STUDENTS of international affairs were quick to recognize the establishment of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (I.C.F.T.U.), at London during the first week of December 1949, as "an event of historic importance, in many respects the most significant development in the struggle for a free world."

The I.C.F.T.U. is not the first attempt at world labor organization. About 85 years ago, the International Workingmen's Association was founded by Karl Marx; it succumbed to the Bakunin-Marx feud and the differences caused by the Franco-Prussian War. The Second (Social Democratic) International was established in 1889, but could not weather the crisis of World War I. Its economic counterpart -- the International Federation of Trade Unions (I.F.T.U.) -- founded in 1901, managed to survive the war, but soon thereafter faced the ruthless assaults of the Third (Communist) International and its trade-union auxiliary, the Red International of Labor Unions (Profintern), which were set up by the Bolsheviks after they seized power in Russia. Not even the blows of the Nazis could entirely wipe out the I.F.T.U., however, and it struggled on through World War II while Stalin was, for diplomatic reasons, officially "liquidating" his Comintern.

Despite determined opposition from the American Federation of Labor, the I.F.T.U. decided to merge with the World Federation of Trade Unions (W.F.T.U.), which had been established in January 1945 and included the Communist-controlled "trade-union" organization of Russia as well as the Congress of Industrial Organization (C.I.O.), which hitherto had had no international affiliation. This marriage turned out to be a quarrelsome and miserable affair, for the Kremlin persisted in exploiting the W.F.T.U. as an instrument of its imperialist foreign policy. After about four years, the British Trades Union Congress, the C.I.O. and other free trade unions withdrew.

Meanwhile, a realignment of profound importance was maturing in the ranks of world labor, and in June 1949 there was held at Geneva a preliminary conference of the free world labor organizations which set up the preparatory machinery for the recent London Conference. It would be false, however, to conclude that the creation of the I.C.F.T.U. was merely the result of the disintegration of the W.F.T.U.


First of all, the new International is a product of a marked growth of unionism. Since 1933, American trade unionism has expanded enormously, so that there are now 16,000,000 Americans in its ranks, and the dynamic unity demonstrated by the A.F. of L. and the C.I.O. at the London Congress raised the prestige and strength of all American labor. Across the Atlantic, the British trade unions have not only survived a terrible total war but have risen to new heights of power. The free trade unions of democratic Europe have revived, despite the cruel havoc wrought by the Nazis; in Western Germany alone, the restored free trade union federation now has more than 5,000,000 members. In Latin America, labor has grown in numbers and maturity in the face of severe difficulties. In Japan there are today about 6,000,000 in the trade unions. And in India and in the underdeveloped colonial areas, unionization has also made notable headway.

Secondly, the new International represents a fundamental departure from the pattern of all its predecessors. European trade-union aims and actions, though very important, are not its main wellspring. The present and potential strength of the new organization stem in large measure from the strength of labor in the western hemisphere and from the rising trade-union movements of Asia and Africa. At the London Congress the representatives of the young trade-union movements of Asia and the colonial countries were vigorously independent. Here was no staging of a puppet show of colored folks, as is done -- supposedly in the name of racial equality -- at Communist-controlled conferences. That there was genuine coöperation on a basis of equality was demonstrated when eight of the 19 members of the Executive Committee were chosen from organizations outside Europe and North America, where the great bulk of the present membership is to be found -- three from Asia and the Middle East, two from Latin America, one each from Africa, Australia-New Zealand and the West Indies. One of the most encouraging features of the London Congress was the absence of Great Power domination. The President, Paul Finet of Belgium, and the General Secretary, J. H. Oldenbroek of Holland, are representatives of small countries; and in order to avoid even the appearance of control by any one "Big Power" in the trade-union world, Brussels was chosen as the headquarters.

How profound a departure this is from the old game of power politics in world labor affairs is strikingly confirmed by a comparison with the attitude of the Russian "unions" in 1938. The British T.U.C., desperately seeking to bolster the forces that were supposed to be in opposition to Nazi Germany, sought at that time to have the Soviet unions affiliate with the I.F.T.U. But the Russians agreed to consider affiliation only on the condition that the I.F.T.U. first amend its consitution so as to provide for two presidents and two general secretaries with separate but equal authority -- one president and one secretary to be selected exclusively by the Russian trade unions and the other president and secretary to be elected by a general vote of the I.F.T.U. Congress, with the Russian delegates participating. The Russian unions also stipulated that no dues paid by them were to be used in any way that might be construed as hostile to the Soviet labor organization, the Communist Party of Russia and the Soviet Government. At the same time, the Soviet trade unions were to be assured the freedom to act as they pleased toward all other labor movements and governments.

