75 Years of Workers’ Struggle in the WFTU

Today, 3 October 2020, marks the 75th anniversary of the World Federation of Trade Unions. The WFTU shows us what a trade union should be, not just something that fights for your rights at work, but an organisation that is anti-fascist, anti-sexist, anti-imperialist, and anti-capitalist.

75 years ago to this day delegates representing 67 million workers from 55 countries officially voted to establish the World Federation of Trade Unions, or WFTU, at the first World Trade Union Congress in Paris. The WFTU would become an international body uniting trade unionists and workers from all over the globe.

The Congress was chaired by representatives of trade unions from Britain, the USA, the Soviet Union, China, and Latin America in this spirit of world workers’ unity. The New Zealand Federation of Labour participated. In this way, the peak world trade union body was born out of the anti-fascist struggle of the Second World War and the desire for peace and international cooperation that came of it.

The workers and trade unions supporting the Congress recognised that friendship and cooperation between the governments of the anti-Hitler coalition was not enough to ensure world peace and social justice. After all, it had been the capitalist powers of this coalition such as Britain and France who capitulated to Hitler’s Germany and paved the way to war. The Munich Conference in 1938, in which the ‘democratic’ capitalist countries allowed the fascist states to invade Czechoslovakia with no repercussions, could not be repeated.

As the founding delegates of the WFTU said in the official resolution of the preparatory London conference:

“Our historic Conference, meeting in the midst of the armed struggle still raging, is itself a demonstration of the unity of the working class and evidence of the moral victory of the United Nations over the evil forces of fascism. Organized labour, with so great a part in winning the war, cannot leave to others – however well-intentioned they may be – the sole responsibility of making the peace. The peace will be a good peace – an enduring peace – a peace worthy of the sacrifices by which it has been won – only if it reflects the deep resolve of the free peoples, their interests, their desires, and their needs. We therefore send forth from our World Conference this appeal to all workers of the world, and to all men and women of goodwill to consecrate to the building of a better world the service and sacrifice they have given to the winning of the war.”

From 1945 until 1949, the WFTU showed the incredible power of a strong, unified, and anti-fascist working class movement. On its initiative, the UN International Labour Organisation adopted global codes on collective bargaining and the right to join a union. The WFTU affiliated trade unions were the biggest advocates for trade unionists arrested and persecuted by regimes from the Iranian monarchy to apartheid South Africa. It led the international campaign against remaining fascist dictatorships in Spain, Portugal, and Greece; and it backed the independence and national liberation of the colonies in Asia and Africa. This immense solidarity movement, coupled with the success of revolutions in Eastern Europe, Vietnam, China, and Korea terrfied monopoly capitalism. The monopolists feared they would soon face the same fate Hitler’s Germany had. In London and Washington, big business and its lackeys within the trade union movement agreed – something had to be done to save their fortunes and the international capitalist system they profited from.

These lackeys couldn’t stand by as WFTU organised on class grounds. At the founding Congress of the WFTU, British and Dutch delegates had spoken against taking an anti-colonial stance. The 1947 general strike of the Communist-led General Confederation of Labour in France, which nearly led to revolution, made the capitalists realise something further had to be done. Thus the CIA funding of trade unions began.

In 1949, US trade union leader James Carey said that “It is no use pretending that the WFTU is anything but a corpse. Let us bury it.” Carey’s words marked the beginning of an offensive of the British and US lackeys to scrap the WFTU entirely. When the vast majority of the WFTU leaders rightly refused, the British, US and several other class-collaborationist (meaning they work with the capitalist class and big business) trade union centres left to form the “International Confederation of Free Trade Unions” (ICFTU). The ICFTU was not really “free”, but controlled by the US State Department and CIA.

In New Zealand, the class-collaborationists of the Federation of Labour, following the orders of Washington and London, left the WFTU. The only trade union to remain was the militant Waterside Workers’ Union, which now faced not only the wrath of the government and port bosses, but the collaborationist trade union movement. The Watersiders, in a showdown with the Federation leadership, remained affiliated to the maritime section of the WFTU. As Dick Scott notes in the official union account of the great waterfront lockout and supporting strikes in 1951,

“The Federation [of Labour] itself had been a member of the WFTU until seven months previously – but American union czars had led a break-away to form the US State Department-directed ICFTU.” 

Dick Scott, 151 Days

The Waterfronters’ principled decision to remain loyal to their class and to the WFTU was validated during this strike, when they received the utmost solidarity of the World Federation of Trade Unions and other maritime workers world-over. 

The Trade Unions International calls on all maritime and port workers throughout the world, and on all trade union organisations concerned with the workers’ standard of living and trade union rights, to raise a powerful protest with the New Zealand Government and to boycott relentlessly all ships coming from New Zealand.

