The strange and wonderful early years of the ILO / Marius Viple

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The strange and wonderful early years of the ILO / Marius Viple

It was in the month of June 1920 that the International Labour Organization took the decision to set up its headquarters at Geneva. I would like to tell you briefly in what circumstances and how this first great battle of the headquarters was waged and won which led to the establishment, once and for all, of the independence and autonomy which the ILO has always claimed for itself and which from then onwards was never again seriously questioned by anyone.

Despite his urgent request,1 l had not yet joined Albert Thomas in London in April or May 1920.2 He was spending a few days in Paris and had just returned from a lively session at the Chamber of Deputies – for besides being Director of the ILO he was a socialist Deputy, the respected leader of a great party, and he took his task very seriously. During dinner that night, he informed me that he had had enough of seeing the ILO move from Paris to Washington, from Washington to Paris, then from Paris to London and soon to Genoa, that he had decided to make a stand to get it finally established in Geneva, cost what it might.

“It will not be easy,” he told me, “for the Secretary-General of the League of Nations and his political collaborators are against Geneva. So is the League Executive Council; and the Allied Supreme Council is in charge of the entire movement. I have the Peace Treaty on my side, because it is stated there (article 7) that the headquarters of the League of Nations shall be at Geneva, but it also provides that the League Council may at any time decide to set it up elsewhere. President Wilson is no longer there to defend the city of his choice. And it is now clear that the United States will not take part in the League, although they did so much to further its establishment. It is now the definite desire of the Governments that Brussels should be the headquarters instead of Geneva, because Brussels is nearer to London and Paris, and the British and French Cabinets have every intention to seize this opportunity to take charge of the international organizations now coming into being. This is what I am determined to avoid at all costs. The time has come for me to denounce all these intrigues publicly, but I would ask you first of all to go to Geneva tomorrow and to let me know on your return whether the Thudichum Schoo3 which, I am told, might be rented to us, could be utilized as the headquarters of the ILO.”4

This is how I came to Geneva for the first time; and 48 hours later I reported to my friend that, in my opinion, the Thudichum School would provide suitable accommodation for the ILO.5

Then, without delay and without respite, an unforgettable diplomatic battle was waged. With incredible daring, which struck the international circles speechless, Albert Thomas unhesitatingly opposed the two countries that were undoubtedly nearest to his heart – England and France – and then openly resisted the new plans of the League Council and the Entente Governments. In an official document addressed to the Governing Body, but distributed to the Press, he wrote:

“It may well be asked whether this change of headquarters is likely to antagonize a number of powers which had interpreted the choice of Geneva as evidence of complete impartiality. We quite firmly state that we cannot sacrifice the future of the ILO or indeed its life to the hesitations and schemes of the League Secretariat and the Executive Council.”6

Timidly, with great misgivings, the majority of the Governing Body followed its Director.7 Geneva was chosen and on 11 June the Secretariat of the League was informed of this decision. A few days later, a number of officials who had remained in London took up their working quarters at the Ecole Thudichum.8

Early in July, further members of the improvised team, headed by the Director, who had just attended the International Maritime Labour Conference at Genoa (15 June to 10 July), reached Cornavin train station and were received by the famous ushers clad in yellow and red and greeted by the city and Cantonal authorities, who expressed their profound gratitude to Albert Thomas.9

The League Secretariat and its Council reacted strongly and their ill humour persisted. Treaties of cooperation already concluded between the two growing international organizations were denounced. In the autumn of the same year, however, the first League Assembly, which it had been planned to hold at Brussels, was finally convened at Geneva;10 and this is where the League Secretariat took up its residence, provisionally at first, then definitively. By its bold policy, conceived and carried out by one politician who possessed political means and relations second to none, the ILO had dragged them all with it. In addition, he had shown that the International Labour Organization would not hesitate to keep its own counsel.11 Its avowed independence and its much-needed autonomy date from the first battle that was waged and won. They were of great assistance to the Organization in every phase of international life, especially in the course of the tragic days of the summer of 1940, when on its own authority it decided to leave Europe for America. This vital decision enabled it to survive the War.12


First ILO Headquarters in Geneva, 1920-1926

The rest you know. The Thudichum Institute soon became insufficient. Its small students’ rooms, formerly occupied by a few students from the Balkans, were overflowing with life and overcrowded with collaborators recruited without competition all appointed by direct choice, and who turned out to be excellent officials, working night and day with passion for an ideal that meant a great deal to them. Wooden huts were gradually added to the main building.

This cramped temporary installation, the Bohemian quarters, as Albert Thomas called them, did nothing to convey the impression to all and sundry that the international organizations meant business and had come to stay. Plans were drawn up, discreet propaganda was made among friendly governments, credits were voted, and the present ILO Palace built.13

Only those who lived through that atmosphere of creation can remember what it was like. Press campaigns were started, some Parliaments approached, but the initiative of the Director of the ILO was considered too bold and it was denounced. Then the storm broke. In the midst of the building operations, the Governing Body, by a majority vote, decided to suppress one of the floors planned to meet all the needs of the Organization. This measure was technically unjustifiable, but it was a deliberate political gesture, as was proved later, when to replace the floor in question two wings had to be added, the building having become too small; but in this way, it lost the architectural character intended for it.

The storm did not abate. A majority decision was taken in the Governing Body whereby none of the posts previously provided to keep pace with the normal development of the establishment was to be filled. All the credits applied for were rejected.14 The following year our budget, which amounted to some 6 million francs, was suddenly cut down by 1 million, which led to the dismissal of a large number of able and devoted officials.

