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International Socialism, Summer 1965


Roger B. Nelson

The International Trade-Union Movement in Crisis

or: Why Meany Threatens to Defoliate the ICFTU


From International Socialism, No.21, Summer 1965, pp.16-17.
Transcribed & marked up by by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


AFL-CIO president George Meany’s attacks against the ‘inefficient bureaucracy’ of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions [1] have at least the merit of having attracted public attention to a crisis which has been in the making for several years.

The crisis has a basic and general reason: the inability of the European and American trade-union movement, in the conditions created by the last war and its aftermath, to give itself an authoritative leadership, capable of enforcing a consistent set of policies expressing an independent labour interest on the international level. The failure to do so has brought with it failure in several important areas of activity, among others in Africa, where a number of important national trade-union centres have left the ICFTU to join the pan-Africanist trade-union organisation.

The absence of an authoritative leadership in the ICFTU has allowed a variety of centrifugal tendencies to assert themselves. Some of the International Trade Secretariats (professional or industrial internationals), particularly the powerful International Metalworkers’ Federation (9 million members), have attempted to steer an independent course for some years. Various national centres have engaged in independent international activities over the heads of the ICFTU, usually to defend some vested national interest, sometimes (rarely) to promote an original political concept. Among these different centrifugal forces, the American unions are now much in evidence. Since the merger of the AFL with the CIO, in which George Meany and the old AFL leadership retained control over international policy, the American trade-union centre has regarded the defence of the national interest of the United States, as it is understood by Meany and his advisers, and the struggle against the communist influence in the international labour movement, as its main international task. Its policy in these matters is inspired by the conservative ideology of former communists such as Jay Lovestone, director of the AFL-CIO International Affairs Department; it is therefore based on the police conception of history as the product of conspiracy, and relies on administrative rather than political methods.

The AFL-CIO’s response to the inability of the ICFTU to assert itself in developing countries has consequently taken the form of creating an independent international machinery for chanelling financial aid and a political line to its own apparatus within the national trade-union movements in the countries concerned. There are now two institutions which have been built up in this way: the American Institute for Free Labour Development (AIFLD), which operates in Latin America and, more recently, the Afro-American Labour Center (AALC), with Irving Brown as director, which operates in Africa. Both institutions concentrate on educational activities (training courses and the like) and on technical assistance (in the fields of vocational training, cooperatives, housing, health clinics, etc). They are jointly sponsored and financed by the AFL-CIO, certain American employers and the US government.

In order to be able to meet the financial commitments resulting from its growing independent activities, the AFL-CIO leadership has decided it can no longer afford to sustain the ICFTU as in the past. It has therefore reduced (and threatens to withhold altogether) its contribution to the International Solidarity Fund, which is administered by the ICFTU. The fund, which is fed by voluntary contributions from the richer afljliates (over and above the statutory dues payments), supports the activities of the ICFTU and of the International Trade Secretariats in developing countries, and covers the costs of administrative machinery, educational activities and organising work, including the relevant salaries, equipment, literature, etc. Over 7 million dollars were contributed to the ISF between 1961 and 1963; of these, the AFL-CIO contributed over 3 million dollars. The other main contributors are the German DGB, the Scandinavian organisations, the British TUC and the Canadian CLC. The withdrawal of the AFL-CIO (and possibly of the German DGB) from the Fund means that the ICFTU’s activities in Africa, for example, will have to be reduced by two thirds.

The issues in dispute are therefore the distribution of money and of political influence. Meany’s description of the ICFTU as an ‘ineffective bureaucracy’ may well fit the reality, but cannot be taken at face value. Anyone who has seen the AFL-CIO headquarters in Washington will think, upon hearing that particular remark, that people who sit in glass houses should not throw stones. As to the scurrilous charges concerning the sexual lives of the ICFTU staff, carelessly dropped as an aside in Meany’s statement, one might think that they were simply designed to divert attention from the main issues if they did not recall the ugly pattern of the McCarthy period and its witchhunts. In reality, Meany has served notice that if the ICFTU as a whole cannot be made to accept the AFL-CIO’s views on world problems and on the proper purposes and activities of an international labour organisation, the AFL-CIO will take its money and pull out.

