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Albert Gates

The World Trade Union Conference

The Labor Voice of Imperialism

(May 1945)

From The New International, Vol. XI No. 4, May 1945, pp. 112–114.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The World Trade Union Conference met, with the blessings and assistance of the ruling classes of the United Nations, in the County Hall of London on February 6 of this year. When the war began, the conservative and bourgeois-minded leaders of the International Federation of Trade Unions closed up shop and decided that it was impossible to carry on the work of an international trade union center. In closing down the IFTU, the conservative Sirs of the British Trade Union Council, the most influential section of the “Amsterdam International,” acted in the tradition of their predecessors. It would have been too radical a departure for them to do otherwise than the leaders of the IFTU did in 1914.

Citrine, Schevenels & Co. transferred the IFTU Center from Australia to London and pretended to keep the Federation alive. Beyond issuing bulletins containing information on the various European affiliates, the leaders of the IFTU did nothing. They pointed to the occupation of Europe as an insurmountable obstacle to international trade union activity, when what they really meant to say was that they were too occupied with aiding their national ruling classes to prosecute the imperialist war to function as working class leaders, even in the limited sense in which they had always conducted themselves.

Obviously, if the leadership of the IFTU had the will to carry on the working class struggle instead of pursuing a bourgeois policy in the ranks of labor, the means for keeping the IFTU alive and active would easily have been found. But in the absence of a functioning trade union International, the efforts of the Stalinist “unions” of Russia and the Stalinists in the world labor movement to force the organization of a new world trade union body were guaranteed of success. The Stalinists were aided in this struggle by the determination of the CIO officialdom to seek international affiliations despite the opposition of the AFL, and the confused policies pursued by the British Trade Union Council.

For Stalin and his agents throughout the world, a new international trade union center in which they played a leading part meant to break through the isolation imposed on them by their exclusion from the IFTU. In the event that a new center could not be achieved, any kind of reorganization of the IFTU to permit their adherence would have been acceptable, because Stalin’s paramount aim in this field of politics is to obtain a solid foothold in the labor movements of Great Britain and the United States in order to use them as weapons in his future relations with the two other great powers of the United Nations.

The call for the World Trade Union Conference which the British Trade Union Council had initiated was just what the Stalinists were praying for. The reasons for the call given by the British, through Sir Walter Citrine, were that the IFTU was non-existent and that the change in the world situation (read: Russia’s new role in the war as ally of Great Britain and the United States), and the prospects of an early victory over Germany made it necessary to call together the trade unions of the United Nations to prepare for the postwar period in Europe. Sir Walter and his comrades did not have in mind the construction of a new trade union international. They merely wanted the reorganization of the IFTU to permit the seating of Russian “unions” and the CIO, and held that the Conference had only advisory powers.

For many years, the IFTU refused to admit the Russian “unions.” This policy was consistently adhered to even when these organizations were truly trade unions during the days of Lenin and Trotsky. At that time, the opposition to admittance of the Russian unions was the fear of the British and American (AFL) trade union leaders that the Russian trade unionists would have a revolutionizing effect upon the IFTU and thus destroy the stranglehold which the conservative and class collaborationist leadership had on the International. The opposition to the trade unions in the early days was on grounds that they were not free trade unions but organs of the Russian state, a lie which was nailed time and again by militant and progressive trade unionists the world over. While the AFL retains its old position, the other leaders of the IFTU have been won over to support admission of the Russian “unions” precisely at a time when Stalin has destroyed every vestige of trade unionism in Russia, and transformed these bodies into state organs for enslaving the workers. The British trade union leaders and their international associates are motivated, not by consideration of trade union internationalism and unity, but by the politics of the capitalist governments they serve. Their action was dictated by the needs of the Allied imperialist coalition. The actual deliberations of the Conference bear this out completely.

Thus, in calling the London Conference, Sir Walter and his cohorts on the Trade Union Council violated two provisions of the IFTU to which they had so ardently adhered for. so many years: first, they invited the Russian state organizations to participate and, second, they invited the CIO on an equal basis with the AFL. The AFL, in turn, refused to participate on the ground that the IFTU constitution provided for national representation from only one federated body.