The democratic structure of the I.C.F.T.U. is anchored in the complete equality of rights of all its affiliates, regardless of the size of the country in which they function. No affiliate, no matter how small its membership, is compelled to accept the viewpoint of any other national trade-union center and the constitution provides effective democratic machinery for ascertaining common aspirations and for meeting common needs.

This principle of autonomy for national affiliates runs like a steel rod through the constitution and structure of the new organization. The prospects for full collaboration by the International Trade Secretariats -- which are organizations for world-wide coöperation of affiliated unions in specific trades or industries -- are much enhanced by the acceptance of the principle of autonomy. The I.F.T.U. and especially the W.F.T.U. could never reconcile themselves to the insistence of the International Trade Secretariats that their autonomy be maintained. Prior to the First World War, German trade unionism, with its high degree of centralism, was predominant in the I.F.T.U., and this militated against a full understanding with the trade secretariats. After World War II, the super-centralized Russian trade unions dominated the W.F.T.U. and sought to turn these trade secretariats into mere departments of the international center. In its unrelenting counter-offensive, the A.F. of L. relied heavily on the trade secretariats and championed their autonomy.

Experience has taught the free trade unionists the dangers of overcentralization. Hence the Constitution of the I.C.F.T.U. provides that, "With a view to giving special attention to problems affecting the workers in special areas or regions, in order to seek to further the aims and objects of the Confederation, regional machinery shall be established for such continents or areas as may be determined by the Congress or General Council." The foundation for such regional machinery is already at hand in the western hemisphere through the Inter-American Confederation of Labor, and steps have recently been taken to consolidate effective regional machinery in Asia.


A third factor that made possible the formation of the new International is that in recent years there has been much rethinking of fundamentals in the ranks of free labor. Even before the London Congress got under way, some people prophesied that its sessions would be torn by a conflict between the non-Socialist American trade unionists and their Socialist-minded colleagues from other lands. These prophets were wrong. On more than one occasion, when there was a difference of opinion, the delegates of the A.F. of L., C.I.O. and the United Mine Workers were actively supported by trade unions with a Socialist tradition and orientation. The Congress steadfastly adhered to the policy of opposing Communism by defending the democratic form of government; it consistently avoided becoming involved in disputes over the question of so-called free enterprise, which would divide its ranks unnecessarily. Neither British labor, the free labor organizations on the European continent, nor some of the Asiatic unions, are advocates of "free enterprise." Yet no one can question the vigor or reliability of their defense of democracy in their respective countries.

More and more, American labor has come to realize that the vital line of demarcation dividing mankind today, within every nation as well as among the nations, is drawn not between those who would have the government own some industries and those who would have such industries remain under private enterprise, but between those who have contempt for the dignity of human life and those to whom human values, rights and liberties are paramount. Last year, American labor rallied to the support of the British Labor Government while it was under heavy attack in the United States and in Britain as a "welfare state." This new approach represents the highest common denominator of agreement ever attained among the trade unionists of Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas. Free labor everywhere recognizes the essential identity of Nazism, Fascism, Falangism and Communism, and holds that free trade unions and governmentally-controlled "Labor Fronts" are as incompatible as are democracy and dictatorship. Adhering to this principle, the London Congress rejected the Thailand and Dominican delegations because they did not represent bona fide unions.

The London declarations breathe a spirit of self-reliance, rather than of a reliance on the state. The I.C.F.T.U. declarations of policy have very little Socialist phraseology in them and are refreshingly free from the clichés of the past. The word Socialism has lost much of its luster in the eyes of labor as a result of "National Socialism" in Germany and the "Socialist paradise" in the Soviet empire. There is a widespread and growing feeling that though Marx is buried in London, Marxism is buried in Moscow. In its "Manifesto and Declaration of Basic Social and Economic Demands," the I.C.F.T.U. does not rule out competitive enterprise. Neither does it rule out public or government ownership; but in both public and private enterprise, the I.C.F.T.U. insists that the workers shall enjoy certain basic rights and have an adequate voice in the economic life of their country. It is dedicated to the maintenance and expansion of democracy. In his significant address to the London Congress, President William Green of the A.F. of L. won hearty approval when he extended the concept of citizenship and democracy from the realm of political relations to the field of economy. The Manifesto of the London Congress reads:

We assert that economic and political democracy are inseparable. We demand full participation by worker organizations in economic decisions affecting planning, production and distribution. Where vested economic interests block the road to human progress, private planning for profit must yield to public planning for the people.

