To Build a Left-Wing Unionism, We Must Reckon With the AFL-CIO’s Imperialist Past

Jeff Schuhrke January 10, 2020

The AFL-CIO signage on the building in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

First pub­lished at Jacobin.

Two days after Bolivia’s social­ist pres­i­dent Evo Morales was forced from office in a right-wing mil­i­tary coup last Novem­ber, AFL-CIO pres­i­dent Richard Trum­ka con­demned the coup on Twit­ter and praised Morales for reduc­ing pover­ty and cham­pi­oning indige­nous rights. In doing so, Trum­ka joined Bernie Sanders, Ilhan Omar, Alexan­dria Oca­sio-Cortez, and oth­er promi­nent fig­ures of the Left in coun­ter­ing the US polit­i­cal and media estab­lish­ments’ dom­i­nant nar­ra­tive that Morales’s vio­lent ouster was a win for democracy.

While it’s fit­ting for the pres­i­dent of the nation’s largest union fed­er­a­tion to denounce a right-wing coup against a left­ist for­eign leader — which was endorsed by the State Depart­ment and CIA — it also rep­re­sents an impor­tant break from prece­dent for the AFL-CIO. Though rarely dis­cussed, the fed­er­a­tion has a long record of sup­port­ing the US gov­ern­ment in dis­rupt­ing left­ist move­ments around the world, includ­ing through coups d’état in Latin America.

Through­out the Cold War, the AFL-CIO’s Exec­u­tive Coun­cil and Inter­na­tion­al Affairs Depart­ment were run by zeal­ous anti­com­mu­nists deter­mined to under­cut the rise of left-wing trade unions over­seas. Like their coun­ter­parts in the US gov­ern­ment, George Meany, AFL-CIO pres­i­dent from 1955 – 1979, and Lane Kirk­land, his suc­ces­sor who served until 1995, under­stood that if allowed to thrive, class-con­scious labor move­ments would pose a seri­ous threat to glob­al capital.

Meany, Kirk­land, and oth­er AFL-CIO offi­cials sub­scribed to a phi­los­o­phy of busi­ness union­ism,” mean­ing they had no desire to top­ple cap­i­tal­ism but instead pro­mot­ed the idea that class col­lab­o­ra­tion and lim­it­ed work­place bar­gain­ing over bread and but­ter” issues would bring work­ers all the pros­per­i­ty they need­ed. They cham­pi­oned eco­nom­ic nation­al­ism over transna­tion­al labor sol­i­dar­i­ty, rea­son­ing that US work­ers would see high­er wages and low­er unem­ploy­ment as long as US cor­po­ra­tions had easy access to for­eign mar­kets to sell prod­ucts made in the Unit­ed States — a ver­sion of the kind of nation­al­ist ide­ol­o­gy that has fueled racism and xeno­pho­bia among seg­ments of the US work­ing class and aid­ed Trump’s rise to power.

From aid­ing US-backed mil­i­tary coups in Brazil and Chile to cheer­lead­ing ruth­less coun­terin­sur­gency wars in Viet­nam and El Sal­vador, the AFL-CIO’s for­eign pol­i­cy dur­ing the Cold War was fun­da­men­tal­ly geared toward the inter­ests of US empire. By the 1970s — just as cap­i­tal launched a renewed, decades-long attack on work­ers’ rights around the globe — the US labor fed­er­a­tion had lost what­ev­er cred­i­bil­i­ty it might have had as a vehi­cle for inter­na­tion­al work­ing-class lib­er­a­tion, derid­ed by anti-impe­ri­al­ists at home and abroad as the AFL-CIA.”

As we enter a new decade, the prospects for a reju­ve­nat­ed US labor move­ment are strong: a new gen­er­a­tion of exploit­ed work­ers are eager to union­ize, the num­ber of work­ers on strike just hit a thir­ty-year high, the rapid­ly grow­ing Demo­c­ra­t­ic Social­ists of Amer­i­ca is aim­ing to pull unions left­ward through the rank-and-file strat­e­gy, long­time labor ally Bernie Sanders has plans to dou­ble union mem­ber­ship if elect­ed pres­i­dent, and mil­i­tant labor lead­ers like Sara Nel­son (who could be the AFL-CIO’s next pres­i­dent) are ris­ing in prominence.

It’s a good time, then, for both labor activists and left labor lead­ers to reck­on with the his­to­ry of US labor impe­ri­al­ism — a his­to­ry large­ly unknown to younger labor activists and left­ists who came of age in the ear­ly twen­ty-first cen­tu­ry. Wrestling with that his­to­ry can help ensure that a resur­gent US labor move­ment plays a pos­i­tive and effec­tive role in build­ing glob­al work­er sol­i­dar­i­ty rather than one that props up an impe­ri­al­ist order that hurts the work­ing class both with­in the Unit­ed States and around the world.

Why Labor Imperialism?

Though decades of cor­po­rate pro­pa­gan­da have tried to tell us oth­er­wise, there is pow­er in a union. Not only the pow­er to raise wages or win paid time off, but the pow­er to over­throw gov­ern­ments and bring nation­al economies to a screech­ing halt. Dur­ing the Cold War, the US gov­ern­ment under­stood this very well. To US offi­cials deter­mined to pre­serve and expand inter­na­tion­al cap­i­tal­ism in the face of an increas­ing­ly influ­en­tial glob­al left, trade unions around the world posed a seri­ous threat.

Unions abroad there­fore became a cru­cial tar­get of US impe­r­i­al inter­ven­tion: rather than allow them to mount an effec­tive chal­lenge to cap­i­tal by rad­i­cal­iz­ing work­ers and fuel­ing left­ist polit­i­cal move­ments, unions would need to be turned into instru­ments for con­tain­ing the rev­o­lu­tion­ary poten­tial of the work­ing class. In the process, orga­nized labor’s most pow­er­ful weapon — the strike — would be co-opt­ed and used to pur­sue reac­tionary goals, name­ly, to under­mine left­ist governments.

