Origins and History

IFWEA’s Origins & History

The emergence of independent expressions of working class organisation – trade unions, cooperatives and socialist parties – in the late nineteenth century generated educational activity that saw ‘knowledge’ as the route to power and the transformation of society. The achievement of working class solidarity at local and national level inspired the search for international solidarity, and it was within this context that international cooperation amongst workers’ education organisations grew.

Until 1914 such contact and cooperation tended to be bilateral. Swedish workers’ education for example, was much inspired by the success of the Danish Folk High Schools, while the early development of workers’ education in the British Empire leaned heavily and unsurprisingly on the traditions of the British WEA. Prominent trade unionists and socialists were often at the forefront in organising reciprocal exchanges across national boundaries.

The first concerted attempt at creating some permanent form of organisation for workers education at international level was in1924. The Versailles Peace settlement had led directly to the founding of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) as a tripartite body that, critically for governments, would challenge the spread of Bolshevism. This encouraged independent action by trade unions at national and international level to develop an autonomous international workers’ education body that would be broadly social democratic in outlook.

Already in 1922 an International Conference on Labour Education had been held in Brussels but with limited success. At the initiative of the International Federation of Trade Unions (IFTU) a follow-up conference was convened in 1924 at Ruskin College, Oxford, which attracted 59 delegates from 20 countries. This was an extraordinary gathering, largely of ‘left’ trade union leaders from Europe, Asia and the Americas. There was agreement to establish an ‘International Federation of Labour Organisations concerned with Workers’ Education’, but sadly the initiative stalled, almost certainly as a consequence of the retreat of labour with the onset of economic depression and the progressive rise of fascism and militarism in Europe and beyond.

For the remainder of the 1920s and 1930s international cooperation was largely confined to continuing bilateral contact where this was possible. There was little evidence of any concerted attempt to resurrect the 1924 proposals.

There can be no doubt that the experience of World War from 1939 was the single dynamic force that encouraged renewed discussion of the value of an organisational base to international cooperation. In 1943 the British WEA’s Annual Conference agreed to support the reconstruction of workers’ education organisations in countries where they had been destroyed by fascism and war. It was this resolution that led to the 1945 Conference that launched the International Federation of Workers’ Education Associations (IFWEA) with its first Secretariat located in London.

The founding values upon which IFWEA was built were mutuality, social justice and freedom of expression, broadly set within the principles of social democracy but not expressed explicitly in party affiliation. This allowed for a broad-based membership to be built, embracing national trade unions, workers’ education bodies, labour research and education institutes, education foundations of political parties, and in due course, International Trade Secretariats (now Global Labour Unions). Warm relationships were created with the ILO and later with UNESCO.

Optimism was pervasive in the early post-war period, not least because of the positive contribution made towards helping in the restoration of a workers’ education presence in Austria and Germany.

However, the break-up of the wartime alliance with the Soviet Union, the onset of the Cold War, and the rise of McCarthyism restricted IFWEA’s ability to achieve any real purchase outside of Western and Northern Europe. The fragmentation of international trade unionism into competing ‘Internationals’ had further compounded IFWEA’s difficulties. IFWEA worked closely with the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU), very much as a reflection of the commitments of its affiliates and the position of national Trade Union Centres in countries where IFWEA had membership.

Nonetheless, within these post-war constraints IFWEA functioned as an effective body. An international seminar programme was built, strong advocacy in support of democratic workers’ education was pursued, and bilateral and multilateral exchanges were encouraged. Publications were produced with growing regularity, and continuity of Secretariat servicing of the organisation was achieved. These were not small achievements, given the always fragile base of financial support.

Over time membership grew, extending into Africa and Asia with the process of decolonisation in the 1950s and 1960s, into Spain and Portugal from the 1970s, and into the United States, Latin America and Eastern Europe from the 1980s. Today, IFWEA has more than 100 organisations in affiliation in 65 countries.

For its organisational development two major decisions have been taken in the more recent past. In 1992 at its World Conference in Port Elgin, Canada, there was common agreement that IFWEA would improve its effectiveness if it developed a regional structure. Of itself this was a decision that reflected its development into a genuinely world organisation. The first of the regional bodies was soon established for Europe, to be followed within three years by regional operations in Africa, Asia and the Pacific, and Latin America. This structure has ensured that the needs and aspirations of all its member organisations are effectively articulated at both Global and Regional levels.

In 2003 the World Conference at Albufeira, Portugal addressed successfully a problem that had beset IFWEA ever since its foundation. Historically, the organisation had been dependent on one of its member organisations for the provision of its Secretariat. At various times financial and human support had been generously made available to allow the Secretariat to function from London, Vienna, Tel Aviv and Oslo. It was an unfulfilled dream to have a free-standing and financially viable Secretariat. The 2003 decision has reaffirmed the legitimate view that IFWEA is the single independent forum operating at global level whose exclusive interest is workers’ education.

In 2007 the World Conference at Ahmedabad, India acknowledged that affiliate income was insufficient for a full-time General Secretary nor a free-standing Secretariat. The Conference decided to move the Secretariat to Cape Town South Africa, hosted by the Labour Research Service.

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