Of all the institutions set up in Geneva under the League of Nations after World War I, only one, the International Labour Organization, survived the rise of fascism and World War II.
Historians have pointed to several reasons why the ILO, which marks its 100th anniversary on Monday, endured while the rest of the League collapsed.
They included anxiety in the West about worker uprisings following the Russian Revolution, the election of US president Franklin Roosevelt in 1932, and the ILO’s exile in Montreal from 1940-47.
More modern concerns will top the agenda at the ILO’s annual congress this week, where dozens of leaders including French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Russian Prime Minister Dimitry Medvedev are expected.
Following the #MeToo movement, ILO delegates will consider a convention on harassment and violence in the workplace, but may end up settling for a non-binding “recommendation,” the organisation’s director general, Guy Ryder, told journalists recently.
Under ILO’s 100-year-old “tripartite” structure, delegates include government officials, union leaders and private sector employer representatives.
“It’s going to be hard grind multilateral tripartite negotiations,” Ryder said, stressing that he is not expecting a celebratory atmosphere at a congress also due to issue a declaration on “The Future of Work.”
“I’d love to think there’ll be a festive moment in it,” Ryder said. “I very much doubt it.”
In the preamble to the articles that set up the ILO — originally called the International Labour Office — the Treaty of Versailles stressed that harsh working conditions were so pervasive they “imperilled the peace and harmony of the world.”
The victorious powers of WWI faced heavy pressure to establish a dedicated world labour office, said Dorothea Hoehtker, who leads historical research at the ILO.
This was partly because unions had made significant demands following the crucial role workers played in the war effort, Hoehtker said.
But also the Russian Revolution of 1917 — which, among other things, featured a working class revolt against the elite — forced Western powers to face the prospect of “a complete political and economic system change,” she added.
The ILO was founded as a cornerstone of the new League, but its fate proved different.
The League suffered its first major blow in November 1919 when the US Senate rejected American participation, despite president Woodrow Wilson being one its architects.
That left the League almost fully reliant on European powers.
While the emergence of fascist dictatorships in Italy and Germany precipitated the League’s collapse, the ILO was saved due largely to Roosevelt’s election.
The US signed onto the body in 1934, just months after the Nazis walked away, as Roosevelt was in the process of implementing The New Deal — his pro-jobs programme designed as a response to the Great Depression.
“The New Deal was perfectly in line with what the ILO wanted,” Hoehtker said.
Roosevelt-ally and former New Hampshire governor John Winant became ILO director in 1939.
Because Geneva is surrounded by French territory, Winant moved a scaled-down ILO to McGill University in Montreal shortly after the Nazis attacked France in 1940.
The agency continued working during the war, notably by helping set up social security systems in Latin America.
The ILO’s survival was again threatened after World War II.
As the winning powers were shaping a new global governance system, which became the United Nations, the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin expressed staunch opposition to the ILO, especially its tripartite structure that offers roles for unions and employers.
“The Soviet Union really didn’t want the ILO to exist, Hoehtker said.
“They didn’t like freedom of association and they didn’t want to have employers — capitalist employers — in the organisation.”
Ultimately, the West prevailed and the ILO in 1946 was established as the first specialised agency of the UN, returning to Geneva the next year.
The ILO’s tripartite structure, unique across the UN, still creates complications at times, including during the debate on harassment and violence in the workplace.
One of the obstacles in the talks, Ryder said, is that employers have concerns about the extent of their responsibility, especially whether an enterprise should be responsible for harassment among colleagues that happens away from the workplace.
“We have to find ways through these outstanding issues,” Ryder said. “I’m confident that we will.”