Nos organisations sont jeunes. Ne sont-elles pas encore parfois discutées ? Comment réussirons-nous à mettre en évidence leur utilité ? Comment gagnerons-nous l'adhésion complète et sans réserve de tous les peuples de l'univers ?1
This concern, expressed in 1925 during an official mission in Albert Thomas (1878–1932), a key figure of socialist reformism in and the first Director of the Office, underlines the fact that the existence of international organizations is by no means natural and that their longevity is far from being automatic. If their survival depends on political configurations, however, it also depends on their ability to become indispensable interlocutors of governments, on possessing resources and expertise that these governments, taken individually, do not have. In the context of the ILO, its interpretation as a space of meetings and exchanges of information makes it possible to understand better the process of elaboration and dissemination of international labour norms. Recent research on the ILO has in fact sought to highlight phenomena pertaining to the circulation of knowledge, expertise and models of social policy at the heart of its functioning. It has thus contributed to turning the ILO into case study for the analysis of transnational connections, and even into a 'terrain for studying globalization'.2 Moreover, some research, by taking a particular interest in individual actors, international functionaries and experts has made it possible to examine their ability to act simultaneously both at the national and international levels.3 Analysing international organizations in this perspective allows accounting for their relative autonomy in relation to states and their role as fully-fledged actors in international relations.by
The foundations: at the crossroads of European networks
During the interwar period, the ILO, just like the League of Nations (LoN), was a organization in more than one way. From a diplomatic viewpoint, European interests always prevailed, as the ILO was above all an organization of the victors of the First World War. If History recognizes the ' pivotal role in the negotiations to form an organization to promote international cooperation, they nonetheless did not become a member of the ILO in 1919, as the U.S. Senate had not ratified the Treaty of Versailles.
The creation of the ILO in 1919 was rooted in the awareness on the part of European industrial states, growing since the end of the 19th century, of the need to integrate workers into society in order to ensure social peace. This trend was reinforced with the war and the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917.4 The adoption of labour norms was nevertheless not supposed to be detrimental to the economic interests of states, thus situating this question at the junction of national and international interests.
The existence of the ILO, moreover, owed much to the international union movement and to an essentially European 'nébuleuse réformatrice', as the various social reform movements have become known.5 Reformers, who came from the socialist movements of the Second International or those gathered within the International Association for Labour Legislation (IALL) created in 1900, contributed especially to the project of creating an international organization devoted to the protection of workers.6
The architects of the ILO constitution who were present in Arthur Fontaine (1860–1931), co-founder of the IALL, President of the Organizing Committee during the negotiation phases in Paris and President of the ILO's Governing Body; and, on the side, Harold Butler (1883–1951), who played a central role, in Paris, in the creation of the Commission on International Labour Legislation, which afterwards was presided over by Samuel Gompers (1850–1924), former President of the American Federation of Labor (AFL). Butler would go on to be named Secretary-General of the first International Labour Conference in 1919, then Deputy Director of the Office, and went on to become its Director in 1932.7 Lastly, the Edward Phelan (1888–1967), who rose through the ranks of the British Civil Service and member of the British delegation to the Peace Conference, would be the first functionary to be named to the Office as head of the diplomatic division, before going on to become its Deputy Director in 1933.in 1919 were the leaders of the Organization's administrative implementation at that time. They included the Frenchman
The Organization's European character was also evident in geographical markers. Back in Paris after the first International Labour Conference, which took place in 8 The Office's official life thus began in London, on Seamore Place in the well-to-do Mayfair district, before its final move, in the summer of 1920, to the heights of , where it settled in the building of the former Institut Thudichum, an international school.in 1919, Albert Thomas, appointed Director of the Office in 1920, decided to leave the French capital in order to keep at bay political pressures surrounding the recruitment of personnel.
The origin of the Office's international functionaries also underscored its European character. The first cohort of functionaries, a little over than one hundred in 1920, was recruited essentially from Europe and in particular from France, Great Britain and 9. If in 1925 the Office included twenty-five different nationalities, the French and the British generally occupied the best positions, thus further reinforcing their influence within the ILO, the official languages of which were also English and French.