To sub­vert over­seas unions for their own impe­r­i­al ends, the State Depart­ment and CIA found an enthu­si­as­tic ally in the AFL-CIO. The Cold War large­ly coin­cid­ed with the peri­od when the US labor move­ment was at its strongest. More US work­ers were union­ized in the 1950s and 1960s than at any oth­er time in his­to­ry, giv­ing labor lead­ers like Meany con­sid­er­able polit­i­cal clout.

As anti­com­mu­nists, AFL-CIO offi­cials chose to use this pow­er to assist the US gov­ern­ment in under­min­ing left­ist influ­ence in for­eign trade unions. In prac­tice, this meant inter­fer­ing in the inter­nal process­es of oth­er coun­tries’ trade unions, stok­ing internecine rival­ries, cre­at­ing and finan­cial­ly prop­ping up splin­ter labor orga­ni­za­tions, groom­ing cadres of con­ser­v­a­tive busi­ness union­ists, and using the pow­er of the strike to sab­o­tage pro­gres­sive governments.

After decades of such impe­r­i­al inter­ven­tions, orga­nized labor across the world was left divid­ed and weak­ened, mak­ing it eas­i­er for transna­tion­al cap­i­tal to exploit work­ers in the era of neoliberalism.

The AFL’s Ear­ly Cold War

Thanks to the Left’s stead­fast resis­tance to fas­cism, the Com­mu­nist par­ties of West­ern Europe won wide­spread pop­u­lar sup­port dur­ing World War II, espe­cial­ly among the work­ing class. By the end of the war, labor fed­er­a­tions like France’s Con­fédéra­tion Générale du Tra­vail (CGT) and Italy’s Con­fed­er­azione Gen­erale Ital­iana del Lavoro (CGIL) were led or heav­i­ly influ­enced by Communists.

In 1945, the labor move­ments of the Allied nations — includ­ing Britain, the Sovi­et Union, and the Unit­ed States — formed the World Fed­er­a­tion of Trade Unions (WFTU), a sort of Unit­ed Nations for labor. At this time, the AFL and the CIO were still sep­a­rate, com­pet­ing enti­ties. Estab­lished in 1886, the polit­i­cal­ly con­ser­v­a­tive AFL includ­ed unions of skilled, craft work­ers, while the CIO — found­ed in 1935 as a break­away orga­ni­za­tion from the AFL — rep­re­sent­ed work­ers in mass indus­tries like auto and steel. The new­er and more pro­gres­sive CIO, which owed its growth to the work of Com­mu­nist and oth­er left­ist orga­niz­ers, read­i­ly joined the WFTU. But the larg­er and staunch­ly anti­com­mu­nist AFL refused to have any­thing to do with the new glob­al orga­ni­za­tion because it includ­ed unions from the USSR.

AFL lead­ers like Meany argued that left­ists — par­tic­u­lar­ly Com­mu­nists — were inher­ent­ly total­i­tar­i­ans,” and that any unions they led were ille­git­i­mate as rep­re­sen­ta­tives of work­ers. He and the AFL’s oth­er anti­com­mu­nist inter­na­tion­al­ists con­tend­ed that only demo­c­ra­t­ic” or free” trade unions — that is, pro-cap­i­tal­ist, busi­ness unions — had any claim to legitimacy.

The irony of free” trade union­ists was that they fre­quent­ly tram­pled on union democ­ra­cy and auton­o­my while claim­ing to cham­pi­on these very prin­ci­ples. When­ev­er Com­mu­nists or oth­er left­ists attained lead­er­ship posi­tions in for­eign unions through demo­c­ra­t­ic meth­ods and with rank-and-file sup­port, out­siders from the AFL would jump in to make sure their own hand­picked, anti­com­mu­nist union­ists would have the resources to mount a robust, dis­rup­tive opposition.

In 1944, before the Cold War bat­tle lines had even been drawn, the AFL estab­lished the Free Trade Union Com­mit­tee (FTUC) with the goal of under­min­ing Com­mu­nist-led unions in West­ern Europe. Tapped to run the FTUC was Jay Love­stone, who had once been a leader of the Com­mu­nist Par­ty USA but was expelled in 1929, because Stal­in believed he was too close to his Polit­buro rival Niko­lai Bukharin.

Love­stone made his way into the labor move­ment in the 1930s through the Inter­na­tion­al Ladies’ Gar­ment Work­ers’ Union. Eager for revenge against his ex-com­rades, he then went to work for the UAW’s anti­com­mu­nist pres­i­dent Homer Mar­tin, using his inti­mate knowl­edge of the par­ty to help Mar­tin red-bait and oust his intra-union oppo­nents. This expe­ri­ence made him the per­fect choice to run the FTUC.

As FTUC direc­tor, Love­stone sent his asso­ciate, Irv­ing Brown, to be his point man in Europe. From an office in Paris, Brown set about divid­ing the inter­na­tion­al labor move­ment by loud­ly accus­ing the WFTU of being a Sovi­et-dom­i­nat­ed orga­ni­za­tion. He par­tic­u­lar­ly worked to split the French CGT by back­ing its inter­nal, non­com­mu­nist fac­tion, Force Ouvrière. While Force Ouvrière start­ed as a small CGT cau­cus will­ing to coex­ist with Com­mu­nists, Brown helped trans­form it into a sep­a­rate, anti­com­mu­nist labor orga­ni­za­tion in direct com­pe­ti­tion with the CGT, propped up more by US funds than pop­u­lar support.

By 1947 – 48, the US gov­ern­ment caught up with the AFL on the Cold War, cre­at­ing the CIA and launch­ing the Mar­shall Plan to ensure the con­tain­ment” of com­mu­nism by recon­struct­ing West­ern Europe’s war-shat­tered econ­o­my with­in a cap­i­tal­ist frame­work. Rec­og­niz­ing the labor move­ment as a cru­cial Cold War bat­tle­ground, the CIA was drawn to Lovestone’s FTUC. In 1949, the Agency agreed to finance the FTUC’s efforts to sub­vert Com­mu­nist unions abroad in exchange for intel­li­gence on for­eign labor orga­ni­za­tions. AFL lead­ers Meany, David Dubin­sky, and Matthew Woll were in on the new part­ner­ship, as were Love­stone and Brown, but oth­er AFL offi­cials and rank-and-file US union­ists were kept in the dark and knew lit­tle of what the FTUC was up to.

