Response to Kim Scipes Article for Labor Studies Journal

On Building an International Solidarity Movement

by Judy Ancel

February 1, 2000 

Late last year in the streets of Seattle, thousands of grass roots activists from many different movements and countries came together with tens of thousands of union members, mobilized by their unions and the AFL-CIO. Collectively they succeeded in derailing the meeting of the WTO and the U.S. government’s international trade agenda. The sheer size and scope of the mobilizations in Seattle, the unity, and the high level of coordination inspired a sense of the immense power of people organized. Many union members I talked to felt like they were present at the rebirth of a movement. One African participant verbalized something that I think was on many people’s minds. He said that this was mainly a U.S. protest, but to succeed in stopping the corporate global agenda, we will have to make this a world-wide movement.

Since 1993, I have been working at the grassroots level on such a movement through a local fair trade coalition and a non-profit organization called the Cross Border Network. In that work, I have met many committed activists and workers from both the U.S. and Mexico who are rethinking and reworking historical relationships and attitudes about one another. Many times we have confronted and worked to change attitudes among union members which are 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 American workers and their unions.

Kim Scipes article, “It’s Time to Come Clean” is, therefore, very welcome. His well-told story of AIFLD involvement in the overthrow of the Salvador Allende government of Chile is a helpful addition to the literature on this subject, and his call for open debate and open archives[1] are long overdue. I would, however, add a few recommendations to these in the hope of stimulating the kind of discussion necessary to build a new international solidarity movement. I agree with Scipes that the foreign policy of the John Sweeney administration is a “major advance” over what preceded it. I also agree that without an evaluation of past international policy, under other leadership, the AFL-CIO could revert back to the policy of the Meany/Kirkland era. Nevertheless, the changes Sweeney has made are only a beginning on a long road toward constructing international solidarity. Before we can progress, we will need to leave behind much of the baggage we’re still carrying.

Scipes article asserts that the Meany/Kirkland foreign policy developed independently from the U.S. government. That’s a questionable assertion. AIFLD was created on the heels of the Cuban Revolution and increasing poverty in Latin America which threatened to undermine political stability. It was Kennedy’s Labor Secretary Arthur Goldberg who led the move to form it Buhle (p. 151). Furthermore, AIFLD was always a CIA operation and as Barry & Preusch (p.11) said, “when it came to funding, it was little more than a branch of the U.S. government.”

The roots of Meany/Kirkland foreign policy and why they allowed the AFL-CIO to be used as a tool to destabilize pro-worker governments in Chile and other countries is a very important question. Scipes presents it as a mistake which Sweeney has begun to rectify. In fact, labor’s postwar foreign policy was inextricably intertwined with the same business unionism which left American workers disarmed on the shopfloor when the attacks of the Reagan era began and left them voting for him as well. On the international plain, however, it was even worse. Not only were international policies secretive and unaccountable to all but the highest level decision-makers, but also they consistently betrayed international solidarity and the interests of workers around the world for a privileged position for the AFL-CIO and (at least some of) its members. As Scipes’ article and his example from Chile make clear, American labor did the dirty work for U.S. imperialism in working class trenches around the world. Certainly a discussion of how this was allowed to occur is necessary if American labor is ever to construct relations of trust with foreign trade unions.

This link between business unionism and the AFL-CIO’s foreign policy is the skeleton in the closet, the reality the AFL-CIO must confront before it can ensure that the old policy doesn’t resurface. Meany made a deal with the devil because he believed that his organization and members would benefit by being citizens of the dominant world power. The quid-pro-quo was to ignore organizing vast sectors of the U.S. working class, especially women and minorities and collaborate with the CIA to insure that workers in poor countries were free enough to have weak unions. Ultimately this deal meant that U.S. workers would lose their industrial base when it became feasible to export jobs to countries where vigorous labor movements had  been undercut. Meany’s and Kirkland’s (and many union members’) belief that it was sufficient to promote a high standard of living in the U.S. while ignoring development in poor countries has been shown to be a colossal miscalculation.