Moreover, the personal networks also carried weight in the first recruitment drive. As a result of the war, the number of qualified and employable young men had dwindled significantly. The national administrations, in particular the labour ministries, kept jealous watch over the best individuals and were rather reluctant to assign them to this new organization, about which they knew little. So some of the first functionaries employed were old friends of Albert Thomas' from the Ecole normale supérieure or else former associates from the war years, during which Thomas was also minister of armaments from 1916 to 1917.10 In addition, some of the personnel were drawn from European academia. Many British functionaries hailed from the London School of Economics, which itself emerged in a context of social tensions and national slowdown at the end of the 19th century. Its founders, Sidney Webb (1859–1947) and Beatrice Webb (1858–1943) of the Fabian Society, would contribute to the development of the ILO, whose project fitted in perfectly with their own struggle for social reform.11 The professional networks active in the questions of labour rights and social protection prior to 1914 also served as a breeding ground for developing skills and helped the Office to recruit some of its personnel. Some of the first functionaries employed were also involved in the activities of the International Office in , a private institution of research, study and information collection that was founded in 1901 by the IALL and was financed by several European nations. Apart from personnel, other forms of continuity can be traced between both institutions, as the Office officially took over the legislative publications of the Basel Office and acquired its library. Moreover, the first international labour conventions adopted in 1919 bore notably on the banning of night work for women and children, domains that had already been a particular focal point of the work of the Basel Office, which submitted a text concerning these problems to the diplomatic conference for worker protection that met in Bern in 1906. During the interwar period, the Office would also take over some of the work done by the Basel Office on the use of white phosphorous in industries and would campaign among to have it banned.
Building a European social diplomacy
The ILO's constitution, which comprises part 13 of the 1919 Treaty of Versailles, proclaims that "universal and lasting peace can be established only if it is based upon social justice". In order to perform this task, the ILO based itself on three pillars: the Governing Body (GB), which was the executive body, the International Labour Conference (ILC), which gathered all the member states on a yearly basis, and the Office, which functioned as a documentation and research centre. The ILO, from its beginnings adopted a mode of governance founded on tripartism, that is, on dialogue between employers, workers and governments.12 The presence of non-state actors signifies that the ILO cannot be grasped solely in terms of the interests of governments.
With the administrative machine only just launched, the ILO gradually put into place a series of mechanisms designed to promote its activities in the international arena and in national spaces, where it sought to inform public opinion on national and international social policies and on the activities of the Organization in matters of labour legislation and social protection. The Office proceeded to form branch offices, and increased its number of published articles, reports and surveys, as well as its official information, study and public relations missions – this latter aspect thus contributing early on to making the international functionaries itinerant agents, or 'couriers' of the social.13 But outside of Europe, the Organization remained largely unknown. In Latin America and in Asia, the Office's publications were barely disseminated at all and it had very few contacts with workers, particularly with labour organizations that were not affiliated with the International Federation of Trade Unions (IFTU), a majority of whose members were delegates of the workers' group at the ILO.14
From its inception, the Office poured money into a broad range of research and activity, the scope of which was nonetheless limited to Europe. Although Albert Thomas never ignored the importance of forging relations with other regions of the world, his social policy was inseparable from his project of building a social Europe.15 Moreover, the social problems explored by the Office were confined to a large extent to European industrial societies, even though, in the 1920s, it sought to extend its activities to dependent territories and to infuse them with the spirit of social progress. In this domain, however, its room for manoeuvre was limited by de facto opposition from the colonial powers.16 Despite these limitations, the Office contributed to the constitution of vast collaborative networks, particularly in the fields of social protection, education, familial policy, migration, unemployment and women's work, and thus participated in the process of convergence of European social policies.17 It sometimes collaborated with the technical services of the LoN, in particular with the International Health Organization (IHO) in the 1930s on the field of nutrition for example.18
Up until the 1930s, the ILO's activity was focused on the promulgation of international labour norms, the first of which concerned the working conditions of women and children. Both were (and remain) characterized by their vulnerability on the labour market, and their protection underpinned the social policies of industrial societies even before the ILO's creation. The other issue it tackled was the convention on the eight-hour working day, adopted in 1919. Although its elaboration owed much to British reformist networks, Great Britain itself did not ratify the convention, a fact that underlines the contradictions that sometimes existed between the national political agenda and the actions of transnational communities.19 The ILO's actions were especially fruitful in the domain of social insurance, whose orientation was of European influence, where the German model of insurance served as a source of inspiration.20 In the interwar period, the ILO adopted international conventions covering all branches of social insurance and thus played an important role in the construction of a European social diplomacy, in which international norms constituted a framework for negotiations between states.21
As diplomatic arenas, international organizations are also sites of merging of communities and networks bearing ideas, of information and projects. Through its activities, the Office, in this respect similar to the technical services of the LoN, facilitated the emergence of epistemic communities in the interwar period, notably by organizing regular international meetings or by gathering together commissions of experts.22 These experts were not only selected for their technical skills but also because of their influence within scientific and political networks.23 The ILO sought also to draw on the expertise and on the resources of other internationalist networks, such as philanthropic foundations and national and international research institutes.24 These transnational technical institutions were able to find a space for action by setting themselves up in the interstices between governments and international organizations.
The ILO faced with the crises of the 1930s
In the wake of the 1929 economic crisis, economic issues became of increasing concern to governments, and the ILO managed with some difficulty to develop its own socio-economic expertise in response to the crisis. Its constitution did not in fact recognize it as having any specific competency on economic questions, nor did they form part of its remit according to the Treaty of Versailles. In the 1930s, through its Office, it nevertheless sought to promote an original international economic policy and in 1937 adopted a recommendation on public works, which was designed to keep in check the problem of mass unemployment and became one of the pillars of international policy on economic and social planning, one formed as an alternative to totalitarian models of economic and social organization.25 This orientation, which Albert Thomas, for whom the economic and the social constituted two inseparable elements of social justice, had already endorsed, would be followed up and developed from 1932 by Harold Butler, but would not advance without competition, notably from the economic and financial services of the LoN.26
In 1933, the withdrawal of the German delegation left the Organization without one of the most important European industrial countries, and Italy's withdrawal in 1937 seriously challenged the ILO's viability in Europe. This period was also characterized by a significant slowdown of ratifications, calling into question the very usefulness of the Organization. But the 1930s were also years of profound change. In this regard, the year 1934 was pivotal. If it marked the beginning of difficult relations between 27 the entry of the United States made up for the loss and brought about a shift in the balance of power to countries outside Europe. The United States' official entry, which Butler consolidated with the appointment of the American John Gilbert Winant (1889–1947) as Deputy Director in 1935, provided new opportunities for cooperation, proving that the international circulation of models of social protection did not come to a halt in the 1930s.28 Moreover, the ILO decided, in 1934, to create a special section within the Office that was dedicated to non-European countries, whose delegations reproached the ILO for not being a truly global institution. They criticized its staff and its essentially European fields of action; they complained that the international labour conventions, which were adapted to industrial societies, did not take into account the conditions of countries where agriculture dominated the economy and where industrialization was only in its infancy. Some regions thus sought to set up their own international labour organizations, for instance in Latin America, as evidenced by the adoption at the 1933 Conference of a resolution for the creation of a Pan-American labour office.29 It should also be underscored that the social models promoted by the ILO encountered competition in dependent territories. In the British colonies, for instance, the ILO's model of social insurance collided with the model of social assistance prevalent among British reformers in the late 1930s.30and the Office, through the closing of the Berlin branch office,
The emergence of technical cooperation
For historians of international relations, the 1930s generally marked a waning of internationalism, which the Second World War would come to complete.31 However, in the context of the history of the ILO, the great depression seems to have played a role in the development of ILO activities, at least in terms of its stated intentions. Indeed, it ceased to be conceived uniquely as a shield to protect workers against the excesses of the free market economy and became a weapon for increasing living standards through the organization of the economy. The war would cement this trend.
