Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who died in March 2003, was one of the most compelling American figures of the 20th century. He was a brilliant and irascible contrarian who managed nevertheless to bestride establishment halls as Harvard professor, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations and United States Senator. A lifelong Democrat with what may be fairly called conservative instincts about many social issues, he was one of the original neoconservatives at a time when that term still meant something. As is well appreciated among those who knew him, he defied every category, straddled every boundary, transcended every limit seemingly placed before him.
What is less well known is that one of Moynihan’s early passions was the history of the American labor movement. Moynihan’s doctoral thesis at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, submitted on August 1, 1960, was entitled “The United States and the International Labor Organization, 1889–1934.” It bears unmistakable sympathy for the nobility of work and for the interests of workers, but avoids all cant and any hint of romanticism about the labor movement itself. This is what one would expect from someone who as a youth in New York City shined richer people’s shoes to support himself.
Neither the dissertation as a whole nor any part of it has ever been published. The American Interest is pleased to bring a part of that thesis to light—a small sampling of a 600-plus-page book, but enough to give the flavor of a work that is eclectically part history, part sociology and part social philosophy. Our editing has been limited to the function of excerpting, of creating section titles and of correcting a few typographical errors in the original.
The Secretary of Labor, in his annual report for 1951, declared: “Historically the outstanding example of United States participation in an international body has been its membership since 1934 in the ILO.”1 Whatever precisely this may mean, it is significant as an indication of the way many Americans over the years have felt about the International Labor Organization. Of the three international organizations established by the Treaty of Versailles, the only one the United States was ever to join was the ILO. That the supporters of the Labor Organization succeeded in their effort to bring about American participation in the ILO, where the far more numerous and influential partisans of the League and the World Court failed, is a fact of more than passing interest, just as is the fact that, of the three organizations created by the Treaty, the ILO alone survived the Second World War.
Over the years the ILO has shown an institutional hardihood, a capacity to endure, if not always to flourish, which is both appropriate to an organization dedicated to the interests of the working masses and characteristic of the vitality of the idea of international labor legislation on which the organization is based.
Of the many notions of the 19th-century reform movement, there were surely few that should have seemed less destined for fulfillment than the proposition that nations which were quite unwilling to consider domestic ordinances regulating the conditions of labor would nonetheless be prepared to assume treaty obligations to the same effect. Yet in the course of the 20th century a considerable body of international labor law has been created, with consequences in the working lives of people throughout the world. An international organization designed to facilitate this “legislation” was established some time before the First World War made a vogue of such arrangements. Its successor in the League system, the ILO, continues to this day to be a world organization of much more vigor.
The object of this study is to describe the role of the United States in the establishment of the ILO and the steps by which America came to join the organization. Much of the interest of these events lies in the extent to which they involve the activities in foreign affairs of the American labor movement and the American business community. This, of course, corresponds to the tripartite nature of the ILO itself. In a world that had come to think of international relations almost exclusively in terms of relations between states, the ILO gave expression to the neglected reality of the relations across national boundaries of the worldwide business interests and the international labor movements. It gave expression, in a sense, to the fact that the society of nations is as incorrigibly pluralistic as most societies within nations. Few would argue that the ILO has [not] drawn strength from its direct contacts with the people of its member states. A principal object of this work is to show the ways in which these contacts with the American business, labor and academic leaders helped the leaders of the ILO attain their then-supreme objective of American membership. In this connection it is hoped the study will reveal some aspects of the effect which international organizations themselves have on international affairs. [. . .]
The Idea of International Labor Legislation
The idea of international labor legislation was a by-product of the general movement for labor legislation in 19th-century Europe. The idea was first adumbrated by Robert Owen in a Memorial presented to the Congress of Aix-la-Chapelle, and prior to that had been an implicit assumption of the British effort to have the Congress of Vienna abolish the slave trade. An eventful and fruitful century of developments followed from this early period until the Conference of Paris, which created the International Labor Organization of today.