That US union lead­ers forged a secret alliance with the CIA to unde­mo­c­ra­t­i­cal­ly divide unions over­seas may jus­ti­fi­ably be dif­fi­cult to under­stand. But AFL lead­ers and the CIA shared the belief that Left-ori­ent­ed unions were lit­er­al­ly capa­ble of bring­ing about pro­le­tar­i­an revolution.

To pre­vent this from hap­pen­ing, the CIA need­ed the exper­tise of the AFL. Since the AFL’s pro-cap­i­tal­ist, anti­com­mu­nist offi­cials were already work­ing to under­mine left­ist labor move­ments before the CIA was even estab­lished, they didn’t need any convincing.

Now flush with CIA mon­ey, in the ear­ly 1950s, Brown was reput­ed to car­ry around suit­cas­es full of cash, buy­ing the loy­al­ty of union offi­cials in France, Italy, West Ger­many, and else­where. Wher­ev­er Com­mu­nist unions were strong, anti­com­mu­nist splin­ter unions were cre­at­ed and finan­cial­ly backed by the FTUC/CIA. The AFL sim­i­lar­ly part­nered with the State Depart­ment, which devel­oped a corps of labor attachés and sta­tioned them at US embassies abroad. Often plucked from the ranks of AFL unions and vet­ted by Love­stone, the State Department’s labor attachés used their diplo­mat­ic lever­age to iso­late and dis­cred­it Europe’s Com­mu­nist-led unions.

Love­stone also dis­patched FTUC oper­a­tives to Asia. After the 1949 Com­mu­nist rev­o­lu­tion in Chi­na, FTUC rep­re­sen­ta­tive Willard Etter set up shop in For­mosa (Tai­wan). With resources pro­vid­ed by the CIA, Etter sup­port­ed the Free Chi­na Labor League, which served as a front for espi­onage and sab­o­tage activ­i­ties. Teams of anti­com­mu­nist Chi­nese agents secret­ly trav­eled from For­mosa to main­land Chi­na, where they not only report­ed intel­li­gence back to Etter via radio trans­mit­ters, but also blew up fuel sup­plies (caus­ing sub­stan­tial civil­ian casu­al­ties) and attempt­ed to stir up work­er unrest in state-owned factories.

Through the FTUC’s Chi­na oper­a­tion, then, the AFL became com­plic­it in CIA-spon­sored ter­ror­ist activ­i­ties, stray­ing far from its basic pur­pose of empow­er­ing work­ers. Most of Etter’s agents were cap­tured and exe­cut­ed by the Chi­nese gov­ern­ment after the CIA lost inter­est and aban­doned them once the Kore­an War started.

The rela­tion­ship between the AFL and CIA was fraught. Love­stone chafed at the Agency’s bureau­cra­cy and over­sight, con­tin­u­ous­ly demand­ing greater inde­pen­dence for his FTUC. For their part, some in the CIA’s top ranks — typ­i­cal­ly Ivy League-edu­cat­ed WASPs — looked scorn­ful­ly at their AFL con­tacts, who were most­ly Jews and Irish Catholics with immi­grant and work­ing-class upbring­ings. The feel­ing was mutu­al, with Love­stone fre­quent­ly ridi­cul­ing his CIA part­ners as fizz kids” in let­ters to Brown. Such acri­mo­ny though was a triv­ial byprod­uct of the unsa­vory part­ner­ship between the nom­i­nal voice of the US work­ing class and the US impe­r­i­al state.

Despite the inter­per­son­al ten­sions, the FTUC-CIA alliance in West­ern Europe achieved its main goal of split­ting the WFTU in 1949. Increas­ing­ly pres­sured by Cold War geopol­i­tics, the CIO and British Trades Union Con­gress dis­af­fil­i­at­ed from the WFTU ear­ly that year. The break came down to dis­agree­ments over the Mar­shall Plan, which the Com­mu­nist-led unions opposed on grounds that it con­sti­tut­ed an attempt to under­mine their influ­ence and recon­sol­i­date the inter­na­tion­al cap­i­tal­ist sys­tem with the Unit­ed States at its center.

1949 was also the year that the US labor move­ment fell vic­tim to the same divi­sions the AFL had been sow­ing abroad. Want­i­ng to stay in the government’s good graces, CIO lead­ers took a decid­ed­ly right­ward turn that year, purg­ing Com­mu­nist orga­niz­ers from their ranks and chas­ing out their Left-led affil­i­ate unions. The result was dev­as­tat­ing. The CIO — which had pre­vi­ous­ly been at the cen­ter of a mul­tira­cial, work­ing-class move­ment for social and eco­nom­ic jus­tice — was ren­dered a shell of its for­mer self with­out its ded­i­cat­ed left­ist orga­niz­ers. Fac­ing obso­les­cence, the CIO was absorbed into the larg­er, more con­ser­v­a­tive AFL in 1955, and the US labor move­ment began its decades-long decline.

In Decem­ber 1949, the CIO and British Trades Union Con­gress joined the AFL and oth­er anti­com­mu­nist nation­al labor cen­ters to found the Inter­na­tion­al Con­fed­er­a­tion of Free Trade Unions (ICF­TU), which pre­sent­ed itself as the free” world’s alter­na­tive to the WFTU. Thanks to the machi­na­tions of the AFL, CIA, and State Depart­ment, the inter­na­tion­al labor move­ment was now divid­ed into two hos­tile camps, with US labor lead­ers more fix­at­ed on fight­ing the Left than fight­ing capital.

