The Voice of Coloured Labour. George Padmore (editor) 1945

2. Discussion on World Trade Union Federation

The discussion on this most important question was opened by Mr. Sydney Hillman, leader of the C.I.O. delegation. The views of the colonial delegates were expressed by Mr. J. S. Annan, of the Gold Coast Railway Civil Servants and Technical Workers’ Union.

Mr. J. S. Annan: Mr. Chairman and fellow delegates: I bring to you fraternal greetings from the workers on the Gold Coast, who send you all the very best wishes for a successful Conference. The subject “Basis for a World Trade Union Federation,” is to my mind the core of the deliberations of this Conference. All the workers of the world are anxiously waiting to hear this Conference pronounce on the subject. It is a test case, and upon it depends the justification of the hope and confidence which our fellow workers repose in us. There is a common agreement on the need of a strong international Labour organisation, and I share the views expressed by the leaders of this discussion. It is our considered view that this international body should first of all appreciate and recognise the lasting values in the Trade Union Movements in our countries, and respect the qualities and experience in each national organisation, however small the country may be. Also it would be necessary for the organisation to consider this: that the moment some of us begin to consider that the Colonies, such as the Gold Coast, are small and unimportant, I am afraid it is the very moment that international unity suffers and the strength of the Movement becomes impaired. The International Movement should preach and practice amongst its doctrines the principle of equality and the freedoms embodied in die Atlantic Charter. Secondly, it must build a strong fortification around its members, with a strong and capable body of leaders as sentinels to prevent the spread of Fascism and Imperialism. Fascism is not the only deadly political theory; Imperialism, which exists to exploit the Colonies, is as bad and must at all costs be rigorously extirpated. It is an enemy of Trade Union ideals, and we must determine to check its attempt to encroach upon the rights of the International Labour Movement. This Movement should be in a position to expose to the whole world the subtle evils of Imperialism cunningly couched in popular political propaganda activity. The workers of the Union that I represent are of the view that an international organisation of Labour should be formed immediately and there should be no more delays, for delays are dangerous. There should be an active part played by all members of the working-classes and I appeal to the Conference to do all in its power to set up die necessary machinery for this all-important International Movement before the Conference dissolves on Friday.

Mr. A. Rabinovitz (General Federation of Jewish Labour, Palestine): Mr. President, Comrades: The General Federation of Jewish Labour in Palestine has instructed its delegates to this Conference to give every support to the re-establishment of full Labour unity in the world. The people to which we belong have had the sad privilege of being the first, and probably the foremost, victim of Nazism. We know only too well that the internal strife between workers in the years between the two wars was the most important single factor in helping Hitler to power. This is why we are emphatically and whole-heartedly in favour of Labour unity, unity within each nation and each country, and unity on a world-wide scale. The development of the world Trade Union Movement in the last few decades makes this unity more important than ever before. Practically in every country where Trade Unions exist in some strength, they play their part in the general political life, in one form or another. The unity of the Labour Movement is not only a vital instrument in the struggle of the working class for better standards of wages and labour conditions, which is in itself of enormous value for the workers; unity is also a necessary condition for the fullest possible expression of the political strength of the working class. This is why our Federation, which has always been a loyal member of the organised international Trade Union Movement, and has worked hard for the international solidarity of the workers in its own country, attaches so much importance to this item on the agenda. We sincerely hope that this Conference will discover the greatest possible amount of goodwill and determination to achieve real and lasting unity, the case for which was so eloquently put by Mr. Sidney Hillman in his opening speech.