The ILO's actions would thus gradually extend beyond the legislative field, where the organization had concentrated its efforts in its first years of existence, to the field of technical cooperation. The Bruce Report, drawn up by a Special Committee of the LoN in 1939, defined this as social and economic cooperation.32 Investment in international technical cooperation contributed to spreading the idea that political fragmentation paradoxically induced an intensification of exchanges on the technical level, something that the Office's experience seemed to confirm.33 This development of technical activities occurred in parallel to the post-World War I strengthening of the role of economic experts and technocrats in fashioning public policies on the international scene.34 This phenomenon would become more pronounced after 1945, notably in international development programmes.35
In addition, the ILO increasingly mobilized a scientific and technical discourse to promote economic and social development and built as an instrument of international cooperation to guarantee peace between states. At the end of the 1930s, the Office thus focused its work on the research, definition and dissemination of new international standards, as evidenced by the reflections of economic experts and statisticians on the possibilities of defining an international norm of workers' living standards, one applicable at the global level and which could serve as a guideline for social development.36
The missions of technical assistance and regional conferences
The process of decentralization in relation to Europe, which developed in parallel with the ILO's broadening of social action in the 1930s, led to a reconfiguration of the modes of social dialogue. From the 1930s on, the Organization's technical cooperation thus took the shape of missions to provide technical assistance, first in 37 They would become one of the pillars of international development activities after 1945. During these missions, international functionaries, sometimes accompanied by external experts, would, upon governmental request, help public authorities with the process of industrial modernization, administrative reform, or even with the elaboration of specific pieces of social legislation.38 They constituted a new instrument for the international circulation of international norms of social protection, where economic and political interests mixed with the desire to acquire knowledge and technical know-how, and informed the dynamics of transfer of social models in a novel way. Through a campaign developed directly on national terrain, the Office managed in a limited way to channel the processes of elaboration, or reform, of norms of social protection, and thus gradually developed an agency of technical assistance., then in , and Latin America. These missions to a large extent concerned social insurance.
Regional conferences were the other manifestation of technical cooperation. Organized first in Latin America, then in Asia from 1947, in Europe in 1955 and in Africa from 1960, these conferences were designed to facilitate social dialogue between countries whose economic and social conditions were similar. During the interwar period, this strategy was particularly fruitful in the domain of social insurance, a field in which the Office had an unquestionable competence.39 The resolutions adopted at the first regional conference of American states in in 1936, would moreover enshrine the model of compulsory insurance that the Office wished to promote.40 Some resolutions referred explicitly to the specific conditions of Latin American countries, such as the working conditions of indigenous populations, or their particular preoccupations, such as food security or the living conditions of agricultural workers, and opened up new orientations and new fields of research for the Office, simultaneously contributing to internationalizing the social agenda of the Latin-American Republics. These conferences thus favoured the emergence of new forms of exchange and even cooperation on a regional level, which would intensify after the war under the auspices of the United Nations (UN). The development of regionalism after 1945 linked to the greater presence in the ILO of the so-called developing world, where labour organizations often had less influence, appeared to complicate the tripartite functioning of the Organization. Moreover, with the multiplication of regional bodies, the International Labour Conference and the Governing Body, which formulated the directives, remained without any strict control over the functioning of these bodies or of the regional programmes.
Under American influence: the ILO during the war
By February 1940, the ILO had not yet adopted a specific attitude towards the war or formulated a firm condemnation of Hitler's social policy. The Office's stance was no better, especially as Edward Phelan, named Deputy Director in 1938 and Interim Director in 1941, suffered from a lack not only of political legitimacy but also of leadership qualities.41 Not until the signing of the Atlantic Charter on 14 August 1941, in which the question of establishing a system of general security was presented as one of the United States' priorities, did the Office begin to make proposals for future activities. The first International Labour Conference took place in New York and in Washington between 27 October and 6 November 1941. Under the powerful stewardship of Franklin D. Roosevelt's (1882–1945) administration, it provided the occasion to examine social evolution throughout the world and to discuss the current and future responsibilities of the Organization. The ILO defended reconstruction projects as a means by which to regain influence in Europe.42 A resolution describing the victory of free nations as a vital condition for realizing the ILO's aims, publicly placed it on the side of the Allies. In addition, the 1941 conference confirmed its role in the reconstruction effort, notably concerning the problem of unemployment.
During the war, the Office continued to develop its activities in Latin America, essentially in social insurance, then in social security. At the Havana conference in 1939, John Winant, chairman of the U.S. Social Security Board from 1935 to 1937 and appointed Director of the Office in 1939, underlined how "the need for social insurance as part of a wider program of social security is to-day universally recognised."43 The call for extending social insurance to other policies such as medical services, initiated a paradigm shift toward "social security" inspired by American and British experiences.44 The principles of the latter were established in the Beveridge Report of 1942, which would serve as the basis for the British welfare state after the war.45 From McGill University in , where the Office settled with a small group of functionaries after leaving Geneva precipitously at the end of 1940, the Office organized meetings with American experts under the auspices of inter-American conferences of social security, which were organized as of 1942 thanks to financing from the Office of Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs.46 Some Office functionaries, namely those workers pivotal to building this inter-American dialogue, displayed a remarkable ability at negotiating and ensured that the Office maintained contact and cooperation with some of the American governmental agencies, including the National Resources Planning Board, the Social Security Board, The Office of Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs, headed by Nelson A. Rockefeller (1908–1979), and also the Board of Economic Warfare. At the same time, the Office pursued its activities of technical assistance in collaboration, notably, with the Social Security Board.47 At the heart of all its interactions was a complex web of actors drawn from the ranks of international experts and philanthropists, actuaries, doctors and national administrators, who in their turn became the 'local brokers'48 of international cooperation under the auspices of the Office. The functionaries and experts of the Office participated, moreover, in the emergence of new epistemic communities by organizing, from 1943 on, seminars of experts aimed at spreading technical knowledge in matters of social insurance and at improving the skills and competences of Latin American actuaries. Thus, during the war, the Organization served the Allied cause by its promotion, in Latin America, of a liberal and democratic framework for the development of social policy.
In 1944, the 26th International Labour Conference took place in 49 While recalling the fundamental principles of the Organization, its attachment to tripartism and to the freedom of association, this conference broadened its mandate by assuming economic competencies. The Declaration of Philadelphia set, moreover, the foundations of ILO activity in the post-World War II period. Nevertheless, in the field of reconstruction, the conference produced only non-binding resolutions. Among the questions on the agenda were the reconstruction of social administration, unionism, the regulation of unemployment and the reorganization of social insurance.. This conference represented a major event in the ILO's history.
After the war and the globalization of social policies
Back in Geneva in 1948, the Office underwent significant changes, orchestrated by the new Director-General, American David Morse (1907–1990), who, capitalizing on the Organization's gains of the preceding three decades, led it to embrace fully a focus on the developing world and to develop its activities in the field of technical cooperation.50 Originally created to draft international conventions in order to avoid underhanded competition from countries where labour norms were less developed, the Office henceforth concentrated its activity on improving working conditions and living standards in so-called underdeveloped countries directly in the field, and it sent an increasing number of missions to provide technical assistance. The UN also upheld the importance for industrialized countries of implementing an international development policy, which was presented as a factor of balance and progress for the global economy, through the creation of its Expanded Programme of Technical Assistance, launched in 1949 and in which the ILO participated.