Sweeney changed that policy not simply because he saw the need to base foreign policy on an analysis of American workers’ needs and interests (as Scipes says) but because corporate America and the U.S. government had reneged on the deal. American labor now needed the solidarity of workers in the transnational economy to be able to stop the downward spiral.

What makes it difficult to free ourselves from this past is the baggage we still are carrying. This is something that Scipes only addresses indirectly. The legacy that AIFLD, AAFLI, et al have left us includes a habit of telling foreign workers and unionists what’s best for them, seeing our own interests and priorities through a prism of economic nationalism, continued funding from government sources, and a lack of open discussion and debate – a lack of democracy – in shaping labor’s international policies and agenda. The only way to dump this baggage is to surrender it to public inspection. Only then can we hope to construct relations of trust and equality.

Only the AFL-CIO can begin this process. The Sweeney administration has already taken the initiative through efforts like its Common Sense Economics program to stimulate discussion and debate over the domestic economic and political agenda. It is calling on unions to make organizing the top priority and is building coalitions with religious and community organizations to support organizing and bargaining struggles. Likewise, the need to build an international movement to support its domestic agenda could prompt a similar education and mobilization strategy from top to bottom to overcome old ideas and stimulate new initiatives. Its mobilization and coalition building in the Seattle protests were a start, but if they continue, they must address the following:

We know what’s best for you. Scipes’ and others’ accounts of the history are filled with tales of American labor reps inserting themselves into foreign nations and selecting, undermining, coopting, and manipulating local labor movements. AIFLD classified labor unions which supported governments or parties not in good graces with the U.S. government as unfree, while supporting client unions of AIFLD and the CIA as free. In practice this meant U.S. unionists (mostly white male) were telling poor people (often people of color) what their interests were, how to achieve them, and who should lead them. While AIFLD may have simply been doing the bidding of our government, abolishing AIFLD, doesn’t automatically eliminate the habit of trying to tell people what’s best for them any more than it erases the preference for only working with groups we can dominate or control.

Such practices have filtered down to the local level, and where it shows up in attitudes of some union members involved in international solidarity building. How many of us have heard American union members say of some poor country, “We ought to just go in there and organize them or teach them how to organize.” or “I can’t understand why these people put up with this. We wouldn’t.” The only real antidote to such attitudes is real people-to-people contacts and discussions so that American unionists can listen and learn about the obstacles workers in other countries face, what they’re doing to overcome them, and ultimately how we can help support them. Just as U.S. unionists are the experts on how best to organize in our country because we know the conditions, workers in other countries are the experts on their situations. Building solidarity means discovering what we have in common and finding the concrete ways we can give one another support. These types of discussions are by no means one-way. In my own experience, talking to Mexican maquiladora workers and coordinating worker tours from and to Mexico, there’s a lot each side can learn from the other.[2]

America firstism. Labor’s foreign policy grew out of economic nationalism which allied U.S. workers with U.S. corporations against workers in or from other countries. The legacy of racism and xenophobia, especially against Asians and Mexicans, the whole attitude that workers of the rest of the world could stay poor as long as we’ve got ours, and Buy America campaigns, all have deep roots in the U.S. working class and its unions. All of this made it easier to demonize insurgent unionists in poor countries as communists when they resisted making their countries safe for U.S. investment. While these attitudes have changed significantly in the last decade as the composition of the working class and labor movement have changed, the movement has yet to do an educational campaign repudiating economic nationalism and making it clear how it helped fuel the race to the bottom. Why else is it necessary to remind some union members not to take union t-shirts or caps which say “Buy American” [3] or Clinton-Gore in ’96 to Mexico as solidarity gifts? Without challenging economic nationalism, the same racism, xenophobia, and America Firstism will reemerge in the labor movement at the next economic downturn.

