As many of you know, I have been researching/writing on the "labor imperialism" of the AFL and, subsequently, the AFL-CIO for over 20 years. This is part–unfortunately, a despicable part–of US labor history. However, I don't get a sense that this issue is being throughly addressed in labor history courses, and I'd like to encourage each of you to think about incorporating this aspect of labor history into your teaching/researching, and particularly in encouraging your graduate students to further investigate this aspect of labor history.
Why is this important, besides it simply being part of US labor history? (And no, labor in the US has not been the only one engaged in this: the British TUC and the German DGB have also engaged in this work that I know of, and probably others as well.)
One cannot but notice the all-but-total retreat of the leadership of the AFL-CIO from progressive social struggles in this country over the past 30 years. Other than an episodic speech or press release–or some mundane statement here or there about electoral politics–the AFL-CIO leadership has been "missing in action."
(There have been efforts by local level folks say, to support the Occupy movement, and the AFL-CIO Executive Committee has even formally voted to support it, but there's been no education, no mobilization, etc., that I am aware of by the AFL-CIO leadership, nor of any of the national unions, perhaps save the International Longshore and Warehouse Union on the West Coast. There have been local and regional efforts to fight back against Republican assaults on Labor in Ohio, Indiana, Wisconsin and Michigan, but as we saw in Wisconsin, this "fight back" was ultimately constrained by labor leaders to institutional politics, despite considerable public support for going beyond institutional limitations.)
The question begging to be addressed is why hasn't the AFL-CIO been more engaged?
There are two reasons that come to my mind, and both are intertwined: (1) the abject failure of business unionism, especially in addressing increasing global economic competition and failing to provide a way forward in a time of economic contraction; and (2) support for the US Empire. In other words, regarding the latter, despite almost total absence from progressive social struggles in the US, the AFL-CIO, through it's so-called "Solidarity Center," HAS been active around the world–and this work has been done behind the backs of union members (and many union leaders, as well), with never any honest reporting of their operations, while being done in workers' name. These operations–continuing today–have harmed workers across the "developing" countries, and they have attacked labor democracy here in the United States. Did I mention that over 90% of the funding of these activities have been paid for by the US Government, under both W and Obama? And that the Solidarity Center is one of the four "core" institutes of the cynically-misnamed National Endowment for Democracy, a project of the US Government (despite their phony and disproved claim to be "independent") …? I argue that the AFL-CIO foreign policy leadership (but not necessarily all who work for the Solidarity Center) believes that the US should dominate the world, despite the cost to workers around the world and the US.
There may be other reasons that I'm not aware of, but these two seem to be central to any explanation of the absence of the AFL-CIO in progressive social struggles today in the US, where the weight of the labor movement would be welcome and desired (as long as it didn't try to "take over" these struggles).
Anyway, I'd encourage labor historians and all who care about the labor movement to engage with this question of why hasn't the AFL-CIO been more engaged in progressive social struggles in the US over the past 30 years.
In any case, I'd like to bring to your attention some of my recent work, especially on labor imperialism:
My 2010 book, AFL-CIO's Secret War against Developing Country Workers: Solidarity or Sabotage? (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books), has sold so well that the publisher has brought it out (August 2011) in paperback. This covers the foreign operations of Labor from the Mexican Revolution (i.e., BEFORE the Bolshevik Revolution) to 2007, with specific case studies of Labor operations in Chile (early 1970s), the Philippines (mid-to-late 1980s), and Venezuela (early 2000s). It also talks about efforts by labor activists to overturn this labor imperialism, as well as US Government efforts to incorporate labor into its imperialist foreign policy project. The extensive footnoting links extensive resources/references to issues raised in the text. For details on the book, links to reviews, and a 20% discount off of the cover price, please go to http://faculty.pnc.edu/kscipes/book.htm . (If you replace "book" with "laborbib," you get access to my "Contemporary Labor Bibliography," with over 100 pages of listings, including the most comprehensive listing of AFL-CIO foreign operations that I know of. If you're interested in my publications in general–over 140 articles and book reviews, mostly on labor, in the US and globally, and generally published in specialty journals, plus two books and a Ph.D. dissertation, replace "book" with "publications.")
For a theoretical understanding of "labor imperialism," as well as how we can understand it, see my "Why Labor Imperialism? AFL-CIO's Foreign Policy Leaders and the Developing World" (Working USA, Vol. 13, No. 4 (December 2010): 465-479.
For a book review of a book that unequivocally establishes the relationship between the AFL and the CIA, with a specific look at operations in post-WW II war France, see my review of Quenby Olmsted Hughes' 2011 book, 'In the Name of Democracy': The Rise and Fall of the Early Cold War Alliance between the American Federation of Labor and the Central Intelligence Agency, which appeared in Working USA, Vol. 14, No. 4 (December 2011): 634-638.
I also have a piece forthcoming in the March 2012 issue of Critical Sociology titled "Globalization from Below: Labor Activists Challenging the AFL-CIO Foreign Policy Program."
And I also have a chapter "Wisconsin and US Labor" in a book being published in January 2012, edited by Mari Jo Buhle and Paul Buhle, titled It Started in Wisconsin: Dispatches from the Front Lines of Labor Protest in America (NY: Verso).
And, if anyone is interested, I am planning a bi-costal book tour in early March, where I will be speaking in the Bay Area and New York City area. Please contact me if you might be interested in helping sponsor the tour–it is being self-financed–and/or having me speak at your institution/organization.
In international solidarity–
Kim Scipes, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Sociology (and Chicago Chapter Chair of the National Writers Union, UAW #1981, AFL-CIO)
Purdue University North Central
1401 S. US Hwy 421
Westville, IN 46391