March 14, 2006

The AFL-CIO Abroad

At a time when unions are under serious attack, it always seems a bit treasonous to dredge up anything negative about organized labor's past. (Attacking unions because some of them conspired with the mob back in the day, for instance, is wholly irrelevant, especially since this sort of corruption pales beside far more serious corporate crimes.) Still, Kim Scipes' long article in last May's Monthly Review—which I just happened across today—reporting that the AFL-CIO may be returning to the same reactionary foreign policy program it carried out during the Cold War, deserves a look.

In his much-discussed essay calling for Democrats to embrace a more hawkish foreign policy last year, Peter Beinart noted that in 1944, the conservative AFL set up the Free Trade Union Committee, which, in Beinart's retelling, "worked to build an anti-totalitarian labor movement around the world," undermining Communist efforts in Italy, France, and Greece. Right. That's certainly the rosy version of the story.

Less well-known is that the AFL also worked with the U.S. government to overthrow the elected Arbenz government in Guatemala in 1954, helped the CIA set up drug smuggling routes to finance its anti-communist efforts in Europe, and in 1962, established the American Institute for Free Labor Development (AIFLD) which helped lay the groundwork for U.S.-backed military coups in Brazil in 1964, the Dominican Republic in 1965, and Chile in 1975, among others. Under the aegis of "business unionism," the AFL-CIO supported military dictatorships around the world against leftist and progressive unions.

The AFL-CIO supported, for example, the Reagan administration's refusal to conduct a review of labor rights under the military regime in El Salvador for most of the 1980s, because, as Human Rights Watch noted, those being killed were mostly left-wing unionists. For another particularly vivid example of "labor imperialism" in practice, Scipes himself has detailed how the AFL-CIO's Asian counterpart to the AIFLD actively collaborated with death squads under the Marcos regime in the Philippines to put down a KMU local union in the mid-1980s. Certainly the AFL-CIO's foreign policy bears no small portion of the blame for the dismal state of labor around the world today.

In the 1960s, the AFL-CIO had been drained of most of its left-unionists by purges in the McCarthy era—to the point where it appointed the head of the United Fruit Company, J. Peter Grace, as chairman of the AIFLD—and it wasn't until John Sweeney was elected to the presidency in 1995 that the labor activists who had been calling for a "clearing of the air" on the organization's foreign policy finally began to be heeded. Sweeney disbanded the AIFLD and other regional "institutes," took the International Affairs Department off the government's payroll (in the 1980s, this funding accounted for over half of the AFL-CIO's national budget), and announced that, from now on, the federation would cooperate with all workers around the world fighting for labor rights, regardless of their politics.

Or at least that was the idea. Scipes' Monthly Review piece suggests that the AFL-CIO hasn't yet changed its ways. The most convincing piece of evidence here is Scipes' look at the AFL-CIO's work with the CTV in Venezuela, a "reactionary" union, and FEDECAMARAS, a Venezuelan business association, to help organize the 2002 coup against Hugo Chavez. (The AFL-CIO's Solidarity Center received $700,000 from the State Department for its work in Venezuela.)

Less clear-cut, but perhaps more ominous, is Scipes' report that the AFL-CIO has signed on to a new State Department program, the Advisory Committee on Labor and Diplomacy, that aims to use "labor diplomacy" to promote national security "as it did during the Cold War." (Those are the State Department's words.) A recent committee report describes, in part, what the government's looking for:
The war on terrorism provides one more example of why labor diplomacy functions are so important. Working conditions that lead to misery, alienation, and hopelessness are extremely important in the constellation of forces responsible for terrorism, especially when demagogues blame the United States, globalization or other external forces.
What that passage means—and what, exactly, the State Department wants the AFL-CIO to help do about those "demagogues," or even who the "demagogues" are (Islamists? any anti-globalization activists?)—is unclear. But the history of "labor diplomacy" in this country should raise some red flags. Granted, for many people, even some of those involved with or sympathetic to organized labor, that Cold War history may not seem like such a big deal. Many liberals probably wouldn't be big fans of many of the leftist, socialist, or Communist unions and groups that the AFL-CIO fought to suppress during the Cold War, and it seems fashionable these days to oppose Chavez in any case.

But—and here's where I think most people can agree—the AFL-CIO's foreign policy past still very much affects its ability to work today with other unions abroad, against the corporate interests that are labor's primary foe at this point. In 1997, Abby Scher reported in Dollars & Sense that textile unions in the Dominican Republic refused to collaborate with the ACTWU, an American textile union, over organizing when the AFL-CIO waded in to the talks. People have long memories. It's not clear how widespread those sorts of incidents are, but as Scher says, U.S. unions during the Cold War "undercut their international strength during crucial years when multinationals were growing more powerful."

Whatever the future of labor, it's going to have to take a more international and cross-border component to organizing, something Andy Stern has been talking about for awhile—and criticizing the AFL-CIO over. During the Cold War, unions here at home might have benefited from U.S. corporations pillaging raw materials from Third World countries governed by union-busting despots (to put it crudely). An uneasy alliance with corporate imperialism might have made sense, in terms of naked self-interest. I disagree, but you can see the argument. That's very clearly no longer the case, though—poor labor standards and weak unions abroad have ended up hurting American manufacturers here.

Some of the more progressive unions out there, such as the Communications Workers for America and the United Electrical Workers, have long recognized this, and have been very active in trying to raise working standards abroad—the UE has tried its hand at organizing multiple plants owned by a single multinational, for instance. It's hard to tell if the AFL-CIO is serious about following the same path, or if it really intends to be co-opted by the Bush administration's foreign policy, which is why Scipes has been so insistent for so long about greater transparency within the federation, asking the AFL-CIO to explain to its members what, exactly, it's doing on the foreign policy front. That doesn't seem like so much to ask.
-- Brad Plumer 9:30 PM || ||