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‘Truly revolutionary’. The November 1918 armistice and labor relations

Summary:
One hundred years ago World War I ended. This war changed everything. It did not only  end the Austrian-Hungarian and the Ottoman empires and lead to the emergence of the USA as an international hegemon. It also transformed labor relations worldwide.  According to the first Report of the Director of the new International Labour Office (ILO): “It would therefore be almost impossible to exaggerate the truly revolutionary character of the events which during the last years of the war or after the war took place in the sphere of the regulation of hours of work…. During the years 1918-19 the 8-hour day has, either by collective agreements or by law, become a reality in the majority of industrial countries … Before the war, whenever even a minimum or gradual reduction of the working day was

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One hundred years ago World War I ended. This war changed everything. It did not only  end the Austrian-Hungarian and the Ottoman empires and lead to the emergence of the USA as an international hegemon. It also transformed labor relations worldwide.  According to the first Report of the Director of the new International Labour Office (ILO): “It would therefore be almost impossible to exaggerate the truly revolutionary character of the events which during the last years of the war or after the war took place in the sphere of the regulation of hours of work…. During the years 1918-19 the 8-hour day has, either by collective agreements or by law, become a reality in the majority of industrial countries … Before the war, whenever even a minimum or gradual reduction of the working day was proposed, foreign competition was one of the arguments employed in the universal controversy concerning the working day (paragraph 125 and 126).” Somehow, the last sentence has a familiar ring to it… The establishment of the ILO was of course a sign of these changes, too: it was part of the 1919 Versailles peace treaty.  A commission on international labor legislation was appointed. The work of this commission led to the establishment of the ILO, which was covered by the articles 387-427 of the Treaty of Versailles. The first ILO conference was held  in 1919 already. Reading the 1921 ‘Report of the director’ is a bit disheartening. There are chapters devoted to emigration, child labor and safety at work, for instance in case of ‘The use of white phosphorus in the manufacturing of matches’ (paragraph 270). Except for the last item, none of these problems strikes us, one century later, as solved, outdated or anachronistic. Investigating the ILO website it shows that even the phosphorus item isn’t anachronistic. White phosphorus has card number 0628 of the ‘International Standard Chemical Safety cards’ on the ILO website (Internet 5.). Up to this day, the ILO is responsible for organizing the conferences of labor statisticians which define our definitions of employment and unemployment while it also does a good work by trying to estimate migrant labor, domestic labor, slave labor and comparable categories of vulnerable people, ‘advancing social justice, promoting decent work‘.

Merijn T. Knibbe
Economic historian, statistician, outdoor guide (coastal mudflats), father, teacher, blogger. Likes De Kift and El Greco. Favorite epoch 1890-1930.

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