When US Labor Leaders Helped Repress the Global Left

Over the past few years, the labor movement in the United States has experienced somewhat of a revival. That has included the wildcat strikes led by teachers in the 2018–19 “red state rebellion,” the nationwide Starbucks Workers United organizing drive, the victory of the independent Amazon Labor Union at the JFK8 warehouse, the Hollywood writers’ and actors’ strikes last year, and the recent contract victories of the Teamsters and United Auto Workers against the United Postal Service (UPS) and the Big Three auto manufacturers, respectively.

In 2022, public support for unions reached its highest point since the 1960s, and polls indicate a majority of US workers would join a union if they could. In light of all this, it’s all the more astonishing that union membership density in the United States reached its lowest point (10.1 percent) that year, according to a 2023 report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

If two-thirds of workers in the United States support unions and recognize the importance of organized labor, why hasn’t union density skyrocketed?

The deepest reason has to do with the structural barriers to collective action and worker solidarity imposed by the capitalist system itself. But some of the blame for labor’s continuing weakness lies with labor union officialdom. As embodied since 1955 by the national labor federation American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), labor leaders have played a considerable role in dampening working-class militancy and mass organization both in the United States and abroad.

To understand union officials’ often destructive role in the labor movement requires grasping the centrality of anti-communism to US labor leaders’ general attitude since World War I. The sterile, cautious approach that is unfortunately still common to much of the mainstream labor movement in the United States today can be seen, in part, as a descendant of this anti-communist tradition.

It is now generally understood that many US labor leaders worked hand in hand with the government in purging leftists and radical unions during the first and second red scares. Less well-known, however, is that even prior to the 1955 merger of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), labor officials collaborated with US state intelligence to assist in opening up world markets for the spread of global capitalism. Since then, the AFL, and later the AFL-CIO, has supported a number of violent US-backed attacks on the Left and labor movements abroad.

In 1944, the AFL established the Free Trade Union Committee (FTUC). With funding from the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the FTUC — headed by Jay Lovestone, an ex-communist and CIA asset — provided financial support to anti-communist unions and political organizations around the world. In 1949, the AFL formed the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) with the purpose of challenging the left-wing World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU). In 1951, George Meany, then secretary-treasurer of the AFL, boasted that the federation had developed a “world network in the fight against communism.”

The New York Daily News reported in March 1953 that the AFL was transmitting money to the CIA, which the CIA then funneled to the Kampfgruppe gegen Unmenschlichkeit (Combat Group against Inhumanity), an anti-communist terrorist organization in West Germany — many of whose members were previously associated with the Nazi Party. The Kampfgruppe committed various violent acts including murder, arson, bombing, and kidnapping, and even added soap to the powdered milk that was to be sent to children in East German schools.

In 1954, US labor officialdom excitedly voiced its support for the CIA’s first paramilitary effort, the overthrow of the popular government of Jacobo Árbenz in Guatemala. Four months prior to the invasion of Guatemala by CIA-backed troops based in Honduras, Meany wrote a letter to Árbenz (which was later publicly distributed for propaganda purposes) expressing US labor’s concerns about the “communistic” character of the Guatemalan government.

Meany openly criticized Árbenz and opponents of US intervention in Guatemala in the AFL’s newspaper the American Federationist. A later issue of the Federationist included a glowing assessment of the overthrow of Árbenz and the seizure of power by the anti-communist (and anti-union) Colonel Carlos Castillo Armas, who canceled the recognition of over five hundred labor unions and interrogated, imprisoned, executed, and “disappeared” thousands of Guatemalans.

Following the merger of the AFL and CIO, labor’s connection with the CIA and its anti-communist paramilitary operations abroad deepened. In 1962, the AFL-CIO established the American Institute for Free Labor Development (AIFLD) to continue disrupting international left-wing labor movements. The following year, AIFLD centers brought Brazilian students to Front Royal, Virginia, for courses in US history and anti-communist tactics. The Brazilians who trained under AIFLD would go on to actively participate in the clandestine operations that culminated in the 1964 overthrow of President João Goulart’s progressive government.

AIFLD also contributed to the 1973 CIA-backed coup in Chile, with one of AIFLD’s first Chilean students, Manuel Rodriguez, saying in 1974 that the overthrow of Salvador Allende would not have been possible without the help of “professional unionists.” In 1962, eight years before Allende and the Popular Unity coalition took power, AIFLD executive director Serafino Romualdi already had his eyes on Chile. Romualdi declared that Chile’s dominant labor federation, the left-wing Central Unitaria de Trabajadores y Trabajadoras de Chile (CUT), had to be crushed.

