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Service + Solidarity Spotlight: Keeping Kids Safe Never Stops

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Working people across the United States have stepped up to help out our friends, neighbors and communities during these trying times. In our regular Service + Solidarity Spotlight series, we’ll showcase one of those stories every day. Here’s today’s story.

Colorado AFL-CIO President Josette Jaramillo (AFSCME) is a lead caseworker for the Department of Social Services in Pueblo County, Colorado. For Jaramillo, work never stopped when COVID-19 hit. The pandemic only makes it harder to protect the foster children she helps. “We really try hard to meet the kids where they’re at,” she said. “Caseworkers all around the country are on the front lines.” Learn more about how foster care children and social services have been affected during these dangerous times.

This blog originally appeared at AFL-CIO on July 20, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Aaron Gallant is an AFL-CIO contributor.


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Democrats, unions redouble push to move NLRB elections online

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The agency is risking the lives of workers and of its own staff by mandating that voters show up in-person mid-pandemic, they say.

Democrats and unions are stepping up pressure on the National Labor Relations Board to conduct its elections electronically to avoid the risks of in-person voting during the pandemic but are clashing with conservatives warning about fraud — mirroring the debate in the presidential race.

The NLRB, which oversees the elections that determine whether workers may form unions, is forbidden from collecting votes electronically by language included in every congressional appropriations bill since 2012. Now, as social distancing requirements continue to jeopardize in-person voting, labor groups want Congress to delete that language from fiscal 2021 spending packages and direct the agency to form its own electronic election system.

Republicans and right-to-work groups counter that conducting elections electronically opens the door to fraud and coercion on the part of labor organizations, echoing a charge that President Donald Trump has leveled at efforts to expand mail-in voting in the November election.

“The risk of hacking, fraud and coercion is just one of the many reasons union elections are held in person, closely supervised by the NLRB,” Rep. Virginia Foxx of North Carolina, the top Republican on the House Education and Labor Committee, said in a statement to POLITICO. “House Democrats scheming to rig the rules to force workers into unions isn’t new, but using the pandemic as an excuse to advance Democrats’ long-desired political objectives is particularly disturbing.”

“The idea of the secret ballot is you walk in the booth, and maybe people think they know how you vote but ultimately, only you really do,” said Patrick Semmens, vice president of the National Right to Work Foundation, a group aimed at eliminating “coercive” union power. “And that simply cannot be said of electronic voting, nor of mail-in ballots.”

“You can literally have a union organizer watch how you vote” under an electronic system, he added. “And that’s a problem; it opens the door to a lot of coercion.”

Union organizers, he said, “frequently” make home visits, so it’s possible they will be there when a person votes.

Democrats and unions counter that the agency is risking the lives of workers and of its own staff by mandating that voters show up in-person. Mail-in ballots, they say, are rejected by most employers — leaving electronic elections, something they considered during the Obama administration, as the only viable option.

“It makes no sense to deny workers access to a safe and efficient process for conducting representation elections,” the AFL-CIO wrote in a May letter to Congress. Among other organizations signing the letter were the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the United Food and Commercial Workers, the American Federation of Teachers and the Service Employees International Union.

A bipartisan pair of lawmakers, Reps. Andy Levin (D-Mich.) and Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.), introduced a bill this month that would repeal a provision included in past appropriations bills forbidding the NLRB from allowing “voting through any electronic means.”

The legislation, which has 45 cosponsors, would appropriate $1 million for the agency to create a system allowing for unions to be formed via electronic voting. If the NLRB cannot develop an effective system within 60 days, the bill would mandate that it adopt an electronic voting system in use since 2007 by the National Mediation Board, a body that seeks to resolve labor-management disputes in the rail and airline industries.

“If you took politics completely out of this, no sane person would say we should have in-person NLRB elections when we can conduct them electronically with complete confidence, and even save taxpayer money and be more efficient,” Levin told POLITICO. “We’re just trying to take a public health approach here.”

Union groups including the AFL-CIO, American Federation of Teachers, the Communications Workers of America and others have endorsed the legislation, according to Levin’s office.

The NLRB suspended votes for two weeks at the outset of the Covid-19 pandemic amid uncertainty over how to proceed. Last week, its general counsel issued guidelines to allow for in-person elections to continue; those were condemned by the board’s own union, which said they would “expose NLRB employees to Covid-19.”