Tar­get­ing the Third World

Fol­low­ing the recon­struc­tion of West­ern Europe, US labor lead­ers and their allies in the US gov­ern­ment increas­ing­ly turned their atten­tion to the devel­op­ing coun­tries of the Glob­al South, or what was then called the Third World.

In the West­ern Hemi­sphere, Love­stone had a min­i­mal pres­ence. Instead, the AFL’s Inter-Amer­i­can Rep­re­sen­ta­tive” was Ital­ian émi­gré and for­mer social­ist Ser­afi­no Romual­di. Forced to flee Italy for oppos­ing Mus­soli­ni, Romual­di set­tled in New York. Like Love­stone, he found his way into the labor move­ment through David Dubinsky’s Inter­na­tion­al Ladies’ Gar­ment Work­ers’ Union in the 1930s, work­ing for the union’s news service.

Dur­ing World War II, Romual­di toured Latin Amer­i­ca on behalf of Nel­son Rockefeller’s Office of the Coor­di­na­tor of Inter-Amer­i­can Affairs before briefly return­ing to Italy as an oper­a­tive with the Office of Strate­gic Ser­vices — the pre­cur­sor to the CIA — where he attempt­ed to side­line Com­mu­nist influ­ence in the CGIL.

In 1946, Romual­di became the AFL’s chief rep­re­sen­ta­tive in Latin Amer­i­ca and the Caribbean. Much as Irv­ing Brown worked to divide the WFTU, Romualdi’s mis­sion was to weak­en the Left-led Con­fed­eración de Tra­ba­jadores de Améri­ca Lati­na (CTAL), which had been found­ed by Mex­i­can labor leader Vicente Lom­bar­do Toledano in 1938 to unite Latin America’s class-con­scious trade unions.

The CTAL served as an authen­tic voice for pan-Amer­i­can labor, led by Latin Amer­i­can union­ists and free from US impe­r­i­al dom­i­nance. Like the WFTU with which it was affil­i­at­ed, it brought Com­mu­nists and non­com­mu­nists togeth­er around the com­mon pur­pose of improv­ing the lot of work­ers. Romual­di and the AFL sought to under­mine the CTAL and replace it with a US-led inter-Amer­i­can labor con­fed­er­a­tion, ensur­ing the Latin Amer­i­can work­ing class would not become a strong, inde­pen­dent force capa­ble of chal­leng­ing North Amer­i­can control.

With the sup­port of Latin America’s social-demo­c­ra­t­ic par­ties and the State Department’s labor attachés, Romual­di suc­ceed­ed in con­vinc­ing many Latin Amer­i­can work­er orga­ni­za­tions to break from the CTAL, bring­ing the region’s anti­com­mu­nist unions togeth­er in 1948 with the estab­lish­ment of the Con­fed­eración Inter­amer­i­cana de Tra­ba­jadores. Three years lat­er, it was recon­sti­tut­ed as the Orga­ni­zación Region­al Inter-Amer­i­cana de Tra­ba­jadores (ORIT) to serve as the ICFTU’s region­al arm in the West­ern Hemi­sphere. Under Romualdi’s influ­ence, ORIT would bat­tle left­ist, Per­o­nist, and Catholic trade unions across the region through­out the 1950s, with the result that the Latin Amer­i­can work­ing class remained fractured.

In the after­math of the 1959 Cuban Rev­o­lu­tion, Meany, like his allies in the US for­eign pol­i­cy estab­lish­ment, quick­ly made Latin Amer­i­ca his new pri­or­i­ty for con­tain­ment.” Unfor­tu­nate­ly for him, the FTUC had recent­ly been shut­tered at the insis­tence of UAW pres­i­dent Wal­ter Reuther, after Reuther’s CIO merged with the AFL.

Though an anti­com­mu­nist in his own right, Reuther believed there could be peace­ful coex­is­tence between East and West and didn’t wish to esca­late ten­sions with the Sovi­et Union. Despis­ing Love­stone for his divi­sive tac­tics in the UAW years ear­li­er, Reuther want­ed the AFL-CIO to con­duct its for­eign pol­i­cy through the mul­ti­lat­er­al ICF­TU and not Lovestone’s FTUC. Although the ICF­TU was formed at the urg­ing of the AFL, dur­ing the 1950s, Meany had become dis­en­chant­ed with the Euro­pean union­ists who ran it, believ­ing they were not bel­liger­ent enough in their anticommunism.

Hop­ing to refo­cus labor’s Cold War in Latin Amer­i­ca after the Cuban Rev­o­lu­tion, but not will­ing to rely on the ICF­TU, Meany want­ed a new, uni­lat­er­al orga­ni­za­tion in the mold of the now-defunct FTUC. He would get it with the cre­ation of the Amer­i­can Insti­tute for Free Labor Devel­op­ment (AIFLD — usu­al­ly pro­nounced A‑field”). AIFLD would become the AFL-CIO’s most sig­nif­i­cant instru­ment for wag­ing the glob­al Cold War.

The idea for AIFLD was first pro­posed by Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Work­ers of Amer­i­ca pres­i­dent Joseph Beirne, who held a seat on the AFL-CIO Exec­u­tive Coun­cil. In 1959, Beirne brought six­teen ORIT-affil­i­at­ed union offi­cials from Latin Amer­i­ca to Vir­ginia for a train­ing course on how to be an effec­tive busi­ness union­ist. Beirne sought to scale up this pro­gram and turn it into a per­ma­nent orga­ni­za­tion, per­suad­ing Meany to get behind the plan.

Meany then con­vinced the incom­ing Kennedy admin­is­tra­tion that the pro­posed orga­ni­za­tion, AIFLD, would serve as the per­fect labor aux­il­iary to the Alliance for Progress — a Mar­shall Plan-type ini­tia­tive to pro­vide gen­er­ous US aid to anti­com­mu­nist Latin Amer­i­can gov­ern­ments to pre­vent the out­break of anoth­er Cuba-style rev­o­lu­tion. As it had in post­war Europe, US labor would once again will­ing­ly assist the US gov­ern­ment in car­ry­ing out its Cold War objectives.

