While the U.S. historically gave rise to valiant labor movements and unions, including the now much-reduced Wobblies, it is generally recognized that labor in the U.S. has long been extremely weak and vulnerable to corruption. Historical sociologists see the outstanding weakness of American labor as a casualty of the pronounced history of the divisive politics of racism in American society. While nationalism has been a prominent motif in American history, solidarity was always under a rain of blows in the U.S.
The American Federation of Labor (AFL) was historically a regressive fraternity exclusively championing the self-interests of a clientele of wealthier, white, male, patriarchical workers, at the expense of other workers. With the ascendance of the Cold War, the conservative AFL eventually assimilated the more progressive CIO in 1955, to become the AFL-CIO. Many Americans instinctively understand that the AFL-CIO has been a corrupt, regressive force in American history. But because employers are opposed to labor organization, the nature and facts of the the AFL-CIO’s corruption are clouded.
The AFL-CIO is not corrupt because they represent workers interests, as employers have attempted to convince journalists and other workers. The organization is corrupt because its leadership has historically worked for employers’ interests, in the U.S. and around the world. In part this is because AFL-CIO leadership sincerely believes that employers alone should control the process of production and appropriate the vast majority of wealth from production and sales–AFL-CIO leadership believes in the economic theory whereby wealth creation is not social. According to this economic theory, owners deserve to accrue the lion’s share of wealth because what they put into the production process is so much more valuable than what workers put in.
In part, AFL-CIO leadership has long been cowed and impressed by U.S. elites’ leadership; they enjoy feeling like part of the real decision-making club. In deference to this club and its version of stability, the AFL-CIO leadership has long acted to repress labor movements. According to the elite theory of stability, if U.S. employers and elites enjoy stable social conditions, then wages will trickle down to loyal employees. Unfortunately, this theory is not supported by historical fact, especially in the broad eras of contracting rates of profit, such as has been occuring since the 1970s.
It should be made clear that the everyday unions under the AFL-CIO federation umbrella have been generally uncorrupt, although they are a far cry from fully developed unions, and have largely confined their activities to serving as a benefits adminstration subsidy to employers. However, despite their modest focus on maintaining modest benefits and wages, their very organization tends to increase all workers’ share of social wealth within their industries and their local communities. These unions maintain productivity while reducing inequality, and are therefore not dispensable from a democratic point of view or the working people’s point of view.
However,the AFL-CIO leadership is a bit of a historical travesty. At the turn of the twentieth century, Samuel Gompers was the original trojan horse in the labor movement. As leader of the AFL Gompers committed AFL funds and energy to fighting against pro-democracy forces in Mexico during that country’s revolution, fighting for U.S. participation in the “meat-grinder” that was WWI, and fighting against the beleaguered revolutionaries in Russia. In fact, the rise of Stalin’s totalitarian regime was in no small part the result of this intense U.S. intervention against the more democratic factions that originally pulled the Russian revolution out of the abysmal social decay, economic rot, and pervasive corruption of the preceding imperial Russian dynasty. The early Soviet Union’s constant struggle to defend itself against Anglo-American-backed, antidemocratic terrorism pushed the new nation-state into an increasingly authoritarian corner.
Generally, the U.S. government has underwritten the expenses of the AFL’s and the AFL-CIO’s interventions in foreign labor movements. With a $50,000 grant from the Wilson Administration, the PAFL (Pan-American Federation of Labor) was created by the AFL to control Mexican and other Latin American labor organizations in favor of business owners.
When Gompers died in 1924, AFL interventions abated until after the second World War. Under the twentieth-century leadership of George Meany and Lane Kirkland, the corruption was launched anew. Funded and guided by the CIA (Central Intelligence Agency), AFL operatives infiltrated and wrecked Communist labor organizations in Italy and France in the late 1940s. They continued similar programs within the Soviet Union. Eventually, the CIA cut off this funding to the AFL when the AFL’s anti-labor operations became overly entwined with the drug trade.
Through the subversive efforts of the anticommunist International Conferation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU), the AFL helped to overthrow the democratically-elected Guatemalan government in 1954. In 1962 the AFL-CIO founded the American Institute for Free Labor Development (AIFLD) and helped Latin American militaries overthrow democratically-elected governments in Brazil (1964) and Chile (1973). AIFLD conducted further operations against the Dominican Republic and British Guinea.
The AFL-CIO established the African-American Labor Center (AALC) in 1964 to support apartheid in South Africa. They bestowed the George Meany Human Rights Award on a pro-apartheid activist, and worked to undermine the liberation movement and its labor movement organizations.
In 1967 the AFL-CIO established the Asian-American Free Labor Institute (AAFLI), working against socialist labor activists in South Korea and Indonesia. AAFLI collaborated with a death squad in the Philippines, and AAFLI provided massive funding to maintain the dictator Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines. In fact the AFL-CIO never provided as much support to Poland’s Solidarnosc movement as it did to Marcos’ tyrannical regime.
When John Sweeney was elected to the presidency of the AFL-CIO in 1995, his staff disbanded these Cold War operations. Unfortunately, the zombie did not die. As Latin America responded to increasing U.S. imperialism at the turn of the 21st century by electing leftist governments, the U.S. State Department once again enjoined the AFL-CIO to assist in its imperial anti-labor programs. The AFL-CIO’s leadership has been characteristically compliant…and covert. The AFL-CIO’s international committee ACILS has been working over the last few years with the State Department’s ACLD (Advisory Committee on Labor and Diplomacy) to overthrow the democratically-elected Chavez Presidency in Venezuela.
As in the past, this funnelling of American workers’ union dues into elite-designed, antidemocratic operations has been covert. Despite repeated requests for information and accountability by a few unions, the AFL-CIO refuses to reveal the details of its foreign operations to its membership–even the historical operations. Therefore, it is presumed that the AFL-CIO leadership fears that the membership will not sanction these operations.
This is why the AFL-CIO is and has always been a corrupt organization that undermines labor movements in the U.S. and around the world.
This entry is a summary of and commentary upon Marta Harnecker. 2005. “Labor imperialism redux?” in Monthly Review, May 2005, Volume 57 — Number 1.