The AIFLD cold warriors, with support from corporate partners with interests in Chilean copper mines such as Kennecott and Anaconda, identified sectors of Chilean labor that they believed would be sympathetic to their anti-communist crusade. They were particularly enthusiastic about the gremios: guilds including white-collar and government workers, shopkeepers, and small business owners in trucking and other industries. AIFLD also targeted the maritime and copper unions in their effort to build a bloc within the CUT that would be capable of shifting the federation’s politics to the right and eventually splitting the CUT along ideological lines.

Over $4 million was pumped into Chile by the CIA to fund the gremios and support anti-Allende campaigns. In 1971, AIFLD began funneling money from the CIA to the Chilean maritime union Confederación Marítima de Chile (COMACH), the leaders of which were strongly opposed to Allende and Popular Unity and were instrumental in undermining the Allende government. AIFLD and the CIA also financed violent right-wing paramilitary groups like Patria y Libertad, which, among other things, spread steel tacks on highways during the October 1972 trucker strike.

AIFLD went so far as to assist the CIA in gathering information to compile lists of Chilean unionists and their political positions, which the Augusto Pinochet regime would eventually use to target, torture, and murder an estimated forty thousand people. Following the coup, Pinochet’s Junta established its own labor schools in the AIFLD mold.

The AFL-CIO supported the Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan administrations’ violently anti-communist policies in El Salvador, and there is good reason to believe that the CIA and AIFLD were at least partially involved in the 1990 attack on militant Mexican workers by gangsters at a Ford plant in Cuautitlán. The attack, examined by Rob McKenzie in his 2022 book El Golpe: US Labor, the CIA, and the Coup at Ford in Mexico, was the culmination of the struggle between union dissidents and the leadership of the Confederación de Trabajadores de México (CTM), the largest labor federation in Mexico.

In the 1980s, the AFL-CIO developed a relationship with the CTM. AIFLD’s base in Mexico City was set up in the CTM’s headquarters in 1986, and the CIA thereby gained a foothold in Mexican labor. Maintaining the rule of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), with which the CTM had close ties, was central to the CIA’s interest in Mexico. A 1983 CIA report titled “Mexico: Labor-Government Relations” stated that the CTM was “almost wholly co-opted by the ruling party” and that “the continued loyalty of organized labor . . . is essential for the maintenance of IMF [International Monetary Fund]-mandated austerity and for short-term political stability.”

The lead-up to the 1989 CTM Ford national election saw the dissident rank-and-file movement gain momentum. Workers, dissatisfied with the old guard CTM leadership and eager to regain what had been lost in their 1987 contract, elected a new local executive committee with a reform agenda in the Cuautitlán factory in 1988. In response, Ford, with the support of CTM leaders, fired four of the six members of the new executive committee. When workers continued to express their frustrations in the form of work stoppages and other actions, CTM leaders escalated to violence and intimidation — in one instance, CTM-hired thugs forced one worker to dig a grave (implied to be his own) while interrogating him about whether he was a Marxist or communist.

In January 1990, three hundred gangsters armed with clubs, pistols, and machine guns and wearing Ford uniforms and ID badges greeted workers showing up for their shifts at the Cuautitlán factory. The gangsters, drunk or intoxicated from other substances, harassed and intimidated the workers on the assembly lines. When the workers took up tools to defend themselves, the gangsters responded by opening fire in the factory, killing one worker and wounding eight others.

In 1997, the AFL-CIO combined AIFLD with several other labor institutes and established the Solidarity Center. Though the federation’s official line is that its relationship with the CIA ended with AIFLD, the Solidarity Center receives significant funding from the National Endowment for Democracy, a foundation that carries out many activities that formerly would have been the province of the CIA. Among other connections, the Solidarity Center has close ties with the Confederación de Trabajadores de Venezuela (CTV); a former CTV leader, Carlos Ortega, was a prominent figure in the 2002 attempted coup against Hugo Chávez.

The participation of the labor bureaucracy in the US government’s global anti-communist crusade was an extension of the reactionary policies that drove the AFL and CIO to purge leftists from their unions and disenfranchise some of the most effective and passionate organizers in the labor movement after World War II. For conservative labor leaders, adopting a business-friendly and patriotic orientation seemed an effective means by which labor could ingratiate itself with the state and ruling class. If organized labor could prove its ability to fit into the political and economic status quo, they thought, the ruling class would be less inclined to attack unions.