In the light of the triumphant counterrevolution in Russia and the emergence of Communism's offspring, Nazi-Fascist totalitarianism, an increasing number of people in the European labor movement have begun to doubt that state control is the panacea for social ills. As this doubt grows, there is a growing confidence in the usefulness of independent trade unionism. In nearly every European country, the organization of labor into a political party preceded and, indeed, inspired the trade-union movement. The result was that political ideology greatly influenced the policies of the trade unions. But since the war, trade unionism even in Germany, where this development had appeared in its classical form, has undergone a profound change. In Western Germany the trade unions are bona fide and free, and are now separate from the Social Democratic Party, which is still generally recognized as the political party of labor.

The British Trades Union Congress, which has been the backbone of all British Labor Governments, is not immune to this process of change, and much hard thinking about basic principles is going on in its ranks. This has been especially stimulated by the fact that in Britain the trade-union movement is at one and the same time the backbone of the government and the guardian of the prerogatives of its working-class membership. Experience has taught British labor that it is much easier to embrace a general program than to execute a particular policy.

In sum, all the free trade unions of the old world, while still largely continuing to advocate Socialist measures, have become aware of the dangers of bureaucratization of economic life and the growth of the octopus state. Even unions with the strongest Socialist leanings now realize the necessity of safeguarding the independence of their organizations in nationalized industries.


The insistence that free labor and democracy are inseparable is at the very heart of the unequivocal opposition of the new International to all types of totalitarianism -- the autocracy of Franco Spain or of Latin American dictatorships no less than the totalitarianism of Communist Russia and her satellites. With the defeat of Nazi Germany, Moscow-directed Communism has, however, become the main danger to democracy and world peace. It is much more difficult to combat Communism than it was to fight Nazism and Fascism, since Communism pretends to be the champion of labor and poses as a higher form of democracy, to which it tirelessly pays homage. This is calculated hypocrisy, yet it is because of this pretense that the Communist fifth columns, with their numerous fronts, have so much more influence than the Nazi-Fascist outfits.

The defense of democracy against the Communist effort of world domination must include military measures. But military security alone is not enough. The I.C.F.T.U. insists that political liberty, social justice and economic security together form the lifestream of every free nation. Economic help for the underdeveloped countries, and full national freedom for the dependent peoples at the earliest possible moment, are both essential for the defeat of totalitarianism. The paramount prerequisite in the defense of world democracy against Communism or any other species of totalitarianism is not piecemeal or temporary recovery, but the integration of the economic life of the free countries into a balanced and sound world economy. The new International considers that the European Recovery Program and President Truman's Point Four are sound, effective policies leading to economic integration on a continental and world-wide scale.

Plainly, American trade unionism, occupying a major place in the strongest sector of world economy, has a major part to play in this world-wide campaign. Perhaps it has something to teach its friends abroad. The standing which American trade unionism enjoys today in the eyes of world labor is due above all to the benefits which labor organizations have won for the working people of the United States. Foreign trade unionists are impressed by the high standard of living in the United States, and by the fact that organized labor in the United States enjoys greater recognition and more rights than in most other countries; and they have come to realize that, though American labor has a different and less radical-sounding philosophy than their own, the labor movement in the United States has in practice been very successful in defending and expanding the workers' interests.

Moreover, trade unionists abroad have begun to perceive that, contrary to the old assumption, American labor does not limit its activities to questions of hours, wages and working conditions, but takes an increasingly effective part in community problems and in international affairs. The traditional independence of American labor from all political parties, its critical attitude toward the state, and its inveterate and unceasing hostility to all species of totalitarianism have, nonetheless, been maintained. The success of this policy has aroused new interest abroad.

American labor has much more to offer the international free-trade-union movement than material aid. In its structure, American trade unionism provides the practical way of building a democratic labor movement free from denominational limitations. The American labor movement recognizes that the common struggle against the totalitarian menace demands that all democratic free trade unions -- Socialist, Catholic, Protestant, and the so-called pure and simple type -- must unite their ranks on an international scale.

