Lessons of the last century: Friedrich Ebert and the ILO


This year as we celebrate the 100th anniversary of the International Labour Organization (ILO), we also mark another centenary: only weeks before the foundation of the ILO, Friedrich Ebert became the first freely elected president of the German Republic.

Ebert was the first Social Democrat to hold the highest office in the land. But he was not only a Social Democrat; in his earlier political career, Ebert was first and foremost a trade unionist.

Trained as a saddle-maker, his work took him across Germany at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century. On his journeys, he founded several local chapters of the saddler association and grew into what we would today call an ‘organiser’ for the labour movement.

Later in his career, he became one of the first full-time trade union secretaries for the predecessor organisation of the German Trade Union Confederation (Deutscher Gewerkschaftsbund, or DGB), which today is one of the biggest national trade union confederations in the world, representing over 5.9 million workers.

It was the faith and support of both the Social Democrats and the trade unions that carried Ebert to be elected as Germany’s first president in February 1919.

One of his first challenges in office came in the shape of the Treaty of Versailles, the signing of which formally concluded the First World War. But given his political background, Ebert surely welcomed one particular element of the Treaty: on 11 April 1919, the Versailles Peace Conference decided to found the ILO, giving in to a long-standing demand of Europeans workers.

The peace conference adopted a constitution for this new organisation as part of the Treaty of Versailles, which the ILO’s present-day Global Commission on the Future of Work has rightly called the “most ambitious global social contract in history”.

Building on this historic document, which acknowledges that universal and lasting peace can only be achieved on the basis of social justice, the ILO has been a beacon for workers’ rights ever since. It has defended our freedom to associate, our right to bargain collectively and – to state it clearly – our right to strike.

Standing the test of time

Significantly, the ILO has also provided continuous support and fostered solidarity whenever and wherever labour activists face oppression and persecution. In 1933, the German labour movement also experienced this international solidarity, when the German trade unionist Wilhelm Leuschner only retained his seat on the ILO Governing Body due to massive pressure from the Workers’ Group. As a consequence, the ILO became the first international organisation to take a stand against the demands of the Nazi regime.

The ILO has been responsible for various defining moments for workers and trade unions, including a well-deserved 1969 Nobel Peace Prize.

For a century, the ILO has stood the test of time, and with our help it will continue to do so for another 100 years. We must intensify our efforts to ensure that the ILO remains the global centre of competence for the rights of working people.

Who, if not us, should have a fundamental interest in a strong ILO to safeguard workers against the multitude of threats they are facing? The infringement of freedom of association and other fundamental labour rights, in addition to the commodification of work must be stopped. The ILO is also central to the promotion a universal labour guarantee to assure the right to a decent life, to human dignity and to self-fulfilment.

Unfinished business

We live in a time of upheaval that requires a revival of these principles. In the negotiation process of the ILO Centenary Declaration for the Future of Work we talk about our “unfinished business”, as union repression continues throughout the world until today.

We are in a state of upheaval: rising nationalism, xenophobia and social fragmentation; increasing social inequality; precarious working conditions, insufficient collective bargaining coverage; and inadequate social security. These tendencies, and their impacts, are being felt everywhere.

This comes at a time when technological changes are creating further uncertainties. Many of our colleagues fear these changes and a decline in their and their children’s livelihoods.

As we have done for more than 100 years, we must find collective answers to the challenges of our time. No institution is better placed to do this than the ILO.

The historic adoption of an ILO Convention to End Violence and Harassment in the World of Work at the International Labour Conference this June will surely help to bring us closer to equality between men and women, and the Centenary Declaration is a meaningful step in defining the direction of the work of the ILO for the future.

The ILO’s mandate is firmly grounded in the spirit of democracy and multilateral engagement. There are 100 years to celebrate, but there are many more years of work ahead of us.