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History of the WFTU


The first four years of the WFTU - 1945 to 1949 - showed the great potential of a united world trade union movement. Despite the initial opposition of certain bureaucrats, the WFTU was given consultative status at the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations. The WFTU took the initiatives for the adoption of ILO conventions on the right of association and collective bargaining. Powerful support was given to workers' struggles for their rights and demands.

The WFTU organised an intense solidarity campaign in support of the anti-fascist forces in Spain and Greece and managed to convince the U.N. to recommend to member states the withdrawal of their ambassadors from Madrid. The defence of trade union rights was at the heart of the solidarity actions with workers who were victims of repression, including workers in colonial territories. On two occasions, July 1946 and February 1947, special missions were sent to Iran when trade unionists were arrested and democratic liberties suppressed. A similar mission was sent, in March 1947, to South Africa following the brutal repression on striking miners.

But as the democratic upsurge of the peoples advanced, asserting their right of association and united action for their economic and social demands, they were faced with the staunch resistance of the imperialist and reactionary forces.

The veritable democratic upsurge and the victory of the national liberation movements in the colonies in the post-second-world-war period were marked by an active role of the working people and the trade unions in these great struggles for human progress. The WFTU and its affiliates actively supported the national liberation movements and the struggles against military and fascist dictatorships.

The growth in membership and influence of the trade union movements all over the world has been most remarkable during this period. The world trade union movement actively helped the organising process in the newly-independent countries.


The international situation took a turn for the worse with the cold war which came to prevail in the late 1940s, along with the rearmament, the arms race and the politics of confrontation. United national trade union centres were disrupted by the advocates of the cold war and trade union unity was seriously weakened.

The anti-fascist alliance of states was split and was soon replaced by armed confrontation between two powerful military blocs. The United Nations and all international organisations were seriously affected by the politics of confrontation.

Within the WFTU, following the positions taken by the different national trade union centres, acute policy differences arose on important questions. This related to the role of the International Trade Secretariats, attitude to the Marshall Plan, etc.

Analysing the developments of that period, Louis Saillant, the then WFTU General Secretary, wrote:

"One must not try to foist the views of a national trade union centre on to a united international trade union organisation, as the American unions wanted to do with regard to the Marshall Plan. We proposed at the time, since we had different points of view, that we should simply take note of the existence of the Marshall Plan, and that the WFTU should not be put in the position of having to adopt a decision for or against. This attempt was made, in spite of everything, to impose a decision, even though there was a majority against the Marshall Plan in the WFTU. We did not ask for this majority to be used. But there were some people who were seeking to see the majority vote used in order to provoke a split."

The split came in the shape of a letter from the British TUC, read out by its President Arthur Deakin at the WFTU Executive Bureau meeting in Paris on 19 January 1949, demanding "suspension of all WFTU activities for a period of 12 months". He said that if this was not accepted, the British TUC would withdraw from the WFTU. James B. Carey from the United States was more direct and blunt: "It is no use pretending that the WFTU is anything but a corpse. Let us bury it."

The motion was rejected as it did not fall within the competence of the Executive Bureau. The matter was referred to the Executive Committee and to the Congress. Following this, Arthur Deakin, James B. Carey and E. Kupers (Netherlands) walked out of the meeting.

Soon afterwards, several organisations withdrew from the WFTU. The split was formalised. In December 1949, those who withdrew met in London and formed the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU).

It is thus clear that those organisations which now constitute the WFTU never intended to divide the world trade union movement. They have always been striving to promote the unity of workers the world over.

The WFTU held its Second World Trade Union Congress, as planned, in Milan from 29 June to 9 July 1949. Delegations from 61 countries were present at the Congress representing around 71 million members. The Congress rejected the British TUC's proposal to cease activities. An Open Letter was adopted by the Congress addressed to trade union activists in the United States, Great Britain and other countries whose centres had pulled out of the WFTU, urging them to find a way to reach an agreement around common aims.

The Second World Trade Union Congress established priorities in the struggle for peace, democratic rights of the peoples and international trade union unity. Resolutions were adopted on the economic and social demands of the workers and on the special problems of migrant workers. The Congress also decided to set up the Trade Union Internationals (TUIs) to organise activities in the various trade branches. Guiseppe Di Vittorio was elected President and Louis Saillant was re-elected General Secretary. Vice Presidents were: V. Kuznetsov (USSR), A. Le Leap (France), V.Lombardo Toledano (Mexico), Lui Chao Chih (China), B. Blokzil (Netherlands), F. Zupka (Czechoslovakia), S.A.Dange (India), L. Pena (Cuba) and A. Diallo (Guinea).


