Articles: Centenary – Testimonials

The ILO during World War II and the transfer of the Working Centre to Canada / Jean Mayer


The following is the summary of a presentation I made on 14 March 2016 at a meeting of the AFOIT. This was based essentially on the academic thesis of Professor Victor-Yves Guebali: Organisation internationale et guerre mondiale: le cas de la Société des Nations et de l’Organisation internationale du Travail pendant la Seconde Guerre mondiale (Brussels, Editions Bruylant, 2013). Some 425 pages out of a total of 800 concern the ILO, supplemented by an invaluable set of footnotes.

This vast historical epic made a slice of history itself, and one might well have feared the worst: when Ghebali died, his 1975 thesis from the University of Grenoble was nowhere to be found. It fell to his colleague and friend at the University of Geneva, professor of public international law Robert Kolb, with the help of an army of collaborators, to recreate the text from thousands of fragments of manuscript, so ensuring its scientific integrity.

It is an absolutely vital document, and all of those colleagues can be immensely proud.

The acronym AFOIT designates the French Association for the ILO (Association française pour l’OIT), whose purpose is to promote the Organization’s values to those among the French public – conference delegates, civil servants, professors, researchers – who take an interest in social justice. It seems to be the second association of this kind, after one in Japan. Founded in 2001 by Jean-Jacques Oechslin, it is currently chaired by Gilles de Robien.

In addition to the exchange of information and presentations by its members or invited outside specialists, the AFOIT organizes study tours to Geneva for students and academics. It also presents the annual Francis Blanchard Prize, worth a substantial sum, awarded for an original study that is international in scope and written in the French language.

 1933: Awareness of emerging perils

It all began with the fear, then terror, of a resurgence of global conflict. Significantly, the Reichstag fire in February 1933 sparked the withdrawal of Germany from the League of Nations. Instituted by the 43 Allied and Associated Powers on the signing of the Treaty of Versailles on 28 June 1919, the League had found Germany responsible for the violation of the peace. The brand new Palais des Nations had a relatively promising beginning, but its skies suddenly darkened one misty morning in October 1933.

Here it was that around 100 delegates endured a barrage of invective from Goebbels, whom the new German chancellor Hitler was soon to appoint Reichsminister of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda.[1] With a shamelessness that sent a chill through his audience, he offered this justification for Germany’s decision to withdraw from the League in October 1933 (a withdrawal that was perfectly legal provided two years’ notice was given and no recourse made to war, two conditions that manifestly were not met): “Gentlemen, a man’s home is his castle. We are a sovereign State. We will do what we want with our socialists, our pacifists and our Jews, and we are not subject to any control, whether from mankind in general or the League of Nations in particular.” A prompt response in verse came from poet and playwright Bertolt Brecht: “O Germany, pale mother! / How have your sons arrayed you / That you sit among the peoples / A thing of scorn and fear!”

Albeit more discreetly, Germany withdrew from the ILO as well[2] with, notably, Austria, Italy, Japan and Spain following suit shortly afterwards. It was only after the cessation of hostilities that they all rejoined the Organization. For years, these withdrawals severely hampered the ILO in terms of financial resources. Indeed, Germany and Japan resumed payment of their contributions only in 1951, Russia in 1954 and Spain in 1956.

Subsequent events swiftly confirmed the worst apprehensions. In November 1937 the so-called Pact of Steel was signed, allying Germany with Italy and Japan. The years 1938 and 1939 saw a downward spiral, with the Munich agreement, followed by Hitler’s invasion of Poland on 1 September 1939, and France and England declaring war on Germany. In 1940, Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg capitulated, with France being forced to accept an armistice and divided into two zones. Within the echo chamber that Geneva had become, not only the international community and the media but also the general public realized that a major conflict threatening democracy was now imminent. Even Switzerland, despite its neutrality since the Rütli oath of 1291, seemed in danger of being surrounded or invaded.

Reaction of the ILO

Faced with these events, what was the response of the successive leaders of the ILO, and how did they manage to safeguard the Organization, its values and its staff?

Let us first revisit the place where those initial decisions were taken: the ILO no longer occupied its original building on Avenue Appia (La Châtelaine, Thudichum Boarding School – now the ICRC headquarters), where Albert Thomas settled in after his election at the ILC in Washington in November 1919.[3] From 1926, it was installed in a new building, the work of a Lausanne architect in a neoclassical style, on the right bank of the lake on the Rue de Lausanne. Since the ILO’s move to Grand-Saconnex in 1974, it has been the headquarters of the International Trade Organization.

We should also recall the Office’s first two decades, while touching on the life and work of our first Director, Albert Thomas. Born in 1878 into a large family in Champigny-sur-Marne in the suburbs of Paris, his father a baker, he quenched his thirst for education by the light of the oven. He attended the Michelet lycée in Vanves where he won a scholarship in history and geography. At the Ecole Normale Supérieure he studied history, going on to obtain a doctorate in law before authoring histories both of German trade unionism and the Second Empire. It was at this time that he met Léon Blum of La Revue Blanche and Charles Péguy of Les Cahiers de la Quinzaine, as well as Arthur Fontaine, later to chair the ILO Governing Body from 1919 to 1931 and serve as leader of the Government group.

Next came his political period: he became a municipal councillor, mayor, then MP. In this last capacity, he took part in October 1919 in the parliamentary debates on the Treaty of Versailles. Ratification was obtained by 372 votes to 72. Thomas abstained, presumably (Ghebali does not address this) so as not to widen the open divide in his own party, the French Section of the Workers’ International (SFIO). In late 1920 at the Tours Congress, the split, between reformists and the supporters of Léon Blum, become permanent. Blum, his confirmed adversary, was only too happy to see Thomas exiled to Geneva.

Earlier, in May 1915, President of the Council[4] René Viviani, having tasked Albert Thomas with an inspection report on national defence, was so satisfied with the result that he made him Undersecretary of State for Artillery and Military Equipment. This was expanded a year later, under the presidencies of Aristide Briand then Alexandre Ribot, with his appointment as Minister of Armaments and War Manufactures.

Henceforth, proclaiming long and loud his slogan “Peace through War”, he concentrated his efforts in two directions: tripling manpower in the metalworking industry, now controlled by the State; and boosting the daily production of shells from 36,000 to 100,000. He nevertheless sought to mitigate those efforts with protective measures such as the prohibition of nightwork for women (who accounted for a quarter of the workforce), lessening of male/female wage differentials, compulsory arbitration of wage claims, and worker representation. It was hardly surprising, therefore, that the first Director – elected at the inaugural ILO Conference in Washington in October 1919 “for his enthusiasm and dynamism” – saw to it that such concerns were included in 27 of the first 33 ILO Conventions which he had to promote.

Twenty years later, the Organization was to owe its salvation to other larger-than-life characters.American John G. Winant was a personal friendof President Roosevelt, who had entrusted him with piloting the New Deal social security programme; a four-term governor of Wisconsin, he had instituted social legislation in the state.[5]

British classicist Harold Butler had a brilliant mind: a first-rate diplomat and orator, as well as a theoretician of the international civil service, he served as Thomas’s deputy before becoming his successor in 1932; as co-author of Part XIII of the Versailles Treaty, on labour, he also participated in the famous formulation of the Declaration of Philadelphia at the 26th ILC in May 1944, “labour is not a commodity”, later enshrined in the ILO Constitution. Irish physicist Edward J. Phelan, one of the authors of that Constitution and a close collaborator of Albert Thomas, became Deputy Director in 1939 and successor to Winant from 1941 to 1948.

At the operational level, Wilfred Jenks, an internationally renowned lawyer after coming down from Cambridge, co-author with Phelan of the Declaration of Philadelphia as well as the principal architect of the international labour standards, and possessing a perfect knowledge of the Organization’s strengths and weaknesses, was Director-General from 1970 to 1973.

So it was with good reason that in February 1939 it was Jenks whom the Governing Body nominated to head up a committee charged with defining the measures to be taken in the event of an emergency. A reduction in the number of posts seemed likely to be the first of these, owing to the financial crisis precipitated by the departure of half a dozen developed countries: sure enough, decisions were taken to abolish 44 permanent posts, suspend the contracts of officials called up by their national armed forces – lowering the total from 498 to 316 – and make a 15% expenditure cut to the previous budget while maintaining the same level of activity. These decisions received support in principle from the three constituent groups, both in Geneva and at the 1939 Havana Regional Conference, despite the Employers’ continuing refusal to approve the relevant budget.

At the same time, the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs was sounded out about the possibility that the department of Allier, and more precisely the town of Vichy, might constitute a safe haven. The thinking behind this hypothesis centred on the spa resort’s logistical assets (accommodation capacity, immediate availability of office space, telephone network) – the same assets that were to make it the seat of choice for the government of Marshal Philippe Pétain.

As the situation worsened, ambitions were scaled back to a mere one-year lease of the town’s Pavillon Sévigné hotel, intended for the evacuation of 50 officials in the event Switzerland was invaded. The government headed by Pétain having settled in Vichy in June 1940, however, John G. Winant took the decision to cancel this rapid departure from Switzerland.

For their part, the federal authorities in Berne, profoundly attached to the defence of their neutrality and fearful of losing the more prestigious of the two organizations headquartered in Geneva, fluctuated between two positions: on one hand, the requirement to maintain all ILO staff there, as well as those of the League of Nations of which the Organization formed part (Articles 392 and 397 of the Treaty of Versailles); on the other, the threat of an ultimatum whereby our officials in their entirety would be summarily expelled following any invasion of Switzerland.

With remarkable persuasive force, Winant asserted that the temporary transfer of strictly indispensable staff to the Working Centre in Montreal would be perfectly legal, on the understanding that the Office per se would be maintained in Geneva by officials responsible for liaison and archives.

 The counter-example of the League of Nations

The quality of these remarkable ILO leaders highlights the disastrous role played by the League of Nations Secretary General from 1933 to 1940, Joseph Avenol of France: in the judgement of his staff, “the wrong man in the wrong place at the wrong time”. As a result of his open sympathy for the Axis powers, he refused the refuge offered to the League by Princeton University in June 1940 in order not to miss the opportunity of refashioning the organization around a nucleus of Nazi Germany, Vichy France, Francoist Spain and Fascist Italy. Having purged the staff of dissenters from the New Order, he lost his organization 85% of its officials – not least the British ones – and its publication revenues. On his return to France in 1940, he offered his services to Pétain, without success. At the San Francisco conference, which founded the UN out of the rubble of the League in May 1945, his presence was naturally considered undesirable.

 Preparations for the ILO’s departure

Back to the ILO, now home to interminable internal and external discussions about a possible destination for the transfer of a number of strictly indispensable officials. In this context, the very word “choice” is inappropriate, with the few names advanced coming up against a material or political objection: San Miguel, an island of the Portuguese Azores, was dismissed because of its small size and remoteness; London was located at the very heart of the conflict; the US was reluctant to propose Washington because of the probable refusal of the Senate to grant immunity to the half of the workforce that came from belligerent countries; nor was Latin America selected, despite its proximity and the fact that as the only long-decolonized subcontinent, divided into some twenty States, it was particularly conducive to a wide range of activities which had hitherto been neglected.

It was not until June 1940 that, thanks to the good offices of Great Britain, John G. Winant was able to opt for Canada, thus helping to strengthen social policy in North America because of its level of development and the quality of its democratic rulers. Montreal, “bilingual like Geneva”, proved to be the only solution that immediately suited everyone.

ILO Working Centre in Montreal, 1940

In August 1940, the decision was formalized by the Director, who informed all member countries of the imminent transfer to Montreal, even though it was impossible to obtain the agreement of the chair of the Workers’ group – a situation that became known as “Winant’s roll of the dice”. Finally, the question of privileges and immunities was settled without problem by the Canadian Government in August 1941.

Of the 63 officials opting for voluntary separation, 40 were retained, from 18 nationalities, some 8% of the total complement. All other contracts were suspended (especially of those who had been called up) or terminated, the statutory indemnities due being spread over several years.

From Geneva, via Lisbon and an Atlantic crossing, to a home in Montreal

The party of remaining ILO officials and their families set off in October 1940, the initial journey taking five days by train and bus. They encountered no difficulties at any of the border crossings, even in Spain, barred from the League of Nations because of its attitude during the civil war, and Portugal. The group had to wait a month in Lisbon (the photos can be seen on the web), both for the docking of their ship from Greece, which had joined the Allies, and pending the outcome of negotiations – conducted for the ILO by ADG Adrien Tixier – with the Vichy government, which opposed any French official’s departure for Canada or any other belligerent country.

The ILO party landed in New York before continuing by train to Montreal, with the French having to remain in the United States, at least temporarily, given the ban by Vichy. The rest of the group moved to a disused chapel at McGill University. (In 1967, participants in the Ottawa Regional Conference – in which I was able to take part with my counterpart after my first expert mission, in Chile – had an opportunity to discover these historic sites, with no little emotion.) In 1941, John Winant, renowned as someone who got things done, judged that he had seen the transfer to Montreal successfully through and left the ILO to become US ambassador to London. Edward Phelan, his deputy, succeeded him through till 1948. Two articles by Phelan – “The ILO sets up its wartime centre in Canada” and “The ILO turns the corner”, republished in Edward Phelan and the ILO (ILO, 2009) – provide an excellent description of this difficult period.

 The ILO Working Centre in Montreal

Although it had lost two-thirds of its customary scope for action and shifted its focal point from Europe to the Americas, the ILO managed to maintain a satisfactory level of functioning, mainly thanks to its budgetary resources and the fact that the Employers’ group, which did an about-turn when it realized the importance of the Organization in a war context, approved the budget each year. Some three-quarters of these resources came from the Commonwealth, the US, India and China, and the ILO managed to get its dues paid directly, without going through the League of Nations.