Much of the success of the movement for international labor legislation may be attributed to three important qualities of the idea itself: It was conservative, practical and easy to understand. Perhaps equally important, it was espoused by men who in their own persons demonstrated these qualities to a remarkable degree.
In essence the idea of international labor legislation is one of reform as against revolution. It proceeds from the assumption of the legitimacy of the capitalist concern with competition. In the beginnings it was almost exclusively an idea of reform-minded businessmen and manufacturers. It was subsequently taken up by professors and social workers but retained its conservative-practical aura. In the time of the First World War international labor legislation was among the leading concerns of the career secretaries of the most important European ministries concerned with labor and social legislation. Time and again, when the governments of Europe found themselves faced with the threat of international socialism, they turned to international labor legislation as an alternative. Often as not, it was among the first suggestions made to them by the Permanent Undersecretaries of the Home Office.
The practicality of the idea of international labor legislation derives not so much from the fact that the assumptions on which it is based were true as that they were thought to be true. Throughout the 19th century it was argued that, for industries competing in world markets, improved labor relations, by increasing the cost of production and hence the sale price of the product, would result in loss of markets abroad and unemployment at home. Thus it appeared as much an interest of labor as of capital to maintain labor standing on a level with those of competing nations. Quite probably this was not true. The observed fact is that industries with the highest labor standards have the lowest labor costs. As industrialization has progressed, labor costs have accounted for less and less of the final cost of a given product. Mechanical inventions and improvements of the past 150 years have been predominantly “labor saving” rather than “capital saving.” Increasingly, the “capital cost” has become proportionately more, and the “labor cost” proportionately less, of the final cost of industrial products. Thus the crucial factor so far as competition is concerned has been capital investment, not labor costs; the extent of industrialization, not the level of working conditions, has determined the success with which an industry competes in the international market. From time to time, in certain industries such as textiles, depressed working conditions have enabled less highly developed nations to keep up with more industrialized competitors, but in general an industry’s competitive position has improved proportionately with industrialization. And, for whatever reason, this industrialization has almost invariably been accompanied by improvement in the workers’ position in the industry. Over the past hundred years, it appears that each increase in the amount of capital per unit of labor in a given industry has produced a disproportionate increase in the share of total income accruing to labor. On the other hand, it is always possible for competing industries to remain for some time at the same level of technical efficiency, so that variables such as labor costs will determine the competitive outcome. In any event, from the point of view of the historical development of international labor legislation, the essential fact about the foreign competition argument is that it was believed to be true. As such, it constituted a genuine obstacle to the improvement of labor standards. In this sense international labor legislation was a practical solution to a real problem.
A strong practical feature of the idea was its simplicity. International economics do not normally provide easily understandable propositions, but this was an exception, similar, in that regard, to the argument for a protective tariff. One of the best statements of the case for international labor legislation was made by Bismarck in his not inviting the Powers to the first international labor conference in 1890:
The competition of nations in the trade of the world, and the community of interests proceeding therefrom, makes it impossible to create successful institutions for the benefit of working men of one country without entailing that country’s power of competing with other countries. Such institutions can only be established on a basis adopted in common in all countries concerned. The working classes of the different countries have, in due appreciation of this fact, established international relations aiming at the improvement of their conditions. But efforts in this direction cannot meet with success unless the governments interested endeavor to come to an agreement on the more important questions concerning the welfare of the working classes by means of international discussion.2
This was an idea that working men and businessmen could understand, and it rapidly gained favor with influential persons in both worlds. Bismarck, who was somewhat cool to the project, used the term international discussion, but the whole thrust of the movement was toward binding obligations. The Powers would agree on standards to be maintained and would arrange by treaty to establish them simultaneously in all competing countries, thus precluding any one in taking advantage of the social-mindedness of the others. For a trading nation, aware of the need to sell its manufactures abroad, this provided a way of dealing with the problem of competition from “cheap foreign labor” with exports in much the same way the tariff was supposed to control the problem with regard to imports.3
On the 14th of July 1889, fulfilling the anticipations if not the apprehensions of the Swiss Foreign Office, some 130 Marxists assembled in Paris—to discuss international labor legislation and three other topics of more-or-less international character and, as it turned out, to establish the Second Socialist International. Many things began with the founding of the Second International, not least of which was the participation of the American Federation of Labor in international labor affairs. Among those attending the Paris meeting was an American jewelry worker, Hugh McGregor, who had been sent by Samuel Gompers to enlist the support of European labor for the A. F. of L.’s campaign for an eight-hour day for carpenters, which was to be the occasion of peaceful demonstrations on May 1st of the following year. Gompers felt McGregor’s mission “fraught with historic import.”4 It was, moreover, successful. A resolution was adopted calling for eight-hour demonstrations in all countries, which was fairly well-observed in Europe and marked the beginning of May Day as a socialist fête.