The unity of American labor at London was the decisive factor in building the first international bridge between the Christian and Socialist-minded trade unionists. American trade unionism is, in principle, opposed to the organization of labor along denominational lines. In Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Italy, American labor spokesmen, who are not Socialist-minded, minced no words in condemning all attempts to organize trade unions on denominational lines which could only divide the ranks of free trade unionism. Because of its resolute opposition to the organization of Christian trade unions, American labor has gained considerable confidence among the Socialist-minded trade unionists in their relations with the Catholic labor organizations.

At the same time it must be noted that American labor has within its leadership and membership a substantial number of adherents to the Catholic faith. Yet there are no separate Catholic trade unions in the United States. There is not even any serious call for the creation of such labor unions. American trade unionism has demonstrated in practice that there can be room aplenty for Catholic workers in the membership and leadership of a bona fide free-trade-union movement organized on non-denominational lines. This obvious fact has convinced the overseas Catholic trade unionists of the soundness of American labor practices.

In Europe, some of the Christian trade-union organizations have been in existence for decades. In some countries they fought side by side with trade unions whose leadership is largely Socialist-minded. The mere affiliation with the I.C.F.T.U. by both of these types of unions in any one country should not be taken to mean their organic unification at an early date. Even in the United States, where no denominational differences enter into the picture, the A.F. of L. and C.I.O. are both affiliated to the I.C.F.T.U. as distinct bodies; no immediate organic unification has followed from such international affiliation. But in other countries, as in the United States, the affiliation with a common international trade-union center makes for closer coördination and coöperation among the various labor bodies. Furthermore, the common affiliation of the Christian and the Socialist-minded free trade unions in the I.C.F.T.U. will tend to reduce the old suspicions and prejudices which have developed over the years between the two types of bona fide labor unionism.

As an active member of the I.C.F.T.U., the American trade-union movement, which is free from the antipathies and grudges rooted in nineteenth-century European conflicts between lay and clerical forces, will certainly play a prominent rôle in helping to overcome such diverse influences among the democratic trade-union movements. In London, American labor made its first significant contribution in this direction, when Socialist trade unionists voted to enlarge the executive committee of the I.C.F.T.U. by adding the Italian Catholic trade-union leader, Giulio Pastore. Mr. Pastore was nominated by an Italian Socialist trade unionist as the unanimous choice of the Catholic and non-Catholic democratic labor organizations of Italy.

At the same time, American labor has been learning many things, and has been reorienting itself, quietly, steadily and profoundly. After World War I, foreign relations really seemed "foreign" to the American trade-union movement. Today, the situation is completely reversed. American labor's complete break with isolationism first revealed itself after the destruction of the free-trade-union movement in Germany and Austria, and the common struggle against Nazism and Fascism ushered in a new era for American labor. The change of mood of course reflected the changing attitude of the United States Government and of the American people as a whole. In 1934, the convention of the A.F. of L. considered the resolution of the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union delegation "to instruct the Executive Council to take steps for affiliation with the I.F.T.U.;" and after some hesitation and negotiation, the A.F. of L. reaffiliated with the I.F.T.U. It was actively associated with the International for only about four years during the period 1919-1939, however, for the A.F. of L. feared that the preoccupation of the I.F.T.U. with political problems would open the door to Communism. United States labor did not yet realize how fundamentally antagonistic democratic Socialism is to totalitarian Communism; the C.I.O. and the British T.U.C. believed until quite recently that they could coöperate with Communist-dominated unions.

Today, the A.F. of L., the C.I.O. and American labor organizations outside both national federations share with Socialist-minded European unions and all other free trade unions a common hostility to Communist despotism, and to its tools and agencies. The A.F. of L., which foreign labor once considered a conservative organization, is firmest of all in its insistence that the international trade union movement shall continuously and energetically concern itself with such general "political" issues as human rights, political discrimination, genocide, the crisis in China, the national freedom and territorial integrity of weaker peoples, and the rising menace of forced labor. How far the wheel has turned is illustrated by the fact that today it is precisely the A.F. of L. which is most insistent that organized labor occupy itself with such problems. It does so because it has learned that only thus can the door be shut to Communism. More and more the forces of free labor throughout the world are facing the complex problems of our difficult era in an undogmatic way; more and more they are freeing themselves from rubber-stamp phrases and absolutist philosophies, to seek practical, realistic solutions for present-day problems.


