Robert J. Watt – Private, Canadian Army American Labor Leader

Leader in AFL was Delegate to ILO in Geneva Since ‘36
Stricken on Liner at Sea

BOSTON, Massachusetts, July 25, 1947 – Robert J. Watt, a leading American labor statesman, died aboard the liner Saturnia last night at the age of 53.  The vessel will arrive in New York on Monday.

Mr. Watt succumbed as he was returning from a conference of the International Labor Organization at Geneva, where he had represented American labor since 1936.

He leaves a widow; a son, Robert Jr; and a daughter, Mrs. Cornelius Miller of Washington, D.C.

Robert J. Watt was one of the few persons other than the heads of the powerful international unions who could speak with authority in the inner circle of the American Federation of Labor.

A man of little formal schooling, Mr. Watt was nevertheless a leading intellectual in the trade union movement, whose views on both domestic and foreign policy helped set the pattern of AFL policy.  So highly was he regarded by the AFL that from 1936 on, year after year he was delegated by that body as the United States labor representative on the International Labor Organization.

Most of Mr. Watt’s time in recent years was taken up with work connected with the ILO but he also did yeomen service during the war as an alternate labor member of the War Labor Board.  He was a frequent lecturer before university and business groups and discussion clubs on labor’s viewpoint.

A short, stocky Scotsman with an aggressive chin, Mr. Watt was born on July 16, 1894, and immigrated to this country at the age of 18.  He was one of a family of twelve children and his father’s death forced him to quit school at the sixth grade and go to work.  He spent four years learning the painting, paper-hanging and house-decorating trades and completed his apprenticeship at the age of 16.

His deep interest in the welfare of the working man may be explained by his first experiences in the Untied States upon arriving as an immigrant boy from Scotland.

“Landing in the United States on January 1, 1912,” he said, “I went to work in a paper mill in Lawrence, Massachusetts, at 15 cents and hour.  For sixty-five hours a week – thirteen hours a night and five nights a week – I drew $9.75.”

Mr. Watt became an active union member in 1915 but his career assumed no importance until after the First World War, in which he served as a Private in the Canadian Army Infantry.  He took out his United States citizenship papers in 1919.

Returning from the war, Mr. Watt plunged into the trade union movement and, from 1925 to 1930, he was president of the Lawrence Central Labor Union, which is the body which integrated the world of AFL local unions in that area.

He was elected a vice president of the Massachusetts State Federation in 1932 and subsequently secretary-treasurer.  As such he was the executive officer of the organization and one of the most influential labor officials in the State of Massachusetts.

The International Labor Organization was organized in 1919 an offshoot of the League of Nations and all League members belonged.  Its principal objective was the attainment of comparable standards of labor as the basis for world trade through international conventions.

Though not a member of the League of Nations, the United States, with the advent of the Roosevelt administration, joined the ILO in 1936.  Mr. Watt was chosen the AFL delegate and his knowledge of international labor affairs brought him that organization’s appointment as its permanent delegate.

This was a post which both Mr. Watt and the AFL guarded jealously in later years and efforts by the Congress of Industrial Organizations to have one of its officials represented on the ILO were resisted.  They AFL position was that the ILO charter required the naming of an individual from the most representative labor organization in any country.  This, they insisted, meant the AFL, rather than the CIO.

Mr. Watt was also one of the AFL leaders most influential in keeping that body out of any organizations in which Soviet trade unions were associated.  This position was outlined by Mr. Watt on April 24, 1945 at San Francisco, during the conference creating the United Nations, when the AFL refused to take part in the organization of the World Federation of Trade Unions.

In reference to the presence of Soviet trade union officials at that meeting, Mr. Watt said, “The attitude of the AFL has not changed.  We are wholeheartedly in accord with every effort made by our Government and other nations to join with the Soviet Government in winning the war, but this does not mean, nor do we believe it requires, deviation from a policy the AFL had stood by for many years confining our affiliation to organizations consisting of free trade unions.

AFL Official Died at Sea After ILO Session

NEW YORK, New York, July 29, 1947 – The body of Robert J. Watt, international representative of the American Federation of Labor, who died at sea last Thursday, arrived here yesterday aboard the Italian lines Saturnia.  The ship docked at 9:57 A.M. at Pier 84, North River, with 1,393 passengers from Alexandria, Naples and Piraeus.

Mr. Watt had attended a conference of the International Labor Organization at Geneva.  George Meaney, secretary treasurer of organization at the AFL, met the ship at the pier.  Burial is scheduled for tomorrow in Arlington National Cemetery in Washington.

According to AFL officials, Mr. Watt “worked himself to death” at the ILO conference.  He was carried aboard the Saturnia on a stretcher after suffering a heart attack.


  • DATE OF BIRTH: 07/16/1893
  • DATE OF DEATH: 07/24/1947

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