The heart of the ILO's social action: the organization of employment and social development
Faced with the need to reorganize the labour market, turned upside down by the war and facing an influx of demobilised soldiers, the question of professional training became one of the ILO's major preoccupations after 1945. Thus, in 1948, David Morse launched the Office's first programme of action, the Manpower Programme, which, revolving around professional training, the organization of employment and migration, aimed at helping European countries to deal with problems in organizing their labour force.51 In the same year, the ILC adopted a convention and a recommendation stating the remit of the employment service. In 1949 and 1950, it established norms concerning professional training and professional orientation. The Manpower Programme was soon endowed with a global scope and was deployed in Latin America and in Asia, where action centres were created for the implementation of international training programmes. The development agenda of the ILO was considered as a mean to fight communism in the Third World and it encouraged social development in former colonial countries, in particular by diffusing "a moral discourse of global responsibility and mutual dependency".52 In 1952, the ILO also launched the Andean Indian Programme, meant to raise the living standards of indigenous people in the highlands especially through vocational training.53 The professional training of workers gradually became an important ideological stake, as the , having again joined the ILO in 1954, also invested considerably in technical education in so-called underdeveloped countries.54 The same year, according to the report of the ILC, a little less than 50 per cent of the ILO's assistance activities were focused on professional training, as compared with less than 6 per cent for social security.55 As evidence of the importance of technical assistance activities, in 1955 the ILO sent 241 experts to 41 countries, offered 602 university bursaries and 47 study bursaries to functionaries of 47 different nationalities.56 But the Organization did not, for all that, cease its activities in Europe, where instead it sought to promote a policy of regional integration notably around social security, a policy, which materialized in 1950 with the Rhine Boatmen Conventions and the European Inland Transport Social Security Agreement.57
The ILO's dynamism nevertheless could not mask the increased politicization of social questions, which threatened to paralyse the Organization in a Cold War context.58 After the war, the USSR tried to make the ILO pay for its earlier anti-communism and managed to do so in part with the creation of the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) in 1946, whose social activities sometimes duplicated those of the ILO. The other terrain of ideological struggle was the question of union freedom, on which an international convention was passed in 1948. This question would crystallize the oppositions between the model of communist authoritarianism and that of democratic pluralism, oppositions whose theatre the ILO quickly became. If the ILO's principles of social justice and democratic labour relations came at several times under fire during this period, some studies suggest however that far from being completely paralyzed, the Office was able to organize some kind of circulation of social knowledge and expertise between the East and the West.59
Since 1919, the history of the ILO has been marked by periods of relative success but also by deep economic and political crises and by global conflicts, which pushed the ILO to find innovative ways to develop new forms of action and new spaces of social dialogue. The fact that it still lives on today underlines its ability to adapt itself even in times of crisis. Its active presence at the national, regional and international levels turns it into a key actor for understanding the reconfigurations of the "regimes of circulation" of social policies during the 20th century.60 Studies using a transnational approach, even if they are very eclectic in their methods, provide a better understanding of the ways and means the ILO used to promote its own social policies by means of its standard-setting role. They show in particular how the ILO gradually built networks and mechanisms for the circulation and diffusion of information, as well as of models and social expertise, on a global scale. This focus on processes provides insights into the very functioning of international negotiations involving a wide range of protagonists, from governments to private organizations and individuals.
However, historians have so far been interested mainly in the history of the ILO during the inter-war years. This leaves many areas for research yet to be conducted. For example, this article has emphasised the technical cooperation and regional activities that emerged in the 1930s and that are still little-known. Yet the development of this type of activity marked a significant change, as the ILO was no longer concern only with social protection but increasingly focused its attention on problems of economic planning and social management, especially in less developed countries. This trend continued after the Second World War. The regionalization of its activities also helped change the institutional architecture of the ILO. The regional conferences in particular constituted a new means for the diffusion of international labour standards. This fact necessitates taking a closer look at the processes of regionalization at work in international organizations and rethinking the balance between universalism and regionalism. Finally, the ILO's involvement in major development programmes after 1945 also requires further study. This is particularly important with a view to understanding the role that the ILO may have played in the Cold War, in the context of high political and ideological conflicts.