These factors contributed to the growth of the staff from 70 officials in 1941 to 143 in 1944. In addition, the existence of a network of ten ILO national offices played an appreciable supporting administrative role. Membership of the Organization remained stable: of 57 member States in 1939, 52 still formed part in 1944, despite the (temporary) withdrawal of Germany, Italy, Spain, the USSR and Japan. Conferences remained important but met less frequently: among the most noteworthy was the October 1941 ILC in New York, a city chosen to give the US (admitted in 1934) the benefit of the experience of tripartism existing among more longstanding members; 34 countries participated, including the eight Governments in exile in London (Poland, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, the Netherlands, Norway, Belgium, Luxembourg and Greece, five of them members of the GB).

During this Conference, the delegate from Vichy France in Washington tried in vain to prevent the intervention of the representative of Free France, sent by de Gaulle. Phelan moreover managed to extend the competence of the ILO to economic and social reconstruction and the collation and analysis of the associated plans of 20 countries, in accordance with Article 10 of the Constitution. This ILC culminated at the White House, where President Roosevelt hosted the participants. Five maritime conferences were held in London.

Finally, the most important meeting, the 26th International Labour Conference, held in May 1944, unanimously adopted the so-called Philadelphia Declaration on the aims and purposes of the ILO. Developed by Phelan and Jenks, it was considered the most significant text since the founding of the Organization and would be annexed to the Constitution.

In the legislative sphere, two of the three procedures were changed during this period: the adoption of new standards was suspended; while the ratification of the existing Conventions took on a new impetus, visible in 18 Latin American countries; finally, the monitoring of their effective implementation by the Committee of Experts on the Application of Conventions and Recommendations, created in 1927, was made more flexible through a system of more summary information provided by the countries concerned, with a response rate of 60%.

Wilfred Jenks


The Office was unable to exercise its capacity to carry out quasi-judicial activities (observations and sanctions, but not condemnations).

It may be recalled that there are three bodies of this type: the aforementioned Committee of Experts; the Commission of Inquiry provided for by the Constitution (Article 26), ruling on complaints between member States; and the ILO Administrative Tribunal, an industrial tribunal dealing with complaints by international civil servants against their employer. This last function was transferred from the League of Nations to the ILO following the former’s dissolution as decided at San Francisco in June 1946, with its jurisdiction extended to the staff of the UN and the many so-called specialized agencies – UNESCO for education, WHO for health, FAO for food, etc. – created after the war. In respect of violations of trade union rights, the Committee on Freedom of Association was not established until 1951.

Article III of the Declaration of Philadelphia (“the solemn obligation… to further [programmes] among the nations of the world”) provided for technical advice to be provided to member countries, an activity which would take off spectacularly after the war in the form of technical cooperation/assistance, financed largely partly by UNDP. At the time, this was limited to the area of social security: three Czech specialists covered 19 mainly Latin American countries, including Chile at the request of the Minister of Labour and Health, Dr Salvador Allende. In the same field, the ILO helped both Great Britain to develop the Beveridge Plan, and Free France, established in Algiers, to totally overhaul the Vichy government’s Labour Charter. In addition, Rens, the Belgian member of the Workers’ group in the GB and future Deputy Director-General, successfully launched the Andean Development Plan in four countries of the subcontinent.

The ILO was unable to organize regional conferences in North and South America as it did in Havana in 1939. But – more importantly – it did, like the US, Great Britain and France, participate as an observer at the conferences in Dumbarton Oaks (Washington, DC) and Bretton Woods (Arkansas, June-July 1944) that created the IMF and the World Bank, forerunners of economic globalization.

The ILO, which had been invited only as an observer and without trade union participation, not only protested but expressed its astonishment that the objective of full employment was not mentioned at all. In fact, it took thirty years for both organizations’ strategies, as advocated and clarified by the ILO World Employment Conference (1976), to change position. A tripartite delegation took part in the San Francisco Conference (June 1945) which founded the United Nations, made the ILO the first specialized agency (despite Russia’s opposition, based on its hostility to tripartism) and adopted the UN Charter.

Three years later, meeting in Paris, the United Nations pursued this founding legislative task by adopting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which includes, in addition to civil and political rights, the economic, social and cultural rights treated by the ILO in conventions on the right to work, equal pay and freedom of association. Finally, regarding these two clusters of rights, in 1966 the United Nations adopted two Covenants, ratified by three-quarters of the planet, emphasizing the fundamental nature of these rights and allowing for the sanctioning of violations. In addition, thematic technical meetings were organized, such as 1942’s inter-American meeting in Chile on social security, and another in 1943 that brought together ten countries in Montreal on the internationalization of the social security model, opening the way for the 1944 ILC in Philadelphia to make it mandatory.

In terms of information, the record was very positive: the press service reached 700 Canadian and American newspapers and magazines, and the number of publications doubled (in comparison, those of the League of Nations dropped by 90 per cent). The ongoing publications programme – which included coverage of national reconstruction plans – earned appreciation, in particular the Yearbook of Labour Statistics and the International Labour Review, which was even the subject of a pirate edition in German, bearing a swastika on the cover.

The ILO leadership, on the other hand, was aware of the Organization’s lack of preparedness to undertake research on social policy instruments that incorporated the international economic dimensions it had been advocating, which were not usually tackled by Ministries of Labour. In fact, during its first decade of existence, the ILO research programme successfully confined itself to the collation and publication of statistics on employment and unemployment, thanks to the recruitment of experienced specialists.

Return to Geneva  after the war

The Montreal staff’s return to Geneva took place in successive waves over the course of 1945. Numbering 40 when they left for Montreal, a total of 150 came back. In his memoirs, Francis. Blanchard dates the restoration of the Office in Geneva to 1948. It is notable that no one attempted to start an “ex-Montrealers’ club”. This had been a high-risk trial for the ILO, and it was never mentioned again. Twenty-five years later, with the departure of David Morse (Director-General from 1948 to 1970), the staff of the Office had grown from 140 to 1,500 officials, plus an equal number of experts in technical cooperation projects in the field; as of 31 December 2016, it stood at a grand total of 2,903 staff members worldwide: 1,155 at headquarters (including 216 on TC contracts) and 1,748 in field offices (including 970 on TC contracts).

ILO attributes

The remarkable success of the ILO during the war years is due to many factors:

  • basic assets: its credit emerge being intact, if only by comparison with the League of Nations; its broad membership, including the United States; direct and permanent contact with public opinion, thanks to its tripartism; appropriate preparations for the state of war;
  • endogenous factors: a flexible, non-legalistic approach to problems; a degree of foresight; leadership of exceptional quality; team spirit among the staff; the success of the New York and Philadelphia Conferences; motivation among delegates;
  • exogenous factors: the increasing weakness of the League of Nations; the alignment between the social ideals of the ILO and the ideology of the member States engaged in the war; the ILO’s commitment to the Allied cause.

So it was that Roosevelt was able to say: “The ILO synthesized the aspirations of an era marked by two world wars.” Or in the words of Winant, his compatriot: “The transfer brought us freedom of thought, assembly and movement.”

[1] Hitler acceded to the post of Chancellor of Germany in January 1933, becoming head of State – Führer – in 1934

[2] It announced its withdrawal in November 1933, effective 1935.

[3] For the election of Albert Thomas see the above article by Carl V. Bramsnaes., pp. 11-13.

[4] As the Head of Government was known in the Third French Republic.

[5] For John G.Winant, see above article.

John Gilbert Winant – the third Director of the ILO 1939-1941 / Carol Riegelman Lubin

Mrs. Carol Riegelman LubinI, ILO Official 1935 to 1952, has written a personal account of the late John G. Winant. Considering the short period he was Director and the many years, which since have passes since then, it is not surprising that he is little known today. In this personal account, Mrs. Riegelman Lubin gives a vivid description of the events which led to Winant joining the ILO, the dramatic years as Director and his further career after having resigned in 1941.

 I have been asked to write an account of John Gilbert Winant1 (known as Gil by his friends and Governor by his political supporters) because neither his personality nor his achievements are

remembered today by most of the staff or former staff of the ILO. I first met him during the summer of 1934, when, immediately after the US joined the ILO, Harold B. Butler, the Director, offered Winant the post of Assistant Director and asked me to tell him about the ILO and convince him to accept the appointment.

Why did Butler select me – a twenty-five year old research assistant at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace – to take on this responsibility? The answer is that I was one of a very small number of US citizens who knew anything about the ILO and whom Butler knew well. I had spent the summer of 1929-30, at the end of my junior year at Smith College, doing research at the ILO for my senior “dissertation”. After several weeks of asking advice from ILO officials such as Urwick and Spates of the International Management Institute, Richardson and Ellison of ILO staff and various others whose suggestions varied from the history of the Convention on Maternity Leave to a comparison of the economic work of the League and ILO, Pône, Clottu and De Maday took me in hand and decided I should study the evolution of the Standing Orders of the ILO. The result was a very busy summer with time at the ILO shared with lectures at the Zimmern International Summer School. (The details are in a daily diary that I kept that summer.)

I returned to Smith College in September 1929, and when I looked at my notes I realized I lacked details about the origins of the ILO. So in spring vacation I went to the office of James T. Shotwell, Professor of History at Columbia University and Director of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, who, I knew, had been a member of the US delegation to the Peace Conference, served on the Commission that had written the Constitution of the International Labour Organization and had been the US member of the Organizing Committee of the ILO. He opened his papers to me – I was the first person who had ever asked to see them – and then got amused and interested by my questions (first time I had ever seen original documents). He told me to send him my paper when it was finished – and then to come and see him when I graduated. This I did and he told me that he had decided to write the History of the Origins of the ILO and invited me to be his research assistant – thus beginning five years of happy education in which I met all the top level staff of the ILO and most of the participants in the founding of the ILO.

We used the book then in page proof, as a document in the Congressional discussion for the membership of the US in the ILO. It was in connection with the publishing of this two volume study that I met Albert Thomas and then worked closely with Butler. Shotwell was not only a close friend of Butler ever since they worked together at the Peace Conference but also Butler’s closest link in his dealings with ILO/US relationships.

So with this as background, it was natural for Butler to ask me to “inform” Winant about the ILO. (He also at this time suggested that if Winant accepted I should come to Geneva as his assistant. I never knew whether Winant was aware of this when he later asked me to come). Winant was then the out-going Governor of New Hampshire (the Constitution of New Hampshire prohibits more than two successive terms) and had told Butler that he would not be able to give him a definite answer for several months.

After one long interview (in his wife’s NY apartment), he told me to keep in touch while he analysed the situation. I found that the best opportunity to talk to him that summer was at Dog Shows – where he was showing bull terriers (his wife raised and showed West Highland Whites), and I was showing a Cairn terrier and an Old English Sheepdog. His decision-making took more than six months – to the great frustration of Harold Butler.

Once Winant had decided to go to the ILO, there were long negotiations as to the timing and as to what his responsibilities would be. It was finally agreed that he should come to Geneva in time to attend the 1935 International Labour Conference, and the preceding session of the Governing Body. He asked me to go along as his assistant. He also invited the daughter of a very close New Hampshire colleague, Abbie Rollins2, a PhD student at Yale, to come for the summer as part of his staff. His personal secretary, Mary Healy3, who had worked for him ever since he was an administrator and teacher at St. Paul’s School, was to join him later in the summer. So Mr. and Mrs. Winant, their son John, Abbie and I proceeded to Geneva on the same ship as the first official US delegation to the International Labour Conference4.

The voyage was an eye-opener for all of us! First, in personal terms, Abbie and I (both 26 and 25 years old) decided we needed to know how Winant expected us to work, and agreed that since I knew the ILO and she knew a lot about his personal relations, we should divide the work accordingly. We then went to him with our ideas – which he promptly reversed! Then I, haring been well trained by Shotwell, asked if we should keep minutes – or a diary – of meetings, interviews etc. or whether he would dictate a summary. His answer – “Christ, child, don’t you know that no politician puts anything on paper”. In fact, as I soon learned, he put everything on scraps of paper, kept them in his pocket and ultimately turned them over to Mary. Winant was always a complicated boss as he never separated personal and official relations. He was concerned with the personal life of those around him and expected the same absorption in the job as in personal life.

Once many years later I was asked by Averill Harriman, when he was Governor of New York State, what Winant was like to work for and without thinking I answered “rather like working for you”- and then bit my tongue as I almost continued that “you both struggled over every word for hours when writing a speech to make it perfect and neither of you could read it properly”. However I answered – the chief difference is that you call us at 6 am to talk policy and Winant did not hesitate to keep us working till after midnight!

More seriously, to return to 1935, the delegation held daily meetings, to which we were invited, to prepare their positions for Geneva based on full documentation. The ILO had not given Winant any papers of this kind and so for the first time he learned from the US delegation what the discussions of the Conference would be about and the significance to the US of the adoption of the proposed Convention on the 40 hour week. In the course of the voyage, Charles Wyzanski, the Solicitor of the Department of Labor, received a cable informing him that the Supreme Court had declared the NRA’s5 National Industrial Recovery Act unconstitutional and therefore invalidated the wage and hour legislation that had been put into effect in the US. Adoption of a 40 Hour Work week by the ILO might be used as a tool in the US battle for reduced working hours.

It was only on the train trip from the boat to Paris that Winant was shown the Governing Body paper6 indicating that he was expected to take an oath of office before the Governing Body in which he would agree to be responsible to the Director of the ILO7, alone, on letter-head paper which had the League of Nations parallel to the ILO. He exploded and Charles Wyzanski, the Solicitor of the Department of Labor agreed with him that he could not take such an oath. On arrival in Paris, I took Winant to the office of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace to obtain the advice of Malcolm Davis, a good friend and long supporter of international institutions – and from there we telephoned to Butler. After long debate – including Winant’s threat to return to the US – it was agreed that we would stay in Paris until after the Governing Body had completed its session and only arrive in Geneva after the Conference had started! In fact Winant never took the oath before the Governing Body until he was elected Director, by which time the reference to the League had been removed8. But even then he was unhappy about the whole concept of the loyalty oath which stated that he “would not seek or accept instructions from any government or other authority.” In his view, as a US citizen his first loyalty was to the Government of the US and as a former elected Governor, he would always be loyal to those who had elected him.

