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Of Labor Parties and Movements Across the Atlantic

World War II brought great uncertainty in its aftermath. The rise of Anti-Right and Anti-Left wing movements, for example, contributed to the hegemonic battle between the United States and the Union of Soviet Socialists Republics. These events, in turn, had an effect on labor.

70th Anniversary of the Marshall Plan, June 2017, Photographer Unknown, US Mission
70th Anniversary of the Marshall Plan, June 2017, Photographer Unknown, US Mission

Following the Second World War, the United States launched the European Recovery Program. Better known as The Marshall Plan, this initiative represented the largest aid package received to date by the European nations. It had significant consequences for the economic development of European economics and industries. Much of these industries’ growths would affect scores of labor unions, which would later pose movements across Europe. Regional and international labor organizations rose up to fight for the rights of laborers as well as for the direction in which their party politics would dictate future labor policies.

In this “moment” in U.S. diplomatic history, we see that Professor Ben Roberts of the London School of Economics was involved in the evolution of labor policy. After receiving his Politics, Economics, and Philosophy studies degree from Oxford, he began his career and focused on labor affairs through his work at various institutions. From the Internationaler Sozialistischer Kampfbund to the American Federation of Labor & Congress of Industrial Organizations, from LSE to Harvard, he worked diplomatically to oversee the labor transformation in both the United States and the United Kingdom.

Through his expertise, Professor Ben Roberts, enlightens us on the evolution of the labor force, how trade unions fared in society, and how leaders oversaw managing these movements. After studying labor movements his entire professional career and working with international organizations, Ben Roberts is ready to voice his take on history.

Professor Ben Roberts’ interview was conducted by Morris Weisz on June 5, 1993.

Read Roberts’ full oral history HERE.

Read more on the Internationaler Sozialistischer Kampfbund HERE.

Read more on the Marshall Plan HERE.

Drafted by Derek Gutierrez

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“The kind of benefits America expected to see was greater trade and so forth”

Cost of World War II: Yeah, that’s right, because at the time when we did it with the Marshall Plan, there was a clear and definite need. We had the stresses of six years of war, huge costs. We were in enormous deficits and so on, and we had to stabilize the situation. It was advantageous. We saw it, Bevin saw it, other people who were involved saw it, and they talked with Americans of a similar mind. There would be an advantage in doing something in some organized form that would pass benefits back to Britain, but it was supposed to cut both ways, remember. I don’t know how far it.

“There is the critical question, I think in the past, of labor attachés in America. It was associated with an ideological approval of the existence of trade unions”

The fall of trade unions: Well, they should have a view of what’s going on in other countries and decide how much experience and so on they require there to do this job of observing and reporting on. Now, the real critical point, I think, from this thing is that in the past procedures America has used this activity to promote, for example, trade unionism, to support it, to support it in principle as giving practical support to that on a limited basis, but nevertheless it has identified with it and facilitated all these exchange arrangements and Lord knows what. That depends really on what the validity of the trade unions carry. Where trade unions completely disappear or largely disappear, I think you have to do more than simply supply people who are expert on that function. They have to look at the whole process of management going on and to be able to report about that as well.

That might become, I don’t know, more important. It depends what happens to the trade union movement. I don’t personally see the trade union movement as a fixed event. It may only be a passing event in historical time. Trade unions have only been in existence since the beginning of the 19th century. They started in Britain and America more or less together, as a matter of fact. That’s an interesting thing. We’ve had a dominant interest in them in spite of the fact that they were developed contrary to the laws in the country concerned, and that shows something of their characteristic. But if as a result of that development we’ve passed through that time and we’re getting to a time where we develop new kinds of administration of enterprises of one sort or another where we don’t need that kind of representation, because we…other forms to take its place. I was saying to Don here that if this whole idea of human relations in industry works, as now many, many people in the academic world in Britain and in America and elsewhere believe is likely to be the case, you say, well, what the hell is the use of the unions, do we really need them, do the people themselves respond in that way. It’s no good trying to prop something up, if you take it from a political point of view, to prop something up that’s proving a failure. There’s no base for it.

“But even when there’s unemployment, they don’t seem really to join the unions.”

American Federation of Labor & Congress of Industrial Organizations, Year unknown, Photographer unknown, Influence Watch
American Federation of Labor & Congress of Industrial Organizations, Year unknown, Photographer unknown, Influence Watch

Democratic voice in a post-union environment: If in fact, as I was arguing, work people are not particularly less interested in unions, and they develop different forms of relationship with management through worker representation of some other form than purely the union one, then that may be an adequate replacement. I wouldn’t say that for certain, but it could well be. Some of the best industrial relations in Britain are in non-union companies where the activity of the management is better, but then you have the problem which you raised with me earlier. If the management changes its mind or you get a new management which has a different view and it wants to change all that, I would like to see that to some extent reinforced in the legal process. Now I don’t know how far I want to go in that respect. I don’t want to go as far as some of the proposals.

I don’t want to make Britain simply a copy of the German model, which is what the British TUC is intending to move towards. Let us, effectively they’re saying, go into Europe, let us have the German model, and we’ll do it their way, which also has other implications. I have no objection to independent professional associations, whatever they are, providing that they observe the restraints which are necessary for the system to work reasonably within the economic and social environment. If they go beyond that, if they become, like they have been in the past, societies to change society fundamentally in a different kind of way, then that raises a whole set of new issues which we have to attend to, whether we want to or whatever our views are at the present moment. I think we’re moving away from the concept as far as trade unions are concerned. That seems to be the evidence anyway. In every country, with the exception perhaps of Scandinavia, that I know of, trade unions are declining in membership, and that means you have to provide alternatives. I’ve mentioned some alternatives that are there. It doesn’t fully satisfy your problem.

If you see society as two aspects, the management side and the employee side, the employees have lost a form of strength that they had before. That can only be answered, I suppose, by the fact that, if management returns to its old model of authoritarian management, then the unions will return to theirs. I think it’s because we’ve largely to a large extent departed from that model that management has become much better management than it was in the past. It is more cooperative. It is more participant. I’ve seen this very closely. I did a study of representation of white collar workers in Britain in the advanced industries, computer industries. There’s practically no trade unionism there. Those guys are not interested in trade unionism, and they’re not interested in it because they think they can stand on their own feet. If management gets tough, they can get tough. And they carry such a considerable power in terms of control of the instruments of production in this respect.


Trade Union Studies, London School of Economics 1945–1946
Politics, Economics and Philosophy, New College ~1946–1948

Professor, London School of Economics 1962–1984