A Betrayal of the Highest Order

Kim Scipes, AFL-CIO Secret War Against Developing County Workers: Solidarity or Sabotage? (Lanham, MD:  Lexington Books, 2010)



Recently a leftist I know sent me a disheartening note in the midst of the mass protests for public workers’ collective bargaining rights in Madison, Wisconsin:


“Some friends of mine were ‘asked’ not to display their ‘Money for human needs, not war’ signs in the Wisconsin Capitol building from someone with the American Federation off State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) saying, ‘This is a labor protest not a peace demonstration.‘ "


”Except from U.S. Labor Against the War, I haven't seen hardly any mention of these state budget problems being related to military spending. [AFL-CIO President] Richard Trumka has been fighting tooth and nail to keep these wars from being opposed by labor. I think what is playing out with peace views being suppressed is an attempt to, as [United Steelworkers’ President] Leo Gerard said he was going to do, ‘cover Obama's back.’ “


”To blame the states' budget problems is to blame Obama— and Obama's military spending should be blamed. I cannot believe not one of the labor leaders said in speeches in Wisconsin something like, ‘Here we have Obama and congress approving $35 billion dollars on a new military boon-doggle and we are struggling to defend our livelihoods.’"


I am sympathetic to my correspondents’ ire and agree with his sense that organized labor undermines its position by failing to criticize the imperial militarism that steals billions of U.S. taxpayer dollars from the potential meeting of social needs and state budgets at home.  But I do not share his disbelief about labor leaders’ failure to say anything critical about military spending and thereby about U.S. Empire in Madison.  There’s nothing surprising or new about this silence. 


The principles of real, bona-fide working class trade unionism are rooted in the notion of working people joining and acting together in solidarity to improve wages, benefits, and working and living conditions for themselves and others. “An Injury to One,” the labor credo runs, “is an injury to all.”  These principles and that ethos have been advanced in American history to no small degree by the various unions affiliated with the American Federation of Labor (AFL, 1886-1955), the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO, 1935-1955), and the AFL-CIO (1955 to present).  But as the left historian, activist, and sociologist Kim Scipes shows in his important book AFL-CIO Secret War Against Developing County Workers: Solidarity or Sabotage? (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2010), they have been undermined by the imperialist foreign policy of U.S. labor “leadership” for more than a century.  Unbeknownst to most American union members and many U.S. labor officials, and without their support, the top foreign policy operatives of the AFL and the AFL-CIO have consistently collaborated with American government agencies like the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the U.S Agency for International Development (USAID), and the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) in carrying out an imperialist foreign policy that has attacked working and living standards in “developing countries” (known as “Third World” nations during the Cold War).


This “labor imperialism,” Scipes argues, is no small crime. If anything,” Scipes writes. “labor imperialism is worse than general ‘run of the mill’ imperialism, because it is being done by worker ‘leaders’ an in the name of workers against workers. It is a betrayal of the highest order” (p. 68).


Scipes’ second chapter (titled “One Hundred Years of Reaction”) gives important details of this betrayal as it developed after World War II under the aegis of the AFL and the AFL-CIO’s notorious, generally CIA-affiliated overseas labor “institutes”: the American Institute for Free Labor Development (AIFLD, an ally of dictators and an enemy of progressive unions and leftists in Latin America), the African-American Labor Center (AALC, an ally of dictators and apartheid and an enemy of progressive workers labor and leftists in Africa), and the Asian American Free Labor Institute (AAFLI, an ally of dictators and death squads and an enemy of progressive labor and leftists in Asia). U.S. Labor’s post-WWII imperial interventions in developing countries have fallen into three basic categories, Scipes argues:


“(1) directly operating to help undermine democratically governments which, in each case, led to the establishment of a reactionary military dictatorship, the death and/or imprisonment of thousands, and decimation of respective labor movements (as in Guatemala during 1954, in Brazil in 1964, and Chile in 1973); (2) supporting reactionary governments and their affiliated labor movements against workers and their organizations seeking democratic changes (Indonesia during the 1970s-late 1990s, El Salvador throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s, the Philippines, 1980s-early 1990s, and South Korea, late 1970s-1980s); and (3) indirectly operating within local labor movements to attack pro-labor, progressive governments (in Guyana in 1963, Dominican Republic in 1965, Nicaragua in the late 1980s, and Venezuela in the late 1990s to 2002-2003).”