Now I should like to refer to a matter which seems to me to be of great importance to the proper functioning of a world Labour organisation. It is a vital necessity that the international Trade Union Movement should become an active source of help and advice for the working classes of the so-called backward countries. The process of industrialisation, which began there some years ago, has gained in strength and tempo during the war. Many colonial countries, as welt as some independent States with patriarchal or feudal systems of society, are now facing all the complex questions of the modern industrial age. As far as the Middle East is concerned, there was nothing to prepare their people for this change and for the burdens which it involves. There is no Liberal middle-class; there is no Radical professional class, and the general level of the working masses themselves cannot be compared with the level, for example, of the British workers at the time of the industrial revolution. The feudal classes have adjusted themselves fairly quickly to the new circumstances, and in most cases they are the leaders of the various new industries. At the same time, they are doing their best to preserve their traditional hold over the body and soul of their countrymen, some of whom are developing into industrial workers.

My own country, Palestine, has some peculiar features, due to Jewish immigration. We have, as some of you know, a well developed Jewish Trade Union and Co-operative Movement, which has not only succeeded in introducing a high standard of labour conditions without parallel in that part of the world, but also maintains a wide system of mutual-aid institutions, and has established a co-operative agriculture and industry of its own. About 20 percent of our male membership have volunteered for the armed forces. There are in Palestine also beginnings of an Arab Trade Unionism, inspired by the example of, and aided by, their Jewish fellow workers. These beginnings are still small. The Palestine Government estimates the total number of Arab workers belonging to all the various organisations as 12,000, but we believe it will grow. One of these organisations, the Palestine Labour League, closely co-operates with our Federation. Their representative is attending this Conference. This special feature does not radically change the general picture of the Middle East. There is really little chance of a gradual evolutionary development of workers’ organisations in each of these countries out of their own means and resources. A slow process of this kind would, incidentally, spell danger for the achievements of workers in other, more developed countries. Moreover, the concentration of great numbers of industrial workers in certain areas offers a strong temptation for various factions of the ruling classes to exploit these masses for political ends. It is for this reason that some Governments in these countries are taking good care to assure themselves of the control over the Trade Unions. It is for this reason that you often find in control of workers’ organisations such people as wealthy lawyers and landowners, or offsprings of wealthy landowners, and even princes who are not suffering from a surplus of social conscience.

And you must not forget, comrades, that the countries to which I am referring are far from real democracy, even though their Constitutions provide for elections and parliaments. Some of them were under strong Nazi influence until the turn given to the war by El Alamein and Stalingrad. Since then there has been a change of front, but no change took place in the social background or in internal politics. In one of these countries which I had occasion to visit, I was deprived, on crossing the border, of a truly dangerous book; it was “One World,” by Wendell Willkie. I visited another country which is, at least theoretically, at war with Germany, but victims of Nazi Germany are not allowed to cross that country if they happen to be Jews. So you can well imagine what Government control over Trade Unions in such countries may mean.

But even in colonial countries there is, it seems, a good case against Government control or sponsorship in relation to Trade Unions. We all know how strongly British trade unionists are opposed to any Government interference with their internal affairs. How much stronger must the case against such interference be in the Colonies, where Governments are in all social matters lagging at least 50 years behind the mother country.

We very much appreciate the creation of Labour Departments in the administrations of most of the British Colonies. This was done, I believe, in response to the demands of the British Trade Unions, which also provided some of their men to staff these departments, and they are doing useful work. But, comrades, the presence of a trade unionist in the service of a Colonial Administration cannot really change the general character of this administration. I could see in my own country that it did not prevent the Government from lending its support to organisations which are passionately opposed to every form of co-operation between Arab and Jewish workers, and sometimes even take the side of the employers against their fellow workers. As for conclusions, it seems to me that a world Trade Union organisation could not rest content and confine its activities in this respect to careful examination of the bona fides of Trade Union organisations which apply for affiliation. I feel quite certain that we shall have a great many mock Trade Unions in the new industrial countries, unless the International Trade Union Movement will shoulder the burden of guiding and advising the awakening working people. This is a task of tremendous importance, and I would strongly urge this Conference to adopt it as part of the policy to be pursued by the World Trade Union organisation. We must all work for the day when new millions of fellow workers will join us as equals in the world family of organised workers.