It is unlikely that this will in fact happen, although it would be a real possibility if Meany were wholly representative of the thinking of the American trade unions. Under the present circumstances, the disaffiliation of the AFL-CIO may create as many problems for the AFL-CIO as it would for the ICFTU. The current tensions will, however, undoubtedly lead to a rethinking of ICFTU policies and purposes by other influential national centres, among others the British and the Scandinavian. The ICFTU congress to be held in Amsterdam next July will provide the next occasion for the actors in the play to perform.

The fact that all the developments described above have taken place in countries where there has been a free press to give publicity to the event, has obscured a parallel crisis in the World Federation of Trade Unions, the communist trade-union international with headquarters in Prague. For the last two years, three tendencies have emerged in this traditionally ‘monolithic’ organisation: the Russian, the Chinese, and a variety of intermediate tendencies reflecting the efforts of individual countries and parties to take advantage of the split to assert their own independence (notably Italy, Rumania and Cuba).

As in the case of the ICFTU, political causes have financial effects: the Chinese centre has stopped paying dues to the WFTU for about one year and a half, and other contributions are now being wholly or largely paid in Czech crowns instead of in convertible Western currencies which can be used for activities outside of communist countries. It is likely that the resulting financial crisis will oblige the WFTU to cut back its machinery and its activities at least as much as the ICFTU. At the same time, strenuous efforts for closer relations with the social-democratic trade unions are being made, not only by the Italians but also by the Russians and their followers in Eastern Europe. For the Italians (who have recently been followed by the French) the main aim is to be allowed access to the trade-union machinery of the Common Market, which is now controlled by the social-democratic ICFTU affiliates. For the national centres of Eastern Europe, the purpose seems to be to seek independent connections to support their efforts to get out from under Russian control, whilst the Russians seem to be seeking the benevolent neutrality, if not the outright support, of the social-democratic labour movement in their fight with the Chinese, who are following the example of the AFL-CIO in initiating independent international activities in cooperation with the Indonesian CP and its trade-union centre SOBSI. Meanwhile the Italian CGIL, spurred on as much by Nenni’s socialists as by the liberal wing of the Communist Party which shares Togliatti’s view of the WFTU as an inefficient bureaucracy, complain at every meeting of the WFTU governing bodies that the organisation is ineffective in dealing with industrial issues and that it should start concerning itself with genuine workers’ problems even in Eastern Europe and in Russia.

These developments take place in a general context of failure which is, if possible, even worse than that of the ICFTU: the WFTU has no voluntary organisations to speak of outside of France, Italy, Indonesia and India, with the largest communist trade-union organisation in the world (SOBSI) going over to the Chinese, and the Indian AITUC facing a doubtful future; in Africa, its advances are met by polite but firm refusals (the WFTU trade-union school in Guinea has just been nationalised); everywhere else it can only register stagnation or retreat. In short, it appears that both major trade-union internationals are today paying the price for their involvement in big power politics which, in the case of the WFTU, amounted to direct dependence on government support. Their parallel crises are two sides of the same coin, and are merely the open expression of contradictions which remained hidden and suppressed during the cold war period. There is no doubt that the outcome of this crisis will affect the lives of millions of working people in the whole world, who are today largely unaware of its existence. Whether a positive solution will emerge depends, for the present, on the ability of politically independent cadres, rooted in the genuine traditions of the labour movement, in the various national centres and industrial organisations, to rally the movement around a consistent and independent labour policy.


1. The ICFTU has 60 million members in over 100 countries. The AFL-CIO, with 12 million members, is its largest single affiliate. George Meany is a vice-president of the ICFTU.

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