America was born in a revolutionary struggle for national independence, and the American people and the organized labor movement have a time-honored tradition of opposition to all forms of colonialism. The rising trade-union movements of the underdeveloped countries count on American labor to bring them powerful support in their struggles for national independence.

American labor can in turn immensely strengthen the world position of the United States if it assumes its full obligations in the I.C.F.T.U. Judging by the fantastic notions that some people abroad hold about our country, a darker and more forbidding Atlantic now hides America from the rest of the world than in the days of the first voyage of Columbus. By full participation in the international free-trade-union movement, American unionism can make a major contribution toward the rediscovery of America -- the real America -- by the people of the old world.

The London Congress is thus a landmark in world labor history. The road before the I.C.F.T.U. will not be smooth nor will the course be easy to steer, even though a map has been provided. A basic unity of purpose and plan was achieved at London, but there are obstacles ahead and inner strains and stresses among the affiliates. Years of antagonisms will not be dissipated overnight. Much will depend on the energy and extent of American labor participation in the work of the new International. Indeed, American labor carries a doubled responsibility, for it must not only support the work of the I.C.F.T.U., but must be no less resolute in keeping the foreign policy of the United States Government consistently and vigorously democratic. Vacillating policies, such as the one recently proposed by our State Department toward Franco Spain, can create grave misunderstandings of the American purposes among the laboring forces of Europe and Asia.

Moreover, the conflict between the I.C.F.T.U. and the W.F.T.U. is bound to grow in intensity and bitterness. Both organizations are fighting for the biggest stakes in the world -- the hearts and souls and minds of many millions of working people in scores of countries. Neither organization can sidetrack or softpedal. Moscow could not possibly impose totalitarian Communism on the rest of the world without first getting a stranglehold on the remaining free labor organizations. That would entail the destruction of the I.C.F.T.U., now the head and heart of international democratic labor. The new International fully realizes the seriousness of the threat. The battle is all the more difficult because the W.F.T.U. is permitted full freedom to operate against free trade unions in democratic lands, while the road is heavily barred to the I.C.F.T.U. in all Iron Curtain countries.

What is more, in France, Italy and sections of Africa and Asia the W.F.T.U. still holds formidable positions, which the Communists won by infiltration during the four years when their association with the free unions covered them with a mantle of respectability. It will be a primary task for the I.C.F.T.U. to unmask these organizations dominated by the W.F.T.U. and to liberate the workers from their influence. The challenge and threat of totalitarian Communism to labor is world-wide. It can be met and defeated by free labor only on a world-wide basis. No trade-union movement struggling against totalitarianism in any country should be left to battle alone against an international menace promoted and supported by a gigantic totalitarian World Power. A democratic world labor international is now a vital necessity for the preservation and growth of human freedom and social progress. The reality of this new internationalism was demonstrated at the London Congress, where all were allies, welded in a common cause against the threat of totalitarianism and reaction. German and Japanese free-trade-union representatives are in the top leadership of the I.C.F.T.U. on a basis of equality.

The new International is not based on alliances among various Powers, and unlike the W.F.T.U. will not be a political instrument for any nation or combination of Powers. But though it will be entirely independent of the governments of the countries where its affiliates are located, it cannot and will not be neutral in the historic struggle now going on between the democratic and totalitarian countries. No organization dedicated to the struggle for human rights and social justice can be above the battle when freedom and peace are so gravely endangered.

It is precisely because the rôle of free labor is so dynamic that the Communist attacks on the I.C.F.T.U. are so full of fury. The establishment of the I.C.F.T.U. is a categorical repudiation of the myth that Soviet totalitarianism is a progressive idea, or that the Communist system offers anything that will advance the interests of the international working class. Delegates representing 50,000,000 workers in more than 50 countries have now branded Bolshevism the arch-enemy of labor. This may well turn out to be the blow that destroys the pretense under which Bolshevism has for several decades made most of its gains -- the supposition that it is a friend of the workers of the world. The international free-trade-union movement is a powerful weapon in the struggle for a society in which all human beings and institutions can strive to fulfill their aspirations in a civilized manner and under the guarantees of freedom.

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  • DAVID DUBINSKY, President of the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union since 1932; Vice-President of the A. F. of L.; member of the General Council of the I.C.F.T.U.
  • More By David Dubinsky