The 1935 Conference was a benchmark in ILO history – with the participation of both the US and the USSR9 in the adoption of the Convention No 47 on the Forty-Hour week. For Winant it was a learning experience, both with respect to the ILO internal bureaucracy and to the degree to which compromises were difficult tools to use internationally and multi-lingually.

Immediately after the Conference all the top senior staff went on leave and Winant suddenly found himself in charge of an office which he didn’t really know. His informal approach and open-door operations were unfamiliar to most of the staff- and his lack of any French language skills did not help. Still in a very short time he learned whom he could count upon as effective colleagues. But after only about a month he was asked by the President to return to the US to become a top member  of the Administration – the question put to him was whether he would rather be head of the National Labor Relations Board or the Social Security Board.

With cables flying between Winant and Secretary Perkins, he sought to reach his ILO boss – Harold Butler – to learn his attitude but he was vacationing somewhere on the French coast. Finally reached, he regretfully agreed that John Winant should return to the US to explore the situation – and then determine what should be done.

In the short time that Winant, initially, was in Geneva he had been made responsible for not only US relations but also for the preparation of the upcoming first Labour Conference of the American States Members which are Members of the ILO to be held in Santiago, Chile (2-14 January 1936), and the planning for the Textile Conference to be held in Washington (2-17 April 1937).

This was of particular concern to him because he had been a key arbitrator in the textile industry in the US while he was Governor. As one of his first acts he reorganized the Washington Office and put a close colleague from his earlier days (Ethel Johnsonr10, known as the Bluebird) in charge – which gave him an unofficial liaison office during the period that he was in the US as head of the Social Security Board. Throughout this period, Winant never lost touch with the ILO. At one time when Butler was in the US, he realized how closely Winant was following the work of the ILO, and then asked him specifically to keep an eye on the Washington Office! Technically he used the ILO to help him set up the US social security system. He brought Adrien Tixier, Chief of the ILO Social Security Section (later Assistant Director in 1937) and several members of his staff to Washington to advise the new Social Security Board. Winant returned to Geneva in 1936 as the head of the US delegation to the 20th Session of the International Labour Conference, of which he was elected Vice-President, and in 1937 he chaired the Textile Conference, held in Washington also as head of the US delegation.

I wrote him weekly letters throughout, although this was personal rather than official. Anyone who worked directly for Winant considered him the boss for the rest of his/her life! My letters, as I remember, were as much about staff, activities of the Office of the US Labor Commissioner and Consulate and political developments at the League as about ILO activities as such.

ln 1937 when Winant had left the Social Security Board (a US political decision outside the scope of this article) Butler convinced him to return to the ILO as Assistant Director11 – but with the private understanding that Butler intended to resign before the end of his term (i.e. 1942) and would make every effort to have Winant succeed him. During the period of his Assistant Directorship Winant’s major emphasis was on improving the ILO’s technical capacity in the economic field and strengthening it’s relationships in the America’s – especially with Latin-American and Caribbean countries, some of which were not members of the ILO. This meant that he was very frequently away from Geneva and therefore remained somewhat unknown to the staff at large.

Winant’s work hours were normally to start relatively late and to stay very late at night – so the staff he knew best were those likely to be found in their offices after seven or eight pm. Despite his personal shyness, Winant liked informal contact with his colleagues and would frequently call someone into discuss an issue and keep him talking for long periods – even when others were waiting or he was due some place else!

One of his major forms of relaxation at this time was to take long lunch hours to look at houses in the ring of villages that surround Geneva and consider where he wanted to live. He had rented a very large “mansion” in Vésenaz-Cologny (on the left side of the Lake) where his staff provided for his eleven year old son (then at the International School of Geneva) and a number of young US women who were working at the ILO in various short- term positions. His wife meantime was in and out of Geneva touring in a small Ford car, and building strong social connections. Winant’s other two children at this time were in boarding schools and only came to Geneva occasionally during vacations. Winant belonged to a large family – both on his side and his wife’s – and many turned up in Geneva from time to time to learn what was going on.

Winant was an instinctive politician with a deep concern for human rights; his lifelong idol was Abraham Lincoln12. Winant often discussed his admiration for Lincoln based on his freeing of the slaves and would get very angry when any of us insisted that the role of Lincoln as slave freer was secondary to the economic situation that brought the civil war. Winant began his career as a history teacher at St. Paul’s School in New Hampshire, which he had himself attended. When he decided to go into politics he campaigned house to house as a liberal Republican seeking office in an almost entirely conservative Republican state. He served under Roosevelt as the Republican Member of the Social Security Board. Although to all the world he seemed to have become a Democrat, he never changed his party membership even while adopting the principles of the New Deal.

 The coming of the War

With the approach of the Second World War, the international situation deteriorated and with Fascism and Nazism rampant, the role of the Organization in case of war became the major issue under discussion in the Office with a sharp division between the “universalists” or “neutralists” and those who wanted the ILO to be an active supporter of the future united allies and plan for the future of international bodies.

As the world crisis came to a head, Butler faced an internal crisis in the ILO. The Director of the Paris Office had died in 1937 and the French Government insisted that Butler name Marius Viple as his successor. Butler refused to do this as he considered Viple inappropriate for the post. When his own Government did not fully support his position, Butler decided to resign and accept the post of Warden of Nuffield College, Oxford. On 28 April 1938, he officially announced to the Governing Body his desire to relinquish his post as Director and the campaign for his successor began.

Winant’s campaign reflected his own inherent position. He immediately went to Washington to find out how fully Roosevelt would support him if he were elected – both with respect to finances and politics – and how far he could count on both US labor leaders and employers to push for his election. Receiving warm support – and agreement that the US Government would exert pressure on his behalf- he announced that he would be a candidate and returned to Geneva to electioneer. This procedure almost cost him the election – because under staff regulations he had no right to seek government support, and because it demonstrated that he would seek to have US approval for his role as Director. The only other candidate was another Assistant Director, E.J. Phelan, a well-liked Irishman, who had played a leading role in the ILO from the outset – and who really deserved the position. But recognition of the importance of having a US citizen supported by President Roosevelt and not an Irish national to head the ILO under the circumstances of 1938 won the day. Phelan withdrew his candidacy14 and Winant was elected by the Governing Body at its 84th Session on 4 June 1938 – by 28 votes in his favour and 2 blank ballots. Phelan would probably have been elected under normal peace-time conditions but, in the critical political situation, could probably not have saved the ILO as Winant then did.

The 1938 Conference was another benchmark. It was the last Conference for Butler15, as Director and the first for Winant, as Director-Elect. The major issues turned on the procedures for ILO continuation in case of war, the role it should take, the establishment of emergency machinery (the Emergency Committee of the Governing Body16) and the election of a new Governing Body. Throughout, the US dominated the Conference. Frances Perkins, the US Secretary of Labor, fulfilled her earlier promise to Butler to chair the US delegation to the Conference. She had visited the ILO in 1936 but never before attended a Conference. She used the session to emphasize the President’s support as well as her own for the work of the ILO in case of war.

By the time of the June 1939 Conference, war was imminent. Psychologically the war had begun and all concerns were on what to do next. This was the only session of the ILC Cat which Winant served as Secretary-General. The first sentence in the Foreword of his Report, dated 10 May 1939, and entitled The World of Industry and Labour – reads as follows: At this time in presenting to you the Director’s Report, the opportunity of pointing to clear skies ahead is not given to me – and the enumeration of the accompIishments of the Organization during the closing year seems by itself inadequate. The Foreword concludes: In commending this Report to you, may I leave you with a single thought. Across from the International Labour Office is a statue symbolizing the workers of the world. It was erected in grateful memory to Albert Thomas. Cut in the stone is this sentence: “They did not take my life. I gave it. “Let us see to it that we do no less.

During this period, Winant asked a number of the senior staff to work out not only what the ILO could do in war-time17 but which of the staff should be used in what locations. From this request the future staff deployment plan was developed. First there was the A list – the indispensable key staff who would be maintained and moved to whatever location was to be the temporary headquarters. Then the B list – the nationally mobilizeable persons who would be put on leave and sent to their own countries if they wished. The C list would be given the choice of retirement or unpaid leave, and told to be ready to return when feasible. The staff on the small D list would be kept in Geneva for maintenance. These lists (General Instruction Nr 8 of 16 May 1940, with changes from time to time) were in fact used for the deployment that took place in July 1940. During the interim period, it was decided that if necessary the A list would go to Vichy, France, and all of us on the A list sent a large suitcase of clothes and any “essential documentation” to the Hôtel de Sévigny, in Vichy. Ultimately after the fall of France, the personal suitcases etc. were returned but the documentation remained until after the war when it was recovered unopened.

Meanwhile Winant went to the US (as well as to London etc.) to explore the various groups suggestions for war-time activities, and to prepare for the Second Conference of American States Members to be held in Havana, Cuba, 21 November to 2 December 1939. In spite of the war, the Havana the Havana Conference was very successful, and served as an enlightening experience for many of us unaccustomed to Latin-American courtesy. This was still during the dictatorship of General Batista, who thoroughly enjoyed the occasion. Although Winant was aware of Batista’s activities in Cuba, he found him personally charming and enjoyed the time spent with him18. A few months later the whole situation changed with the invasion of the Scandinavian countries, the fall of Belgium and France. Families of staff were sent home and many panicked that Geneva would be over-run. I remember being in Winant’s office one morning when Ernest Francis Penrose, a distinguished US economist whom Winant had hired, rushed into the office, saying we all must leave Geneva immediately – it wasn’t safe. He and several other Americans did go to the US at that time. By contrast several of us held regular picnics in the fields leading up to the Jura where we watched the Germans ambling around just across the frontier.

Shortly after, Switzerland, now surrounded by Axis-controlled territories, informed the ILO that it feared for its own neutrality if the League and the ILO carried out international meetings or negotiations in Geneva and suggested we find operating headquarters elsewhere. Winant then began negotiations for a move to the US initially assuming that this would be welcome. In spite of strong support from Secretary Perkins, from the AFL (American Federation of Labor) and the Employers representatives, Secretary of State Cordell Hull turned the ILO down. He feared that agreement to give the ILO temporary headquarters (with diplomatic standing) might endanger pending negotiations with respect to sending ships to Britain (a programme that later became “lend-lease”) and be used by those speaking for the group known as the America First against the War in Europe, a prominent group then headed by Charles Lindberg19?

Accepting the political situation in the US, Winant then consulted with some of the members of the Emergency Committee, and considered alternative locations, varying from the Azores to Brazil. In the course of these discussions Winant met Hume Wrong, the Canadian Government member of the Governing Body, who suggested that the ILO should go to Canada and undertook preliminary inquiries20. Winant went to Ottawa, on July 25 where Mackenzie King, the Prime Minister, quickly gave approval to the plans to host the ILO in Montreal21. Winant selected this city as the location because his close college friend, Dr. Wilder Penfield, head of the Neurological Institute of McGill University was ready to convince Dr. F. Cyril James, to provide adequate space on the McGill campus to house an ILO Working Centre. On 16 August, Winant sent a telegram to Cyril James22 accepting the offer. The ILO’s future was secured!

The next question was to obtain the approval of the Officers of the Governing Body and as many members of the Emergency Committee as could be reached. Negotiation of these issues while keeping them secret even from the staff concerned was necessary because Canada was an ally at war and some ILO members, as well as staff, were either neutral or enemy.

One element in the negotiations which preceded the determination of Canada as the wartime Centre was the procurement of transit visas first for the US and then for occupied France, Spain and Portugal – the only route out of Geneva. Winant got the State Department to agree to blind transit visas, which made possible the passage through to Lisbon without indication of ultimate destination. I made almost daily drives to Berne for about a week taking staff passports to get the agreed upon visas.

July 4th of 1940 was a dramatic day. Early in the morning Winant, with T. T. Scott, then his Chef de Cabinet, Kitty Natzio, a UK member of the staff and Betsey Mayer (Johnstone) US and one of his closest colleagues secretly drove out of Geneva, using his wife’s small Ford car.

Hoping that no-one would know of his departure, he found at the frontier Madame G. Laverrière (the former chief of the Typing, Multigraph and Roneo Branch), who had accepted national service, stamped their passports and of course immediately notified her colleagues at the Office! Their trip to Lisbon is a story by itself. At the Spanish frontier they encountered so many problems that they simply abandoned the car and took a bus on to Lisbon23.

That afternoon I met Carter Goodrich (Chairman of the Governing Body), Noel Field (then on the League staff who ultimately disappeared in Czechoslovakia) and Bill Schirer, a US journalist just in from Germany and sure that Germany would soon win and that Geneva would be over-run. After swimming we went to the usual US party and denied that Winant had left Geneva!

 Shortly after, in mid July 194024 I was ordered by Winant to go to Lisbon and I then drove out of Geneva with Carter Goodrich. As a young American with no passport problems and no desire to go to the non-belligerent US I was the ideal candidate for transfer agent in Lisbon.

When I arrived in Lisbon I found that Winant had finally got a plane home and that Kitty and Scott had gone on to London. Betsey Mayer, Ainsworth Johnstone and a few others were still waiting for transport, and for instructions as to what to do next. I was told to meet the first busload of Geneva staff and find them accommodation and passages. This busload was led by Adrien Tixier who, in the middle of the night, asked me where we could meet in the morning. My only thought was the night club where we had been meeting each evening – and so for the next two months the ILO staff met there every morning at 11. Before that I would have coffee at the Pan American Air lines, the Greek Lines and the American Export lines to learn what passages were available. After what were somewhat bitter staff meetings, I would go to the Aviz hotel where Phelan was staying. He had driven out by backroads with his wife and Ronald Mortished, another Irishman, who was urgently needed in Montreal at the new Centre.

For many days Phelan cabled – and telephoned – to Winant insisting that he must come to Lisbon and explain to the staff what he expected them to do and try to answer their questions and raise their moral. Finally Winant agreed to come for a one or two day visit. After meeting in September with ILO staff, the US Ambassador (an old friend) and Portuguese authorities, he was delayed in getting a return plane! When he finally got off, the plane was held up by weather in the Azores for several days – to Winant’s enormous frustration. He walked all over the islands – and bought three chess sets. The whole trip had taken 17 days!