Follow the money. Scipes correctly says both that collaboration with the government, including the CIA, “was structured into the program” and that as long as AFL-CIO international operations are government funded, collaboration will continue. Both Sims and Barry & Pruesch track finances of the labor-business-government funding of the Institutes and find that well over 90% was paid by the U.S. tax-payers through a variety of covers including USAID, USIA and the semi-private but government funded National Endowment for Democracy among others. Just because the Institutes were collapsed into the American Center for International Labor Solidarity (ACILS) in 1996 doesn’t mean the government funding went away. The AFL-CIO’s new offices in Mexico City and Honduras are funded by the government, and a brief (far from exhaustive) search of current USAID programs reveals funding for ACILS programs in over thirty countries and regions including Cuba, Indonesia, Nigeria, Latin America and the Caribbean, Bangladesh, Egypt, South Africa, the Philippines, Burma, Croatia, Eritrea, Sri Lanka, India, Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Zimbabwe, Serbia, and Russia (USAID). One rather alarming description of a USAID funded program for Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) says:

The Hemispheric Free Trade Expansion (HFTE) program supports trade-induced economic expansion as a catalyst for sustaining economic growth and reducing poverty in the LAC region. USAID collaborates closely with the State Department, the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR), USG agencies, and other HFTE partners that participate on the Interagency Trade Policy Staff Committee, while closely monitoring the reports of the Hemispheric Working Groups that meet on the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA). HFTE initiatives in trade liberalization are complemented by support for interventions which advance trade-related labor/management relations, market participation, and environmental management. The purpose of this S[trategic] O[bjective] is to resolve key market issues impeding environmentally-sound and equitable-free trade. Through this SO, USAID also supports the AFL-CIO's American Center for International Labor Solidarity which promotes worker participation, improves worker protection and empowerment, and fosters democratic practices in the workplace (USAID).

Aside from the fact that this appears to put the AFL-CIO in support of a government funded program designed to advance the Free Trade Area of the Americas, one wonders about AIFLD’s legacy of infiltration by CIA and State Department operatives and the systematic intelligence provided the CIA on Latin American unionists.

That ACILS and government institutions make strange bedfellows is illustrated by the following claim of the Global Center for Democracy and Governance, a USAID entity:

“The Center 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” as promoted by USAID means the neoliberal economic agenda. This is puzzling since the AFL-CIO has taken a strong stand against neoliberalism, yet ACILS receives a $45 million five-year grant from the Democracy & Governance Project (USAID).

The NED, notorious for its funding of AIFLD projects in El Salvador and Nicaragua in the 1980s, currently provides ACILS with about $4 million a year. A government description of NED includes, “The NED's independence from government enables it to pursue an innovative and risk-oriented grant strategy in a manner consistent with broad U.S. national interests. While the endowment consults on an ongoing basis with the State Department and with U.S. embassies abroad on programmatic matters, it is not an instrument for the direct implementation of U.S. foreign policy.” ( Thus NED can function as a rogue operation.

NED has been pouring money into Yugoslavia to strengthen opposition political parties for years. Part of its funding goes to ACILS which assists UGS Nezavisnost, a trade union confederation which opposes Milosevic (Talbot). Whether any of these programs advance international worker solidarity is irrelevant. By accepting US government money and oversight, ACILS cannot possibly have and will not be perceived to have an independent labor perspective. It is compromised, and complicit with U.S. foreign policy goals which by no means can be seen as worker-friendly. Even when they oppose a racist dictator like Milosevic, they are implicitly tied to the U.S. and NATO agenda in the former Yugoslavia, an agenda which by destroying the Serbian economy, will open it to neoliberalism and large-scale privatization.

Lack of transparency and democracy. Scipes tells us that for years AFL-CIO foreign policy was a secret from the members. It still is. While many members have heard and been encouraged by the statements on the new internationalism by John Sweeney and Barbara Shailor, and we’ve heard of the house-cleaning in the IAD and dismantling of the free labor institutes, how many members know about continued funding by USAID and NED? How many have seen the document signed by the AFL-CIO and Mexico’s Confederation of Mexican Workers which acknowledges among other things that they “mutually recognize that they are the most representative labor organizations, respectively, of the United States and of Mexico” and recognizes a “common purpose with absolute respect for union autonomy and the sovereignty of the respective countries. . .in having constant communication.” (CTM & AFL-CIO)

While respect for the sovereignty of another country is a welcome change, one wonders why the AFL-CIO chose to express it in the context of an agreement with a government-dominated and thoroughly corrupt union which routinely violates the rights of Mexican workers. As in the old days, government domination is a criteria which seems to depend on political circumstance. Currently, the AFL-CIO pledges mutual respect for the CTM but refuses to talk to government-dominated unions in China, Cuba and the old communist unions in Russia. Such policies are still being made at the top, with no discussion at the grass roots or anywhere in between.