In 1962, AIFLD went into oper­a­tion. Almost exclu­sive­ly fund­ed by the US Agency for Inter­na­tion­al Devel­op­ment (USAID) to the tune of sev­er­al mil­lion dol­lars per year, the Insti­tute quick­ly extend­ed its pres­ence into near­ly every coun­try in Latin Amer­i­ca, coor­di­nat­ing its activ­i­ties with the US for­eign pol­i­cy apparatus.

AIFLD’s main activ­i­ty was labor edu­ca­tion, par­tic­u­lar­ly train­ing par­tic­i­pants on how to com­bat left-wing influ­ence in their respec­tive unions. Trainees who were con­sid­ered to have excep­tion­al poten­tial would be brought to a facil­i­ty at Front Roy­al, Vir­ginia for a three-month res­i­den­tial course — a kind of School of the Amer­i­cas for trade union­ists — before being sent back to their home coun­tries with nine-month stipends to fund their anti-left­ist orga­niz­ing efforts.

The Insti­tute also used its USAID funds to car­ry out devel­op­ment projects across Latin Amer­i­ca, includ­ing the con­struc­tion of afford­able work­er hous­ing for mem­bers of ORIT-affil­i­at­ed unions, sig­nal­ing to work­ers the ben­e­fits of join­ing the US-spon­sored free” trade union move­ment (though the AIFLD often over­promised on how quick­ly it would com­plete its hous­ing devel­op­ments and how many units would be avail­able). Prospec­tive res­i­dents were required to fill out long, detailed ques­tion­naires about their unions, infor­ma­tion pos­si­bly sup­plied to the CIA.

To show­case the AFL-CIO’s com­mit­ment to class col­lab­o­ra­tion, AIFLD invit­ed US busi­ness­men with inter­ests in Latin Amer­i­ca to serve on its board of trustees, includ­ing the heads of the Ana­con­da Com­pa­ny, Pan-Amer­i­can Air­ways, and W.R. Grace & Co., among oth­ers. These com­pa­nies were no strangers to union-bust­ing, which made the AFL-CIO’s eager­ness to part­ner with them espe­cial­ly dis­turb­ing. That they agreed to be part of AIFLD demon­strates how US cap­i­tal­ists saw no threat — only oppor­tu­ni­ty — in the kind of union­ism the Insti­tute was encouraging.

Romual­di direct­ed the Insti­tute for its first three years until his retire­ment, when he was replaced by William Doher­ty, Jr. Doher­ty, whose father had been both pres­i­dent of the Nation­al Asso­ci­a­tion of Let­ter Car­ri­ers and US ambas­sador to Jamaica, was an alleged friend to the CIA and would serve as AIFLD’s direc­tor for the next thir­ty years.

In the ear­ly 1960s, AIFLD helped under­mine the demo­c­ra­t­i­cal­ly elect­ed, left­ist gov­ern­ment of Ched­di Jagan in the tiny South Amer­i­can nation of Guyana, which was then a colony called British Guiana. The colony was on the path to a planned tran­si­tion to inde­pen­dence, and Jagan hoped to reor­ga­nize the econ­o­my along social­ist lines. But the Kennedy admin­is­tra­tion, fear­ing Jagan would be anoth­er Fidel Cas­tro, pres­sured the UK to stall the tran­si­tion until he could be dri­ven out of power.

In the sum­mer of 1962, eight Guyanese union offi­cials from a labor fed­er­a­tion tied to Jagan’s polit­i­cal oppo­si­tion par­tic­i­pat­ed in AIFLD’s train­ing course in the Unit­ed States, return­ing home with stipends pro­vid­ed by the Insti­tute. The fol­low­ing spring, they helped lead a gen­er­al strike to protest Jagan’s gov­ern­ment. The three-month strike crip­pled the colony’s econ­o­my and esca­lat­ed into a race riot pit­ting the Afro-Guyanese oppo­si­tion against Jagan’s Indo-Guyanese base.

Rep­re­sen­ta­tives from two AFL-CIO-affil­i­at­ed unions — AFSCME and the Retail Clerks — went to British Guiana to aid the strik­ers by coor­di­nat­ing food relief and replen­ish­ing the strike fund, using CIA mon­ey secret­ly chan­neled through pri­vate foun­da­tions. What turned out to be one of the longest gen­er­al strikes in his­to­ry was sus­tained by the US impe­r­i­al state, with help from US union offi­cials, in order to weak­en a demo­c­ra­t­ic, pro­gres­sive government.

Elec­tions were held a year lat­er, with British Guiana still reel­ing from the strike. Again using secret CIA funds, a rep­re­sen­ta­tive from the AFL-CIO-affil­i­at­ed Amer­i­can News­pa­per Guild trav­eled to the colony to sat­u­rate the elec­torate with anti-Jagan pro­pa­gan­da. After the bit­ter divi­sions sowed by AIFLD, the AFL-CIO, and CIA, Jagan’s People’s Pro­gres­sive Par­ty was unable to win a major­i­ty of par­lia­men­tary seats, los­ing the elec­tion. The British then allowed the tran­si­tion to inde­pen­dence to move for­ward. The new leader, Forbes Burn­ham, soon revealed him­self to be a cor­rupt auto­crat, remain­ing in pow­er until his death twen­ty years later.

AIFLD also played an impor­tant role in the US-backed mil­i­tary coup against Brazil’s left-wing pres­i­dent, João Goulart. Like their fel­low trav­el­ers in the US gov­ern­ment, AFL-CIO lead­ers believed Goulart was too close to the Brazil­ian Com­mu­nist Par­ty and need­ed to be replaced. In 1963, AIFLD’s train­ing pro­gram host­ed an all-Brazil­ian class of thir­ty-three union­ists. Their course includ­ed fifty hours’ worth of instruc­tion on how to fight Com­mu­nist influ­ence in their unions, taught by Love­stone and Romualdi.

When the coup against Goulart was exe­cut­ed on April 1, 1964, the AIFLD grad­u­ates helped ensure it went smooth­ly. While left­ist union­ists called for a gen­er­al strike to dis­rupt the coup, the Insti­tute-trained union offi­cials con­vinced their fel­low work­ers to ignore these calls and allow the mil­i­tary takeover to pro­ceed unob­struct­ed. The new mil­i­tary régime put alleged­ly Com­mu­nist-led unions into trustee­ships, send­ing inter­venors” — some of them AIFLD grad­u­ates — to purge these unions of left­ists and Goulart sympathizers.

Three months lat­er, Doher­ty boast­ed in a radio inter­view that AIFLD’s Brazil­ian trainees became inti­mate­ly involved in some of the clan­des­tine oper­a­tions” of the coup. Many of the trade union lead­ers — some of whom were actu­al­ly trained in our insti­tute — were involved in… the over­throw of the Goulart régime,” he said. Doher­ty also defend­ed a wage freeze that was imposed by the new gov­ern­ment, argu­ing the Brazil­ian poor would need to suf­fer” no less than the rich in the pur­suit of nation­al eco­nom­ic growth. The coup régime turned into a nine­teen-year dic­ta­tor­ship, impris­on­ing, tor­tur­ing, and mur­der­ing untold num­bers of trade unionists.

The State Depart­ment and USAID were so pleased with AIFLD’s work that they glad­ly accept­ed the AFL-CIO’s pro­pos­al to cre­ate sim­i­lar insti­tutes for Africa and Asia. In late 1964 to ear­ly 1965, the African Amer­i­can Labor Cen­ter was estab­lished, and in 1968, the Asian Amer­i­can Free Labor Insti­tute was launched. Like AIFLD, both of these non­prof­its were almost entire­ly fund­ed by USAID to car­ry out train­ing and devel­op­ment pro­grams in order to prop up anti­com­mu­nist, anti-Left unions. In 1977, a fourth non­prof­it — the Free Trade Union Insti­tute — was cre­at­ed to focus on Europe.

Inter­nal Dissent

At the 1965 AFL-CIO con­ven­tion in San Fran­cis­co, Meany pre­sent­ed a res­o­lu­tion, writ­ten by Love­stone, pledg­ing the labor federation’s unstint­ing sup­port” of Pres­i­dent Lyn­don Johnson’s pol­i­cy of esca­lat­ing the Viet­nam War. When the res­o­lu­tion was about to be vot­ed on with­out dis­cus­sion or debate, a group of col­lege stu­dents, observ­ing the pro­ceed­ings from the bal­cony, stood up and chant­ed Get out of Viet­nam!” and Debate!” Meany respond­ed by hav­ing them thrown out of the con­ven­tion hall, dis­miss­ing them as kook­ies.” The pro-war res­o­lu­tion was then adopt­ed unanimously.

A hand­ful of inde­pen­dent unions, union locals, and mid-rank­ing labor offi­cials had already expressed skep­ti­cism about the war, if not out­right oppo­si­tion. After wit­ness­ing Meany’s hos­til­i­ty toward the anti-war move­ment and his unwill­ing­ness to allow debate, more union lead­ers — par­tic­u­lar­ly from the UAW — began to open­ly voice their dis­agree­ments with the AFL-CIO’s for­eign policy.

Reuther, pres­i­dent of the UAW, tepid­ly opposed mil­i­tary esca­la­tion in Viet­nam, want­i­ng to see the war end through peace­ful nego­ti­a­tions. Fur­ther, he dis­liked Meany’s aggres­sive, go-it-alone approach to inter­na­tion­al issues, pre­fer­ring to work through the ICF­TU. Reuther also did not trust Love­stone, who by now was the direc­tor of the AFL-CIO’s Inter­na­tion­al Affairs Depart­ment. Still, he was reluc­tant to make his dis­agree­ments pub­lic, not want­i­ng to cre­ate a rift between the UAW and AFL-CIO.

Instead, Vic­tor Reuther — Walter’s younger broth­er in charge of the UAW’s for­eign rela­tions — decid­ed to speak up, telling reporters in 1966 that Love­stone and the AFL-CIO were involved” with the CIA and crit­i­ciz­ing AIFLD’s role in the Brazil­ian coup. The fol­low­ing year, a series of jour­nal­is­tic exposés helped sub­stan­ti­ate Victor’s claim by reveal­ing the CIA’s ties to the labor fed­er­a­tion and its affil­i­ates going back to the FTUC. Of course, Meany and the AFL-CIO’s oth­er inter­na­tion­al­ists vig­or­ous­ly denied any rela­tion­ship with the CIA.

Along with Meany’s hawk­ish stance on Viet­nam — which includ­ed attempts to bol­ster South Vietnam’s anti­com­mu­nist Con­fédéra­tion Viet­nami­enne du Tra­vail — the CIA rev­e­la­tions bad­ly dam­aged the AFL-CIO’s cred­i­bil­i­ty among lib­er­als and mem­bers of the New Left. Dis­agree­ments over for­eign pol­i­cy, as well as sev­er­al domes­tic issues, final­ly led the UAW to dis­af­fil­i­ate from the fed­er­a­tion in 1968. (The union would return to the AFL-CIO in 1981.)

Despite these con­tro­ver­sies, Meany, Love­stone, and AIFLD did not alter course. When the social­ist Sal­vador Allende was elect­ed pres­i­dent of Chile in 1970, they decid­ed to assist the Nixon admin­is­tra­tion in desta­bi­liz­ing his gov­ern­ment. While the Chilean work­ing class was over­whelm­ing­ly behind Allende, AIFLD sup­port­ed gremios — asso­ci­a­tions of right-wing, mid­dle-class pro­fes­sion­als — along with the country’s con­ser­v­a­tive union of mar­itime work­ers. In 1972, at least twen­ty-nine Chileans attend­ed the Institute’s train­ing course in Vir­ginia, far more than had ever attend­ed in pre­vi­ous years.

With the help of AIFLD, in 1972 and 1973, truck-own­ers and mer­chants across Chile staged a series of strikes aimed at cre­at­ing eco­nom­ic chaos and sub­vert­ing Allende’s gov­ern­ment. As in British Guiana nine years ear­li­er, the strik­ers were sup­port­ed with funds from the CIA. US efforts to under­mine Allende cul­mi­nat­ed in the vio­lent mil­i­tary coup on Sep­tem­ber 11, 1973. The new mil­i­tary dic­ta­tor­ship AIFLD helped bring to pow­er by using tra­di­tion­al work­ing-class tac­tics like the strike would iron­i­cal­ly — and trag­i­cal­ly — tram­ple work­ers’ rights, jail­ing and mur­der­ing thou­sands of Chilean labor activists.

After researchers like Ruth Needle­man and Fred Hirsch helped expose the Institute’s role in the Chilean coup by obtain­ing doc­u­ments, con­duct­ing inter­views, and cir­cu­lat­ing their find­ings, rank-and-file union mem­bers across the Unit­ed States began demand­ing more trans­paren­cy around AIFLD in the mid-1970s. Sev­er­al union locals and local labor coun­cils called on the AFL-CIO to fund its for­eign pro­grams inde­pen­dent­ly instead of rely­ing on USAID. While these demands went ignored, Love­stone final­ly retired in 1974, with Meany fol­low­ing suit five years later.

Upon Meany’s retire­ment, his long­time lieu­tenant Lane Kirk­land became pres­i­dent of the AFL-CIO. Like his pre­de­ces­sor, Kirk­land was a hard­line anti­com­mu­nist. Groomed to be a diplo­mat at Georgetown’s School of For­eign Ser­vice, he was a close per­son­al friend of Hen­ry Kissinger, spend­ing every Thanks­giv­ing with him.

Under Kirk­land, the AFL-CIO applaud­ed the Rea­gan administration’s aggres­sive for­eign pol­i­cy aimed at reignit­ing the Cold War, even as Rea­gan ush­ered in a new era of union bust­ing by fir­ing 11,000 air traf­fic con­trollers in 1981. At the AFL-CIO’s urg­ing, Rea­gan over­saw the cre­ation of the Nation­al Endow­ment for Democ­ra­cy (NED) in 1983, a gov­ern­ment-fund­ed grant-mak­ing foun­da­tion to dis­burse monies to the same kinds of over­seas anti­com­mu­nist orga­ni­za­tions pre­vi­ous­ly fund­ed covert­ly by the CIA. With Kirk­land serv­ing on NED’s board of direc­tors, AIFLD and the AFL-CIO’s oth­er for­eign insti­tutes became core grant recipients.

Kirk­land backed Reagan’s Cen­tral Amer­i­ca pol­i­cy of arm­ing repres­sive state secu­ri­ty forces in El Sal­vador and ter­ror­is­tic coun­ter­rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies in Nicaragua. AIFLD was espe­cial­ly active in El Sal­vador in the 1980s, play­ing a crit­i­cal role in the devel­op­ment and imple­men­ta­tion of an agrar­i­an reform pro­gram meant to under­cut rur­al sup­port for the left­ist rev­o­lu­tion­ary move­ment. El Salvador’s coun­terin­sur­gency gov­ern­ment — entire­ly propped up by gen­er­ous US mil­i­tary aid — com­bined the agrar­i­an reform with a state of siege that saw thou­sands of campesinos bru­tal­ly mur­dered in a wave of massacres.

Alarmed by Kirkland’s sup­port for Reagan’s for­eign pol­i­cy, rank-and-file US union mem­bers became active in the Cen­tral Amer­i­can peace and sol­i­dar­i­ty move­ment, demand­ing the AFL-CIO change direc­tion. In one of the most sig­nif­i­cant devel­op­ments for US labor inter­na­tion­al­ism since the start of the Cold War, the pres­i­dents of sev­er­al nation­al unions affil­i­at­ed with the AFL-CIO came togeth­er to form the Nation­al Labor Com­mit­tee in Sup­port of Democ­ra­cy and Human Rights in El Sal­vador (NLC).

The NLC open­ly opposed Kirk­land and the Exec­u­tive Coun­cil, lob­by­ing Con­gress to cut off US mil­i­tary aid to the Sal­vado­ran gov­ern­ment. The NLC also sent del­e­ga­tions of US union mem­bers to El Sal­vador and Nicaragua to wit­ness first-hand how US assis­tance was help­ing right­ists mur­der and intim­i­date Cen­tral Amer­i­can work­ers. The NLC would lat­er evolve into an anti-sweat­shop orga­ni­za­tion, help­ing expose the com­plic­i­ty of major cloth­ing brands in work­er rights abus­es in Cen­tral Amer­i­ca, the Caribbean, and Asia.

While fac­ing inter­nal oppo­si­tion to its Cen­tral Amer­i­ca pro­gram, the AFL-CIO gave finan­cial and polit­i­cal sup­port to Sol­i­darność, the Pol­ish trade union led by Lech Wałęsa that even­tu­al­ly helped bring down Poland’s Com­mu­nist gov­ern­ment. Opposed by for­eign pol­i­cy offi­cials who feared stir­ring up hos­til­i­ties with the Sovi­et Union, the AFL-CIO’s for­ay into Poland has since been tout­ed by inter­ven­tion­ists as a case study in the hero­ics of democ­ra­cy-pro­mo­tion.”

Though Kirk­land claimed a vic­to­ry for free” trade union­ism in Poland, by the 1990s, the labor lead­ers asso­ci­at­ed with the NLC were con­vinced the fed­er­a­tion bad­ly need­ed to improve its over­seas image. What’s more, sev­er­al union pres­i­dents on the AFL-CIO’s Exec­u­tive Coun­cil believed the fed­er­a­tion had become lethar­gic in the face of years of declin­ing union density.

