Skip to main content Skip to navigation

History of the International Transport Workers' Federation

Early Years

The International Transport Workers’ Federation was founded in London in 1896 as the International Federation of Ship, Dock and River Workers, adopting its current name in 1898 when it expanded to include transport workers in non-maritime industries. The Federation was founded by J. Havelock Wilson of the NSFU, in association with Ben Tillett and Tom Mann, the leaders of the 1889 London Dock Strike and Charles Lindley, a Swedish seamen’s unionist.

1897 poster 'The International Movement, What it is, its programme and policy'

Document reference MSS.159/3/C/A/14/31.

The First World War

In 1904, the ITF moved to Germany and came under the control of Secretary Hermann Jochade, the German railwaymen’s leader. The First World War broke down associations between trade unionists and with Jochade’s conscription in 1915, the Federation virtually ceased to exist.

1916 letter from J. Havelock Wilson of the National Sailors’ and Firemen’s Union, to Hermann Jochade, ITF General Secretary

Wilson writes about the treatment of seamen in British and German camps during WWI and moves to block German representation in the ITF

File reference MSS.159/3/B/78.

The Inter-War Years and Second World War

Moving to an Amsterdam office in 1919, the Federation re-emerged under the leadership of Edo Fimmen, who led a series of notable anti-fascist campaigns during the Spanish Civil War and against the Italian Fascist and Nazi regimes. The archive holds numerous records relating to these activities, listed under MSS.159/3/C/a-b. By 1939, the imminent outbreak of war caused the ITF to relocate to England, initially to Bedford and later to London, where it remains.

Cover of a memorial leaflet for Edo Fimmen, ITF General Secretary from 1919 to 1942

File reference MSS.159/12/9.

Report to the ITF Secretariat on Italian unions’ situation under Fascism, 1932

Document reference MSS.159/3/C/359.

De l’argent pour Hitler c’est la guerre en Europe

'Money for Hitler means war in Europe' sticker, part of a file of anti-Nazi propaganda produced or circulated by the ITF in the 1930s.

File reference MSS.159/3/C/A/140.

After 1945

Following relocation to England, the Federation continued to flourish. The first post-war Congress in Zurich in 1946 saw a review of the Constitution, highlighting the need for effective working class solidarity, freedom and equality. The post-1945 period would see the establishment of new industrial sections for Civil Aviation workers in 1949 and Tourism Services workers in 1974. The Federation was instrumental in the foundation of the ICFTU in 1949, in addition to leading the Flags of Convenience Campaign for seafarers’ rights and becoming increasingly involved with major labour and transport organisations as a consultative body. The period has also seen a significant increase in the activities of ITF regional branches, in the involvement of women in trade unionism and in the establishment of educational programmes and awareness campaigns.

Throughout its history, the International Transport Workers’ Federation has had a wide range of operations and contributed to campaigns and initiatives covering all key global transport sectors. The ITF summarises its activities under the headings Representation, Information and Practical Solidarity.