That this lack of democracy also exists in formulating AFL-CIO trade policy is clear from the recent flap over whether or not John Sweeney had endorsed President Clinton’s agenda at the WTO in exchange for getting his support for a commission to discuss labor rights. And despite the fact that the AFL-CIO had mobilized tens of thousands to march in Seattle, contributing significantly to the massive success of the effort, there was no dialogue or participation in the decision not to engage in the direct action civil disobedience outside the WTO meeting. Nor has there been (as of this writing) any democratic discussion about whether or not to participate in the anti-IMF/World Bank actions in Washington, D.C. in April, 2000. These decisions were made without extended debate in the labor movement – certainly without the participation of many local union leaders and activists who have been most active in educating and organizing around trade and globalization issues.

There are at least hundreds if not thousands of activists at the local level who are veterans of the fights against NAFTA, fast track, the WTO and international solidarity and sweatshop activism. They have a depth of experience in educating and organizing and building bridges with workers in other countries that could be a real resource to the AFL-CIO as well as their international unions in shaping policy and strategy. Currently, they are not consulted. In Seattle there was an ideal opportunity to debate the issue of whether getting a seat at the table in a WTO worker rights commission was a good idea. The debate occurred informally, but without the participation of decision-makers from the AFL-CIO.

The AFL-CIO and an increasing number of its members recognize that they need the solidarity of workers and unions in other countries just as they need the solidarity of progressive groups in the United States, but building an international solidarity movement against global corporate rule is very hard work. It will be impossible for American labor to do so without both coming clean and shedding the baggage. Even with that, it will take a lot of discussion to develop trust and habits of mutual respect. That dialogue, however, is not advanced when, for instance, John Sweeney makes a speech like his eulogy to Lane Kirkland last October, in which he said,

“Lane Kirkland was a man of courage who stood for the rights of working people around the globe, supporting workers seeking to build free trade unions in China, South Africa, Cuba and Chile. He was a man of clear principles and broad vision who was articulate in his defense of working families and his belief in the critical role that unions play in every society.” (Sweeney)

 While it is important to emphasize the dedication and accomplishments of former leaders, and Kirkland has been unfairly blamed for the limitations of an entire era, statements like this make it seem that nothing has changed. Certainly Kirkland wasn’t the only one responsible for the failings of the AFL-CIO’s foreign policy. Many who are in leadership today participated. John Sweeney sat of the board of all four of the free labor institutes (Moody) as did others who serve on the AFL-CIO Executive Council,  and many at all levels endorsed what they knew of the policy and supported the Cold War agenda of selecting good unions and bad unions on the basis of their friendliness to the U.S. and its corporations. But 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 a new conceptualization of the line between Them and Us and a new understanding of the meaning of the economic nation (Frank). Kim Moody proposes that only social movement unionism can overcome “global business unionism” and engage in the difficult fight for equality within the U.S. working class and internationally (Moody). What they are both suggesting is that even the advance over Cold War policy of basing labor’s international policy “on an analysis of American workers needs and interests” (Scipes) is insufficient. If “Us,” really means the workers of the world in a global economy, and if we all as workers have rights including the right to a sustainable wage and dignity at work, then labor’s international policy must be based on the interests of us all: American, Mexican, Chinese, Serbian, or South African. Then the question is not just how can GE workers or Firestone workers around the world pressure their corporations to help us, but it is also how can we support the struggles of our brothers and sisters in countries where the right to organize barely exists? It is not how can we keep China out of the WTO, for that does nothing for Chinese workers, but what can we do about the conditions under which global corporations enter China? More importantly what can we do to promote just and sustainable economic development throughout the world even if that means rethinking the whole formula of a U.S. economy based on debt-driven consumerism?