The suggestions included considering adjusting voting times to prevent crowding and allow for social distancing, limiting the number of observers of the election, and certifying that the polling areas are sanitized, among other protocols.

Foxx and Rep. Tim Walberg (R-Mich.) sent a letter in June to the NLRB urging the agency to dismiss calls to move elections online, calling them “little more than another attempt to change the rules in favor of organized labor, against workers who wish to represent themselves, and against employers who wish to negotiate directly with their employees.”

“[I]t is clear that in-person, secret-ballot voting is the most reliable method for elections of any kind, and we strongly encourage the NLRB to ensure that all union elections under its jurisdiction be conducted in this manner to ensure a free and fair process,” the two wrote.

Asked about the possibility of fraud, Levin pointed to the National Mediation Board’s track record. The agency has “zero” incidents of fraud since it began conducting electronic elections 13 years ago, he said. The board declined to comment when asked to confirm this.

“It’s an argument with no merit whatsoever, and if they’re making an argument with no merit whatsoever, they must be making it for a different reason, which is simply that they want to prevent workers from forming unions in America,” Levin said.

This blog originally appeared at Politico on July 16, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Eleanor Mueller is a legislative reporter for POLITICO Pro, covering policy passing through Congress. She also authors Day Ahead, POLITICO Pro’s daily newsletter rounding up Capitol Hill goings-on.


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Maine AFL-CIO Calls on Senate to Extend $600 Lifeline to Unemployed Workers

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Working people across the United States have stepped up to help out our friends, neighbors and communities during these trying times. In our regular Service + Solidarity Spotlight series, we’ll showcase one of those stories every day. Here’s today’s story.

The Maine AFL-CIO, led by President Cynthia Phinney (IBEW), is publicly pushing its senators to support renewing the federal $600 weekly unemployment payment for those who are out of work as a result of the pandemic. This weekly payment was included in the CARES Act and is set to expire at the end of July. “With double-digit unemployment, it is appalling and morally repugnant that the U.S. Senate would even consider cutting this critical lifeline to Maine families,” Andy O’Brien (UFCW), the state federation’s communications director, told the Beacon. The Maine Department of Labor announced last week that it will extend the maximum length of time workers can remain on unemployment benefits by 13 weeks.

This blog originally appeared at AFL-CIO on July 14, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Aaron Gallant is a contributor for AFL-CIO.


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AFL-CIO Leader Richard Trumka Defends Police Unions by Comparing Them to Employers

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As the AFL-CIO struggles with a growing debate over its alignment with police unions, the disagreement inside of the labor coalition itself is becoming more pointed. At an internal meeting of the Executive Council on Friday, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka spoke out against the idea of kicking police unions out of the coalition—confusingly, by comparing them to the employers that unions bargain against. 

In an exchange with a union president who spoke out forcefully against the historic role of police as foes of labor, Trumka defended the police as “community friendly,” and argued that if unions could learn to work with employers to handle contentious issues, they should be able to do the same with cops and their unions.

Since the beginning of the ongoing nationwide protests against police violence, there has been a heated discussion about what role police unions should play in the labor movement. Many progressives want to sever ties with police unions altogether, while others—particularly public-sector union leaders, who fear that any attacks on police unions will translate into attacks on all collective bargaining in the public sector—counsel moderation and “engagement” with police unions to push various reforms. 

The AFL-CIO, a coalition of 55 unions representing 12.5 million members, has found itself in the center of the controversy. On June 8—a week after the AFL-CIO’s Washington headquarters was burnedduring a protest—the Writers Guild of America, East, an AFL-CIO member union, passed a formal resolution calling on the AFL-CIO to disaffiliate from the International Union of Police Associations, the coalition’s police union member. (I am one of the 21 WGAE council members who voted on the resolution). 

The leadership of the AFL-CIO received the resolution unenthusiastically. They immediately put out a statement saying that they “take a different view when it comes to the call for the AFL-CIO to cut ties with IUPA. …We believe the best way to use our influence on the issue of police brutality is to engage our police affiliates rather than isolate them.” Secretary-Treasurer Liz Shuler, Trumka’s second-in-command, advocated instead developing “codes of excellence” to encourage police unions to change from within.

