Kevin Cassidy, the director of the ILO Office for the United States, left, poses with a group during the Lehigh Global Village program in New York, during the summer of 2015. Cassidy was part of the decision to choose Lehigh as a site for the ILO's centary celebration. (Courtesy of Gabriela Hrubcova)

Lehigh chosen as primary US host for milestone labor conference


When the International Labor Organization turns 100 years old on April 11, 2019, it will celebrate by holding conferences worldwide.

The U.N. agency strategically scoped the globe for locations and institutions best suited to participate in the festivities.

Ultimately, the ILO selected Bethlehem as the single participating host to represent the United States, with the conference to be held at Lehigh on April 11.

This conference will be one of many held around the world to honor the ILO centenary.  

Bill Hunter, the director of fellowship advising and U.N. Programs, said the conference, called ‘The Future of Work,’ will explore issues of change in the workforce, including globalization and the introduction of artificial intelligence.

In its event concept note that proposed the plan to the ILO, the university outlined a semester-long series of thematic events to lead up to the April 11 conference.

All events will be open to Lehigh faculty, staff and students.

The keynote speakers, who Hunter said will be announced in early 2019, will likely consist of U.N. and NGO officials, and possibly heads of the ILO from Geneva.

Lehigh prevailed in securing its role in the ILO’s historical milestone largely because of its close work with the U.N. as a recognized Nongovernmental organization, and its relationship with Kevin Cassidy, the director of the ILO Office for the United States.

Cassidy has visited Lehigh several times and has given briefings to Lehigh students on issues such as global labor.  Cassidy said his frequent and positive interactions with Lehigh students made the university an attractive option for this conference.

“I found that the questions they were positing were very interesting and brought in a global perspective,” Cassidy said. “We need to work in a diverse, multicultural environment, and I felt that Lehigh brought that to the table.”

Last year, a group of Lehigh students held a conference at the U.N. headquarters in New York City for the first time. Similarly, another group of students will hold a conference one week after the April 11 conference to share findings and open an international discussion about future work.

This initiative’s semester-long programming, conference and subsequent student-held conference demonstrate a new peak for Lehigh’s relationship with the U.N., even considering the university’s renowned history with the international organization.

Hunter said this is a first for Lehigh.

“This is a really exciting follow-up to (last year’s conference),” Hunter said. “Nothing (U.N. related) has been done on this scale ever before on campus.” 

Bethlehem’s rich history of labor in the Greater Lehigh Valley will be another thematic component of the conference.

The event concept note shed light on Bethlehem Steel’s history, as it remains an intriguing case study for those studying manufacturing labor movements and unions. Since it ceased operations in 2003, Bethlehem Steel’s workforce has spread out and diversified across the Lehigh Valley.

Hunter said a portion of the conference will be held in the city of Bethlehem, possibly at SteelStacks, the converted venue that sits where Bethlehem Steel used to operate.

The Allentown Art Museum will also be an official sponsor and will host a tour entitled “The Art of Labor,” exhibiting a recently completed restoration of previously-owned Bethlehem Steel statues and other works that speak to the issues of work and labor.

There are also plans to hold an event at the National Museum of Industrial History.

A team of faculty and staff on the planning committee for the conference will head the organization efforts, including Todd Watkins, a professor of economics and the director of the Martindale Center for the Study of Private Enterprise.

Watkins said he and the rest of the planning committee will seek to involve on- and off-campus organizations.

There are also plans to host a panel to raise awareness about the ILO and the conference.  Watkins and others are working with the Lehigh University Art Gallery to create an art exhibit related to labor and work on campus.   

“We’re also in conversations with the library that might have some historical documents on Bethlehem Steel or labor and workforce-related special document collections,” Watkins said.

Whitney Szmodis, the director of the Global Citizenship Program, will be a working on efforts surrounding the thematic components of the conference leading up to main event.

Szmodis said the thematic programming is still being developed with an emphasis on student involvement.

A number of campus co-sponsors will help bring the conference to life, including the Martindale Center, the Office of International Affairs, the College of Business and Economics and the Provost’s Office.

Alexis McGowan is a contributor to this story. 

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1 Comment

  1. Amy Charles '89 on

    God, that’s delicious. Please, please, invite all the trustees to attend, and record their responses. Maybe there can be a special panel on CEO compensation.

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