Building Labor Solidarity

Kim Scipes


many people in the United States, the AFL-CIO is a progressive organization,

joining unions across the country to fight for higher wages, better working

conditions and progressive social programs for workers and people in our

communities.  However, to many workers in the so-called

"developing" countries, the AFL-CIO is a most reactionary force-in the

past, it has intervened against militant unions, subverted

democratically-elected governments, supported dictatorships and, in general,

worked to disembowel democracy. 


AFL and then, after 1955, the AFL-CIO, have carried out a reactionary foreign

policy for a very long time.  This foreign policy was a product of Samuel

Gompers and associates’ decisions to reduce their idea of trade unionism to

simply demanding "more" for their members, creating what we now know

as "business unionism."  These practices began in the 19-teens,

when the AFL supported US Government intervention in World War I, and fought

groups-domestic and foreign-that sought to end the war.  During the war and

after, the AFL intervened in Mexico and Latin America to undercut organizing

efforts against capitalist expansion into the region.  These foreign

operations went into abeyance with the death of Gompers in 1924.  They

resumed during World War II, first against the fascists but then against



World War II, labor leaders overwhelmingly supported the US Government’s

"Cold War" policies, targeting labor radicals at home and overseas for

removal.  This ended much of the creativity and vibrancy of the domestic

labor movement, and led labor to support reaction and repression overseas. 

Essentially,  labor leaders (in both the AFL and the CIO) made a deal with

the devil because they believed that their organization and members would

benefit by being citizens of the dominant world power.


they extended their reactionary foreign labor operations not only throughout

Latin America, but expanded it to European countries such as France and Italy

(in the late 1940s-early ’50s).  In the 1960s, labor leaders spread these

operations to both Africa and Asia.  In any case, the most intense period

of these reactionary efforts was between 1962 and 1995 under the presidencies of

George Meany and Lane Kirkland, ending in 1995 when Kirkland was deposed and

replaced as President of the AFL-CIO by John Sweeney. 


The hallmark of foreign policy under Meany and Kirkland was an acceptance of US

domination of other countries, especially in the "third world." 

In the 1962-95 period, AFL-CIO’s Latin American "institute," AIFLD

(American Institute for Free Labor Development) helped overthrow

democratically-elected governments in Guyana in 1963, Brazil in 1964, the

Dominican Republic in 1965, and Chile in 1973.  (Prior to the establishment

of AIFLD, the AFL helped overthrow the government of Guatemala in 1954.) 

The institutes also collaborated with dictators against progressive unions in El

Salvador, Indonesia, the Philippines, South Africa and South Korea, as well as

in Brazil and Chile after the coups in those countries.  The AFL-CIO has

also organized against progressive governments that have come to power after

overthrowing dictators, notably in Nicaragua and Father Aristide’s first

government in Haiti.


when Pinochet got arrested in London in 1998, I was elated.  First, it

looked like there was a chance that the dictator would finally pay for what he

and his cronies had done.  However, I was hoping that journalists would not

just focus on Pinochet, but also focus attention on AFL-CIO foreign operations

in Chile, since AIFLD had been up to its neck in efforts to bring down the

democratically-elected government of Salvador Allende.


sent out an e-mail celebrating the arrest of the tyrant, and Bruce Nissen,

knowing of my long-time interest in international labor, asked if I might be

interested in writing about AFL-CIO operations in Chile for the Labor Studies

Journal.  I decided to give it a try.


a lot of help, I wrote an article for the journal.  In it, I argued that

the arrest of Pinochet allowed AFL-CIO union members to consider the type of

foreign policy they want the AFL-CIO to have.  I briefly overviewed the

history of the AFL and AFL-CIO’s foreign operations, and argued that while there

had been a qualitative improvement since the election of John Sweeney,

nonetheless that AFL-CIO members needed to enter and be included in the

discussion:  the question I raised was do the members want to adopt

Sweeney’s approach and go farther, or did they want to return to the days of

Meany and Kirkland? 


help clarify the discussion, I focused on one specific example:  Chile. 

I discussed how AIFLD helped economically destabilize the country prior to the

coup led by Pinochet and the Generals.  I built on earlier work by Fred

Hirsch on AIFLD’s operations in Chile-Hirsch, a plumber and AFL-CIO member, had

exposed AIFLD operations and allies in 1974!–and added details developed since

then.  I placed these activities within the context of Nixon/Kissinger’s

attack on Chile, in support of multinational capital, and showed how they hurt

workers.  I then suggested that had Sweeney’s policy been operational at

the time, instead of Meany/Kirkland, the AFL-CIO would not have helped

destabilize Chile, which would probably have meant that no coup would have ever

taken place.  The contrast could not be much more clear.


also noted that while there had been a qualitative improvement in AFL-CIO

foreign operations under John Sweeney, the Federation was still accepting US

Government money for foreign labor operations, and these operations were not

transparent or democratically decided upon by the AFL-CIO membership. 

However, I limited my article, and did not discuss current efforts under



I argued that the AFL-CIO needed to "come clean" on its past

international labor operations and argued that this was absolutely essential in

its current efforts to build international labor solidarity.  Further, to

demonstrate this position, I argued that the AFL-CIO should approach those

prosecuting Pinochet, and offer complete cooperation and access to all achieves

having anything to do with Chile, both before and after the coup.  This, I

argued, "would announce for all to see that the AFL-CIO has unequivocally

joined the effort to build social justice around the world."