But the issue has not disappeared. Union locals and progressive factions within larger unions have taken up the call. The King County Labor Council expelled the Seattle police union last week, and even SEIU leader Mary Kay Henry, the head of the most powerful union outside of the AFL-CIO, said that disaffiliation “must be considered” if police unions don’t reform. Last Friday, the proposal from the Writers Guild received its first serious and direct discussion at a meeting of the AFL-CIO’s executive council, the elected body that governs the group. 

According to a source who was on that call who asked to remain anonymous due to the sensitivity of internal deliberations, Mark Dimondstein, the head of the American Postal Workers Union, raised the issue, saying that the AFL-CIO would eventually have no choice but to deal with the issue head on. Citing the WGAE’s resolution, Dimondstein said that the AFL-CIO needed to grapple with “irreconcilable differences” between police unions and other union members, because the role of police is to protect corporate power, not the power of working people. He called for Trumka to distribute the resolution to the Executive Council for further discussion at a future meeting, and then voiced his own opinion that any police who beat union members could not be his “brother or sister.” 

In response, Trumka, who was leading the meeting, pushed back against some of Dimondstein’s points. Trumka, a former leader of the United Mine Workers, said that he had seen anti-worker police violence in the mining industry, but argued that many police officers today are “community friendly.” He also disagreed with Dimondstein’s characterization of labor’s differences with police as “irreconcilable.” 

“I’d just point out that we have irreconcilable differences with every employer we deal with, yet we deal with them,” Trumka said. He told Dimondstein that in the same way that unions use collective bargaining to deal with employers, so, too, could organized labor use the process to “narrow” differences with police unions. 

The disagreement shows that the dispute over the AFL-CIO’s affiliation with police is not going away, and that an internal battle may be looming. Also noteworthy is Trumka’s somewhat baffling comparison of police unions to employers, as an argument against disaffiliation—an argument that would seem to imply that police unions are an opponent to be bargained against.

Employers, of course, are not part of the AFL-CIO.

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on June 22, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Hamilton Nolan is a labor reporter for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writing about labor and politics for Gawker, Splinter, The Guardian, and elsewhere. You can reach him at [email protected].


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Greater Boston Labor Council Makes History with Latest Election

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Kalina Newman

The Greater Boston Labor Council (GBLC), AFL-CIO, made history last week with the election of the first woman of color to its top office. Darlene Lombos takes over as executive secretary-treasurer, replacing Richard Rogers, who officially retired after leading the GBLC for the past 16 years.

Lombos brings more than 20 years of community and youth organizing experience in the labor movement to the position. She served as vice president of the GBLC and has been the executive director of Community Labor United since 2011. A vital asset to the greater Boston community, her work continues to protect and promote the interests of working-class families and communities of color in greater Boston and throughout the commonwealth.

“I am honored to lead such an amazing group of dedicated workers in the Boston area,” said Lombos. “Rich was a true mentor and I look forward to continuing his legacy of empowering working families for years to come.”

Rogers, a member of Painters and Allied Trades (IUPAT) Local 391, leaves behind an impressive legacy in the labor movement. Prior to leading the GBLC, Rogers served on the staff of the Massachusetts AFL-CIO for 21 years, 12 of those as the state federation’s political director. He was the chief organizer for several influential political campaigns, including Ted Kennedy’s 1994 U.S. Senate race and the elections of Jim McGovern and John Tierney to the U.S. House of Representatives. He played an integral role during his four terms as GBLC executive secretary-treasurer in growing and strengthening the Boston-area labor movement.

In recognition of his lifetime of hard work and dedication to the movement, The Labor Guild awarded the prestigious Cushing-Gavin Award to Rogers in December 2019.

This blog was originally published by the AFL-CIO on January 13, 2020. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Kalina Newman is an editorial fellow for Washingtonian. Previously, she covered metro news for the Boston Globe. Her work has appeared in ARLnow, DCist, and the Washington City Paper. Kalina graduated from Boston University in 2019 with a degree in journalism.


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

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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 Solidarno??, the Polish trade union led by Lech Wa??sa 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.

First published at Jacobin.

This article was originally published at In These Times on January 10, 2020. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Jeff Schuhrke is a Working In These Times contributor based in Chicago. He has a Master’s in Labor Studies from UMass Amherst and is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in labor history at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He was a summer 2013 editorial intern at In These Times. Follow him on Twitter: @JeffSchuhrke.