Winant had agreed that Phelan should stay in Lisbon for a meeting of the League Supervisory Committee which was going to determine both the League and ILO budgets for the next two years. Phelan asked me to stay and serve as his secretary throughout the meetings where he would represent both the ILO and the League. Sean Lester, also an Irishman, who was then Acting Secretary General of the League (Avenol having resigned and returned to France), had been turned back at the Spanish frontier. Once the Committee meeting ended, Winant ordered me to come to Montreal – though I had hoped to go back to Geneva. I got Phelan and his wife and myself on the last American Export line ship The Excambion sailing – where we found ex-King Carol of Romania – and we had an uneventful return to New York3. We drove with the Phelans to Montreal after only one or two days in New York.

Arriving in Montreal we found the ILO Working Centre26 ensconced in the small chapel of which there are many pictures! The only separation between desks was the piled up pews. The only two private offices were the dressing rooms off the stage, one of which was occupied by Winant and the other reserved for Phelan However this situation was temporary, and adequate space was found in a few weeks.

The staff gradually found appropriate living quarters, many in boarding houses, others in small rental apartments and got down to their normal work. Winant initially stayed at the Ritz Hotel but then took an apartment where his family joined him for the Christmas holidays. – Although the Office by now had settled in Montreal Winant was never there for any long stretch of time.

Once the negotiations with the Canadian authorities were completed, and a work programme for the staff put in place, the future of the ILO seemed assured. It was at that time, shortly after the first Christmas in Montreal, that Winant received a telephone call asking him to go to Washington to meet with the President the following day.

His own description of the interview is given in his book Letter from Grosvenor Square in which Winant indicates that the President never directly asked him if he would serve as his Ambassador to the Court of St. James28. Several days later, after he had returned to Montreal, he learned, from the press, that “the President had sent his name to the Senate” for approval of his nomination. He knew by then that he wanted to be part of the direct war-time actions and that he could in fact do as much for the ILO in that position as its Director in Montreal.

Shortly after he went to New York where he set up an office at the Roosevelt Hotel, and began the operation of officially resigning from the International Labour Office and preparing to go to London as US Ambassador. He asked me and some other members of the staff to come to New York and help with these procedures, especially in informing the members of the Governing Body of his intention to resign28. That began a difficult period of drafting letters, with the aid of the Chairman of the Governing Body – while at the same time Winant was dealing with the elopement of his daughter. The family gathered in Concord for a formal wedding between his daughter Constance and a young Peruvian, Carlos Valando, that she had met after a Conference in Lima29 where she accompanied her father who represented the ILO together with Oswald Stein. Then, negotiations with the ILO Emergency Committee representatives completed, Winant said farewell and departed in February 1941 for London as the US Ambassador, replacing Joseph Kennedy.

The story of Winant’s extraordinary success as war-time Ambassador is outside the scope of this article-but in concluding the story of Winant’s ILO activities mention should be made of his continuing concern not only with its programme but also with its staff. He recruited several to work with him at the London embassy for various periods. He also assisted others of us in carrying out ILO missions in England, Scotland and Wales, and facilitated the participation of the delegations from the Governments in Exile to both the 194I Extraordinary Conference in New York and the 26th Session of the International Labour Conference, 1944, in Philadelphia. Finally, after he returned to the US and served on the Economic and Social Council of the UN, he was the US Government Delegate who voted for the acceptance of the International Labour Organization as a Specialized Agency.

Winant’s period of service on the Economic and Social Council was a tiresome and frustrating experience. He frequently found himself making statements from instructions by the State Department that he personally disagreed with. He did not have the same relationship with Truman that he had had with Roosevelt and could not therefore override the State Department. Rather than undertaking an open fight, Winant resigned and thus ended his foreign service on 19 December 1946.

John Winant with his family

Winant at the time was under contract with Houghton Mifflin Company to write a two volume book on his service as Ambassador. This was the first time he had ever written a book and he had great difficulty making himself complete the writing. Immediately after he left the Embassy he rented a small house in London and started work on the book – along with making a large number of farewell speeches around the country.

By the time he resigned from ECOSOC he had completed a substantial part of the first volume but was being pressed by the publisher to finish. In 1947 he was working alone in Concord, at his home, and from time to time inviting some of us to visit him on the weekends. He was also sounding out his former New Hampshire Republican colleagues on the political possibilities available to him – and getting negative responses. The Republican Party in New Hampshire was not interested in liberals or in people who had worked for Roosevelt. Winant’s urge to serve was as strong as ever – but he did not see any immediate openings in either the national or international scene.

On the 3 November in the afternoon when the first printed copy of his book was to be delivered, tired physically and mentally and in a very depressed and lonely mood, he took his own life. At almost that same moment Andrew Cordier and other leaders of the UN were considering his name as a possible candidate for Governor of Jerusalem. Had he known this he might have taken a different path – but we will never know.



1 He was born 23 February 1889; died 3 November 1947.

2 Abbie A. Rollins born 8 May 1909) joined the ILO 15 May to 15 August 1935. (IE)

3 Mary C. Healy (born 28 April 1914) joined the ILO from 20 August to 30 September 1935 and reappointed 1 July 1937 to 30 Novenrber 1940. (IE)

4 The delegation left New York on board “SS Manhattan” on 22 May 1935. (IE)

5 The National Recovery Administration was created in 1933 to establish and enforce rules for business practice. The laws enforced minimum wage and maximum hours of work. In May 1935, the Supreme Court invalidated the NRA and the legislation that created it. (IE)

6 GB. 71/6/1097. The GB papers were received by the US delegation on their arrival in Le Havre on 29 May, following the request to the ILO of 23 May 1935 of William G. Rice Jr., Representative of the Department of Labor in Geneva [file D 771/200]. (IE)

7 The Declaration does not literally refer to the Director per se but reads: ” … not to seek or receive instructions from any Government or other authority external to the International Labour Office.” (IE)

8 The Office used two letterhead forms, one with the mention of the League of Nations, the other without, for use in communications with nations not members of the League, e.g. USA. (IE)

9 Both nations having joined the ILO in 1934. (IE)

10 Ethel M. Johnson (born 20 November 1882) joined the ILO Washington Branch Office on 19 August 1935; she retired on 5 October 1943. (IE)

11 Reappointed is from 11 August 1937. (IE)

12 When during the war, we devised a code for communication, Winant’s name was Abe. Looking at the code today, it is a clear reflection of the atmosphere of the ILO in 1940. Avenol, the Secretary General of the League of Nations, was Uncle, while the League itself was Hill; Laval was Andrew; Geneva was Home, while Montreal was Mountain etc. (author’s note)

14 However, he was appointed Deputy Director as of 1 June 1939, the same post as Butler had occupied under Albert Thomas. (IE)

15 His resignation took effect as of 31 December 1938. (IE)

16 1938-42. lt consisted of four Government representatives and two members each from the Employers’ and Workers’ Groups. (IE)

17 At its 86th Session, February 1939, the Governing Body had adopted a report confirming the intention to have the ILO function as normally as possible in case of crisis. (IE)

18 I was on home leave when the war began and my passport was removed since I was an American woman and not permitted to travel then. Winant then assigned me to the Washington Office to help prepare for the Havana Conference – and attend it as staff. At the end of the Conference my passport was returned and we all returned to Geneva. (Author’s note)

19 The Administration feared the disapproval of a still isolationist Congress, and furthermore 1940 was an election year. There are conflicting views on the ILO refusal. See also Antony Alcock: History of the International Labour Organisation, London 1971, page 159. (IE.)

20 During a conversation in London at the beginning of July, the Legal Adviser C.W. Jenks suggested that the ILO opt for Canada. See his article: The ILO in wartime. Offprint of the Labour Gazette, Ottawa 1969. (IE)

21 Details concerning these negotiations and an extract from Mackenzie King’s Diary are available in The International Labour Organization: A Canadian View by John Mainwaring, published by the Canadian Ministry of Labour, Ottawa 1986. Also in French. (Author’s note)

22 “Thank you for your kindness in extending the ILO generous hospitality of McGill University which we gratefully accept. I shall send you shortly as you suggest information as to our space needs and will meet you in Montreal the first week of September. With deep appreciation”. Original in the McGill University, copy at ILO file Z I/II/4/4.   (IE)

23 I had to deal with the TCS (the Swiss AA) for years over the fact that the Carnet de Passage was never turned in. (Author’s note)

24 I think that it was either 17 or 18 July. We drove by the way of Cannes since we had planned to pick up two Kerr children (little ones) whose mother was in Canada and father in UK and take them to Lisbon, but when we got there it had been decided that they were better off staying with their aunt. (Author’s note)

25 I would assume that the ship left close to 24 and must have arrived in New York about 28 October. (IE)

26 This was the official term for the Office. The Headquarters per se remained in Geneva for legal reasons. (I.E)

27 “The President asked me many questions about the men I had known in Europe during my long sojourn there, and about conditions as I had understood them in Europe and Great Britain. There was a good deal to tell him… There was no mention of the Court of St. James.” (Cited from Winant’s book Letter from Grosvenor Square, page 11)

28 John Winant’s resignation took effect as of 15 February 1941. For a vivid description of these hectic days, see the article by Edward Phelan The ILO sets up its wartime centre in Canada, in Studies, Dublin, Summer 1955. Reprinted in Edward Phelan and the ILO (ILO 2009).  (IE)

29 The Inter-American Committee on Social Security.

The resignation of Harold B. Butler Second Director of the ILO, 1932-38 / Ivan M.C.S. Elsmark

Little has been written on the reason for Harold Butler’s resignation. It is not intended here to pass judgement on persons or events, but to shed some light on the cause of the conflict which developed into a serious crisis for the ILO and the Director himself.

On 28 April 1938, Butler stated in the Governing Body that, although having been appointed in 1932 for ten years as Director of the ILO, he had indicated a preference for a seven-year term; hence, he now desired “to relinquish his post”. The conventional view, as expressed by Pierre Waline, is that Butler resigned “in order to regain his freedom to become Warden of Nuffield College at Oxford”.

The same opinion is found in the obituary in the International Labour Review and many other publications. As if to emphasize this version for posterity, the official portrait of Butler at the ILO shows him in his academic gown. Closer to the actual events are Butler’s recollections The Lost Peace, David A. Morse’s Cornell Lectures and Alcock’s History of the ILO, which briefly refer to a conflict with the French Government on the nomination of the Director of the Paris Office.

 A new director of the Paris Office

The origin of the crisis was the sudden death in August 1937 of the ILO Paris Office Director, Ferdinand Maurette, whereupon this key post fell vacant. In the following months, names of various candidates were presented, none of which were retained. Already on 8 September Butler had written to Justin Godart, the French Government representative on the Governing Body, that the appointment presented a “complicated issue” and sent an aide-memoire detailing the qualifications required. On 10 September Butler met in Paris with André Fevrier, Minister of labour. He handed him a copy of the aide-memoire, emphasizing the importance of appointing a “worthy successor” to Maurette who would combine “the highest intellectual and technical attainments with an intimate knowledge of the French social and industrial world”. Essentially, the person chosen “should not be so definitely committed to any political party as to be unable to command the confidence of both employers and workers in his impartiality”. While recognizing the difficulties finding the right person the Minister suggested the ILO official Marius Viple1 as “a suitable candidate”, to which the Director remarked that he was “politically a marked man and that he did not possess several of the necessary qualifications [which] the Minister admitted”. Some other names were mentioned and discarded and it was agreed that “neither should put forward a candidate for acceptance without first consulting the other”. It seems surprising that Butler himself, neither then nor later, had no preferred candidate to recommend. This certainly placed him in a defensive position in the battle over the Paris Office.

Marius Viple had been a political journalist of Humanité and other socialist papers and served during the war in the ministerial offices of Jules Guesde and Albert Thomas. In 1920 he joined the ILO as press officer and in 1923 replaced Georges Fleury as Chief of Cabinet. Albert Thomas had great confidence in him and his “intelligence [and] political instinct” but also asked him “to cultivate a more sympathetic understanding of customs and trends of thought which may be very strange to us Frenchmen and to be somewhat more indulgent towards individuals”. At the death of Albert Thomas, he became Chief of the Information and Press Service. There seems to have been friction between Viple and Butler for a long time, and it is clear that Butler considered he “could not have confidence” in Viple who was “unfit for the post” as Paris Director.

During the month of September 1937 the negotiations accelerated. From his conversation with André Fevrier, Butler got the impression that he was open to suggestions of other candidates.

Marius Viple

However, some ten days later, the Minister of Foreign Affairs Yvon Delbos intervened, informing Butler that “the French Government wished Viple to be appointed”. The “decision had been taken at a meeting of the inner cabinet, including Léon Blum, Paul Faure and Edouard Daladier,” and the “Government attached great importance to this appointment”. Also Léon Jouhaux (French Workers’ representative on the Governing Body) firmly supported Viple’s candidature. According to Butler’s notes, Jouhaux agreed that Viple “did not possess some of the necessary qualifications” (inter alia, ability to speak in public and knowledge of economic issues), but that his “knowledge of French politics and politicians would be valuable to the Office”. Butler further pointed out that “a principle of considerable importance was at stake. If governments were to dictate appointments on political grounds it would be impossible to staff and administrate any international institution properly”, a weighty argument to this day.

 Difficult negotiations

On 29 September 1937, Butler saw Léon Blum in Geneva who also “strongly urged Viple’s claim on grounds of personal friendship, his loyalty to Albert Thomas and the desire of the French Govemment to have him in Paris”. Butler repeated what he had said to Minister Delbos and added that he “could not have sufficient confidence [in Viple] to entrust him with the responsible duty of maintaining direct relations with the French Government” and himself. Blum thought the “Government had no intentions to force [Butler’s] hand” but “hoped very much” that he “would appoint Viple”.

During the October meeting in Prague of the Governing Body, Butler took steps to consult the Chairman of the Governing Body F. W. Leggett and the employers’ Vice-Chairman H.C. Oersted on the “important principles regarding the position of the Director which was at stake”. In Geneva the ILO Assistant Director, Adrien Tixier, who had close relations with the French Government, subsequently advised Butler to “orientate his choice towards Viple”. Camille Pône, Butler’s Chief of Cabinet) also informed Pierre Waline who substituted for Alfred Lambert-Ribot (French Employers’ representative on the Governing Body) of the issue.

