Replicating a pattern that developed during World War I, many European labor movements as well as the AFL and CIO worked closely with their respective governments to promote efficient wartime economic planning and aid their countries' war efforts. The British Trades Union Congress also sought to promote the war effort (and to preempt British communists) by forming the Anglo-Soviet Trade Union Committee, designed to encourage cooperation and solidarity between unionists in the two countries. The British Trades Union Congress subsequently invited the Americans to join the Anglo-Soviet Trade Union Committee, but these efforts failed because of the unwillingness of the AFL to work with either the Soviets or the CIO. In early 1945, however, the British trade union leaders hosted a labor conference designed to create a new international labor organization that would include the Soviets. The AFL refused to attend, but the CIO eagerly sent delegates, and in October 1945 the new World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU) was created.
This new federation embodied the hopes of a generation of trade union leaders for a substantive role for labor in international affairs. Most did not foresee for it a revolutionary role comparable to that sometimes espoused by the International Federation of Trade Unions. Rather, suggests Victor Silverman in Imagining Internationalism (2000), the leaders of the World Federation were labor bureaucrats who "envisioned a corporative world—one ruled by global institutions that would represent all elements of society." Yet the corporatist vision of these leaders differed in important ways from that of Samuel Gompers during World War I. Gompers had envisioned the International Labor Organization comprised of national delegations representing equal numbers of business, labor, and government officials. By contrast, World Federation leaders believed it was vital that labor have its own organization that could speak independently for world labor and represent the world's working classes within the United Nations.
The drive for a powerful labor international that included all significant elements of world labor was apparently given momentum by an increased spirit of internationalism that pervaded working-class life in the major democracies after 1941. Silverman suggests that in Britain the war fostered a greatly increased awareness and concern for foreign relations among workers and argues that a "vague sympathy for the Soviet 'experiment' grew into tremendous enthusiasm for cooperation in reordering the world." Because the working-class population in the United States was more diverse than that of Britain, it failed to develop a comparable consensus on internationalism or on cooperation with the Soviets. Nonetheless, many American workers had come to feel vaguely sympathetic toward a new labor internationalism by war's end. As one union carpenter cited in Silverman explained, "We can't stay on our side of the pond anymore. It's one world now and we got to go in and do our share. The Union's taught me that. Workers everywhere want it fair for all." In contrast to their British counterparts, however, many American workers—especially first-or second-generation immigrants from Eastern Europe—were distrustful of the Soviets. Yet perhaps because of their long experience with redbaiting in the unions, workers were initially slower to embrace the Cold War than wealthier Americans. The lack of a Cold War consensus about America's postwar role within the working class in turn bought time for CIO leaders to experiment with a reordering of international labor politics within the World Federation.
In addition to supporting the federation's major efforts to gain a role for itself within the United Nations and to encourage cooperation between communist and noncommunist trade unions, the CIO took the lead in developing the federation's colonial department. In contrast to many European trade union leaders, the CIO promoted independent trade unions in colonial areas and supported their efforts to gain representation in the federation. Even French communists within the organization, for example, battled CIO representatives over the question of representation for African labor, insisting that the French trade union delegates to the federation already represented workers from French possessions in Africa. Of course, CIO leaders could sometimes be naive about their own country's imperial record, as when James Carey insisted that U.S. rule in the Philippines had been entirely benevolent and designed to give democracy to the Filipinos. CIO leaders, moreover, embraced a Rooseveltian faith in the virtues of free trade that sometimes blinded them to the dangers of economic imperialism. Nonetheless, Silverman suggests that the CIO's defense of colonial rights within the federation earned it popularity in much of the underdeveloped world and offered hope that the new organization might serve the interests of Third World labor.
But several factors ultimately undermined the federation. The AFL's Free Trade Union Committee collaborated with the State Department to weaken the organization by sowing discord between communist and noncommunist unions in Europe. As Peter Weiler has shown, the AFL also successfully worked to prevent international trade secretariats from affiliating with it. Without the trade secretariats, the task of coordinating labor activities within individual industries proved impossible. Meanwhile, both the CIO and AFL became increasingly vulnerable at home following passage of the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947, which required that all union leaders sign affidavits pledging that they were not Communist Party members. The predominantly noncommunist CIO leadership at first resisted but soon chose to purge communists and communist-led unions from their ranks. Their support for purges was likely motivated both by a desire to consolidate their own leadership positions within their unions and to safeguard their unions from government persecution. Desperate to appear loyal in the face of the anticommunist hysteria sweeping the nation, the CIO also embraced the Marshall Plan and, along with other Western unions, asked the World Federation to endorse it. As Weiler wrote, the "introduction of the Marshall Plan into the WFTU brought the Cold War directly into the international trade union movement." Predictably, the Soviets opposed an endorsement of the Marshall Plan and instead advocated neutrality on the issue. Leading Western union movements with the exception of the French Confédération Générale du Travail and Italian Confederazione Generale Italiana del Lavoro then withdrew from the federation in 1949 and, in concert with the AFL, created the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions.