To Build International Solidarity, AFL-CIO Needs To Dump Old Baggage

Many activists from both the United States and Mexico are rethinking their attitudes about one another. Many union attitudes in the US have been products of the Cold War and our history of economic nationalism--and many times we have been reminded by Mexicans of the mistrust they have of Americans and their unions.

John Sweeney’s changes in the AFL-CIO’s foreign policy are a major step forward. But they are only a start toward constructing international solidarity.

A little history: After World War II, labor’s foreign policy was tied to the same business unionism that left American workers disarmed on the shop floor when the attacks of the Reagan era began. This link between business unionism and the AFL-CIO's foreign policy is the skeleton in the closet that the AFL-CIO must confront before it can ensure that the old policy doesn't resurface.

The international policies of the AFL-CIO under George Meany and Lane Kirkland developed largely to serve the goals of the US government--and therefore the goals of American business. The American Institute for Free Labor Development (AIFLD), for example, the AFL-CIO's arm in Latin America, was initiated by the Kennedy administration. It was always government-funded and was used as a CIA front.

Meany made a deal with the devil because he believed that the richer US corporations could become through dominance of the world economy, the more his members would benefit. The AFL-CIO and its "free labor institutes" selected "good unions" and "bad unions" on the basis of their friendliness to the US and its corporations. The AFL-CIO collaborated with the CIA to insure that workers in poor countries could only have unions that were pro-American. It labeled as “communist” or “unfree” those unions that resisted making their countries safe for US investment.

AIFLD in particular was an important operation for gathering intelligence on union members, structure, politics and ideology all over Latin America. With 84 percent of its funding between 1963 and 1974 from government sources, AIFLD helped overthrow democratically-elected governments in Guyana, Brazil, the Dominican Republic, and Chile.


By the 1980s, it became feasible for corporations to export jobs to poorer countries. Meany and Kirkland's belief that they could promote a high standard of living in the US while ignoring workers' standards in poor countries was shown to be a colossal miscalculation.

Sweeney changed that policy not simply because he wanted to base foreign policy on American workers' needs, but because corporate America and the US government had reneged on the deal cut by Meany. American labor now needs the solidarity of workers in the transnational economy to be able to stop the downward spiral.

What makes it difficult to free ourselves from the past is the baggage we still are carrying. The legacy that AIFLD and the other international institutes have left us includes: 1) a habit of telling foreign workers and unionists what's best for them; 2) seeing our own interests through a prism of economic nationalism; 3) continued funding from government sources; and 4) a lack of open discussion in shaping labor's international agenda.

To dump this baggage, the Sweeney administration should start a top-to-bottom education and mobilization plan. It should address the following:

We know what's best for you. History is filled with tales of American labor reps going into foreign nations and selecting, undermining, coopting, and manipulating local labor movements. Simply changing policy doesn’t necessarily get rid of the habit of telling people what’s best for them nor the preference for only working with groups we can dominate or control.

Such practices have filtered down to the local level, where they show up even in the attitudes of some union members involved in international solidarity. How many of us have heard American members say of some poor country, "We ought to just go in there and teach them how to organize," or "I can't understand why these people put up with this. We wouldn't." Some have even proposed taking "Buy America" t-shirts to Mexico as solidarity gifts. The only antidote to such attitudes is people-to-people contacts so that American unionists can listen and learn about the obstacles workers in other countries face.

Such discussions are not one-way. Some examples of things I've learned from Mexican groups are new worker education techniques, direct action tactics, and their awesome combination of patience, optimism, and knowing when to act. On the other hand, they say they've learned from us about the power of an independent local labor movement, strategic planning, the global system, corporate campaigns, and, of course, that not all gringos are over-paid racists. The importance of establishing relations of equality can’t be overstated. The failure to do so leaves unionists who build ties with US labor open to charges that they are mere puppets of the gringos.


America firstism. The legacy of racism and xenophobia, especially against Asians and Mexicans, the whole attitude that workers in the rest of the world can stay poor as long as we've got ours, and Buy America campaigns all have deep roots in the US. The union movement has yet to educate members to repudiate economic nationalism and make it clear how it helps fuel the race to the bottom.