During the last five decades, reflecting the great changes in the world, the composition of the WFTU has also changed significantly. Ideological and political splits and changes in policies also influenced certain trade union organisations.

Reviewing developments in the past period, the Policy Document adopted at the 13th World Trade Union Congress made the assessment that "economically and socially speaking, 'bloc' politics seriously handicapped the action, form and influence of world trade unionism, and more especially its international structures. These upheavals bring to the fore the central issue of the role and place of the social movement and the trade union movement." (paragraph 23)

The Policy Document further stated that "trade unions and their international organisations could not, did not know how to, and did not want to avoid taking a stance in this global confrontation. The resulting decision within the international trade union movement weakened its action and its role in promoting international solidarity, and hampered its ability to take stances and act concertedly in resolving the problems of the workers.

"Internationally, and domestically in certain countries, the issues of the independence and the purpose of trade union action in defending demands, meeting the needs of the workers, and responding to their desires for democracy, the defence of human rights and unity, have often been considered to be of secondary importance in trade union practices and concepts. The responsibility of each individual and of the masses is decisive. The upheavals that have occurred have merely strengthened the demand for trade unionism to maintain independence in its judgments, decisions and action, whatever the circumstances, and to be fully democratic. This constitutes the basis of the respect for the principles of trade unionism." (paragraphs 24-26)

Thus the basic principles laid down by the founding Congress of the WFTU have been strongly reiterated.

Eleven World Trade Union Congresses have been organised by the WFTU over the 46 years since the Milan Congress in 1949. These Congresses which have all been highly representative in character confirm the correctness of the decision of the Milan Congress to continue the activities of the WFTU as an organisation striving for unity and international solidarity of workers and trade unions in all countries, to carry forward the aims and objectives of its founding Congress in Paris in 1945 and seeking areas of agreement to promote unity and united action in the world trade union movement.

These Congresses became broad platforms for the world trade union movement to exchange views and to decide on strategies and policies to advance the struggles of the workers in all countries for their rights. The policy of the WFTU to hold such Congresses as open forums has actively helped the development of international trade union cooperation.

The 13th World Trade Union Congress (Damascus, 1994) was attended by 418 participants from 160 national, local, regional and international trade union organisations, representing more than 300 million workers from 84 countries on every continent.

The constitutional amendments approved by the Damascus Congress defines WFTU's current aims and objectives as follows:

I. DEFINITION: As set forth in the declaration adopted by the London World Trade Union Conference in February 1945 and the resolutions and principles adopted by the First World Trade Union Congress in Paris in October 1945, the WFTU is a democratic, class-based international trade union organisation of struggle of all wage-earners, which supports and encourages action by trade unions in every country to obtain the independent rights and demands of the workers, to defend their interests, to combat all forms of domination and subservience, exploitation and oppression, and to bring about socioeconomic development, and which develops and coordinates cooperation and solidarity.

Trade union organisations from all countries in the world that wish to unite on the basis of the principle of independence in order to achieve common aims join the WFTU on a voluntary basis, irrespective of differences in their political, philosophical and religious beliefs, in the race of their members, or in social regimes. As an international organisation, and not withstanding the relations established at national level by member organisations, the WFTU maintains its independence from governments, political parties and employers.

The WFTU considers the renewal of the world trade union movement to be essential in achieving these objectives, to effectively defend workers' interests.

This concept, which is as closely rooted as possible to the workers and to concrete acts of solidarity, takes as its basis, struggles at the national, regional and industrial level, and is applied in order to give them all the necessary momentum and coordination.

Its role is that of a centre of cooperation, of dialogue, the putting forward of proposals, genuine exchanges of information and experience, and the mobilisation of workers for common aims and for solidarity initiatives amongst member organisations and, of course, any others who so desire. All this should serve the renewal and unity of the international trade union movement, based on the principle of respect for independence.

It is for this reason that the WFTU intends to transform itself into a flexible, light and operational general structure capable of adapting to the needs of member organisations, a structure which in effect aims to see itself being placed within a thoroughly transformed international trade unionism.