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Meet the Militant Flight Attendant Leader Who Threatened a Strike—And Helped Stop Trump’s Shutdown

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The government shutdown introduced America to an audacious new voice in the labor movement: Sara Nelson. While receiving the MLK Drum Major for Justice Lifetime Achievement Award from the AFL-CIO on January 20, Nelson, the International President of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, called for a general strike to support the 800,000 federal employees who were locked out or forced to work without pay. “Dr. King said, ‘their destiny is tied up with our destiny,’” Nelson told a cheering crowd of labor leaders. “We cannot walk alone.”

Absences among air traffic controllers on the 35th and final day of the shutdown, causing ground stops at LaGuardia Airport in New York and elsewhere, contributed to the eventual resolution of the standoff. Before the shutdown ended, flight attendants were mobilizing to walk out as well—as Nelson said, “if air traffic controllers can’t do their jobs, we can’t do ours.” Simply floating the idea of labor unrest raised the stakes. Nelson, who took over leadership of the AFA in 2014, broke an unwritten rule by expressing the logical endpoint of the power workers hold in their hands.

“I was very aware when writing that speech that it was going to be a moment and it was going to make a lot of things possible,” she told In These Times during an interview last week in Los Angeles. “There has been this hopelessness, this feeling that the problems are out of our reach. So setting a bold course and being bold about the action that we need to take was something that I knew people would respond to.”

That urgency has yet to dissipate. The shutdown was merely put on pause—government funding runs out again February 15. It’s entirely possible that workers could again get furloughed and cut off from pay. And Nelson wants everyone to understand how her members are willing to sacrifice in response.

“I know how dangerous a day 36 of the lockout would be,” she said, referring to a resumption of the shutdown. “We’re going to continue running as fast as we can right up to February 15, so that we can take action immediately on February 16 if necessary.” If flight attendants do take action, other unions and even the airlines themselves may get behind them. That’s because the shutdown inserted fundamental risk into the air travel system.

Nelson, a 23-year rank and file flight attendant with United Airlines who still occasionally works trips, thinks that it will take years for the aviation industry to recover from the shutdown and the issues that preceded it. Nearly 20 percent of all air traffic controllers are currently eligible to retire, a figure that rises to 40 percent in the New York City area, Nelson said. Staffing was at a 30-year low before the shutdown. The political uncertainty could easily convince air traffic controllers into cutting their careers short. And the training required for such a difficult job means that replacing these workers will take time.

“If you have a 99.5 percent efficiency rate in a job, people applaud you, you get awards, right?” Nelson explained. “If an air traffic controller has a 99.5 percent efficiency rate, 50 planes go down a day.”

Fewer people managing plane traffic means reduced capacity in the air. That has an economic impact, compounded by the shutdown’s temporary halt on installing improved safety measures like the NextGen modernization—an FAA-led effort to modernize the United States’ transportation system. Even after the shutdown, NextGen has not rolled back to life, Nelson said. “No contractor is going to come to work when they think they’re going to have to shut down in two weeks possibly.”

Amid this economic uncertainty and threat to safety, Nelson has signaled a critical need for worker action. The labor strike is having a renaissance in America. Teachers across the country—even in states like West Virginia where striking is illegal—have withheld their labor to bargain for better pay, conditions and outcomes for their students. Hotel workers at Marriott spent two months on the picket lines this winter to win concessions from management.

As Nelson understands, the willingness of workers to strike has powerful effects. The Association of Flight Attendants resolved a dispute in 1993 with Alaska Airlines—which led to as much as 60 percent pay raises for workers in some cases—by only striking seven flights. The union called it CHAOS: “create havoc around our system.” With air travel so interconnected and interdependent, the ever-present threat of CHAOS has helped lead to labor peace.

The right to strike is a privilege that federal employees are denied; they are legally prohibitedfrom walkouts, and they can be terminated, hit with the loss of a federal pension, and even personally prosecuted for defying the law. “Those federal workers were actually very courageous,” Nelson said. “Because in my view what the White House wanted here was for the workers to strike. They wanted to replace them so they could privatize the entire system.” This is not so far-fetched—President Trump has publicly supported air traffic control privatization.

Nelson believes that the heroic efforts of federal workers to show up to work without pay demands that the labor movement support them with solidarity strikes, part of her desire to shake up the status quo. “If we try to play by the rules, we’re only going to continue to decline,” she said.