The desire to integrate their unions into the institutional structure of the United States — whether as a defensive strategy or an opportunistic means to advance personal interests — pushed labor leaders to attack the Left first at home, and then abroad. What better way to show that labor leadership was on the same team as the government and the boss than joining in their anti-communism?

What has the working class in the United States gotten in return? The same thing workers around the world inherited: unbridled global capitalism, and with it declining living standards, precarious employment, economic instability, wars, and environmental destruction.

During the Reagan era, the National Labor Relations Board was transformed into an institution for attacking labor rights, and nearly 40 percent of the labor-friendly decisions made in the 1970s were overturned within six months in 1983. Much industrial activity was moved to the largely nonunionized US South, or to Mexico or Southeast Asia. With the world’s markets opened, capital was free to crush organized labor by simply threatening to move elsewhere. In short, by collaborating with the US government in undermining the Left both in the United States and abroad, the AFL, CIO, and AFL-CIO contributed to the consolidation of global capitalism and helped dig the grave of yesterday’s labor movement.

Under the capitalist order, workers are afforded few material opportunities for taking collective action (e.g., forming or joining a union). Even when they are able to organize or join unions, their capacity to confront virtually unchecked employer rule is restricted.

In the United States today, unions are, for the most part, incredibly weak. Paid union staff are focused mainly on securing contracts, even if not very favorable to members, and so management prerogative is the law of the land. To be sure, this is not to say that union staff are personally motivated to deliver crummy contracts at the expense of the rank and file. With unions still on the backfoot in the United States, and many union leaders unwilling to take the risks that come with militant organizing, professional organizers and administrative staff are quite limited in what they can do in terms of empowering workers and building union strength.

While unionized workers are often subjected to relatively milquetoast and sometimes downright lousy contracts, workers in nonunion workplaces who want to unionize are oftentimes turned down by union representatives. This is because labor leadership has adopted a businesslike cost-benefit approach to organizing the unorganized. Labor leaders try to avoid strikes the best they can, while rank-and-file unionists are overwhelmingly barred from democratic control of their unions. This “safety-first” approach to organizing has done little to improve the lives of workers or grow union membership.

Another factor contributing to the limitation of the mainstream labor movement is the AFL-CIO’s unwavering devotion to the Democratic Party establishment. The AFL-CIO, in addition to providing multitudes of foot soldiers for neighborhood canvassing and phone-banking during election seasons, spends an exorbitant amount of money on campaigns to get corporate-friendly Democrats elected. Money that could be used for new organizing drives, strike funds, worker education centers, and various other meaningful and productive projects gets funneled to Democratic political campaigns — a strategy that has given unions and workers few returns on their investments. In fact, Democratic Party leaders have often been all too willing to help roll back labor’s gains (with, e.g., deregulation under Jimmy Carter and NAFTA under Bill Clinton).

Since the New Deal period, the US labor movement has largely forfeited any working-class political vision for life beyond capitalism. Left-wing militants never held the reins of the movement in any meaningful capacity, but radical elements, from the Industrial Workers of the World to the Trade Union Unity League, were able to accomplish tremendous feats partly because they understood that the working class and the capitalist class have nothing in common.

If the labor movement in the United States is to rebuild itself and surpass its past achievements, a drastically different approach from the business-as-usual unionism of the AFL-CIO is required. Labor activists and rank-and-file workers have to fight to democratize their unions and reinject a fighting spirit into them, forcing them to act aggressively to organize the unorganized — as is now thankfully happening in the UAW.

Unions also have to build coalitions with community and cultural centers, environmentalists, progressive political organizations, and other groups to bring the struggle between labor and capital out into the streets and into people’s neighborhoods and homes. Unions need to connect the economic, social, and political interests of their members to those of the wider working class. The labor movement cannot expand and evolve if it restricts itself to simple bread-and-butter issues (e.g., wages, benefits, and so on), for it will remain largely isolated from the class struggle raging outside the workplace.

Similarly, the US labor movement cannot limit itself to the class struggle in its own country. Global capitalism cannot be challenged without a militant, internationalist response in the form of a united front combining radical labor unions, peasant movements, left-wing political parties, environmentalist groups, and civil rights organizations from around the world.

For this reason, a new labor movement must also develop a new political vision, one independent of the Democratic Party, and ultimately form its own working-class party. The purpose of such a body would not just be to participate in elections, but rather to act as the tissue that connects the labor movement to the struggles of disparate progressive, working-class movements across the United States and around the world — to undo the global capitalist order that past US labor leaders helped shore up.

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