Skip to main content

The International Federation of Trade Unions, 1936-1939: Its history and organisation

This guide uses sources from the 1930s to give a general overview of how the International Federation of Trade Unions operated during that period. It is arranged in the following sections:

 

About the International Federation of Trade Unions:

The following is an edited version of an anonymous article on 'The International Federation of Trade Unions' written in 1936. The article appeared in the souvenir agenda of the 7th International Trades Union Congress, held in London between 8-11 July 1936 [document reference: MSS.159/5/2/42].

Cover of souvenir brochure for IFTU Congress, 1936Some people who know well enough what their trade union is, do not have a clear idea of what the International Federation of Trade Unions really stands for, but, as we are all internationalists nowadays, it may be as well to give some idea here of the structure and history of this international association of trade unions of the whole world.

At the present time [July 1936], the IFTU has 25 affiliated National Centres, with a total membership of 8,216,165, while its 27 International Trade Secretariats have a total membership of 7,495,213.

The International Federation of Trade Unions was actually founded at a conference in Copenhagen in 1901, but the first practical attempt to secure international co-operation may be traced back to the middle of the last [19th] century. In 1864 the International Association of Working Men was established in London, which had for its fundamental aim the union of working men in all countries for the emancipation of labour. When in 1871, the workers in the engineering shops in the North of England were struggling for a nine-hour working day, it was through the agency of the International Working Men's Association that the immigration of strike-breakers was stopped. In 1883, and in 1886, conferences of workers from different countries were held in Paris. In 1888, the old Parliamentary Committee of the British TUC organised an International Trades Union Congress, which was held in London. This Conference was attended by 123 delegates, of whom 79 were British, and represented in all 850,000 British and 250,000 continental workers. This Conference, as was perhaps to be expected from the very first attempt, was not very successful.

The second attempt to form an international organisation was made by the trade unions of France, which organised a Conference in Paris in 1900 for the formation of an International Labour Secretariat as a step towards the creation of a Workers' International. This attempt also proved abortive; so that the Copenhagen Conference in 1901 must be taken as the starting-point for the International Trade Union Movement.

Until war broke out [in 1914], the International Federation of Trade Unions had its office in Berlin and conferences were held every two years from 1902 onwards at Stuttgart, Dublin, Amsterdam, Christiania (present-day Oslo), Paris, Budapest, and Zurich. During the war, owing to the difficulties of running an international organisation from a belligerent country, a Correspondence Bureau was set up in Amsterdam for the exchange of letters and information between the trade unions of hostile countries who could not otherwise get their messages past the war-time censors. In 1919 the International Federation of Trade Unions was re-constituted and held its first ordinary Congress in Amsterdam. Congresses were held every few years at London, Rome, The Hague, Vienna, Paris, Stockholm and Brussels. In 1931 the International Federation of Trade Unions moved from Amsterdam to Berlin, but it had been there barely two years before Hitler's seizure of power in Germany forced it to move again, when it was transferred in April, 1933, to Paris.

Membership figures by country, 1937

It is very interesting to note the extremely international nature of the IFTU's activities, starting right from its reconstitution in 1919. One of its earliest acts was to organise the workers' refusal to transport munitions in the war waged by Poland against Russia in 1919-1920, while almost the next thing it undertook was to send train-loads of food to the starving workers of Vienna who were suffering from the inflation in 1919, and to arrange for Austrian children to be given temporary homes in Holland and other countries where they would be well cared for. From 1921 to 1923 it organised similar relief of starvation in Russia, and in 1924 it was helping the workers of Georgia.

Among the more recent activities of the International Federation of Trade Unions we may give brief mention here to the boycott of Nazi Germany which it initiated and which has now developed on a world-wide scale. Everyone is also aware of the work the IFTU has done in collecting money for the relief of the many unfortunate comrades forced to flee from Italy, Germany, and later from Austria, the Saar and Spain on account of their convictions. The IFTU has also been instrumental in collecting and administering funds for the assistance of the dependants of men murdered or wounded or imprisoned in the countries of Fascist dictatorship. It is, perhaps, not so widely known, but it has been work of very great usefulness, that the IFTU has from time to time made financial grants to the Trade Union Movement of Greece, Bulgaria, Egypt, the Baltic counties, Austria, the Dutch East Indies and Japan to help their struggling organisations to get a firm foot-hold in countries in which trade union organisation is much more difficult than it is in the democratic countries of Western Europe.

In the field of workers' education the International Federation of Trade Unions has not been idle, for it organised conferences on this subject in Brussels in 1922 and in Oxford in 1924, and it has recently set up within its Secretariat an International Centre for Workers' Education, which is doing yeoman service in the way of helping the workers' educational organisations in the various countries to exchange documents and learn from the experience of their colleagues of other nationalities.

