UN labour body, survivor from League of Nations, turns 100

UN labour body, survivor from League of Nations, turns 100

Of all the institutions set up in Geneva under the League ofNations 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 theLeague collapsed.

They included anxiety in the West about worker uprisingsfollowing the Russian Revolution, the election of US president FranklinRoosevelt in 1932, and the ILO's exile in Montreal from 1940-47.

More modern concerns will top the agenda at the ILO's annualcongress this week, where dozens of leaders including French President EmmanuelMacron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Russian Prime Minister DimitryMedvedev are expected.

Following the #MeToo movement, ILO delegates will consider aconvention on harassment and violence in the workplace, but may end up settlingfor a non-binding "recommendation," the organisation's directorgeneral, Guy Ryder, told journalists recently.

Under ILO's 100-year-old "tripartite" structure,delegates include government officials, union leaders and private sectoremployer representatives.

"It's going to be hard grind multilateral tripartitenegotiations," Ryder said, stressing that he is not expecting acelebratory 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 init," 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 Versaillesstressed that harsh working conditions were so pervasive they "imperilledthe peace and harmony of the world."

The victorious powers of WWI faced heavy pressure toestablish a dedicated world labour office, said Dorothea Hoehtker, who leadshistorical research at the ILO.

This was partly because unions had made significant demandsfollowing the crucial role workers played in the war effort, Hoehtker said.

But also the Russian Revolution of 1917 — which, amongother things, featured a working class revolt against the elite — forcedWestern powers to face the prospect of "a complete political and economicsystem change," she added.

The ILO was founded as a cornerstone of the new League, butits fate proved different.

The League suffered its first major blow in November 1919when the US Senate rejected American participation, despite president WoodrowWilson being one its architects.

That left the League almost fully reliant on Europeanpowers.

While the emergence of fascist dictatorships in Italy andGermany precipitated the League's collapse, the ILO was saved due largely toRoosevelt's election.

The US signed onto the body in 1934, just months after theNazis 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 ILOwanted," Hoehtker said.

Roosevelt-ally and former New Hampshire governor John Winantbecame ILO director in 1939.

Because Geneva is surrounded by French territory, Winantmoved a scaled-down ILO to McGill University in Montreal shortly after theNazis attacked France in 1940.

The agency continued working during the war, notably byhelping 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 governancesystem, which became the United Nations, the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalinexpressed staunch opposition to the ILO, especially its tripartite structurethat 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 theydidn't want to have employers — capitalist employers — in theorganisation."

Ultimately, the West prevailed and the ILO in 1946 wasestablished as the first specialised agency of the UN, returning to Geneva thenext year.

The ILO's tripartite structure, unique across the UN, stillcreates complications at times, including during the debate on harassment andviolence in the workplace.

One of the obstacles in the talks, Ryder said, is thatemployers have concerns about the extent of their responsibility, especiallywhether an enterprise should be responsible for harassment among colleaguesthat happens away from the workplace.

"We have to find ways through these outstandingissues," Ryder said. "I'm confident that we will."

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