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Progress has been made on this front, particularly with labor’s recent change in its position on immigration. But just scratch the thin veneer of internationalism, and economic nationalism often rears its head. Two examples are the recent union campaigns against permanent normal trade relations for China and NAFTA trucking deregulation.

In both cases, a clear line could have been drawn that would put (for example) US and Chinese workers on the same side against the governments and corporations of both countries. The same could have been done with Mexican truck drivers in the NAFTA deregulation fight. But mostly, this wasn’t done. Instead, it was us (the US government, corporations, union members) against the corrupt and/or undemocratic China or Mexico. With an economic downturn in the offing, bashing of foreign workers and immigrants is likely to reemerge with a vengeance.

Follow the money. The AFL-CIO's foreign operations, now under its American Center for International Labor Solidarity (ACILS), are still funded by the government. So are the AFL-CIO's new offices in Mexico City and Honduras. A brief search reveals that ACILS programs in over 30 countries-from Russia to South Africa to Indonesia -- are funded by the US Agency for International Development (USAID), an arm of the State Department.

One USAID entity, the Global Center for Democracy and Governance, says it “places particular significance on the role of free and independent labor unions as an important sector of civil society. In many developing countries, the ability of the labor sector to organize freely and voice its support for political and economic liberalization is held in check by restrictive laws and regulatory practices (emphasis added).”


It's a safe guess that "political and economic liberalization" means the corporate agenda of privatization and "free trade.” The AFL-CIO has taken a strong stand against both, yet ACILS has a $45 million, five-year grant from the Democracy and Governance Project. ACILS gets another $4 million a year from the National Endowment for Democracy, known for funding AIFLD projects in El Salvador and Nicaragua in the 1980s.

Some government-funded programs do, in fact, advance worker solidarity. But given the history and the source of the money, ACILS can’t help but be compromised and complicit with US foreign policy goals, which by no means can be considered worker-friendly.

Lack of transparency and democracy. AFL-CIO foreign policy is a secret from the members. How many have seen the document signed by the AFL-CIO and Mexico's Confederation of Mexican Workers which says that they "mutually recognize that they are the most representative labor organizations, respectively, of the United States and of Mexico"? The CTM, dominated by the former ruling party, is a thoroughly corrupt federation that routinely violates the rights of Mexican workers.

There are thousands of activists at the local level who are veterans of the fights against sweatshops, NAFTA, fast track, and the WTO. They have a depth of experience that could be a resource to the AFL-CIO and to its unions in shaping strategy. They are rarely consulted.

Many of today’s union leaders participated in the Meany-Kirkland era. John Sweeney sat on the board of all four of the "free labor institutes," as did others who now serve on the AFL-CIO Executive Council. It's time to acknowledge that those policies did untold harm to workers in other countries and seriously damaged the reputation of American labor.

In her book on economic nationalism, Dana Frank calls for rethinking the line between Them and Us. If "Us" really means the workers of the world in a global economy, then US labor's international policy must be based on the interests of us all: American, Mexican, Chinese, Serbian, or South African. To make such a change, international solidarity must become a grass-roots, people-to-people effort so that the isolation of American workers is replaced by understanding of common interests.

A model for this type of solidarity-building can be found in the relationship of the United Electrical Workers (UE) and Mexico's Authentic Workers Front (FAT). From top to bottom there is great consciousness of building a relationship of equals. Members are involved through frequent rank and file delegations and internal education and news of the common activities.

It would be a good start if the AFL-CIO came clean, opened its records to the public, and acknowledged the role it played during the Cold War. A resolution asking the AFL-CIO to do this was passed last fall by the South Bay Labor Council and is being circulated to other labor councils.

It would help, too, for them to acknowledge that US foreign policy (whether of Democratic or Republican administrations) is designed solely to help US corporations. Then labor could begin to construct an independent international policy based on the interests of workers wherever they may be.

A longer version of this article appeared in The Labor Studies Journal. Judy Ancel is director of the Institute for Labor Studies in Kansas City and a board member of the Coalition for Justice in the Maquiladoras.