In the field of social legislation, the IFTU took an active part in the foundation of the International Labour Office shortly after the war, since when its activities in this direction have steadily increased and developed. Each year the IFTU Secretariat collects reports from National Centres containing their views on the different questions to be dealt with at the annual International Labour Conference, held at Geneva in the summer; and at this Conference, as at the periodical meetings of the Governing Body, the General Secretary of the International Federation of Trade Unions acts as Secretary to the Workers' Group.

It goes without saying that, in defending the interests of the workers the world over, the IFTU has naturally devoted, and is still devoting, its continuous attention to anti-war work. In 1922 it organised a great World Peace Congress at the Hague, and this was followed in 1924 by the organisation of a World Anti-War Day. For years the IFTU has collaborated in the work for disarmament, both in the League of Nations and outside, when its main aim has been directed towards getting the munitions trade nationalised. It is difficult, too, to over-estimate the splendid effect in the way of anti-war propaganda which has been obtained by the IFTU's graphic booklet entitled "No More War," which, first published in 1929, has passed through six editions and has gone all over the world.

 

The IFTU Executive Committee, 1936-1939:

Biographical information (with the exception of that for Evert Kupers) has been taken from the souvenir agenda of the 7th International Trades Union Congress [document reference: MSS.159/5/2/42]. Additional images are from the IFTU yearbook for 1938 [document reference: MSS.159/5/2/82].

Sir Walter Citrine
President:
Sir Walter Citrine

General Secretary of the British Trades Union Congress.

Born at Wallasey (near Liverpool) in 1887. Trained as an electrician.

Posts held included: Assistant Secretary of the Electrical Trades Union, 1920-23; Assistant Secretary of the Trades Union Congress, 1924-5; Acting Secretary of the TUC, 1925-6; General Secretary of the TUC, 1926-1946; President of the IFTU, 1928-1945.

Walter Schevenels
General Secretary:
Walter Schevenels
 

Born on 11 November 1894 into a family strongly involved with the Belgian labour movement (his grandfather was a founding member of the Brussels section of the First International, and his father was a leader of the Belgian Metal Workers' Union). Trained as a surveyor, and, during the First World War, edited the weekly paper of the minority section of the Belgian Socialist Party.

Posts held included: Secretary of the Metal Workers' Federation of Antwerp (elected in 1921); Assistant Secretary of the IFTU, 1929-1930; General Secretary of the IFTU from 1930.

George Stolz
Assistant Secretary:
George Stolz

Born in Prague, Czechoslovakia, in 1898. Became active in the trade union movement and Social Democratic Party in 1918, whilst working for an insurance firm.

Posts held included: Secretary of the Central Union of Employees (appointed in 1923); Secretary of the Civil Servants' Federation; Press Officer of the Czech National Centre, 1927-1930; Secretary of the Central Union of Insurance Workers; Assistant Secretary of the IFTU from 1931.

 

 
Vice Presidents:
Hans Jacobsen
Hans Jacobsen

Chief Treasurer of the Danish National Trade Union Centre.

Born on 26 December 1872 in Aarhus, Denmark, and trained as a tailor. After completing his apprenticeship, worked as a journeyman tailor in Norway, Germany and Switzerland.

Posts held included: President of the Aarhus Branch of the Danish Tailors' Union, 1905-1914; Secretary of the Tailors' Union, 1914-1919; Secretary of the Danish National Trade Union Centre, 1919-1928; Vice President of the Danish National Trade Union Centre, 1928-9; Chief Treasurer of the Danish National Trade Union Centre, 1929 onwards; Vice President of the IFTU, 1929 onwards.

Leon Jouhaux
Leon Jouhaux

General Secretary of the Confédération Général du Travail (the French National Trade Union Centre).

Born on 1 July 1879 in Paris. Began work in a Paris match factory at the age of 16, where he became union secretary. He played a key part in the formation of the IFTU in 1901.

Posts held included: General Secretary of the Confédération Général du Travail from 1909; member of the Council for International Labour Law at the 1919 Peace Conference; on governing body of the International Labour Office; Vice President of the French Economic Council from 1925.

Evert Kupers
Evert Kupers

Chairman of the Dutch National Trade Union Centre.

Born in 1885, and trained as a tailor.

Corneille Mertens
Corneille Mertens

General Secretary of the Belgian National Trade Union Centre.

Born on 29 January 1880 in Antwerp, Belgium, and trained as a bookbinder.