In reply, Lambert-Ribot wrote on 16 October that he did not consider Viple having the necessary “high qualifications and impartiality” and asked to be consulted before any appointment was made. After that, the matter was left in abeyance when Butler sailed on a Far-Eastern mission on 28 October, only returning to Geneva late in January 1938. At that time, “the atmosphere [on the French side] was very hostile” and “various threats of non-cooperation had been uttered in responsible circles”, as reported by Tixier who had paid several visits to Paris.

Butler hesitates

It seems that in the beginning of the year 1938 Butler’s resistance was wavering. What actually happened next was to become a subject of dispute. As the records provide no proof for the correctness of conflicting versions, they shall be given here in some depth to permit readers to draw their own conclusions.

According to Butler, on the occasion of the 82nd Session of the Governing Body (31 January to 5 February) he met with Lambert-Ribot who “would view Viple’s appointment with considerable reserve” and, although “he would not impose a veto, he could not in any way approve the appointment”. Butler recalls that on 5 February he saw Godart and Jouhaux together (Lambert-Ribot having already left Geneva), the former stating that “his instructions were unaltered despite change in Government”. The Director thought it ‘undesirable and contrary to all precedent to appoint a man who was not acceptable to all three groups” and would not take the responsibility for it. He suggested a meeting in Paris under the auspices of the Minister of Labour to discuss the matter “with him in the presence of all three French members of the Governing Body”. This was agreed, though Jouhaux said that “the CGT could not agree to any other candidate”.

Butler also “gave them to understand that if agreement was reached between the three parties, [he] would be disposed to make the appointment against [his] better judgement to avoid an open breach between the French Government and the Office”. On 12 February he wrote to the new Minister of Labour, Paul Ramadier that “he was disposed to accept the recommendation [to appoint Viple, but before proceeding with a nomination, he wished to have the assurance that it would be accepted by the major organizations” and thus proposed a meeting in Paris to settle the matter.

Different points of view

On the other hand Tixier gives a different version of the events. He was not a witness, and as he remarks in a confidential memo to Butler of 19 March 1938 “he never knew the details of the conversations” but referred to personal conversations at the time with Godart and Jouhaux. Both had “indicated with great satisfaction that he [Butler] had decided to nominate Viple”, but neither of them had said that this promise had been “subject to an agreement by the three parties: Government, employers’ and workers’ organizations”.

Furthermore, at a meeting with the Assistant Directors (probably on 8 February), Butler himself had “mentioned his intention to nominate Viple as the Paris Director, without mentioning that this was subject to unanimous approval”. Tixier had expressed surprise when shown a draft of the letter to the Minister of labour and had said to Pône that the “condition was not in conformity with the agreement as indicated to him by Godart and Jouhaux,” deleting the relevant paragraph. The final letter was not shown to him and he was still unaware of its contents.

Viple (an interested party) later wrote that on 3l January 1938 Butler had said to him that he “intended to deal with the question of the Paris Office clearly and within a brief delay”. There followed a “frank and loyal” exchange of views which “dispersed misunderstandings”. On 7 February at 5 p.m. Viple was again called to Butler’s office and told that he had ‘decided to nominate [him] Director of the Paris Office”, a decision “officially announced” to Jouhaux already on the morning of 5 February and on 7 February (sic) to Godart, and the following day to the Assistant Directors. Since then Viple had “never been given other communications from the Director on this matter”. To this statement, Butler commented that the “description of events was incomplete” and added that Viple had “neither the qualifications nor the knowledge to be the successor of Roques and Maurette” as Director of the Paris Office.

Had Butler at the meeting with Godart and Jouhaux been caught off balance and persuaded to accept the French demand? Did he agree and then change his mind in the course of the discussion, the meeting in Paris with the Minister being an afterthought? Did he fail to express himself sufficiently clearly, and did Godart and Jouhaux understand the significance of the proposed Paris meeting? Was it to retract his position that on 12 February he wrote to the Minister of Labour requesting a tripartite meeting, realizing that he might have mislead Godart and Jouhaux? These and other issues still remain obscure and open to interpretation.

 A difficult situation

It cannot be excluded that Butler may have realized that he (unwittingly) could have misled Godart and Jouhaux. Certainly, he later wrote to the former: “If I after all have failed to indicate clearly my position and of that reason have caused an error, I owe you my excuses, which I willingly give”. Godart’s position vis-à-vis his Minister may well have been embarrassing.

It seems evident that Butler still was presenting as his main objection the need for a tripartite consensus, hoping for a rejection by the employers to settle the issue, although his personal objection to Viple might have been the main obstacle. Certainly he was unwilling to nominate a person whom he “considered unfit for the post of Director of the Paris Office and in whom he “could not have confidence” (an argument which according to his own admission he had been reluctant to use).

Whatever had taken place at the meeting, the letter from Lambert-Ribot of 17 February gave further weight to Butler’s argument. It restated the opposition to Viple’s nomination who had “nothing but concern about politics and a man of notorious incompetence” and that he “in no way could command the confidence of the French employers”. Finally, it was suggested that Butler should take a firm position and “gain time for better-qualified candidates to present themselves”.

One must recall the extremely difficult political climate on the eve of World War II. Thus Butler strongly objected to the French demand, pointing out that “if governments of democratic countries adopted such methods, the maintenance of any independence vis-à-vis authoritarian states would become impossible”. He also considered that it was undesirable and unprecedented to appoint a person who was not acceptable to all three interest groups.

Butler may still have entertained the hope of reaching an agreement, but on 3 March 1938 the French journal Candide published a strong political attack on Viple and his supporters, Jouhaux, CGT and the Government, as well as on the ILO Paris Office and its cost to the ta:<payers, while explaining Butler’s own attitude because he was English. As Butler wrote “it was not the article itself, but its implications which opened my eyes”.

Butler came to realize “that Viple had incurred enmities who would expose him and through him the Office, to attack”. He foresaw that he “should be bound to defend [Viple]”which he *might not be able to do conscientiously, and that further bad blood was likely to be caused between the French Government and [himself]”. Even if in France the three parties “had agreed on the appointment”, Butler himself “would nonetheless be solely responsible”. On the other hand, if he did not appoint Viple, an open breach with the Government and the CGT was inevitable, an unacceptable position for the ILO vis-à-vis one of the most important and influential member States and in a period of world crisis. “Moreover, reflection convinced [him] that in any event it was impossible to recreate confidence between the French Government and [himself”. These revealing considerations are quoted from Butler’s own statement of 6 March.

There is no doubt that it was between 4 and 6 March 1938 that Butler took the decision to cancel the planned meeting in Paris with the Minister of Labour (as proposed in his letter of 12 February) and go straight to London to offer his resignation to the Chairman of the Governing Body F.W. Leggett. On the eve of his departure, he had prepared a statement on the case and the dilemma in which he found himself. On 8 March he met Leggett who persuaded him to withhold the letter of resignation because it, as Butler wrote the following day, “… at the present moment might do serious injury. If I attribute it to personal motives, as has been my intention, it might be interpreted as deserting the Office in time of need because I no longer believe in its future; if, on the other hand, I invoke the difference with the French Government it would be clear that there are serious dissentions within the ranks of the Organization”. The two Vice-Chairmen Oersted and Mertens were subsequently consulted, but the crisis was not resolved. Also Godart was informed of the action Butler had taken. On 19 March Tixier wrote a seven-page memo to Butler, setting out his view and strongly advising him to come to terms with the French Government “the support of which is indispensable” for the ILO.

Butler stands firm

If Butler hoped that the appointment of a new Minister of Labour, P. Ramadier, would change the French position he was to be disappointed. On 16 May they had a full and frank exchange of views, at the end of which Butler said that as it was “impossible for him to agree to the French proposal” he would have to resign as “the only way to avoid a serious conflict with the French Government which would be extremely harmful to the ILO”. He followed it up in a letter the next day proposing that other candidates than Viple should be considered, to which Ramadier apparently responded on 27 May, firmly maintaining the position of the Government (letter not on file). Butler wrote again on 27 May complaining of the French refusal to take the Director’s right of a free choice of his staff into account, which “if imitated by other countries, would make it impossible to manage an international institution”. To this communication the Minister reacted only on 13 August, long after the resignation of Butler had been accepted, proposing that the filling of the post of Director of the Paris Office be suspended until the end of the year, that is after the departure of Butler as ILO Director.

Also Butler’s old friend on the Governing Body Justin Godart had remained unmoved by his arguments. It seems that neither he nor the other French partners had any serious sympathy and understanding with the ILO position.

In a long letter of 17 May to Godart (his last on the subject?) Butler wrote: “You accuse me of bringing an incident of national character unto an international sphere. I wish simply to say that, by its very nature, the ILO is exclusively an international institution and any appointment of an official can be nothing but an international matter”. He again tried to justify his position hoping that it would contribute “to disperse the misunderstandings which have arisen between us”, and suggesting a meeting in Paris on 24 May, about which (if it took place) there is no record on file. Few letters between them have survived on file, but it seems clear from Butler addressing him “Mon Cher President et Ami” and signing “Bien amicalement à vous” in September 1937 to May 1938 when the “Ami” disappears and the closing becomes the formal “Je vons prie de croire, …mes sentiments les meilleurs”, that he feels disappointed and personally hurt.

Prior to the April 1938 (83rd) Session of the Governing Body, an understanding was reached by which the Viple affair should not be exposed to the public, as it would harm the image of the Organization. Instead, Butler would base his resignation on the fact that although in 1932 he had been appointed for ten years, he had then expressed a preference for a seven-year term” which by now was about to come to an end and wished to engage in other activities (viz. as Warden of Nuffield College, Oxford). In his statement to the Governing Body, he said that *in order to avoid misunderstanding, he [Butler] had arranged with the Chairman to make this statement to the Governing Body some days ago and that he had prepared it before certain unauthorized and inaccurate statements had appeared in the press”. He was asked by some of the speakers to reconsider his position and the issue was left for final decision until the following meeting of the Governing Body.

The press had obviously got wind of the conflict, and for instance The New York Times published on 29 April a detailed article on the conflict and Butler’s resignation.

To make his own position clear, Butler spoke to the staff on 9 May, quoting his statement in the Governing Body. He then refuted various erroneous motives given to his decision to resign: neither family reasons, a well-paid post in Great Britain, pushed out by Chamberlain, disagreement with the Governing Body or a violent quarrel with Phelan! Nor had he resigned to make place for Winant as his successor, and he added: “Circumstances had arisen which convinced me after very long and painful reflection that I could no longer discharge my responsibilities as they should be discharged. The position of a Director is at no time an easy one. He is naturally subject to pressures.” … ” The Director is bound to take full responsibility for all his actions. And that is the responsibility which he can only assume if he possesses a necessary minimum of freedom of decision in administrative matters and if he feels that he commands the confidence of all the principal elements which compose the Organization.” … “There are also times and occasions when to provoke a serious conflict would do more harm than good and when it is better and more elegant to withdraw silently rather than to bang the door. The present is one of these times”. Words spoken as a man of honour and responsible international civil servant; perhaps less as a politician!

Butler presented his formal resignation to the Chairman of the Governing Body on 23 May, requesting “to be released of [his] duties as from December 3lst 1938′.

At the Meeting of the Governing Body (84th Session), Private Sitting, of 3l May 1938, the Chairman of the Government group (Godart) presented a draft resolution stating that “The Governing Body decides to accept, with much regret, the resignation of the Director,” … “and further decides to proceed with the election of a Director at a special meeting on 4 June 1938”.

Harold Butler and John G. Winant in 1938

To close the chapter, two candidates presented themselves as Butler’s successor, John G. Winant and Edward J. Phelan the latter withdrawing on 3 June 1938, thus permitting the unopposed election of Winant on 4 June with 28 votes in favour and 2 blank votes.

An understanding had in fact been worked out, by which the post of Deputy Director was reestablished’ and Winant, with the blessing of the Governing Body, immediately appointed Phelan as his deputy. A new team had been created, recalling that of Albert Thomas and Butler, a leadership composed of a politician supported by an administrator.

The ILO survived the crisis unharmed and some even more fateful events with the outbreak of World War II and the collapse of the League of Nations. Butler became Warden at Nuffield College, Oxford 1938-43, Commissioner for Civil Defence and from 194246 Minister at the British Embassy in Washington. As for Viple, he did not become Director of the Paris Office.

During the war, when the ILO’s Working Centre was established in Montreal, he remained in Geneva and subsequently Phelan appointed him Assistant Director-General in January 1947.

He resigned in December 1948 as a result of his election to the Conseil de la République Française.



  1. There are references to letters and notes no longer on file. The present article is based entirely on material in the ILO Archives. I am indebted for permission to reproduce material from the ILO Archives collection and for kind assistance given by the ILO and its archivist, Mr. Remo Becci.
  2. In 1938 Butler decided to resign in order to accept an invitation to be Warden of the newly established Nuffield College at Oxford”. International Labour Review, Vol. LXIIL No.4, Generra 1951.
  3. Marius Viple (1892-1949). Appointed to the ILO 8 March 1920 as press officer and attached to the Cabinet of Albert Thomas; 11 July 1923 acting Chief of Cabinet (nominated 1 January 1924. Appointed 11 July 1932. After the death of Albert Thomas, he was appointed Chief of the Information and Press Service. During the period when the ILO Working Centre was transferred to Montreal he was in charge of the ILO Office in Geneva and relations with the Swiss Government; on 1 January 1947 appointed Assistant Director-General. Resigned in December 1948, having been elected as mernber of the French Conseil de la République; he died on 3l October 1949.
  4. The post was first occupied by Butler himself and fell vacant in 1932 on his appointment as Director. After the appointment of Phelan as a successor to John Winant, the post was not to be revived before 1951 when Jef Rens became Deputy Director-General under David .Morse.