Part of Nelson’s power derives from the union she leads. Flight attendants are a uniquely consumer-facing profession that comes into contact with millions of Americans every day. And they share with passengers the indignities of air travel, a by-product of corporate greed and industry consolidation that has left four carriers controlling 80 percent of all domestic routes. With few alternatives for passengers, shrinking seats and overhead bins have heightened tensions in the cabin, and flight attendants are bearing the brunt. According to Nelson, “Our union, our bread and butter issues are absolutely tied up in this overall fight that I think is really about, are we going to be about people or are we going to be about politics and profits?”

In the near term, that fight is translating into mass mobilization against the threat of another shutdown. Nelson’s union is leafleting at airports and communicating to the public between now and February 15 to identify the stakes, and making clear that members are committed to walking out if necessary. They’re also advocating for a permanent end to government shutdowns, and back wages for low-income federal contract workers who were furloughed.

One moment during the previous shutdown has stuck with Nelson, a reminder of the unifying force of cross-sector solidarity. “I was doing interviews on the shutdown in a cab ride” in Washington, D.C., Nelson recalled. “And when I got to the office and went to get out and pay my fare, the cab driver turned around and his chin was shaking and his eyes were watery. And he said, ‘Thank you, I know you’re fighting for me too.’ It was like, oh yeah, there’s been nobody on the streets, and he’s had no fares. And that really shook me, because we don’t really understand how much the effect ripples.”

This notion that we all have a stake in one another’s struggles has driven Nelson’s thinking throughout this government-created crisis, and it’s elevated her to a prominence that could portend a larger role in the future. Nelson begged off such thoughts, insisting that she was focused on saving the lives of her members and airline passengers. But she did leave some room to consider the broader lessons of collective action, in a moment when so many forces are aligned against the working class: “I’m very aware that if we do it well, it’s an opportunity for workers to taste their power.”

This article was originally published at In These Times on February 8, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: David Dayen is an investigative fellow with In These Times‘ Leonard C. Goodman Institute for Investigative Reporting. His book Chain of Title: How Three Ordinary Americans Uncovered Wall Street’s Great Foreclosure Fraud won the 2015 Studs and Ida Terkel Prize. He lives in Los Angeles, where prior to writing about politics he had a 19-year career as a television producer and editor.

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Forget Elections—Labor Needs To Get Back to Its Roots

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With the midterms behind us, we have Nov. 4, 2020, to look forward to—labor’s next morning after. On Nov. 5, 2008, we were euphoric and full of delusional hope over the imminent passage of the Employee Free Choice Act and the restoration of labor. On Nov. 9, 2016, we were paralyzed by despair and denial.

At this point, betting our future on the next brutal mating ritual of Republicans and Democrats is not a bet most workers are willing to take. Since the 1950s, union membership decline has been a straight line downward, regardless of which political party is in power. Only 10.7 percent of workers are unionized; an enormous 89.3 percent are not. That’s too low to make much difference for most people in most places—more molecular level Brownian motion than labor movement. No threat to wealth, the wealthy, or powerful. Much worse, no voice or power of, by, or, for workers. Instead, organized labor has become so marginal Donald Trump has been able to usurp its role as the emotional voice for workers.

The economy is doing great—apart from workers. Wages remain stagnant. Forty percent of adults don’t have enough savings to cover a $400 emergency expense such as a car repair or medical crisis. Forty-three percent of families aren’t making enough to cover monthly living expenses. Uncertain work, unpredictable work hours, mandatory overtime, dictatorial bosses, miserable job standards, create day-to-day desperation with psychological and social tolls. The labor market is ripe for an organizing explosion, but it isn’t happening.

Blaming the rich and the Republicans is great sport. The income inequality research industry is booming and there is no need to catalog Republican offenses—they campaign on them. Long ago, labor outsourced its representation in the public sphere to the Democratic Party, and in the process become a dependent franchise and an easy target. But the truth is that the Democrats patronize labor on a good day, sell us out on a bad day, and ignore us on most days. (I speak as a recovering politician, a Democrat who ran and was elected four times to city council in my heavily Republican small town.)

Partisan and competitive thinking insidiously affects behavior. Fifty percent plus one passes for solidarity. Unionists succumb to political speak, sounding like Washington rather than “folks ‘round here.” We blame workers for voting for Republicans. If they’d only voted how we told them, then we could get things done. We estrange ourselves from large chunks of workers while giving ourselves an excuse for failure. We don’t have to do the hard work of building a movement, we only need to win an election.