II. OBJECTIVES: The WFTU therefore proclaims its prime objective is to contribute to the emancipation of the working people by means of struggle:

against all forms of exploitation of people and for obtaining and guaranteeing living and working conditions for all workers which would allow them the widest possible benefits from the fruits of their labour, in order to obtain for them and their families the time and the means to live in conditions appropriate to our epoch which is one marked by the headlong progress of science and technology: against colonialism, imperialism, domination and expansionism in the economic, social, political and cultural spheres; for the elimination of racism and underdevelopment; to guarantee sovereignty, freedom and security of nations, non-interference in their internal affairs, respect for their political, economic and social independence and the establishment of a new and just international economic order; for the right to full employment and the guarantee of this right; for full and adequate social security legislation to protect workers and their families in the event of sickness and old age, and every other type of assistance and social security; for training, education and culture for all workers, thus enabling them to gain access to any responsibility or position within their capabilities; for protection of the working environment, effective measures to maintain and promote ecological standards and sustainable development. for the achievement of social, economic and political democracy, the defence and development of workers' and trade unions' rights and freedoms, respect for human rights and the implementation of the Universal Declaration of Trade Union Rights. for the prevention of a nuclear war and the dissolution of all military alliances and blocs; against aggression and war and to promote international detente, the establishment of a just and lasting peace, peaceful coexistence and mutually advantageous cooperation amongst all peoples and among States; an end to the arms race, especially in nuclear arms and the total prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons; and progressive arms reduction leading to general and complete disarmament.

III. MEANS: To encourage and promote these objectives, the WFTU takes initiatives to contribute to the mobilisation of all the forces of the international trade union movement.

To this end, the WFTU, its affiliates, the professional and regional structures:

  • use every available means to publicise and explain these objectives to the workers of all countries, together with the programmes and decisions adopted by its leading bodies, and the actions for unity which it adopts; make every effort to organise, inspire and coordinate international solidarity; to promote and encourage all democratic debates and exchanges of opinion and experience on problems of common interest to all workers and trade unions of the world; work with and within international and intergovernmental institutions; work for action organised and carried out at regional level to stimulate and develop consultation, cooperation and solidarity, so as to respond best to their specific concerns and interests, and at industrial level to reinforce the place and role of the Trade Unions Internationals (TUIs); advocate and act in favour of the achievement of unity; cooperate with trade union organisations and the institutions concerned with workers' trade union training.

IV. METHODS OF WORK: To achieve its objectives the WFTU applies the following principles and working methods:

  • The WFTU makes constant use of forms of work aimed at unity and cooperation with all national, branch and inter-branch organisations, irrespective of affiliation, in the struggle for common objectives and in a spirit of workers' international solidarity. The democratic functioning of the organisation at all levels requires consultations and the strict application of collective work in the governing and deliberative bodies laid down in the Constitution, as well as respect for all opinions expressed in the interests of the defence of the workers. Adherence to decisions taken and to the regularity of meetings of the statutory leading bodies and regional, branch and WFTU assemblies, together with the creation of Working Commissions as decided by the statutory bodies, constitutes one of the forms of the organisation's democratic functioning.

    The observance of full respect for democratic principles in relations with trade union organisations, based on the recognition of the right of member organisations to draft their policies, programmes and actions independently and in accordance with the interests of the workers of their countries and the specific conditions in which they are working, as well as with specific national circumstances. Relations between the WFTU and its member organisations and between member organisations within the WFTU or at bilateral level are based on mutual respect, complete equality of rights, reciprocal independence and non-interference in internal affairs. Relations are also based on the following principles: Consultations in order to seek the broadest possible agreement, after sufficient debate, in the statutory bodies on all important and fundamental matters. Such consultations do not exclude the need to engage in debate on each issue analysed. If, after sufficient discussion has taken place, a consensus cannot be achieved, decisions are reached by vote in accordance with the Constitution. Decisions of the statutory bodies of the WFTU are adopted by a simple majority. A two-thirds majority is required if the issue concerns (1) amendments to the WFTU Constitution; (2) the establishment or modification of its Programme of Action, (3) the adoption of its budget. Election of leaders of the WFTU should take place by direct secret ballot. It is necessary to pursue consultations, notwithstanding any possible vote, on questions on which agreement cannot be reached within the bodies concerned or in the supreme body. In all cases, democratic and unity-oriented principles shall be observed, allowing member organisations which have expressed a position or aim different from the others to associate with the life and activities of the WFTU both in spirit and in accordance with the Constitution. Concerning relations between the WFTU and its member organisations: An organisation's membership of the WFTU does not, in any case, entail renunciation or reduction of its independence and national autonomy in the implementation of resolutions or decisions of WFTU statutory bodies. Member organisations will carry out the decisions of the WFTU statutory bodies taking into account the situation in their respective countries, thus recognising the right of each organisation to take into consideration the specific conditions in which they work. The right is recognised of any member organisation not to be bound by any decision, stand or action in the formulation of which it was not involved or with which it did not agree. The WFTU's relations with associate member organisations, as well as the rights and duties of those organisations, are defined in the present Constitution. The WFTU's relations with non-member organisations are based on fraternal and voluntary cooperation in the constant search for common objectives and the planning of common activities. In this spirit, the WFTU shall seek contact and establish cooperation with the other international trade union organisations, as well as with regional or continental trade union organisations.

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