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

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 regime 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 regime,” 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 regime 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 “regime 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.

This story was first published at Jacobin.

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