Maybe we should rethink that.

Instead, start today from where we are and who we are. Simple collective self-representation without institutional, ideological, partisan or monetary artifice. Understanding who and where we are by our own compass; by our own position, not opposition. This requires radical respect for our fellow workers. For lack of a better term, this unadorned organizing is social organizing.

Abundant example are scattered across the globe and buried in history. I witnessed a jarring worker tutorial in social organizing in Poland in 1995, when AFL-CIO desperation over labor’s decline and my good luck resulted in a leave of absence from my elected Central Labor Council job to work in those early post-revolutionary years with Solidarnosc leadership and membership. Ironically, at one point, I was tasked with organizing a conference on American union organizing for Solidarnosc activists. Just as the accomplished, well-educated American organizer sent over by the union began his presentation, one Solidarnosc members interrupted to ask, “What do you mean “organize?” A moment of awkward silence followed. Then, charitably, another Solidarnosc member suggested, “Do you mean, join our organization and we’ll represent you?” The original questioner jumped in, “we had 45 years of that with the Communists.” The workers then came up with their own definition of organizing, “co-creating our own future.” Workers, not the organization, were the of, by, and for.

Post-revolution, the solidarity of Solidarnosc dissipated into political and institutional factions. Still, this incident illuminates the commitment to social organizing that helped spark this transformational worker movement.

When all we have is each other, social organizing is where we start.

Back to basics

Social organizing built the labor movement. When 19th-century American workers had virtually no institutional or political voice or power, they developed both by caring about and for each other. In nearly every inch of America, now-forgotten workers came together with that definition of solidarity.

In 1894, Coxey’s Army of unemployed workers marched on Washington, D.C., to press for defined jobs and meaningful work. As branches passed through cities and towns—including Fort Wayne, Ind., where I work—the Fort Wayne Sentinel reported that local residents lavished them for days with food and social support. That same year the Sentinel reported, during the 1894 streetcar workers strike, housewives directed garden hoses at scabs, horse drawn wagons inexplicably unhitched on the tracks, and riders boycotted the streetcars. Returning the solidarity, striking workers went back to work without pay for one day, Memorial Day, so citizens could visit the graves of their departed. Streetcar workers and the community won that strike.

Thousands of lost histories such as this were the roots of community-based solidarity in industrial America. This populist industrial solidarity spawned and supported Workingmen’s Associations, Knights of Labor chapters, Trade and Labor Councils. In turn, these organizations incubated worker organizing in workplaces and by trades. Local solidarity in railroad towns and company towns built the institutional, political and legal foundations for our now diminished labor movement. The gravity of solidarity drew workers into the inextricably intertwined labor market and community. This culture of solidarity included direct actions such as strikes and boycotts but, more consistently and importantly, direct education of, by, and for workers. Apprenticeships,“lectors” who read news and literature aloud to workers on the job, and intentionally educational union meetings with guest speakers were part of the culture. Railroad and industrial activities were regularly covered in newspapers, with the reporting focused more on workers than bosses or business. Journalists, whether Knights of Labor or just solid reporters, would commonly cover union federation meetings. Union leaders understood their role as representative in the community meant talking to reporters, not hiding from them. Everybody had something to teach and everybody had something to learn and an obligation to do both. A culture of solidarity meant educate to organize and organize to educate.

We could take solace and avoid the hard work of organizing by saying America and the world are different now. Our mid-twentieth century institutions, economy, and democracy have decayed or been hijacked. Our social divisions can feel insurmountable. We’ve been sliced, diced, monetized, politicized and controlled. But are we so special that we now believe we are the first ones to have ever been so seemingly screwed? Or do we try to work through it, experiment based on what we can learn from other times and places and most importantly, each other?

Social organizing after the 2008 Recession

Since 1996, the folks I’ve been working with at the Workers’ Project, a research and education nonprofit, have experimented scores of times with worker representation through social organizing. We are confident and hopeful various configurations of workers have been experimenting elsewhere. We have learned some lessons from our successes and failures.

One instructive experiment focused on unemployed workers’ social organizing for voice and power during and after the Great Recession. A torrent of mostly non-union workers, newly jobless after the economic crash, were overwhelming Indiana’s unemployment offices. The state offices were disinterested or actively hostile toward unemployed workers. Meanwhile, a union foundry in Kendallville, Ind., was closing. Busted up from years of foundry work, the union president, the late Leonard Hicks, was ready to quit working but unwilling to stop representing his folks as their lives became even tougher.