Studies Journal then asked Judy Ancel and Sam Lanfranco to respond to my

article.  Both were supportive, but Ancel went beyond my article, and

discussed efforts to build international labor solidarity during the Sweeney



a labor educator in Kansas City, is a member of the Board of Directors of The

Coalition for Justice in the Maquiladoras, a tri-national (US, Mexico, Canada)

organization based in San Antonio, Texas.  She focused on how US labor

still carries the baggage of the Cold War years and has not examined old habits

of manipulating foreign workers and defining international solidarity only in

terms of US labor’s needs.  While some progress has been made, she calls on

the AFL-CIO to thoroughly break with economic nationalism and America [n worker]

Firstism.  She notes that the AFL-CIO still accepts money for their foreign

operations from the US Government, both through USAID and through the

supposedly-independent National Endowment for Democracy.   She also

supports my claims of lack of transparency and internal AFL-CIO democracy. 

In short, she argues that "International solidarity must become a

grass-roots, people-to-people effort so that the isolation of American workers

is replaced by a real understanding of common interests."


articles, as well as Sam Lanfranco’s response, were published in the Summer 2000

issue (Vol. 25, No. 2) of Labor Studies Journal. 


last night (September 25), the phone rang.  It was my old friend Fred

Hirsch.  He told me that the South Bay (in and around San Jose, CA) Central

Labor Council, AFL-CIO, had just passed a resolution supporting the articles in



the need of the AFL-CIO to help build international labor solidarity to fight

against economic globalization in the US and around the world, they argued that

to build this solidarity, that the AFL-CIO had to "come clean" about

its work in Chile and elsewhere.  Following the lead article, they called

upon the AFL-CIO "to fully account for what was done in Chile and other

countries where similar roles may have been played in our name, to forever

renounce such policies and practices, and to openly invite concerned union

members and researchers to review and discuss all AFL-CIO archives on

international labor affairs."  Further, the resolution called on the

AFL-CIO to describe "country by country" its activities in which it is

still engaged where they are paid by with government funds, and to renounce any

ties that could threaten the trust that foreign workers may have in the AFL-CIO.


calls were made in an effort "to clear the air in affirmation of an AFL-CIO

policy of genuine labor solidarity in pursuit of economic and social justice

with attention to domestic and international labor standards that include the

right to organize and strike, an adequate social safety net, living wages, the

right to health care and education, elimination of mandatory overtime,

protections of the rights of immigrant workers, prohibitions on strikebreaking,

and the pursuit of peace among nations and peoples."  They further

resolved that this resolution would be sent to the AFL-CIO and circulated among

labor councils and local unions in their area and elsewhere.


resolution was passed without any dissenting votes.  And it is being

circulated along with a background paper that provides even more details on the

affects of AIFLD’s work in Chile.


what does this mean?  Does this portend a change in AFL-CIO foreign

operations or even the process by which they originate?  I don’t know as it

is too soon to tell at this time, but there are some things to think about. 


this is not the first time that the South Bay CLC has publicly condemned AIFLD.

They did it in 1974, and the AFL-CIO reacted by sending AIFLD head William

Doherty to the Bay Area to try to get the Council to rescind its resolution

demanding AFL-CIO "come clean" on Chile, but the Council refused to

cave in to the pressure.  Thus, there is probably no other Labor Council in

the country that has the credibility of this one on international labor affairs. 

And by passing this resolution, it is again taking the lead in building

international labor solidarity.


the awareness of economic globalization and how it is hurting workers and

communities in this country and around the world is greater than ever before. 

To add a Central Labor Council’s input into the debate on globalization and its

effects on workers around the world gives the discussion a legitimacy beyond

that provided by academics or non-governmental organizations such as activist

groups, and opens up AFL-CIO foreign policy making to internal democratic



and perhaps most importantly for the long-run, the South Bay Central Labor

Council has recognized that there remains a dagger at the heart of the newly

emerging alliances between "Teamsters and Turtles," which unite union

members with environmentalists, women’s groups, people of color and other groups

that are challenging corporate domination, social destruction and ecological

devastation.  As long as the AFL-CIO continues to collaborate with the US

Government against workers anywhere, they are betraying other workers in their

efforts to improve their lives and to fight multinational capital, and

international labor solidarity cannot be built.  As progressives around the

world become aware of this, any support they might give the AFL-CIO will be



since labor cannot win on its own-it must have allies in the US and around the

world if it is to have even a chance to win-then it depends on these alliances. 


choice, argues the South Bay CLC, is simple:  either we act in solidarity

with workers around the world against the Empire, or we accept the reduced

numbers of crumbs that the Master offers, stab our brothers and sisters in the

back, and then die in agony when the Empire turns against us.  They have

made the choice:  international solidarity forever, domination never!


Scipes is a former printer and member of the Graphic Communications

International Union, AFL-CIO.  A long-time labor activist, he is now a

PhD Candidate in Sociology at the University of Illinois at Chicago.







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