Every year in June, representatives of the world’s governments, employers and workers come together for the International Labour Conference in Geneva. This has been happening more or less since the founding of the International Labour Organization (ILO) in 1919.
Back in 1933, just days before the conference opened, Hitler ordered the smashing of the German trade union movement. Union headquarters were attacked and seized, union leaders arrested, and the once-powerful German trade union movement was brought to its kness. In Berlin, the Nazi leadership decided to send the thuggish Robert Ley to “represent” the German workers at the ILO event.
But things did not turn out the way the Nazis planned, not least because Ley was an idiot, and blurted out gratuitous racist insults at Latin American countries and others. His actual words bear repeating:
“How come such idiot states have the same rights here as Germany and Italy? Just imagine: Cuba! Uruguay! Bolivia! How should I know what they’re all called, these South American idiots!”
In one sense, he was a forerunner of one 21st century American politician who ranted about “shit-hole countries”.
But it was not only Ley’s propensity to get drunk and stick his foot in his mouth that led to disaster for the Nazis.
Western governments and employers had no problem with a group of Nazi goons taking their seats in the ILO’s Workers’ Group. But the international trade union movement had other ideas. They denounced the Nazi “worker delegates” in no uncertain terms, refused to seat them on various committees, and treated them with contempt.
In the end, Ley and his cronies were forced to leave Geneva and return to Berlin. Later in the year, Nazi Germany quit the ILO. The world’s trade unions were the first to stand up to Hitler and challenge him at an international event.
These long-forgotten events are the subject of this remarkable short book published by the ILO (and available to download free of charge here).
In my view, this is a story that needs to be much better known, not least because of what it can teach us today. “Worker delegates” who are nothing of the sort routinely show up at the annual International Labour Conference, sponsored by their authoritarian governments.
One example is Jiang Gungping, representing the All-China Federation of Trade Unions, a state-controlled labour front. He was elected to represent workers on the ILO governing body back in 2014. Unlike in 1933, these phoney “worker representatives” are allowed to play their roles in the Workers Group — without dissent.
Eighty-eight years ago the leader of the French unions — who spoke on behalf of the world’s workers — said “jailers never have the right to represent prisoners”.
That was true then and it is true now.