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John G. Winant

Director-General of the International Labour Organization, 1939-1941

Document | 20 November 2007

John Winant's (United States) concern with social issues began while he was still at Princeton University. At that time, before the First World War, many of the battles for industrial democracy in the United States were being fought primarily in the political arena. Winant therefore entered politics in New Hampshire, and in 1917, was elected to the State Assembly. He resigned to serve overseas in the Air Force during 1917-1918, and then, on returning to New Hampshire, was elected to the State Senate in 1921, to the Assembly in 1923, and to the Governorship in 1924.

As Governor, Winant was instrumental in building up within the State a system of progressive social legislation. This concern extended to the country as whole with the onset of the depression when social questions of a national character were becoming more and more acute. Winant was therefore the logical choice to be appointed Chairman of the National Textile Inquiry Board, set up by the President of the United States in 1934 to find a fair solution to the bitter strike which had caused misery in so many workers' homes. In that same year, the United States joined the ILO.

Winant accepted the post of Assistant Director of the International Labour Office in April 1935. In October of the same year, however, he was called back to the United States at the request of President Roosevelt, to act as Chairman of the newly established Social Security Board. In 1936 Winant finally took up his post as Assistant Director of the Office and he took a special interest in the development of world programmes of social security. In 1939, Winant became Director of the International Labour Office. As he later said, he undertook the responsibilities of Directorship because he believed that peace was the paramount issue before the peoples of the world, and no peace could endure unless it had its roots in social justice.

In 1940, the sweep of the Nazi armies over Europe, combined with the entry of Italy into the war, effectively isolated the International Labour Office from its chief sources of democratic support. Transfer of the Office centre from Geneva became a necessity, and Winant organized the establishment of the new working centre in Montreal. In 1941, Winant resigned from the post of Director of the International Labour Office in order to accept the appointment as American Ambassador to London. During his four years as Ambassador, Winant never lost interest in the ILO. He kept in close touch with the activities of the Organisation throughout the war, and sought to extend the application of its standards and social policies in various ways. Of all the honours that he received as Ambassador, the one which pleased him most was the Gold Badge presented to him by the Trades Union Congress in 1945.

Following the death of President Roosevelt, Winant was appointed to serve as United States representative on the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations. Winant left his post in 1946 in order to write a book based on his experiences at the US embassy. Winant died on 3 November 1947, after concluding the second volume reviewing his Ambassadorship.

Tags: ILO Director General

Unit responsible: Director-General's Office

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