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The ILO in 1941: Preserving and extending the social frontiers of democracy

Not long after the Second World War broke out in 1939, Switzerland was surrounded by Germany and its allies. It became clear that normal operations of the Geneva-based ILO were no longer possible. The Office moved to Montreal, Canada, in May 1940, where it was accommodated at McGill University.

Type: Article
Date issued: 01 August 2011
Reference: iloinhistory

Not long after the Second World War broke out in 1939, Switzerland was surrounded by Germany and its allies. It became clear that normal operations of the Geneva-based ILO were no longer possible. The Office moved to Montreal, Canada, in May 1940, where it was accommodated at McGill University.

It was a move into uncharted waters. When he left the Organization in 1941, ILO Director John G. Winant described the challenge awaiting his successor, Edward Phelan. It is the task of the ILO, he wrote, “to preserve and extend the social frontiers of democracy” because the future of mankind depends “upon the type of civilization which emerges after this war, upon the type of world institutions which are created after it”.

The Allies were mainly concerned about the war which they were uncertain of winning. And they were all too aware that the outcome of the war required the active support of workers. Linking the credibility of an institution such as the ILO to the preservation of democracy, social progress and winning the war was, therefore, of immeasurable importance.

The ILO not only had to survive. It had to define its role in the context of the post-World War II world as well. The relationship between social development and economic expansion was at the centre of this debate on an extension of the ILO mandate.

“Lasting peace can be established only if it is based on social justice”

It was felt that the best way to demonstrate the Organization’s vitality was to hold an International Labour Conference. During a state of war, this was not easy, but finally, in October 1941, Columbia University hosted a Conference in New York – an “extraordinary” Session that did not vote on any Conventions or Recommendations and clearly supported the war efforts of the Allies.

The Conference concluded on 6 November 1941 in the White House with a speech by US President Roosevelt – an event that received worldwide media attention. A concept for a new ILO with an increased focus on economic matters had emerged during the Conference but the initial idea, which was to transform the ILO into an institution which could cover the complete social and economic field, was quickly deemed unfeasible. It implied that the tripartite structure had to be either discontinued or expanded – but one option was unthinkable for the workers, the other for the governments and employers.

Three years later, only a few weeks before the Allies landed in Normandy, the International Labour Conference met again, this time in Philadelphia, to define a new set of aims and purposes for the ILO. In an expression of belief in the statement from the ILO Constitution that “lasting peace can be established only if it is based on social justice”, tripartite delegates from 41 member States adopted a visionary declaration that would not only ensure the survival of the ILO in the post-war area but also define the social parameters of what today we call globalization and interdependence.

The Declaration of Philadelphia established that labour is not a commodity. That freedom of expression and association are essential to sustained progress. That poverty anywhere constitutes a danger to prosperity everywhere. And that “all human beings, irrespective of race, creed or sex, have the right to pursue both their material well-being and their spiritual development in conditions of freedom and dignity, of economic security and equal opportunity”.

If the ILO survived and was soon in full swing again this was largely due to the adoption of the Declaration of Philadelphia. Its principles are as relevant today as they were in 1944.

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ILO century project

  1. Sharing knowledge on ILO history

    The ILO will complete its 100 years of existence in 2019. The Century Project has been created to prepare for this anniversary by developing the knowledge of ILO's history and its role in specific historical moments.

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