanwhile tolerance is required for the healthy development of organizations free from foreign control--as the Asian unions intend to be--and devoted to securing as quickly as possible a greater measure of economic and social justice for their members. Their struggle is part of the fight to defend and expand the free world. American labor is determined to do what it can to assist them.

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