To make such a change, we need education, information and a thorough and free discussion. International solidarity must become a grass-roots, people-to-people effort so that the isolation of American workers is replaced by real understanding of common interests. A model for this type of solidarity-building education can be found in the relationship being built by 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 based on common interests and mutual respect. Members are involved and educated through frequent rank and file delegations and internal education and news of the common activities, and there is extensive dialogue to develop new ways of working together.

It would be a good start if the AFL-CIO came clean, opened its records to the public, and acknowledged the role they played during the Cold War. It would help too for them to acknowledge that current U.S. foreign policy is imperialist - in its foreign ventures as well as well as its trade deals - so that it can begin to construct an independent international policy based on the interests of workers wherever they may be. And, of course, it would help to discard the government funding, assuming Congress hadn’t already cut it off.


Barry, Tom & Preusch, Deb (1986) AIFLD in Central America: Agents as Organizers. Albuquerque NM: The Resource Center.

Buhle, Paul (1999). Taking Care of Business; Samuel Gompers, George Meany, Lane Kirkland, and the Tragedy of American Labor. NY: Monthly Review Press.

CTM and AFL-CIO Joint Declaration (November 10, 1998).

Frank, Dana (1999). Buy American; The Untold Story of Economic Nationalism. Boston, MA: Beacon Press

Moody, Kim (1997). Workers in a Lean World; Unions in the International Economy. NY: Verso.

Sayrs, Lee. Telephone interview. December 28, 1999.

Scipes, Kim. “It’s Time to Come Clean; Open the AFL-CIO Archives on International Labor Operations.” Labor Studies Journal.

Sims, Beth (1992). Workers of the World Undermined; American Labor’s Role in U.S. Foreign Policy. Boston, MA: South End Press.

Sweeney, John J. “On the Passing of AFL-CIO President Emeritus Lane Kirkland.” Online posting. August 14, 1999 <>.

Talbot, Karen. “Backing up Globalization with Military Might.” Covert Action Quarterly Fall-Winter, 1999 <>.

U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) January 27, 2000 Home page: <>. Specific information drawn from search for ACILS: <> and <> and <>. Center for Democracy & Governance is at < and>.

Ancel is Director of The Institute for Labor Studies, a joint project of The University of Missouri-Kansas City and Longview Community College. She is also active with The Cross Border Network for Justice & Solidarity, an NGO working to develop understanding and mutual aid between working people in the Kansas City area and maquiladora workers in Mexico.

[1] Curious as to which International Affairs Department (IAD) records were open at the George Meany Archives, I called Lee Sayrs, archivist. She told me that until the Berlin Wall fell, no IAD archives had been opened, but that since then, she and the five archivists have spent much of their time opening and cataloging them. “This has been the main effort of my eight years here,” she said. She added that as far as she knows, no one has come looking for records on Chile. but that there is a twenty year restriction from date of creation before IAD records are opened. She said many factors go into the decision to open records; mainly it’s a workload issue. The archivists are open to requests from researchers, she added.  There are currently six IAD collections that have been opened: IAD Country Files 1945-71, CIO IAD Directors Files: Michael Ross 1934-63, IAD Irving Brown 1943-89 (only open to 1979), IAD Jay Lovestone 1939-74, IAD ILO Activities 1946-85 (open through 1979), IAD Advisors to UN Economic & Social Council 1944-52.

[2] Some examples of things I’ve learned from Mexican groups range from new worker education techniques to direct action tactics, not to mention their awesome combination of patience, optimism and knowing when to act.. On the other hand, they’ve told us they’ve learned from us about the power of an independent local labor movement, strategic planning, the global system, and, of course, that not all gringos are over-paid racists.

[3] Buy American promotion has clearly been demoted of late. The only place it can be found on the AFL-CIO web page today is in the Union Label section which is decorated with pulsing red-white-and-blue Buy American signs but no content. For an excellent discussion of this legacy, see Frank.