The first appearance of an A. F. of L. representative at the international conference was in itself but part of a continuous exchange of ideas and delegates between the continent and American labor movements that began early in the 19th century. American organized labor in the 19th century was not socialist, but it was radical. From its beginnings it contained strong, often dominant elements dedicated to fundamental changes in the social order. Like the workers themselves, often as not their ideas came from Europe. Robert Owen and Frances Wright were but the beginning of a long succession of European idealists who came to America in quest of a more promising climate for social experimentation. In return, American democracy provided a model for many of the demands of the European workers.
William Sylvis, the foremost American labor leader of his day, head of the National Labor Union which at one time had 600,000 members, was attempting to work out an arrangement with Marx’s First International to control the import of contract labor into the United States at the time of his death in 1819. The same year, A.C. Cameron, another leader of the international labor union, was sent as a delegate to the International’s Basle conference, and in 1870, the NLU adopted a resolution in favor of affiliating with the International. Both organizations disappeared in the 1870s and nothing came of the proposals, but this was, as Professor Commons observed, “the first conscious recognition of the international competition of labor.”5
Before its demise, Marx moved the headquarters of the International to New York. Many of the founders of the A. F. of L. were first members of the International or closely associated with it. There they acquired a distinct sense of the international character of the labor movement. In 1893 the A. F. of L. sponsored a well-attended International Labor Conference of their own in conjunction with the Chicago World’s Fair. The following year David Holmes and John Burns attended the Denver Convention of the A. F. of L. as the first fraternal delegates from the British Trades Union Congress. In 1895 Gompers and P.J. McGuire journeyed to Cardiff to consummate an exchange that continues to this day. In all Gompers returned to Europe five times during his lifetime. Born on the “Eastside” of London, as he put it many years later, he spoke French, Dutch and German and was quite at ease in Europe. By the time of the First World War, he was a personal acquaintance of almost all the important European labor leaders. As the symbol of American labor, he had become a genuine international figure.
During this period, as in the years that followed, it is wholly apparent that interest in international affairs was concentrated in the leadership of the Federation as against the rank and file. There were times, then as now, when it seemed the workers thought of such matters not at all and their leaders thought of nothing else. Then as now, resolutions on international affairs were without much interest or meaning to most convention delegates. But this should not be interpreted to mean such resolutions were without significance. The leadership of American unions has been unusually strong and stable and accustomed to having considerable areas of policy left to its discretion. The fact that the rank and file may be wholly unaware of and quite uninterested in the positions taken by the A. F. of L. in international affairs does not mean the labor movement is not effectively committed to such positions or that nothing will come of its commitment. This is perhaps notably the case with regard to the question of international labor legislation, which engaged the interest of American labor leaders in its history without ever becoming familiar to the rank and file.
It was inevitable that the American leaders should come in contact with the idea in the course of their exchanges with the European unionists, who by the end of the 19th century had pretty generally incorporated the international labor legislation in their trade union programs.
At the 1885 Conference of the Federation of Trades and Unions (the organization from which the A. F. of L. was formed the following year), Gompers joined with Hugo Miller, the Secretary for the German Unions in the Federation, in proposing, as he later wrote, “that the United States be urged to join in a conference of nations to consider an international agreement for the limitation of the hours of labor of the working people, the regulation of female and child labor, and factory inspection and other measures tending to the amelioration of the conditions of workers in the world.” Several years later Gompers, on behalf of the Federation’s Seamen, urged an international load line convention, a form of labor legislation, on the conference of the Maritime states that was held in Washington in 1889.