Posts held included: Secretary of the Bookbinders' Union of Antwerp, 1905-1910; Secretary of the Belgian National Trade Union Centre, 1911-1921; on the executive of the Belgian Socialist Party from 1913; General Secretary of the Belgian National Trade Union Centre from 1921.

Rudolf Tayerle
Rudolf Tayerle

General Secretary of the Czechoslovakian National Trade Union Centre.

Born on 26 August 1877 in Prague, Czechoslovakia, and trained as a locksmith.

Posts held included: Editor of the trade union journal 'Kovodelnik' (appointed in 1901); Secretary of the Czechoslovakian National Trade Union Centre from 1911; Member of the Czech Parliament from 1920.

IFTU Executive Committee in 1933

 

IFTU meetings between July 1936 and April 1939:

The following is a list of all known joint meetings between the IFTU and the Labour and Socialist International (LSI), and all meetings of the Executive Committee and General Council of the International Federation of Trade Unions, held between July 1936 and April 1939. Some extracts of minutes and reports of meetings are included in the digitised TUC files relating to the Spanish Civil War. Where this is the case, links to the relevant documents have been included next to the date of the meeting.

Joint meetings with the Labour and Socialist International:

28 July 1936 (Brussels) Subject of meeting: Spain. Report of meeting (1), report of meeting (2)
21 August 1936 (Paris) Subject of meeting: Spain. Report of meeting (1), report of meeting (2)
28 September 1936 (Paris) Subject of meeting: Spain. Report of meeting, minutes (1), minutes (2), joint statement
26 October 1936 (Paris) Subject of meeting: Spain. Notes of meeting, report of meeting, resolution.
4-5 December 1936 (Paris) Subject of meeting: Spain. Report of meeting (1), report of meeting (2), circular re calling of emergency meeting
14 January 1937 (Paris) Subject of meeting: Spain. Notes of meeting, minutes
17 February 1937 (Paris) Subject of meeting: Spain. Circular re arrangements for meeting, report of meeting
9-11 March 1937 (London) Subject of meeting: Spain.

Verbatim report (10-11 March), resolution. Three files relating to the organisation, discussions and aftermath of this conference [document reference: 292/946/20-22] can be browsed elsewhere on this website.

25 May 1937 (Paris) Subject of meeting: Spain. Points for discussion, report of meeting
16-17 June 1937 (Paris) Subject of meeting: Spain. Report of meeting, minutes, resolution
24 June 1937 (Paris) Subject of meeting: Spain. Proposal of the Spanish Socialist Party, Report of meeting
13, 15-16 September 1937 (Paris) Subject of meeting: Spain. Report of meeting, draft report of meeting
15 January 1938 (Brussels) Subject of meeting: China and Japan.  
15-16 March 1938 (Paris) Subject of meeting: Austria, Czechoslovakia and Spain.  
14 April 1938 (Paris) Subject of meeting: Spain. Report of meeting, report of the meeting to the National Council of Labour
25 November 1938 (Paris) Subject of meeting: Spain. Report of meeting, summary report of meeting, minutes
24 January 1939 (London) Subject of meeting: Spain. Statement

 

Meetings of the Executive Committee:

6, 9, 11 July 1936 (London)  
28 September 1936 (Paris) Report of meeting
21-22 October 1936 (Paris) Report of meeting
17-18 December 1936 (Paris) Report of meeting (possibly incomplete)
17-18 February 1937 (Paris)  
29-30 April 1937 (Paris) Copy of letters on the situation in Spain for discussion at the meeting, minutes
29 June 1937 (Warsaw)  
15-16 September 1937 (Paris) Letter re arrangements for the meeting
17-18 November 1937 (Paris) Report on 'The situation in the Spanish Trade Union Movement: threat of a split' for discussion at the meeting, newspaper report (1) and (2) 
7-8 December 1937 (Paris) Report of meeting (on trade union divisions in Spain)
12-13 January 1938 (Paris)  
17-18 March 1938 (Paris) Confidential statement from Largo Caballero for discussion at the meeting
16 May 1938 (Oslo)  
7 July 1938 (Paris) Letter from Leon Jouhaux for consideration at the meeting
6-7 October 1938 (Paris)  
9 November 1938 (Paris)  
3-4 January 1939 (Paris)  
1-2 March 1939 (Paris) Draft resolution
29-30 March 1939 (London)  

 

Meetings of the General Council:

6 July 1936 (London)  
28 September 1936 (Paris) Circular re arrangements for emergency meeting
4-5 December 1936 (Paris)  
10-11 March 1937 (London)  
30 June - 3 July 1937 (Warsaw) Extract from report of meeting, draft resolution
15-16 March 1938 (Paris)  
17-22 May 1938 (Oslo)  
9-10 November 1938 (Paris)