The Three Keys, A symbol of Tripartism / Ivan M.C.S. Elsmark

The three golden keys shown on the cover of this issue of Message symbolise the tripartite structure of the International Labour Organisation..

Its origin goes back to the opening ceremony of the headquarters building by the lake in 1926. At this important event, the 6. June, the Chairman of the Governing Body. Arthur Fontaine (for the member Governments), together with the two Vice-Chairmen, Jules Carlier (for the employers) and Léon Jouhaux (for the workers), turned the keys in the central entrance gate.

Thereupon Arthur Fontaine declared: “Each group enters in the ILO through the same door, to collaborate on the same task. Each group has the duty to guard our building, and our statues and common purpose. For all of us who have worked at the ILO, the three keys are a living symbol of the Organization and its motto, “Si vis pacem, cole justitiam”, if you want peace, cultivate justice”.

Older colleagues will be undoubtedly remember the gilded lock, which was set at the central main gate towards rue de Lausanne, and place Albert Thomas at the time when ILO occupied the building. They will be pleased to learn that both the lock and the original three golden keys are still preserved in the ILO archives. – May they one day return for their intended use.

The delegations enters the gate to the new ILO building, 6 June 1926.

A little story – The birth of the ILO logo / Marc Carriche

For decades, ILO publications were marked by a symbol that retirees will no doubt remember: two parallel triangles with the initials ILO and BIT. Not very aesthetic, but we weren’t at the stage where every institution had its symbolic logo. In the Public Information Branch, at least one among us felt the need for a new symbol as the 50th anniversary approached: Peter David, a specialist in what was then called “visual publicity”, began to study some models.

In 1968, when preparations for the anniversary were considerably advanced, one of our initiatives brought things to a head. The Universal Postal Union (UPU), which I had contacted, asked us for a design which might be proposed to its member States, to which it would suggest dedicating stamps in 1969. Imaginations began to churn.

Peter David and some external designers drew up numerous plans. It wasn’t a simple matter. The image had to say it all: the ILO, tripartism, work, peace, the UN connection – and what else? – I have forgotten. It was essential that the symbol was easily legible, agreeable to the eye, readily reproducible, and in only one colour. A tall order!

Dozens of designs
Each design presented some advantages and, of course, some problems. There were weeks of hesitation, discussions, thousands of pencil marks and brush strokes. Finally, we decided on three possibilities to present to the Director-General. He asked us to consult his staff. Confronted out of the blue with such a trivial, yet at the same time important, problem and not much bothered (this was 1968) by imperatives of “communication” (the word was not yet in fashion), each of the chiefs responded individually, spontaneously. I well remember the remarks of three of them on one or other of the designs: “Where is tripartism?”; “It looks like a pregnant woman.”; “This one resembles a funeral wreath.”

We had, of course, already collected, among many an approval, not a few critical observations by colleagues – from messengers to experts passing through. But, well, these remarks …

The whole process reminded us of the geographic and social diversity of this special organization called the ILO. We knew that the eye gets too used to novelties after a while and they become jaded. We had to have a pattern that would last the course, that wouldn’t become out of date too soon. We were working for the future. Peter and his designer wanted to search further but to change as little as possible. And that’s what they did.

So there were three new designs to show to the directorate – no question, of course, of taking a decision of this sort without endorsement from on high. But the Director at that time had other worries – many of them. Inevitably, the time arrived when the deadline fixed by the UPU was – the next day. We had to take a logo to Berne. What to do?

And the final choice
The whole process had been followed by a young official of the DG’s Cabinet – who, I believe has subsequently had a brilliant career in his country. In a last pow-wow between our Branch and him, everyone stood up to his responsibilities. We agreed on a model, adopted it and made it official without further ado. And I took the train to Berne. The UPU set to work with a success that surpassed our expectations.

Full speed ahead: folders, brochures, books, press releases, films, everything was marked with the new symbol, which was adopted quickly throughout the house. No objection was ever raised. It was all a great success.
May it continue for a long time to symbolize an ILO worthy and proud of its past, decisive and brave before its future challenges. – But that will be another story.

Recalling Albert Thomas / Edward J. Phelan, Director-General 1941-1948

Albert Thomas, ILO’s first director, was born on 16 June 1878 and died on 9 May 1932. His memory is still very much alive at the ILO. The following is based on a speech given in 1934.

As Phelan points out, the struggle for social justice was the principle of life for Albert Thomas. “Social justice is not easy to define. To Albert Thomas it meant much more than the removal of social injustice. It meant a positive policy through which the individual might attain his political, economic and moral rights. This was the doctrine which he believed could alone give the Organization a real unity and personality, which could guide it safely where narrower doctrines would inevitably lead it to a division along lines of national interest.”1

I first met Albert Thomas in January 1920. He had come to London to assume the weighty task of Director of the ILO.

It was on this occasion that he did me the honour of summoning me to his side. I worked with him until he died. I was with him at all the meetings of the Governing Body and at every session of the International Labour Conference; I accompanied him on his important political missions to America and the Far East; I accompanied him on less distant, but perhaps more dangerous, missions to the Court in the Hague.

I was thus able to observe his work in detail and, as a citizen of a small country, Ireland, somewhat removed from the world’s mainstream, I can bear witness to his work without being influenced by any national or political bias.

Of our first meeting, it will perhaps surprise you, I retain the memory of a man who was silent, who listened, who did not speak. Much more frequently thereafter, I saw him vibrant with energy, imposing his creative will upon everyone, seething with impatience in the face of obstacles, performing with prodigious activity.

He sometimes quoted a saying of Saint Simon: “To do great things one must have passion.” And he had a passion, the passion of achievement, which consisted of an overwhelming energy, an impatience at times ending in outbursts of anger, an appetite for combating the obstacles which arose along his way.

But, behind all that, there was detached reflection. If he succeeded in overcoming difficulties, it was because he had weighed them up calmly, without any illusions, without allowing his burning desire to succeed to lead him to disdain or disregard them.

I now understand his silence in London. He had a vision which was much more farsighted than ours. He alone saw the immensity of the task that lay ahead, and before rushing into it, he measured it and prepared his plan.

What was this task? To create the International Labour Organization. It is true that the Washington Conference had been a success. But it was only the epilogue of the Peace Conference, the final surge of an end-of-war feeling which was somewhat fleeting.

The Constitution of the International Labour Organization was not in force. All that existed, like the decisions taken at Washington, was ink on paper. This had to be turned into men and things. Albert Thomas took those words and made the ILO out of them.

How? The office had to be put together with people of different nationalities, i.e. with different work methods, ways of thinking, and traditions. And for that no model, no experience, existed to guide him. Something entirely new had to be invented, neither French nor English, nor a copy based on any national model.

He did it. Such an achievement, all by itself, would have sufficed to ensure his renown as an administrator. But that was not enough.

First, Albert Thomas crafted the mechanism. But he also wanted, with what vision and good reason, to make this mechanism a living thing, to provide it with a conscience, a faith.

He did this, and at the same time he defined for the first time the nature of an international official and of his responsibilities. There he was treading on much more dangerous ground, where he was likely to arouse the bias of national sovereignties.

But he realized that no international organization could succeed if its international character were to give way to any kind of national pressure. He defended his institution and his staff on all sides against this sort of pressure, with the courage of his unfailing conviction.

Even as regards France, he did not hesitate to go to the Permanent Court of Justice and plead the thesis of the ILO’s competence in the field of agriculture when the French Government supported quite the opposite. He won his case: it is to France’s credit that it bowed to the opinion of the Court and did not hold it against Albert Thomas for having done his duty as Director of the ILO.
And so the Office was created, with officials of different nationalities, organized as a team, animated by a common spirit. Its competence was assured. Still this was not enough. The ILO, as the International Labour Organization is commonly known, is not, believe me, just a spacious building in Geneva, on the shores of the blue lake, housing distinguished officials.

The ILO is made up of 58 nations; it is a mechanism for collaboration amongst those nations, a complicated mechanism which must mesh together Councils of Ministers, parliaments, national and even colonial administrations, labour and medical inspection services, employers’ and workers’ organizations and, along with them, the individuals themselves, parliamentarians, administrators, employers, workers.

All this existed only in legal texts. Governments were only imperfectly aware of their obligations, administrations understood them only in an abstract manner, professional organizations were not aware of either their rights or their duties; public opinion and the masses knew nothing at all about them. This was the situation in not just one country but in all of them.

Creating habits of continuing collaboration amongst these diverse elements in over 50 countries was a superhuman task. Albert Thomas accomplished it.

He accomplished it through unbelievable personal effort, through constant travel in all the continents, in almost every country in the world, and thanks to a strong effort of ubiquity which kept him, no matter how distant, at the head of his administration; whether in Washington or Tokyo, he was still in Geneva.

I could tell you a great deal about those trips, each of which presented different problems. I will relate only one, which is astonishing: in all countries, despite their diversity, he had to employ the same personal influence that you knew in France, the same power of intellectual seduction; he always succeeded in obtaining a response of trust and understanding.

If he achieved this, it is because he deserved it. He had, it is true, exceptional gifts for it: a strong personality, alluring charm, a knowledge of things and of men, and the will to succeed. But his success did not come from these gifts alone; he added to them a formidable work effort. He never visited a country without first having studied it in depth: history, politics, industry, and even culture and art.

How could one refuse what he was requesting when he came to discuss, not about distant international problems, but about specific national problems of the day, concerning which he made clear the obvious links, unperceived until his visit, to the work of the ILO? When he had finished his trip to China, several Chinese said to me: “He’s the first European statesman to understand China.”

Even with all this travel, his task was far from over. Contacts had been established, the wheels were turning, Governing Bodies, Conferences and Committees were meeting: it all had to be endowed with a direction, a spirit. There again, he succeeded through huge personal effort. He thought; he thought for the Conference; but he led the International Labour Conference to thinking as he did.

In the Organization’s early years, an Englishman once made a witty comment which was a bit cruel: “The Governing Body”, he said, “is not a body and it doesn’t govern anything.” And that was true.

Albert Thomas dominated his Governing Body; he imposed decisions upon it from the start. But he did not have the mind of a dictator. He wanted to create a body which was a genuine Governing Body, even if he had to rise up against it at times. He succeeded: today a Governing Body exists which governs.

In this way, year by year, Albert Thomas brought the Governing Body to understand its responsibilities, and to take them. Year by year, he got the Conference, which was inclined to restrict itself to its technical agenda, to examine the social problem in its entirety, to see as he did the never-ending new problems, to unite with him in seeking solutions.

I will not speak to you about these solutions and the ideas which inspired them. The subject would be too vast. What I have attempted to do is to show you an aspect of Albert Thomas’ work which was maybe not unknown, but which was insufficiently understood.

His life principle was the struggle for social justice. But for him, social justice was not something abstract. He understood it as a fact, which had to be made real by genuine progress from one Conference to another. Within a gigantic vision, he perceived the instrument whereby such progress could be obtained. He conceived this instrument on a worldwide scale; he understood that it had to be central to administrations and organizations of all countries.

For anyone else but him, it would have been a fantastic dream; for him it was a plan. Through prodigious effort, which will one day be considered a legend, he made this plan a reality.

If the ILO exists today as a powerful organization, a network encircling the globe, we owe it to him. And if the ILO stands firm, if it does not falter at a time when faith in international organizations appears to be hesitant, it is because he has provided it with a spirit and a personality, along with a well-oiled mechanism.

He did so knowingly.

At the laying of the cornerstone of the present ILO building, he said: “A soul will reside within the house we are going to build.” That soul lives there, a soul that he created.

It will continue to live there for as long as there are men who are inspired by his principles, for as long as human intelligence refuses to abdicate before the challenge of poverty and of injustice.

The Election of Albert Thomas as the first Director of the ILO / Carl V. Bramsnaes

Who would become the first Director of the International Labour Office? That was the essential question during the first session of the Conference which was held in Washington, DC in the autumn of 1919.

The International Labour Conference had been convened in Washington by President Wilson, but the attitude of the United States towards this new world body created by the Peace Conference in Versailles in Paris was uncertain, and the candidates for the election of the director could hardly be anyone than an Englishman or a Frenchman.

The organizer of the Conference was Harold Butler. As a high-level British civil servant, he had played a very important role during the Conference in Paris in the commission which dealt with social questions, and had participated in the elaboration of Chapter XIII of the Treaty, which constituted the basis for the International Labour Organization. It was certainly not an easy task to have organized such a Conference for the first time especially as there was no experience in the subject matter; great skill and never-ending patience were required. Harold Butler had demonstrated his ability as an organizer.

The Conference itself had been a huge success if one looks at the social aspects and the numerous Conventions adopted almost unanimously by the tripartite parties. In these circumstances, Harold Butler’s name was at the top of the list in the private discussions about who should be the first Director of the ILO.

Another name which was likewise mentioned was that of Arthur Fontaine, head of the French delegation to the Conference. Fontaine had been one of the most eminent representatives of the group in Paris preparing the social part of the Peace Treaty. However, beyond these discussions about the names, the idea was also being floated of postponing the election of the DG until a later date.

That was the state of affairs in which the election took place. What happened next? The members of the first Governing Body had been elected by the Conference. One of the member States elected was Denmark; and in my capacity as a member of the delegation of the Government of Denmark, I was able to participate in meetings of the Governing Body. At the first meeting of this newly-elected body, Arthur Fontaine was nominated as Chair, initially on a provisional basis, but, after a debate and under pressure from the workers’ group, he was confirmed.

This election – which may not have corresponded to his own wishes – eliminated Fontaine from consideration as candidate for the job as Director. The workers’ group which wanted a definite decision insisted once again on proceeding with an immediate election of a Director-General – and that contained a surprise!

Albert Thomas

When the votes were counted after the secret ballot, it was observed that there were only three votes in favour of Butler against nine for Albert Thomas, with several abstentions. As there were very few votes cast, they proceeded to a new round of voting which again resulted in a majority for Albert Thomas over Butler, albeit with a reduced majority.