There is no doubt that the conservative British trade union leaders went into the conference with mixed feelings of confidence and fear. The political situation made the convening of such a conference without the Russians and the CIO ludicrous. On what basis could the British Trade Union Council, partner-in-crime of Churchill, champion of the Anglo-American-Russia alliance, reject the participation in the conference of Stalin’s appointed seers over the Russian working class? On what basis could they keep out the CIO leaders who conducted themselves as Roosevelt’s agents in the labor movement, even as they enacted the same role as Churchill’s agents? Merely to please their own consciences of what a real trade union is, or to placate the AFL? Hardly, since they are fully aware of what they had done to the trade union movement during the war.

Could they seriously object to Russian unions on the ground that they were not free trade unions but organs of the state, when this would force them to cast reflections on the democratic pretensions of the great ally in the East?

At the meeting of the executive committee of the IFTU which was convened a week before the opening of the London conference, the AFL, through its representative, Robert Watt, reiterated its position, pointing out that the call for the London conference violated the IFTU provision for national representation. The British leaders pleaded with the AFL to attend the conference in order to help balance off the Stalinist strength, emphasizing the advisory character of the conference. There would be no voting, said Citrine, since you can’t legislate international trade union unity.

The dull British leaders did not fully reckon with the determination of the Stalinists to win a place in any trade union international, to break their isolation or to carry through their plan for the constitution of a new world labor body. Nor did they fully understand the Stalinist strategy prior to the conference. It could not have been a matter of secrecy, for the Stalinists made known their position months beforehand throughout the world. Apparently, the British Trade Union Council believed it had enough power to defeat the Stalinist plan. But Citrine & Co. did not reckon with Sidney Hillman, head of the CIO delegation, whose current policies coincide so happily with international Stalinism.

When the conference opened there were more than two hundred delegates reported, representing nearly fifty million workers from fifty-one countries. The Russians, claiming to represent 27,000,000 workers (!), attempted to reorganize the conference on a voting basis, speciously protesting the disfranchisement of their delegation which was placed on equality with other national delegations. The British objected to the Russian voting plan on the ground that on the basis of their claimed membership they had an automatic majority of the conference. But the Russians were merely fencing. They were quite prepared, as we shall soon see, to compromise on this issue, considering the number of cards they had to play.

Since this was essentially a political gathering, the political spirit of the conference was in keeping with the decisions of “Moscow, Teheran and Crimea.” Whatever concrete differences separated the Big Three union delegations, they were united on what the political tasks of the conference were and they dominated the meeting. The three presidents selected represented the “big nations,” R.J. Thomas, for the CIO; George Isaacs for the British Trade Union Council, and Vassili Kuzmetsov for the Russian slave organizations. The Stalinist hand was strengthened organizationally by the fact that at least two of three vice-presidents (Louis Saillant of France and Lombardo Toledano of Mexico) were either Stalinists or fellow travelers, long associated with Stalinism.

The Stalinists had additional strength in the conference since many representatives from other countries were clearly Stalinists or under their influence. The Russians could also count on support from the CIO for two reasons: first, the CIO had finally reached a position where it could get back at the AFL and, second, its policies under the leadership of Hillman coincided with the current line of Stalinism. Thus when the conference threatened to bog down on the very first day, R.J. Thomas, assuming his customary role as special pleader for unity, prevented a blow-up over the seating of delegates from “enemy” countries, whom the Stalinists championed. Sir Walter very heatedly asked: “How can you discuss the treatment of the enemy with people who until yesterday were themselves enemies?” (He conveniently forgot about the Hitler-Stalin pact and Molotov’s historic utterance that “fascism is a matter of personal taste.”) With the exception of Finland, he did not think that Italy, Rumania and Bulgaria could claim a stable or democratic trade union movement. All of this was an unpardonable lack of confidence in the GPU, but the Russians were adamant. Perhaps Sir Walter did not know the ways of Stalin’s efficient Gestapo.

