The history of international labour organisations and movements has long been neglected. In recent years, however, a number of studies have emerged to fill this void, including Daniel Maul’s Human Rights, Development, and Decolonization; Globalizing Social Rights edited by Sandrine Kott and Joëlle Droux; and the collection of essays in American Labor’s Global Ambassadors, which is edited by Robert Anthony Waters Jr. and Geert van Goethem. Arguably the emergence of these studies is indicative of a broader trend within the historiography of the twentieth century, with historians paying increasing attention to the role of international organizations, the emergence of ideas and discourses relating to global governance and human rights, and the harnessing of technical expertise to development initiatives.
Above: The Reading Room at the International Institute for Social History.
A key archive for material relating to these topics, but one that is sometimes overlooked by historians, is the International Institute of Social History in Amsterdam. The Institute is only a short tram ride from Amsterdam’s central train station and contains a wealth of material that is of potential interest to historians of imperial and global history. The countries and themes tabs on the Collections page give an indication of the range of topics and countries covered by the archival material. The archives are truly global in scope, covering traditional social history topics, such as labour, housing, and student movements to more unusual historical subjects, such as vegetarianism.
Among the key collections housed at the Institute are the records of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions and the Socialist International. As well as material relating to international organisations and groups, there are also more general collections, some of which have been donated by individuals or organisations, such as the African Labour History collection. There are also a number of collections relating to leftist organisations from the ‘global south’, which have often been the target for state suppression, such as the Communist Party of Sudan. In this respect, the Institute’s archives contain original or rare material that is no longer available elsewhere or has been excised from the official record.
One of the most popular collections at the Institute is the material relating to the ICFTU. During the 1950s and 1960s trade unions and industrial relations in the global south became a key area of Cold War contestation, with the colonial powers and the U.S. State Department regarding instances of labour activism and industrial unrest as symptoms of communist insurrection. As a consequence, officials in Paris, London, and Washington sought to channel material and moral support to supposedly ‘western-orientated’ trade unionists through organisations such as the ICFTU and AFL-CIO. What emerges from the ICFTU records is that trade unionists in the global south were particularly adept at exaggerating the threat posed by communism in order to extract support from the ICFTU. This support sometimes took the form of material goods, including cars, filing cabinets and typewriters, and at other times it was simply hard cash, which was the preferred option. However, although African and Asian trade unionists willingly sought out and accepted this support, they did not necessarily sacrifice their own autonomy. The ICFTU material is replete with complaints about trade union lethargy on certain issues, labour leaders’ support for policies that were perceived to run counter to the West’s agenda, or the use of strikes to cause what Western officials regarded as unnecessary political instability.
As well as documenting the Cold War politics of industrial relations and the inability of the Western powers to direct trade union affairs in Africa and Asia, the ICFTU material also offers important insights into social, political and economic conditions in many colonial and former colonial territories. ICFTU officials, who were often stationed in regional outposts, such as Singapore or Accra, may not have been able to influence events to the extent they wanted to but through their routine meetings with colonial officials, embassy staff, and local representatives of civil society groups and political parties they were at least well informed. Their despatches back to ICFTU headquarters in Brussels therefore offer a useful counter-reference to states archives in London and Washington, yielding important insights and opinions regarding local politics and social conditions. In sum, the International Institute of Social History is not simply for social historians of Europe, its varied collections are of potential value to historians of empire, social movements in the global south, and the Cold War.
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