There was no doubt that the workers’ group played a decisive role in this election in the Governing Body and that the employers’ group provided the necessary support in securing the election of Albert Thomas. As far as I know, the majority of government members on the second ballot voted in favour of Butler. The name of Albert Thomas was never mentioned amongst the government delegates to the Conference.

From a technical point of view, Albert Thomas was an outsider in this election, but he deserved to win. Harold Butler was revered as a man possessing remarkable ability and great skill, but to build the ILO, Albert Thomas had higher qualifications.

His abundant dynamism, his immense energy, his exuberant enthusiasm were indispensible qualifications to give this new organization an eminent place in social policy in the world that the ILO should not delay occupying. In collaboration with Albert Thomas, Harold Butler, as deputy director was able to allow the ILO to benefit from his qualifications as an administrator and from his intellect in an efficient manner; he was an excellent successor to head the Office after the death of Albert Thomas; But the ILO would never have become the organization of social policy par excellence without Albert Thomas.

Chapter XIII of the Peace Treaty described the International Labour Organization – as it was left to Albert Thomas to create it.

The last session of the GB in which Albert Thomas participated and his last Conference are still fresh in my mind. Both were in April 1932, at a time when one of the most terrible economic crises shook the world in which unemployment reached unprecedented levels. Everyone who knew Albert Thomas understood that he considered it as an obligation of the Organization to adopt proposals, which would be capable of attenuating the repercussions of the crisis.

Even when he was weakened by a long attack of flu he rose with his energy and his usual combative spirit to defend a resolution before the Governing Body, a commission of the Conference and the ILC itself. It was not an easy task, but the Conference adopted the resolution by a vote of 73 to three. Only the personality of Albert Thomas and the huge amount for respect shown for him would have allowed such an outcome.

That was his last triumph. The Conference ended on 30 April 1932. Eight days later, Albert Thomas died in Paris.

Some side aspects of ILO history / François Agostini

From the start, some confusion seems to have arisen over the ILO’s official title, as two denominations co-existed for some time in the early twenties. Those were the “Permanent Labour Organisation” and “International Labour Organisation”. –

Which was the correct one?

The terms of reference of the Commission on International Labour Legislation which was set up by the Paris Peace Conference to draft the ILO Constitution were “… to enquire into the conditions of employment from the international aspect, and to consider the international means necessary to secure common action on matters affecting conditions of employment, and to recommend the form of a permanent agency to continue such enquiry in cooperation with and under the direction of the League of Nations”.

Some emphasis was thus put on the permanent character of the new agency, and we see the word “permanent” appearing again in article 387 of the Versailles Treaty (article I of the ILO Constitution, or Charter, as we shall see further on): “A permanent organisation is hereby established for the promotion of the objects set forth in the Preamble.” Likewise, article 388 (article 2 of the ILO Constitution) reads: “The permanent organisation shall consist of …”.

From the foregoing, it may be inferred that “Permanent Labour Organisation” was to be the official title. Indeed, the front cover of the bilingual text of the Constitution, October 1921 edition reads: ‘Permanent Labour Organisation” and “Organisation permanent du Travail”.

As this was an official document, we must admit the validity of that denomination. However, another official document, adopted earlier, points to quite another direction. The Standing Orders of the Conference, adopted in Washington on 21 November 1919, specifically mention ‘the International Labour Organisation” (article I).

The situation therefore, seems to have been that both denominations co-existed for some time, until “International Labour Organisation” prevailed. When, exactly, is difficult to ascertain. It can be said, however, that evolution was slower in French, if we are to trust some authors: M. Gerreau, “Une nouvelle institution du Droit des Gens, l’Organisation permanente, du Travail”, Paris 1923; E. Mahaim “L’Organisation permanente du Travail”, Paris, Hachette, 1923 C. Argentieu, “Les résultats acquis par l’Organisation permanente du Travail, 1919-1929”, Paris, Sirey, 1930. But as early as 1924, Albert Thomas titled “L’Organisation internationale du Travail” the comprehensive, informative essay he contributed to the series “Les origines et l’œuvre de la Société des Nations” published in Denmark under the direction of P. Munch. Likewise, the 1920-27 edition of the “Annuaire de la SdN’, published in Geneva under the direction of George Ottlik refers throughout to the “Organisation internationale du Travail”.

While not official League publications, the “Annuaires” were nevertheless based exclusively on League (and ILO) documents and were prepared in close cooperation with the Secretariat and the Office and prefaced by senior League and ILO officials. They can therefore, be trusted as a reliable reflection of officialdom.

To conclude whereas “Permanent Labour Organisation” seemed at first to have serious claims to be retained as the agency’s official title, it soon lost ground (and apparently earlier in English than in French) before “International Labour Organisation” which eventually prevailed. Note that the word Organisation was then spelled with an “s”, not with a “z” as later.

The First International Labour Conference, 1919 / Harold B. Butler, ILO Director 1932-1938

Harold B. Butler (1883-1951) studied at Oxford, entered the British Civil Service 1907; Ministry of Labour 1917 as Assistant Secretary to the Minister. In 1918 he, Phelan and Malcolm Delevigne drafted a programme for the Labour Section of the Paris Peace Conference. In 1919 he was appointed Secretary to the Organizing Committee and Secretary-General of the First Session of the ILC in Washington, DC. In the early years of the ILO he served as Deputy Director of the Office, with responsibility for administration and finance. In 1932 he succeeded Albert Thomas as Director of the ILO. He resigned in 1938 and became Warden at Huffield College, Oxford. Commissioner for Civil Defense 1939 to 1941 and Minister at the British Embassy in Washington D.C. from 1942 to 1946.

Butler had a considerable influence on the work of the first Conference. As Edward Phelan later was to write: “In moments of difficulty, and more particularly on constitutional and procedural questions, the Conference listened most readily to those who had planned it in Paris and to none with more attention than to the Secretary-General, Mr. Butler.

While the Peace Treaty provided for the composition of the Annual Labour Conference it left it to determine its own procedure. The Organizing Committee devoted considerable care and labour to drafting a set of provisional Standing Orders, which were adopted at the second sitting of the Conference but which were then referred to a special committee of the Conference for further examination.

This committee, after prolonged discussion, submitted a revised set of Standing Orders in 20 Articles, which were adopted by the Conference. They do not call for any detailed comment here, but they suggest two general observations. In the first place, experience has since shown the wisdom of the Organizing Committee and of the Conference in settling the parliamentary procedure of the Conference at the very beginning. Practice differs considerably from country to country.

The powers of the chairman, the method of moving resolutions, the method of voting, the application of the closure, are all matters of vital importance to the proper conduct of any gathering, but matters about which the greatest variety of custom prevails in the different assemblies of the world. As the Committee observed:

It has not been possible to find in every case a rule which everyone will regard as satisfactory. This fact should be borne in mind, and it should be recognized that the procedure followed in any one country or group of countries could not be inserted in the Standing Orders.

They were, in fact, the first set of international standing orders ever framed, resting on a compromise between a large number of national practices. Although they have since been amended from time to time, they have on the whole stood the test of practical application, and have rendered great service to the Organization by providing it with a body of rules to which the members of the Conference have gradually become thoroughly accustomed. The resulting expedition in the dispatch of business and the avoidance of confusion in regard to procedure have saved the Conference many hours of time and much loss of patience.

The other point which merits notice is the emergence of the language question at the first Conference held under the auspices of the International Labour Organization. Viscount de Eza, representing the Spanish Government, put forward a plea for the recognition of Spanish as a third official language. His claim led to similar pleas put forward for the recognition of German and one of the Slav languages. In point of fact, an arrangement had already been made whereby a translation of the proceedings into Spanish was daily provided for the delegates at the expense of the United States Government. No international meeting can function effectively unless at least the great majority of its members can follow the proceedings satisfactorily. In the Labour Conference, where the delegates do not usually possess the same advantages, the necessity of interpreting the proceedings to them, as far as possible in a variety of languages, was thus early found to be imperative.

The Washington Conference set a further precedent of far-reaching importance in the future history of the Organization in recognizing the existence of the employers’ and workers’ groups. When the Treaty was drawn up it was probably not foreseen that the employers’ and workers’ delegates, being necessarily bound by strong ties of common sympathy and interest, would inevitably tend to form distinct blocs with a view to united action. In any case, no provision of the Treaty suggests that such an eventuality was contemplated. Nevertheless, before the Conference had even assembled for the first time, the two groups were already taking shape.

In the case of the employers, the germ of such an organization was already in existence. In 1911, Signor Olivetti organized the first International Congress of Industrial and Agricultural Employers’ Organizations (Congresso internazionale dell’organisazioni padronali dell’industria e dell’ agricoltura). This meeting gave birth to the idea of setting up an international employers’ information centre, and in 1913 M. Carlier and M. Lecocq, at that time President and Secretary respectively of the Comité central industriel de Belgique, got into touch with various European countries in search of support for creating such a centre. As a result of a meeting held in Paris in June, 1914, its establishment was agreed upon, with M. Carlier and M. Lecocq as President and Secretary respectively. The War prevented the realization of the project, but they revived it when the convening of the Washington Conference was announced. On reaching Washington they took the initiative, in conjunction with M. Guérin (France) and Mr. Marjoribanks (Great Britain) by inviting employers’ delegates to attend a meeting in the Navy Building on October 28, the day before the opening of the Conference. From that time onwards, it was the employers’ group thus constituted which put forward employers’ nominations for the Vice-Presidency, for the membership of committees, and, finally, for membership of the Governing Body. It decided at group meetings the policy which should be adopted in regard to most, if not all, of the questions which came up for discussion, and a series of important amendments to the draft convention on hours of work was moved on behalf of the whole employers’ group. Finally, before the Conference closed, the group drew up and signed on November 23 statutes for a permanent international organization of employers.

The formation of the workers’ group was of even more natural development and required scarcely any preparation. The International Federation of Trade Unions had just been successfully reconstituted at Amsterdam, and had taken a leading part in the negotiations in regard to the admission of Germany and Austria which preceded the Conference. Its authority was so well established as to be beyond cavil or criticism. Indeed, it had even gone so far as to demand that all workers’ delegates should be chosen in agreement with the organizations affiliated with the Federation. In these circumstances, it was natural that the leaders of the Federation, who were themselves delegates to the Conference, should act in unison and at once set about organizing their fellow workers as a disciplined group.

On November 1, two days after the opening of the Conference, M. Mertens, as president of the workers’ group, informed the Secretary-General that M. Oudegeest had been appointed as its secretary. Like the employers’ group, it held regular meetings during the Conference, and submitted a series of group amendments to the Organizing Committee’s draft of the Hours Convention. As in the case of the employers, the workers’ nominations on committees and on the Governing Body were settled by discussion in the workers’ group.

It would be out of place to develop here the important part which these natural formations have since come to play in the working of the Organization. Though at times they have been subjected to criticism on the ground that they have introduced too large an element of discipline, and thus repressed individual expressions of opinion, on the other hand it is not open to doubt that without the collective expression of the employers’ and workers’ views during the discussions of the Conference, and the joint negotiations with a view to reaching agreement which they have made possible, the solutions of its problems would have been infinitely more arduous and their outcome less satisfactory. Moreover, the existence of the groups served to preserve and emphasize the essentially tripartite character of the Conference. The result has been that it has come to view the questions before it much less from a national point of view than from the point of view of their technical merits, and their bearing on the interests of those concerned in production.

The constitution of this Committee was another happy instance of the prevision exercised by the Organizing Committee. They foresaw the necessity of creating some supreme organ of the Conference, fully representative of its various groupings, to which all questions relating to its proceedings might be referred.

By this device lengthy debates on procedure were avoided, and it was possible to reach decisions as to the general conduct of the debates, the setting up of committees, and other general questions which could hardly have been settled expeditiously and satisfactorily in the full Conference. Here again an important precedent was established, which was to prove its value in future years and to become an essential feature of every the session of the Labour Conference.

Washington Conference 1919, Organizing Committee: in the center standing, Harold Butler and on his right hand Edward Phelan.

Finally, a word should be said as to the secretarial work of the Conference.

As the International Labour Office was not yet in existence, the secretariat was necessarily recruited in a somewhat haphazard fashion from such elements as were available. Some of its principal members had already acquired some international experience on the staffs of the Commission of the Peace Conference or of the Organizing Committee. Others were borrowed from the embryonic secretariat of the League, while the executive and material arrangements were mainly entrusted to the American personnel recruited on
the spot.

The central feature which distinguishes the secretariat of the Conference from those of previous international conferences is that while the higher officials were all drawn from different nationalities, the secretariat itself was organized not on national but on functional lines.

Naturally, very great difficulties were encountered in organizing a staff recruited at short notice from such heterogeneous elements into an efficient team. Nevertheless, the experience gained at Washington proved conclusively that it was possible to obtain loyal cooperation and a high standard of performance from an international staff.

As the Secretary-General remarked at the end of the Conference, the staff worked with great enthusiasm because they realized that they were assisting in a great movement and had shown by the success which had attended their efforts “that international cooperation may be as successful in the realm of administration as the Conference has shown it to be in the realm of legislation.”

The Governing Body

As will have been already gathered, one of the remarkable features of the Washington Conference was the manner in which it brought to light the major problems inherent in the aims and structure of the International Labour Organization. Not least among these problems was the treatment of the oversea countries. Before the War no extra-European country had taken part in the meetings convened under the auspices of the Association for International Labour Legislation. This was due partly to its purely European origin and inspiration, and partly to the comparatively slight development of industry in oversea countries with the exception of the United States, and even the United States was only beginning to export manufactured articles on a considerable scale. The tremendous demands for war material and the obstacles placed by war conditions in the way of sea transport had deprived the over-sea countries, during five years, of the greater part of the supplies which they had been accustomed to receive from European factories.

During that time many of them had come to develop industries capable of furnishing their own needs, while some of them, such as Japan and Canada, had been stimulated to produce goods for export, either in order to supply the belligerents, whose appetite for munitions of all kinds was practically unlimited, or to capture the over-sea markets, urgently demanding goods which the belligerents were no longer able to offer. In consequence, industrialism had made considerable strides during the War in the over-sea countries, particularly in Asia and America, and many of them had become alive to industrial and social problems, to which they had devoted little attention in the past. It was therefore natural that they should expect to play a larger part in the deliberations of the Conference and to figure more prominently in the principal committees.

