Albert Thomas: The ILO Centenary

Rene Wadlow
President, Association of World Citizens

Ralph Waldo Emerson, the New England philosopher, wrote that “an institution is the lengthened shadow of a man.” This is certainly true of the International Labour Organization (ILO) whose centenary was celebrated in Geneva at the start of its annual conference in May, 2019. Albert Thomas, the first Director General, set in motion nearly all the elements that were developed later.

Albert Thomas (1878 -1932) was a French socialist close to Jean Jaurès, who was assassinated on the eve of the First World War by a French Nationalist who thought Jaurès was too active trying to prevent a war with Germany. Thomas was brought into the French government as the war began, largely as a sign that not all socialists were pacifists. He was quickly given a newly-created Ministry: the Ministry of Armaments. In this position, he met many French industrialists who were making arms and that he would see again as the representatives of French industry when Thomas was Director General of the ILO.

Thomas was very aware of the socio-political situation in Russia. He had widely traveled there as a university student, and returned in 1916 as Minister of Armaments. He returned in 1917 after the April revolution which had made Alexandre Kerensky Prime Minister.

Thomas saw the possibility of similar revolutions in other countries if labor conditions were not improved and if cooperation between workers and owners was not developed. Thus, the background of labor unrest leading to a Soviet-style revolution was in the minds of many of the 1919 negotiators that led to the Treaty of Versailles. Without mentioning the Russian Revolution in public, the negotiators, especially the English and the French, saw the need for an organization that would bring together in a cooperative spirit the representatives of government, industry and labor.

The French and English negotiators were the most active in these labor cooperation issues and divided the structure of the administration of what was to become the ILO between the two States. The U.S.A. had already indicated that it would not join the League of Nations; Russia, become the Soviet Union, was not invited, and Germany, as the defeated power, was also excluded. Thus a Frenchman, Albert Thomas, became the founding Director General, and the British Harold Butler became his deputy. In practice, all the important posts were divided among the French and the British.

The ILO has a three-part structure of equality among the representatives of governments, trade union federations and employers' associations. The ILO has a philosophy of dialogue and compromise. However, Thomas began a tradition of strong leadership and expert knowledge by the secretariat. Thomas stressed that “The governments must be told what they have to do, and told in terms so far as possible, of their own constitution and methods”.

He insisted on what he called “letters of principle” in which the duties of governments were carefully set out and a method for their performances suggested. This approach has led to the widely used ILO practice of setting out “Recommendations”, which creates standards but need not be ratified by national parliaments as must be ILO Conventions, which are treaties which need to be ratified in the manner of other international treaties. Thus there are many more ILO Recommendations than ILO Conventions.

From his early days in French politics, Thomas had developed an interest in cooperatives and in rural workers, both of which were usually outside the interests of trade unions and employers' association which focused on industry. Under Thomas' leadership, the ILO took on a fairly broad view of what is “labor”. He was also concerned with the role of women, though it was only a good bit later that the ILO became concerned with “unpaid labor” and the informal sector. In many countries the work of wives as “unpaid labor” is still outside employment statistics.

On 21 June 2019, a new Convention and accompanying Recommendation to combat violence and harassment in the world of work was adopted by the ILO Conference. Manuela Tonei, Director of the ILO's Work Quality Department said “Without respect, there is no dignity at work, and without dignity there is no social justice.” This is the first new Convention agreed by the International Labour Conference since 2011 when the Domestic Workers Convention (Convention 184) was adopted. Conventions are legally binding international conventions while Recommendations provide advice and guidance.

Also linked to his political background, Thomas knew the importance of personal contacts. Thus, he traveled a good deal to meet officials and explain the role of the ILO. He traveled a good bit in Asia, especially China and Japan, two countries outside of colonial control, as well as to North and South America. Thomas was an intensive worker, often traveling in difficult conditions. He did not take into consideration his own health needs – suffering from diabetes. He died suddenly in 1932 as the ILO was facing the consequences of the world-wide depression. He was only 53. He left a strong legacy on which the ILO has been able to build.

For a biography and analysis of the start of the ILO written by a close co-worker and high official in the ILO Secretariat see: E.J. Phelan. Albert Thomas et la Création du B.I.T. (Paris: Grasset, 1936) translated into English as Edward J. Phelan. Yes and Albert Thomas (1936).

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