Resolution of the Bureau of the Trade Unions International of Seamen and Dockers (WFTU), May 3 1951

The noble struggle of the Watersiders 69 years ago and the unyielding support of the WFTU for their fight is a proud chapter in the history of the workers’ movement in New Zealand and worldwide. Sadly after the smashing of the Watersiders, the connection of the WFTU with our country was severed for many decades. This did not stop the WFTU from caring about kiwi workers. In recent years, they have issued similar statements in solidarity after the Christchurch earthquake and during major industrial action in Aotearoa.

Over the second half of the 20th century the WFTU was active fighting for all progressive causes: against apartheid; for independence from colonial powers in Africa; for the rights of working women; against imperialism and the threat of worldwide nuclear war, for sustainable ecological development; and above all, for an expansion of workers’ rights.

Fast forward to the present-day, and while names may change, not much else does. The World Federation of Trade Unions, now with over 100 million workers affiliated, remains the democratic, class-oriented, and militant centre of trade unions worldwide. This is particularly so for workers in Asia and Africa. Our General Secretary, George Mavrikos, was a trade unionist and resistance fighter against the Greek fascist dictatorship in the 1960s and 1970s, and was arrested by the fascist police several times for it.

The ICFTU, now renamed the International Trade Union Confederation after merging with Catholic trade unions still remains a cog in the capitalist world system. Recent congresses of the ITUC have had keynote speakers such as the heads of the International Monetary Fund and World Trade Organisation, bodies designed to oppress and exploit in the interests of big business.

The Hospo Workers Union has no illusions about our own power: we are a new union that is still growing and developing. But right from the start, us and our members knew which side of the global class division we stand on. A resolution accepted the Constitution of the WFTU and requesting affiliation was passed unanimously at our founding general meeting.

We could not be happier with this choice. Now part of the Trade Union International of Workers in Agriculture, Food, Commerce and Allied Industries as part of the WFTU, hospo workers here in Aotearoa are connected up with a global fighting family of workers.

Comrade Julien Huck, our international General Secretary, puts it best:

Workers are seeing their situation deteriorate through murderous imperialist wars to impose capitalism by force. Because of this, our struggles for peace and disarmament are crucial and must continue to be asserted and intensified. On all continents, conflicts are multiplying or being prepared. The responsible countries, the United States, France and Great Britain…with the support of the European Union and NATO, are maintaining wars from the “Middle East” to Latin America via the African continent. The objective is to control and seize natural and human wealth in order to satisfy the thirst for capitalist profit. For this end, they do not hesitate to rely on and use corrupt governments or small groups or their own people, for example in the attacks against Syria, in Africa or against Venezuela. More than half the populations of the countries concerned live in rural areas. The workers of our professions and their families are among the main victims of these imperialist wars. On the one hand the working masses are becoming impoverished, and on the other military and arms budgets are exploding. Trade union freedoms and social rights are being challenged. The fight for peace is a priority.

Julien Huck, General Secretary of the Trade Union International

Within the WFTU we are not just kiwi hospo workers fighting against exploitation. We are side-by-side with food industry workers in Palestine, Romania, Colombia, Burkina Faso, Germany, Cuba, and nearly seventy other countries from all continents fighting against global exploitation: of worker; of farmer; of youth and of woman.

Comrade George Mavrikos, General Secretary of the WFTU reminds us,

“We cannot afford to be neutral when the Cuban and Palestinian struggles for self-determination are threatened by US imperialism and world institutions under imperialist control such as UNO, ILO, WB, IMF, and WTO.”

George Mavrikos, General Secretary of the WFTU

The famous trade union song of the same name asks workers, “Which side are you on?”. The Hospo Workers Union knows what side we stand on, and so does the World Federation of Trade Unions. The reality is that the exploitative conditions we face in the hospo workplace extend worldwide, across the whole capitalist system. Hospo workers want a union that not only fights for our rights at work; but stands against neo-colonialism, fascism, sexism, and exploitation worldwide. These issues matter to working people.

As Deputy General Secretary of the WFTU, Swadesh Dev Roye notes,

As a champion of class struggle WFTU has been forth rightly propagating and fighting against the doctrine of imperialist globalization and neoliberalism and has been critical of class collaborationist trade union organization. Now with the outbreak and continuation of the capitalist crisis while WFTU has emerged as the champion in the fight against imperialist globalization pursuing the path of Class Struggle, the crisis has also exposed the class collaborationist in the trade union movement for their policy of collaboration with the forces of imperialist globalization.

We have to strengthen the functioning of WFTU throughout the Asia-Pacific Region. The message of the resolve and role of WFTU in the fight against imperialist forces and championing the cause of the working class must be spread in every nook and corner of the Asia-Pacific region.

Swadesh Dev Roye, Deputy General Secretary of the WFTU

Hospo workers belong in the Hospo Workers Union and the Hospo Workers Union belongs in the World Federation of Trade Unions. We look forward to the next 75 years and the further growth of the class-oriented union movement worldwide and in Aotearoa. 

This article was written by the Hospo Workers Union and is syndicated with their permission.