In addition to this question, the Standing Orders Committee had recommended the seating of the Lublin Polish delegates, whose “credentials had been flown from Moscow.”

According to Margaret Stewart in The Nation of February 17, “this issue, urged Citrine, was still under consideration by the government. Why should the trade unions rush in where ministers feared to tread?” Good old Citrine! The bold working class approach! He countered the Stalinist move by appealing to the bourgeois conscience of the conference. More than that, however, Citrine added, the committee had recommended that voting should be by country (one country, one vote), with a two-thirds majority making up a decision. This did two things: it precluded any possibility that the AFL would attend and was “contrary to the spirit and purpose of the conference which was intended to be only advisory.”

Thomas made the pleas for unity and the conference returned the matter to the committee. The committee then decided that the “ex-enemies” should be invited to send representatives who would be seated as delegates or observers on the advice of the Credentials Committee.

New or Old Federation

The big fight at the conference was whether it should decide definitely to set up a new international federation of trade unions. The British opposition to this step was overcome and although no vote was taken which said that the conference constituted itself as the new world federation, it did set up a Continuations Committee to further the work of the London conference. The World Trade Union Conference Committee of forty-five members, representing all the groups present in London, established its headquarters in Paris. The committee will reconvene the world conference in September 1945 in that city to adopt a constitution and set up a permanent world federation. This date was decided upon because immediately before that the IFTU is scheduled to meet. The aim is to put enough pressure upon the IFTU to force its “voluntary” dissolution and thus guarantee the establishment of the new federation without opposition.

Without doubt the decision to form a new trade union center was the important result of the conference, but it would be a mistake to overlook the ideological aspects of the parley. From a political point of view, the London conference was only another facet of Big Three group rule of the United Nations. When the chairman of the London County Council said at the opening session that “this is the first peace conference,” he only emphasized the fact that the gathering was the labor wing of the imperialist powers which dominate the United Nations.

The conference endorsed the policies of Great Britain, Russia and the United States. Echoing the refrain of the monarchs of the Big Three, the leading spirits in London called for a Vansittartist peace for Germany, endorsing the enslavement of German labor with the most reactionary anti-working class arguments. Calling for a successful prosecution of the war, they answered the needs of the ruling classes by admonishing the proletariat to continue its one-sided sacrifices for the victory of one camp in the war and to do nothing that will disturb the profit-grabbing of big business in the capitalist nations.

Working Class Issues Ignored

It is easy to understand the true nature of this trade union gathering by observing the number of vital working class interests which were completely omitted from consideration. For example, the conference did not concern itself with promoting international labor solidarity except in so far as it had anything to do with promoting the war and the interests of the imperialist bourgeoisie. It said little and did nothing about organizing a campaign for raising the economic standards of the masses. It refused to treat the question of colonial oppression in a frank and revolutionary way, calling for the liberation of all colonial peoples. Thus, it identified itself with the imperialist policies of Russia, Great Britain, France, Holland, Belgium and the United States. It studiously avoided the question of national oppression and self-determination, merely reaffirming its adherence to the Atlantic Charter, while it endorsed all decisions of Moscow-Teheran-Crimea, which flouted the Atlantic Charter.

What the conference did and did not do merely rehearsed the manifesto – the language, structure and aims of which echoed the Big Three, and in many respects, the Russian side of the international question. The tone of the manifesto is contained in its very first paragraph, which says:

From the World Trade Union Conference, which has concluded its immediate tasks in London, we address this message to the people of all lands who are of one mind in their hope and desire that a new world shall arise from the devastation and ruin wrought by the war. The Second World War has involved all nations in the gravest crisis of human history. In their long and terrible struggle against aggressor powers, the United Nations have fought for freedom and their own way of life. They have successfully withstood the most dangerous assault ever made upon the foundations of democracy and free citizenship. They have resisted the most determined attempt ever made to lead mankind back into servitude and to impose upon the free nations a political system, an economic order and an ideology which, had they achieved their purpose, would have given domination over all free peoples into the hands of those who have claimed by their armed might to exercise the rule of self-styled “superior race,” or to fulfill a so-called “historic destiny.”