Scipes provides a case study that epitomizes each of these three sorts of intervention – Chile, the Philippines, and Venezuela.  His identification of these three different modes of labor-imperialist intervention and his detailed studies of specific interventions provides an essential antidote to the AFL’s “historical mantra” (p. 67) that its foreign policy operations are about defending “freedom of association.”  There “simply was no attack on labor freedoms in either Chile or Venezuela,” Scipes observes, "and, in both cases, the progressive governments attacked [by the U.S. government and U.S. corporations with the collaboration of U.S. Labor – P.S.] had been consciously working to support the cause and traditional ideals of organized of labor and improve the lives of the large number of working people, overcoming oppression from their past” (67).


There is a deep and tragic irony about this U.S. labor imperialism, of course: it helps undercut the basis for a vibrant labor movement at home.  Each of the interventions that Scipes dissects reduced working and living standards in the targeted countries, thereby “providing safe havens for U.S. corporate investment” abroad. They ncouraged big American businesses to move jobs and shift production outside the U.S., undermining working and living standards and organized labor power at home.


It will not do, Scipes shows, to explain U.S. labor “leaders’” foreign policy betrayal as something that has been forced on union officialdom by external forces and particularly by the anti-Communist pressures of U.S. government and business during the Cold War. U.S. labor officials have consistently acted in support of Empire and against developing state workers of their own will and in accord with their own deeply held conviction that the global interests of the American capitalist system and its accompanying military Empire deserve to reign supreme. U.S. labor imperialism also reflects American labor “leaders’” own homegrown, business-unionist hostility to radicals – to “anyone who would challenge the status quo (and most especially capitalism)” and to anyone who sought to fight for workers with a “broader and more militant approach than that of AFL/AFL-CIO leaders” (27) – within the American labor movement’s ranks. Scipes’ first chapter (“Business Unionism, Samuel Gompers and AFL Foreign Policy”) shows that U.S. Labor’s commitment to the American Empire Project predates the rise of the Soviet Union and therefore emerged before the Cold War.  It details how the AFL’s conservative, ex-socialist and business-unionist chief Samuel Gompers’ defeated and overrode the objections of U.S. labor radicals to align American Labor with Washington's imperial agenda in relation to the Spanish-American and Philippine-American Wars, the Mexican Revolution, World War One, and the Russian Revolution.


The Cold War rationalization obviously does not work for the AFL-CIO’s significant collaboration (exposed in smoking-gun detail on pages 57-66) with the short-lived U.S-supported right-wing coup against Hugo Chavez.  That coup took place in 2002, more than a decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union and hence of the international communist bogeyman.


Perhaps Scipes will soon examine the role of American Labor imperialism in the U.S.-supported overthrow of Honduras ’ democratically elected and left-leaning president Manuel Zelaya in June of 2009. 


There is resistance to labor imperialism within organized U.S. labor.  Such opposition has existed in an organized fashion since at least the middle 1960s. Scipes’ third chapter (“War Within Labor”) details union dissidents’ efforts to challenge U.S. labor imperialism since the 1995 election of John Sweeney to the presidency of the AFL-CIO – an event that at first seemed to carry significant promise for a change in labor’s imperial direction.


Scipes’ fifth and final chapter offers some fascinating reflections and theorizing on why AFL-CIO leaders have conducted such a reactionary foreign policy over many decades and the meaning of the sordid story he tells for social theory.


AFL-CIO Secret War Against Developing Country Workers(“Solidarity or Sabotage?” should have been the book’s title, NOT its sub-title) is a welcome, overdue, and highly informed exposé of U.S. labor imperialism and its nefarious effects both in the “third” or “developing” world (the periphery and semi-peripheries of the world capitalist system) and in the eye of the imperial hurricane – the American “homeland.”  For what it’s worth, Scipes’ knowledge of the secondary academic and journalistic literature on American labor’s foreign policy record is encyclopedic, making his bibliography and endnotes a reservoir of sources and leads for those who want to learn more.



Paul Street (www.paulstreet.org)is the author of many articles, chapters, speeches, and books, including Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2008); Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007; Segregated Schools: Educational Apartheid in the Post-Civil Rights Era (New York: Routledge, 2005); Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2008); The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2010); and (co-authored with Anthony DiMaggio) Crashing the Tea Party: Mass Media and the Campaign to Remake American Politics (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, May 2011).  Street can be reached at paulstreet99@yahoo.com

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