At no time, however, did the A. F. of L. commit itself to a program involving international labor legislation. The attitude of any group toward this matter depended upon its attitude toward domestic labor legislation. In this the American labor movement was no exception, and its difficulty in defining its attitude toward international legislation arose directly from its shifting, elusive and complex attitude toward domestic labor laws themselves.
The question of the attitude of organized labor to labor legislation in the early years of the A. F. of L. has been much confused by the frequent pronouncements by the A. F. of L. at that time opposed to government interference in the relation between capital and labor. The A. F. of L. at one time or another was against everything from the eight-hour day law to health insurance. Yet throughout this period, 1881 to 1916, labor had at all times an extensive legislative program, which it pushed whenever the opportunity arose. The solution to this apparent contradiction lies in the strategic need for dissimulation: Labor, like Br’er Rabbit, found it politic to appear opposed to measures conducive to its safety.
The advantages of this oblique approach to the question of labor legislation were both obvious and compelling to the leaders of the A. F. of L. at this period. Gompers and the men associated with him had begun their careers as radicals and continued the rest of their lives to be practicing Marxists, in the sense that they were fundamentally convinced that the most important power in society was economic power. Writing at the end of his life, Gompers said:
Economic betterment, today, tomorrow, in home and shop, was the foundation upon which trade unions have been builded [sic]. Economic power is the basis upon which may be developed power in other molds. It is the foundation of organized society. Whoever or whatever controls economic power directs and shapes development for the group or the nation. Because I early grasped this fundamental truth, I was never deluded or led astray by some theory or fascinating plan that did not square with my fundamental. . . . Laurell’s oft-repeated injunction: ‘If it doesn’t square with your due book, have none of it.’
As experienced trade unionists were equally aware, in the words of Professor Perlman, “A labor movement must, from is very nature, be an organized campaign against the rights of private property.”6 Looking about them, they saw that in America the institution of private property has deeper and more widespread roots than in any industrial nation of the world, save perhaps France. Any open attack on private property would produce a ferocious reaction—witness the repression of the great strikes, often amounting to insurrections, that swept America in the period between the Civil War and 1914.
And at no point would such an attack be less likely to succeed than in the legislatures of the nation, which were almost a caricature of the property interest. However, being practical men, the A. F. of L. leaders were rarely candid. It was thus for them an obvious strategem to assume throughout this period the most extravagant positions in support of all the copy book virtues of American conservatism while seizing every genuine opportunity to subvert them.
In the first quarter century of the A. F. of L.’s existence, its primary legislative objective was laws to limit use of the injunction in trade disputes and to prevent the operation of the anti-trust laws against union activity. This was in effect a struggle to achieve legal status in the community. As an adjunct to this effort, the unions lent every encouragement to the establishment of bureaus of labor statistics by the state governments. Gompers in particular was always a supporter of any measure that would contribute to publicizing the facts about working conditions, feeling, with some justice, that these often spoke for themselves.
Before the beginning of organized opposition to labor legislation, during the McKinley era, the leaders of the A. F. of L. continually observed that their difficulties came not so much from hostility among legislators and statesmen as from a general unawareness of the problems that labor faced. “Fact Finding” state and federal bureaus were among the earliest, most persistent—and most successful—demands of organized labor. The agitation of the National Labor Union produced four bureaus, the first in Massachusetts in 1869. The Knights of Labor carried on, and by 1887 there were some twenty State bureaus. In the Federal government the Bureau of Labor Statistics was established in 1884—the first permanent agency of this kind established by a national government. It was first located in the Department of Commerce, later in the Department of Labor, which was created in 1913.