Fol­low­ing the AFL-CIO’s fail­ure to stop the pas­sage of NAF­TA, a group of labor offi­cials led by SEIU pres­i­dent John Sweeney gath­ered enough sup­port to force Kirk­land to retire and take con­trol of the fed­er­a­tion in 1995. Call­ing them­selves the New Voice” slate, Sweeney and his allies aimed to revi­tal­ize the AFL-CIO by orga­niz­ing new work­ers and aban­don­ing out­dat­ed anti­com­mu­nist priorities.

Under Sweeney, in 1997, AIFLD and the oth­er for­eign insti­tutes were shut down and reor­ga­nized into a new NGO called the Amer­i­can Cen­ter for Inter­na­tion­al Labor Sol­i­dar­i­ty, or Sol­i­dar­i­ty Cen­ter, which con­tin­ues to be the AFL-CIO’s oper­a­tional arm in the Glob­al South.

Cen­ter­ing Solidarity

Active in over six­ty coun­tries, the Sol­i­dar­i­ty Cen­ter does good work, help­ing to improve safe­ty stan­dards in the Bangladeshi gar­ment indus­try, ampli­fy­ing work­ers’ voic­es at the Inter­na­tion­al Labor Orga­ni­za­tion, and bring­ing work­ers from the Unit­ed State and the Glob­al South togeth­er to share sto­ries and strategies.

But like its pre­de­ces­sor orga­ni­za­tions, the Sol­i­dar­i­ty Cen­ter is pri­mar­i­ly bankrolled by the US gov­ern­ment, par­tic­u­lar­ly USAID, the State Depart­ment, and NED. It is one of only four NED core grantees. NED is known for med­dling in the demo­c­ra­t­ic process­es of oth­er coun­tries and pro­mot­ing régime change” to main­tain US glob­al dom­i­nance, includ­ing in Venezuela, Haiti, Ukraine, and mul­ti­ple Cen­tral Amer­i­can nations.

Giv­en the his­to­ry of the FTUC and AIFLD, the Sol­i­dar­i­ty Center’s depen­dence on gov­ern­ment fund­ing and asso­ci­a­tion with NED should be a cause for con­cern in the labor move­ment and mer­its clos­er inspec­tion. But there is vir­tu­al­ly no dis­cus­sion about it with­in the AFL-CIO.

This is not espe­cial­ly sur­pris­ing con­sid­er­ing the fed­er­a­tion has yet to for­mal­ly acknowl­edge or apol­o­gize for the sig­nif­i­cant role it played dur­ing the Cold War in divid­ing labor move­ments abroad, under­min­ing for­eign democ­ra­cies, and endors­ing mil­i­tarism — all of which only served to strength­en transna­tion­al cap­i­tal and weak­en the pow­er of workers.

In 2004, the Cal­i­for­nia Labor Fed­er­a­tion passed the Build Uni­ty and Trust Among Work­ers World­wide” res­o­lu­tion, which called on the AFL-CIO to clear the air” by ful­ly account­ing for its record of hos­tile for­eign inter­ven­tions and renounc­ing its CIA ties. The res­o­lu­tion then head­ed to the nation­al AFL-CIO con­ven­tion in Chica­go the fol­low­ing year, where it was effec­tive­ly killed in com­mit­tee. Since then, there has been no coor­di­nat­ed, sus­tained attempt to con­front the federation’s impe­ri­al­ist history.

In 2006, the ICF­TU merged with the tra­di­tion­al­ly more pro­gres­sive World Con­fed­er­a­tion of Labour to form the Brus­sels-based Inter­na­tion­al Trade Union Con­fed­er­a­tion (ITUC), of which the AFL-CIO is an affil­i­ate. Mean­while, the WFTU, now head­quar­tered in Greece, con­tin­ues to be led by Com­mu­nists as it has been since the 1949 split. Today’s WFTU rou­tine­ly accus­es the much larg­er ITUC of being class-col­lab­o­ra­tionist and pro-imperialist.

While the ITUC is far from being an explic­it­ly rad­i­cal orga­ni­za­tion, it fre­quent­ly lev­els strong crit­i­cisms of the World Bank and IMF, has repeat­ed­ly con­demned Israel’s occu­pa­tion of Pales­tine, and wast­ed no time in denounc­ing not only the recent coup in Bolivia, but also Juan Guaidó’s attempt­ed coup in Venezuela and the US assas­i­na­tion of Qassem Soleimani. That the AFL-CIO is a promi­nent mem­ber of such an orga­ni­za­tion is a pos­i­tive sign giv­en the his­to­ry described here.

Whether the trade unions of the world can ever be tru­ly unit­ed remains to be seen. But per­haps hope for transna­tion­al labor uni­ty lies less in the pol­i­tics of large bureau­cra­cies like the ITUC and WFTU, and more in the abil­i­ty of work­ers to put class sol­i­dar­i­ty before nation­al alle­giance and to take action with our fel­low work­ers, who­ev­er and wher­ev­er they may be, for our col­lec­tive lib­er­a­tion (and, in the con­text of a plan­e­tary eco­log­i­cal cri­sis, our col­lec­tive survival).

Dis­cov­er­ing the extent to which the AFL-CIO is will­ing to use its resources and influ­ence to encour­age this kind of sol­i­dar­i­ty-dri­ven con­scious­ness — which would neces­si­tate a thor­ough reck­on­ing with its own ugly his­to­ry of assist­ing US impe­ri­al­ism — will be cru­cial in deter­min­ing whether the fed­er­a­tion serves any real pur­pose for the work­ing class.

In These Times is proud to fea­ture con­tent from Jacobin, a print quar­ter­ly that offers social­ist per­spec­tives on pol­i­tics and eco­nom­ics. Sup­port Jacobin and buy a sub­scrip­tion for just $29.95.

Jeff Schuhrke has been a Work­ing In These Times con­trib­u­tor since 2013. He has a Ph.D. in His­to­ry from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Illi­nois at Chica­go and a Master’s in Labor Stud­ies from UMass Amherst. Fol­low him on Twit­ter: @JeffSchuhrke

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