During the Conference this issue came prominently to the front on two occasions: the first in connection with the appointment of the Commission to deal with migration, the second in connection with the election of the Governing Body.

The report of the Committee on Unemployment proposed, inter alia, the adoption of a resolution recommending the Governing Body to appoint a Commission to deal with migration problems. Mr. Gemmill, the delegate of the employers of South Africa, moved an amendment on November 25 proposing that “the representation of the States on the European Continent on the Commission should be limited to one half of the total membership of the Commission.” He justified this motion by pointing out that migration was a question that affected both European and oversea countries equally, and that the latter’s interests were consequently quite as much at stake as those of the former. The amendment was eventually carried and represented the first indication of the part which the oversea countries were determined to play in the life of the Organization.

This motion, however, would possibly not have been pressed with so much vigor, had the election of the Governing Body fallen out differently. That election had been announced in the Conference on November 25. It was the result of long discussions and negotiations in the Selection Committee, where the oversea countries had claimed considerably more places than they eventually secured. In the case of the government group, eight of the twelve places available were already assigned by the Treaty to the eight States of chief industrial importance. Among these, Japan and the United States were the only oversea countries included in the list proposed by the Organizing Committee. The Indian Delegation therefore protested, claiming that India was entitled to inclusion as of right in the list, and their first delegate, Mr. Louis Kershaw, declined to take part in the election until the Council of the League had pronounced on the Indian objection. There remained four governments to be elected by the government delegates present at the Conference, with the exception of those representing the eight States chief industrial importance. This election resulted in Argentina, Canada, Poland, and Spain being chosen to fill the vacant places. It was also recommended that in the event of a vacancy occurring Denmark should take the vacant place, a proviso intended to meet the situation which would arise if the United States did not ratify the Treaty.

Thus, four out of the twelve government seats were filled by oversea representatives in the first instance. At a later date, when the Council of the League drew up an official list of the eight States of chief industrial importance, it included not only India but also Canada, a fact which lent some color to the sense of ill-treatment which was prevalent among the oversea delegates at Washington.

Although attempts had been made to secure a measure of oversea representation in the employers’ group, that group in fact nominated six European representatives, while the workers’ group, which disclaimed nationality as a basis for selection at all, appointed five Europeans and one Canadian to represent it in the Governing Body.

The first meeting of the Governing Body, which was held on 27-28 November 1919, therefore comprised twenty European members out of twenty-four. This result provoked a vigorous protest from the oversea delegates, which was finally crystallized in the form of a resolution presented by Mr. Gemmill and supported by a large number of over-sea delegates, expressing “its disapproval of the composition of the Governing Body of the International Labour Office inasmuch as no less than 20 of the 24 members of that body are representatives of European- countries.” Arthur Fontaine on the other hand claimed that the title of countries to membership of the Governing Body should be determined not by considerations of geographical distribution, but by their industrial development and experience, and by the importance of their industrial interests.

When the question was put to the vote, the Conference was very evenly divided. Mr. Gemmill’s motion was adopted by forty-four votes to thirty-nine, the majority being composed of thirty-five oversea delegates, including the workers’ delegates from Guatemala, India, Japan, Peru, and South Africa, together with nine European votes. The minority consisted, with one exception, of European delegates, but most of the workers’ delegates and a number of other delegates abstained from voting.

Moreover, Mr. Gemmill’s initiative at Washington proved to be the starting point for an amendment of Article 393 of the Treaty itself in order to give better representation to the oversea countries.

Nevertheless, despite the differences which had arisen in connection with the distribution of seats, the Conference proceeded to constitute the Governing Body, which thereupon sat for the first time at Washington. This was a step of immense importance in initiating the work of the Organization. It was felt, particularly by the workers’ group, to be imperative that the International Labour Office should be created as soon as possible, if the continuity and development of the work of the Conference was to be assured. The Office could not be created, however, until a Director was appointed, and the Director could only be appointed by the Governing Body. There is no doubt that the view taken by the workers’ group was both sound in itself and justified in the event. When it met for the first time in November 27, the Governing Body elected Mr. Arthur Fontaine as its first Chairman, and Mr. Albert Thomas as provisional Director of the Office. By these two decisions, which were announced on the last day but one of the Conference, the future of the Organization was, as it proved to be, amply assured. Mr. Fontaine’s appointment as Chairman was clearly indicated by his preeminent services at the Piece Conference as Chairman of the Organizing Committee, and as a delegate to the Conference, and for more than eleven years he guided the Governing Body on its way with unsurpassed ability and judgment.

Those who did not already know Mr. Albert Thomas’s brilliant qualities and forceful personality were quickly convinced on acquaintance with him that in his hands the Office would become a great instrument fitted to play the part assigned to it by the authors of the Treaty. Here again, the Washington Conference laid well and truly the foundations of the Organization.

The Achievement of the Conference

In assessing the achievement of the Washington Conference after an interval of thirteen years, one cannot but be struck by the sharpness with which it brought into relief the principal problems which have since been in the forefront of the preoccupations of the International Labour Organization. One is also struck by the vigor and directness with which the Conference proceeded to attack all of these problems and by the progress which it accomplished in preparing, in the short space of five weeks, the groundwork for their solution. It has moreover to be remembered that the constitutional and political issues which have been the subject of this chapter did not constitute the main work of the Conference. The greater part of its time was devoted to drawing up six conventions dealing with hours of work in industry, unemployment, the night work of women, the night work of young persons, the age of admission of children to industrial employment, and the employment of women before and after childbirth. In addition to these conventions, it adopted a series of no less than six recommendations and eight resolutions on aspects of the questions on the Agenda which were not thought suitable for treatment in the Conventions.

At the same time enthusiasm alone could not have enabled the Conference to deal with so large an Agenda. The careful planning of the authors of Part XIII of the Treaty and of the Organizing Committee must also be given a large share of the credit. They had devised a procedure inspired by a real understanding of the conditions necessary to success in international conferences. In the first place, the thoroughness with which the preparatory work was carried out alone made it possible to bring the discussion of the six main points on the Agenda to positive conclusions. The reports presented by the Organizing Committee enabled the delegates to appreciate from the start the extent to which general agreement already prevailed and thus to concentrate on the points which required detailed negotiation and compromise. As a result, the six Draft Conventions, which really laid the foundations of a code of international Labour legislation, were not only duly voted, but were subsequently ratified and put into effect to an extent which shows that they were sound and workmanlike documents. Every international conference since the War has illustrated the lesson that success depends largely upon the care and foresight with which the preliminary work is carried out and that without that indispensable condition failure is almost inevitable.

Indeed, the methods of procedure so successfully applied at Washington furnished a model on which later conferences held under the auspices of the International Labour Organization have operated. It may even be suggested without exaggeration that the degree of achievement of other international conferences has varied largely with the extent to which they followed or ignored the same methods. There is a technique of international discussion, which has to be learnt and which has to be applied by those who understand it. One of the merits of the Washington Conference is that it made a considerable contribution to the formation of such a technique. But good technique, essential though it was, would not by itself have enabled it to solve the many and various problems before it.

A Conference imbued with a lesser faith might well have shrunk from confronting so boldly some of the difficult problems about which decisions were reached at Washington. It might even have hesitated to take any action at all toward setting the permanent machinery of the Organization in motion, in view of the doubt as to the legal validity of the decisions of the Conference which brooded over its deliberations from the beginning to the end. The American Government had emphasized the view that the Conference could have no legality in as much as the Treaty was not in operation. Indeed, Secretary Wilson had explained his final acceptance of the chairmanship on the ground that the Conference could have nothing but an unofficial character, and in his opening address he pointed out that the completion of the organization of the Conference could not take place until the League of Nations had been created and that the final technical steps had not yet been taken, although the creation of the League was then an assured fact. Had the Conference been less determined to brush aside all obstacles in the way of launching the first working part of the League of Nations, it might well have been dismayed by these juridical flaws in its mandate.

They were, in fact, twice discussed by the Selection Committee. Finally, the Governing Body recommended a solution proposed by Mr. Fontaine, which had the merit of being both simple and comprehensive, namely, that the Conference should, as proposed by the Organizing Committee, proceed in accordance with the provisions of the Treaty as if it were legally constituted, and should leave it to the discretion of the Governing Body to take any steps that might be necessary to make its decisions legally effective when the Treaty of Peace came into operation, the Governing Body accordingly being free to reconvene it or to declare it closed as it might think fit. This proposal commended itself to the Conference, which adopted it by the adequate majority of 73 votes to six.

The Governing Body, when it assembled at its second session in January 1920, experienced no great difficulty in cutting the legal knot. The legal adviser to the Conference had maintained the view that the Governing Body required to take no action. When the Governing Body met on January 26, 1920, it would be sufficient if it was considered that the Governing Body, in virtue of the authority delegated to it by the Conference, declared the Washington Session of the Conference closed. This course was accordingly recommended by the Director [Albert Thomas] to the Governing Body, when it met, was adopted unanimously without any prolonged discussion, and was duly notified to the States Members.

All the constitutional obstacles which barred the path of the Washington Conference were thus successfully surmounted. They could scarcely have been overcome, had not there existed a strong determination in all its component sections to achieve success at any cost, and to translate the provisions of Part XIII of the Treaty into a living reality without delay. That is perhaps the outstanding achievement of the Washington Conference, which gives it a special place in the history of the International Labour Organization, and which gives it something of the character of a constituent assembly.


1 The choice of French and English as official languages was contested at the 1919 Conference. Out of the 36 State Members present, 16 were Spanish speaking. Also the supporters of German voiced their claim, the political bias from wartime was at first a barrier. In the end in 1927 it was decided to adopt Spanish and German as languages of the ILC. (IE)

Before Versailles: the genesis of the ILO 1 By David A. Morse, Director-General 1948-1970

Let me begin with the Paris Peace Conference, which assembled in January 1919, two months after the armistice, which put an end to hostilities in the First World War.

At one of the first sessions, the Conference set up a Commission on International Labor Legislation, of which Samuel Gompers, the first president of the American Federation of Labor, was chairman.

Some of the delegates may have thought it rather surprising that one of the first acts of the Peace Conference should relate to labor; but there was general recognition that the ferment and instability, which characterized the world of labor and industry in 1918 and 1919, particularly in Europe, called for immediate and constructive action.

The Commission, which was composed of representatives of nine countries2, had to deal with the important question of whether it should propose that there be included in the Peace Treaty a full-fledged Constitution of a Permanent International Labor Organization, or whether it should simply recommend the inclusion of a general declaration of principles, a sort of Labor Charter.

It finally decided to formulate the Constitution of an organization which would be designed to examine new problems of labor and industry as they arose and to assist in finding solutions for them. In addition, but only secondarily, it agreed to approve a list of general principles. The Commission’s report consisted of two parts, one containing the Constitution of the proposed International Labor Organization, including provisions concerning its relations with the League of Nations; the other, the list of general principles on labor matters.

The report was adopted by the Peace Conference during April 1919. Both parts were subsequently embodied in the Treaty of Versailles.

Although the Paris Peace Conference is remembered mainly for its short-lived policies and decisions on political and economic affairs, its main decision in the field of social policy – the establishment of the ILO – continues today to have a far-reaching impact on the world.

Before going on to describe the Constitution of the ILO, I should like to glance for a moment back into history.

By a curious historical coincidence, it was almost exactly a century before the Paris Conference that for the first time proposals for action in each nation to regulate conditions of labor were submitted to an international conference by the Welsh-Scottish industrialist, Robert Owen, at the Congress of Aix-la-Chapelle. At the time, Owen was a voice crying in the wilderness, but the years that followed other employers’ advocated action to the same end, Hindley in England and Legrand in France.

It was their realization that efforts in the direction of national legislation to regulate conditions of labor would be impeded by the lack of coordinated international action in the field, which led Hindley, and Legrand in the 1830’s and 1840’s to advocate international labor treaties of conventions.

On the side of the workers, the International Working Men’s Association, the First International, formed in 1864, the Second International, formed in 1889, and the International Federation of Trade Unions, which traced its origins to a conference held in 1901 and which was formally constituted in 1913, all voiced in different ways the international aspirations of the workers to improve the lot of working men everywhere.

Berlin Conference 1890

Governments also, influenced by currents of economic and social thought in the nineteenth century, as well as pressures exerted by or on behalf of workers, had taken some action. In 1890, after earlier initiatives by Colonel Frey,
President of the Swiss Confederation, an international conference on conditions of labor was convened in Berlin by Chancellor Bismarck.

Thus, employers, workers, and governments all played a part, though separately, in the evolution of the concept of international action for the promotion of labor standards. All these initiatives had been inspired by men who were genuinely concerned with the hardships, which nineteenth-century industrialization and economic competition inflicted upon workers.

In 1900, very largely as a result of this growing “social conscience” in European countries, the International Association for Labor Legislation, a nongovernmental organization which received financial support from interested governments, was established. This organization, although its work had little immediate effect on national legislation, can be considered a direct forerunner of the ILO.

Near the end of the First World War, when Allied governments were making preparations for the Peace Conference, they had to take due account of the international workers’ conferences, held during the war in Leeds, Stockholm, and Berne, which urged and resolved that the terms of peace should ensure to the workers minimum guarantees in regards to labor legislation and trade union rights, in recognition of the signal services rendered during the war by the workers, both in the factories and on the battlefield.. All this explains why the Commission on International Labor Legislation was set up, at the Paris Peace Conference, and why the report of the Commission was unanimously adopted by the International Labour Conference.


1 Extract from his Cornell Lectures, 1969. The complete series of Lectures were published under the title The Origin and Evolution of the ILO and Its Role in the World Community, New York State School of Industrial and Labor Relations, 1969.
2 Belgium, Cuba, Czechoslovakia, France, Italy, Japan, Poland, United Kingdom, United States. See James T. Shotwell, Origins of the International Labour Organisation, vol. 1, pp. 128-129. New York, Colombia 1934