On the other hand, the A. F. of L. was not at all concerned with international labor legislation at this time for the reason that the conditions which seemed to make it necessary in Europe did not exist in America. The competition among European industries for foreign markets, which seemed to require joint action in the improvement of working conditions, did not exist in America, where finished manufactures accounted for only $93 million of total American exports of $824 million. By 1900 they were still only $332 million in a total of $1,371 million. It was not until the outbreak of the Second World War in Europe that finished manufactures accounted for more than half the total exports.7 Although by 1900 finished and semi-finished manufactures and manufactured foodstuffs put together accounted for well over half the total, this fact does not seem to have impressed itself greatly on the American mind.
For this reason, labor felt that any deterioration in the competitive position of American industries caused by improved working conditions would take effect not in the international sphere, but at home, where American products competed with the imported products of European industry. Labor’s solution to this difficulty was not international labor legislation, but a high protective tariff.
It is difficult to know whether labor was justified in its faith. Without doubt, high tariffs maintained high prices, but it is not at all certain that they produced high wages as well. Wages increased in the period 1910–14, but so did prices, and the overall picture was one of real wages just barely holding their own. Working conditions improved, but more because of the increase in total employment than because of any wages increase. The profits of this kind of great industrial expansion went to property, not to labor. And certain industries, notably steel, which had realized the high level of protection they demanded and responded as necessary to protect the wages of their employees from foreign competition, did not hesitate to smash the unions initiated in their plants and maintain, in steel, a 12-hour work day until 1923. If labor was right in thinking that protective tariffs protected its wages, they must also have increased the cost of living. A detailed investigation would easily reveal that their effect varied considerably from one industry to another.
It is important on the other hand to remember that whatever the condition of wage earners in the United States, it was considerably better than that of industrial workers in Europe. A contemporary British survey showed that in the period 1905–08 wage rates in the United States were 233 percent higher than in England, 283 percent higher than in Germany, 312 percent higher than in France, and 375 percent higher than in Belgium. The American cost of living was considerably higher than in any of these countries, but the American worker was still better off.
Notwithstanding that wages in America were high compared to those in Europe, they were still low compared to needs: The average wage in cotton mills in the 1890s was $6.50 a week. In 1909, when Dr. Chapin estimated an income of $900 a year was required to provide a family the minimum standard of subsistence, Paul Douglas estimated average annual earnings in manufactures to be $518. Wages often did not keep up with prices and certainly did not keep pace with a rapidly expanding productivity. Labor asked why: Some answered “the capitalist system”, but most answered “immigration.”
Perhaps the most important single factor affecting American labor between 1865 and 1914 was the ever increasing supply of cheap immigrant labor. This undoubtedly retarded the natural rise of wages during periods of economic expansion and helped to hasten the decrease in periods of contraction. Immigrants, particularly the “new immigrants” from east Europe, filled the sweatshops and tenements which were becoming a feature of American life, and native Americans had no choice but to compete with them. Immigrants broke strikes, balked at unions, swelled the numbers of unemployed, and lowered living standards everywhere. In the first decade of the 20th century, 8,695,386 persons arrived from abroad to compete with the American worker in an economy that was just not expanding that fast. Thus labor demanded, and in time obtained, the restriction of immigration, a protective limit on the import of cheap foreign labor.
1. U.S. Department of Labor, Mobilizing Labor for Defense, 39th Annual Report of the Secretary of Labor (1951), p. 16.
2. Instructions of Prince Bismarck to the German Ambassadors and Ministers, February 8, 1890, inviting the Powers to a conference at Berlin.
3. Editor’s note: The first, German-sponsored international labor legislation conference was held in March 1890. Supplanting an on-going Swiss proposal, the conference was attended by every nation in Europe except Russia and the Balkan states.
4. Gompers, Seventy Years of Life and Labor, Vol. 1 (E.P. Dutton & Company, 1943), p. 297.
5. John R. Commons, History of American Labor (Macmillan Company, 1918–35), vol. 2, p. 86.
6. Selig Perlman, A Theory of the Labor Movement (2nd Ed., Augustus M. Kelley, 1949), pp. 156–7.
7. U.S. Bureau of the Census, Historical Statistics of the United States, Colonial times to 1957 (1960), pp. 544–5.