In addition to these drastic financial measures, intended to call a halt to any new initiative on the part of the Director, there was a resounding political attack by the French Government, which denied the power of the ILO in the matter of agricultural labour. The matter was brought before the Permanent International Court of Justice at The Hague.15 Without authorization of the Governing Body, Albert Thomas, although a Frenchman, a former Minister, and a former member of the War

Through these storms, the authority of the ILO was finally established outside. But it must be admitted that most of the Governments had envisaged it merely as a modest documentation directorate, and as a service for the implementation of the articles of the Peace Treaty, which could very well find its place among the other directorates of the League Secretariat-General; while the workers had always dreamed of making it into the powerful and efficacious universal organization which it gradually became. At that time, to obtain an annual budget increase of 50,000 francs was regarded by us as a major victory. Yet it was during these years of struggle that the Organization’s most constructive work was done. Almost every year, every Government of Europe was visited, then South America, North America, and the Far East.16 In most cases, as a result of such visits, Ministries of Labour were set up where they did not yet exist. And the experts who accompanied us prepared the first draft social insurance legislation for a large number of countries, Albert Thomas having stimulated the interest of the Governments in social legislation. Many Conventions, of the utmost importance, were adopted at our Conferences and then ratified by the Parliaments.17

In addition to political conflicts, there arose in the organization of the Office’s services difficulties of language, of comprehension, of methods of work, and daily misunderstandings. All the problems that beset a new international administration arose at the same time. But gradually this new international personnel, recruited in more than 35 countries, learned to think and to work in common to improvise its own rules, methods and traditions.

The fears of the Governments abated, the workers’ confidence increased, until it became strong and unshakeable. And while the League was still feeling its way, our experience stood out as the most single success.

No bitterness remained as a result of this harsh period of constructive fighting. It may just be recalled from this somewhat melancholy phrase of our first Director, which figures in one of his Geneva speeches:

“Those who build must know that they will be hurt. They must be able to resist attack. Like the citizens of Jerusalem, they must work on the ramparts with their sword girded to their loins.”

To build with one hand, to fight and defend oneself with the other, this was the keynote of the strange but wonderful early years of our ILO.

1 It seems more likely that the “urgent request” was on the part of Viple himself. In a document dated 21 February 1920 (file CAT 4/33/2), Thomas wrote that he had “promised Viple to see how he could be used by the ILO, subject to the financial possibilities given him by the Governing Body”. Viple was appointed on 14 May, retroactively from 8 May 1920. His appointment as press officer was probably linked with the decision to move the headquarters from London to Geneva, thus being unable to continue using the joined service with the League of Nations. William Martin had been brought in by the League to organize a press service, which the ILO shared in London..

2 There are two possible dates for the meeting, either when Albert Thomas was in Paris from about 6 to 18 April or during his brief stay during the first days of May, when he was on his way to Germany.

3 The Thudichum School (owned by the family of that name) was the building also known as La Châtelaine. It is now the headquarters of the ICRC.

4 Viple has somewhat exaggerated his own role in the installation of the ILO in Geneva. Already in February 1920 the Deputy Director, Harold Butler, had visited Geneva and made detailed recommendations (file G. 6/8). Dr. Parodi of the League of Nations was charged to negotiate the rental of the Thudichum building on behalf of the ILO and an option was formally submitted on 6 March, subsequently accepted on l7 March 1920 (file G.6). A minute dated 17 March probably prepared for the discussion at the March Session of the Governing Body states: “Mr. Butler and I (Albert Thomas) visited the town (Geneva) and considered that Mr. Thudichum’s school was admirably suited to the needs of the Office”(file 9.6). On 22 March, the Governing Body authorized Albert Thomas “to be empowered to complete arrangements for the establishment of the ILO in Geneva”(minutes of the GB, 3rd Session, 1920, p. 8). As a result, Butler could on 29 March telegraph: “Bail signed by Director”(file G.6).

5 As there are no records on file regarding Viple’s visit and its objectives, one can only speculate why Albert Thomas thought it important to send him to Geneva, considering that the decision on renting the Thudichum building had already been taken. A 48-hour return trip Paris-Geneva would have left little time for Viple to carry out any detailed inspection or negotiations. Has Viple dramatized the event? It is possible that he went to Geneva from 8 to 13 May, which would explain why his appointment was retroactive.

6 4th Session of the Governing body, June 1920.

7 The decision was taken by the Governing Body on 8 June 1920.

8 The London staff was first to arrive, and the Office in Geneva was opened on 7 July 1920 (file G. 6/7). The staff from the 2nd  International (Maritime) Labour Conference in Genoa (15 June to l0 July 1920) arrived by a special train on 14 July 1920. Viple is mistaken with regard to the dates.

9 Albert Thomas arrived in Geneva on 14 July 1920.

10 The First Assembly of the League of Nations opened in Geneva on l5 November 1920 (see also footnote 1 above).

11 2e Edward Phelan wrote in his book, Yes and Albert Thomas (second printing, New York,1949), p.242: “Albert Thomas saw this clearly. He realized that the International Labour Organization must develop as it were a personality of its own.”

12 As Wilfred Jenks later wrote (The ILO in wartime, Ottawa, 1969): “The ILO could survive collapse of the League because, paradoxically, its autonomy from the League gave it a vitality which remained unimpaired by the paralyses of the League.”

13 The foundation stone was laid on 21 October 1923 and the building occupied on 6 June 1926.

14 This relates to the 1923 budget.

15 1922. Phelan in his book (op. cit., pp. 137-la2) gives a vivid description of this important event.

16 As Phelan wrote (op. cit., p. 178), “The full story of Albert Thomas’ missions would make a book in itself. Each presented its own problems and few were without some incident worth recording.”

17 By 1930, there were 30 Conventions and 39 Recommendations; 408 Conventions had been ratified by the member States.


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