Thus, you see, the main task of the World Trade Union Conference is not to promote the interests of labor against capitalism, but to support capitalism, its continued existence and exploitation of the masses, spreading illusions about the prospects of a “new world” arising from the chaos and destruction of an imperialist-capitalist war.

The manifesto perpetuates the illusion that there is a fundamental difference between fascism and capitalism, upholds the pernicious view that there is a fundamental difference between aggressors and “defenders” in an imperialist conflict and that a victory of the Allies means a victory for democracy and permanent peace. The imperialist “democrats” are described as the defenders of freedom, as gallant warriors who have prevented the enslavement of “all free peoples” (India, Belgian Congo, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Morocco, Puerto Rico are a few of the “free peoples” who have apparently been saved).

Elsewhere the manifesto says that the conference will work for a complete victory over fascism in order to “establish a stable and enduring peace [under imperialism!] and to promote in the economic sphere the international collaboration which will permit the rich resources of the earth to be utilized for the benefit of all its peoples, providing full employment, rising standards of life, and social security to the men and women of all nations.”

Perhaps the framers of this manifesto had in mind a struggle against barbarous capitalism for a new social order to accomplish these things which capitalism finds it impossible to grant the masses? No, the capitalist-minded labor leaders who directed the London conference, aided by the Stalinist betrayers of the working class of the world, really mean that capitalism will bring about the millennium. They have learned nothing from their own experiences. But they are now engaged in an imperialist conspiracy to delude the masses and to prevent any revolutionary struggle against capitalism.

And to achieve “these ennobling aims and purposes,” the World Labor Conference, of course, “pledged the organized millions we represent to support the heroic armed forces of the United Nations ...”

The Labor Voice of Imperialism

There you have the real political purpose of the conference: promoting the interests of the Allied capitalist countries and Stalin’s Russia. The conference went even further than just acclaiming a general support to the bourgeois system. It called for the support within a given country to those parties and institutions which have supported the war or the war regimes.

“Our World Conference,” the manifesto stated, “placed on record its profound conviction that the freedom-loving people of the earth should give support and countenance only to those governments, political parties and national institutions which are pledged to wage war against fascism in all its forms until it is rooted out of the life of all countries.”

How it will be possible to root out fascism “in all its forms” from a capitalist nation, the writers of the manifesto do not say. Nor do the Stalinist betrayers help them any. On the contrary, the manifesto is clearly intended to oppose any social change. In that respect it is thoroughly reactionary. In addition, the thought behind this paragraph is to maintain support for those regimes which now rule in the countries of the United Nations, Concretely, the London leaders had in mind retaining the status quo regimes in Europe and America. The Stalinists had in mind obtaining international labor support for their dictatorships in Eastern Europe, to keep Roosevelt in power in the United States and those other regimes in other countries which established their peace with Stalin.

The London Labor Conference demonstrated beyond a shadow of doubt that it is the labor voice of imperialism. The grandiose aims it develops in its manifesto, all postulated upon the maintenance of the reactionary imperialist social order, will be shattered long before the war is over. Bourgeois-minded labor leaders will find themselves, irrespective of their formal actions in London, fighting for the very lives of their union movements at the hands of the regimes to which they have sworn fealty. The reality of capitalism will destroy the reformist and class-collaborationist hopes which these backward labor leaders hold out to the masses and they will be driven to one degree or another to fight the profit system with which they now identify the interests of the masses.

But even more important than this aspect of the conference is the grave danger the Hillmans, Citrines and Schevenels have created by giving Stalinism the opportunity to penetrate the Western and American labor movements. This is just what Stalin wanted: the establishment of his battalions in these labor movements where they can carry on the struggle in the interests of his bureaucratic regime in Russia. For Stalin, they are an invaluable prop in the world labor movement. For the working class of the world, they are the most dangerous force of destruction and betrayal of the labor movement and the interests of the oppressed masses of the world.

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