To address both problems, we brought together union and non-union unemployed workers to bargain with the state through a social organizing movement, Unemployed and Anxiously Employed Workers’ Initiative (UAEWI).

First, we listened as workers talked about problems and possibilities. We developed a survey. In the unemployment office parking lot, we surveyed unemployed workers about how the office was doing, giving them a report card style survey to fill out, with a voluntary contact information form. The state immediately called in the police to stop us—claiming that we were trespassing on private property, because the public office was housed on private land. We alerted the media and the state received reams of bad press.

The media coverage revealed to unemployed workers they could have a voice and some grit. They began coming to UAEWI meetings, along with the union foundry workers in Kendallville and other union shops experiencing mass lay-offs.

Our ranks of unemployed included workers with education and experience in sociology. With their assistance, the UAEWI members developed and collected a broader survey. The survey was not for academic publication, or for an institutional or partisan agenda, but instead for collective self-representation. It had real value for public policy discussions. While the political class talk about or for unemployed workers, UAEWI represented themselves.

Membership was determined solely by a worker’s decision to participate in the survey—to voluntarily add their voice to the collective voice. We conducted education and training classes as well as group talk sessions. Within a few months, the State’s unemployment office management found themselves in a union hall across a bargaining table with the UAEWI members. Unemployed workers gained improvements in services including increased staffing and training but most importantly, a change in attitude. Most UAEWI members had never been union members; they learned how collective representation worked.

For seven more years, we continued and broadened annual UAEWI surveys. We gathered responses wherever we found voiceless workers: from folks leaving food banks, township trustee office, social service agencies, a mobile Mexican consulate. Our sampling exceeded 500 workers in 2012 and was conducted in English, Spanish and Burmese. We asked more wide-ranging public policy questions about issues such as economic development.

UAEWI members bargained in the public sphere. They provided local, state, national, and international journalists with reliable data, context, and access to socially organized workers willing to tell compelling stories. Some of the stories supported Peabody and Murrow investigative journalism awards. UAEWI members presented survey report results to other members and the public in very public formats ranging from traditional research reports to semi-theatrical presentations and even cinematic effort. UAEWI members attended and spoke before the local and state Workforce Investment Boards, Fort Wayne City Council, Indiana Economic Development Board meetings.

Just the modest act of asking drew workers out of their isolation and into solidarity. Many UAEWI members were personally transformed as they shaped public policies from the unemployment office to well beyond. They were co-creating their own futures. This was bargaining in the public sphere, bargaining with the state over the terms and conditions of our lives. Bargaining with state is foundational for worker representation in the 21st century, just as it was with Coxey’s Army in the 19th century. The UAEWI effort only updated representation with a bit of worker-driven social science.

In the last four years, learning from UAEWI effort, we have experimented with applying worker-driven social science and applying it to original NLRA intent in workplaces. In labor speak workers develop “non-certified minority status bargaining” with so-called private employers. (This less legalistic, institutional and technocratic organizing was envisioned when the NLRA was first implemented—the work of labor law scholar, the late Clyde Summers, as well as Charles Morris’s in Blue Eagle At Work documents this well.)

We helped workers develop their collective understanding and identity to, from the worm’s eye view, make things better at work. In each case, their self-organizing grew from “solidarity selfies” and a survey of co-workers’ thoughts on the terms and conditions of their employment. It is simultaneously concerted activity under the NLRA and, more importantly, intellectual property owned by the workers. We provided supportive research and education for Latina workers at a manufacturing plant; sub-contracted workers at a retail outlet; and Burmese workers at a manufacturing plant. One group faced unsafe work conditions causing miscarriages. The second faced a classic bullying boss culture. The third faced systematic ethnic and language discrimination.

We provided them access to social science, legal support, and social organizing talent, as well as a place in our community of solidarity. We supported their conversations to develop strategies to negotiate with the boss. They succeeded on their own terms. First the survey process overcame employer-imposed isolation. Workers experienced their own workplace “me too” revelations which led to collective voice. They built their representational power by developing a research report on their work lives that became collectively owned and copyrighted intellectual property with real bargaining value. Each unit could choose to share the findings with whoever they decide in the public-private spectrum: media, government regulators, elected officials, customers, suppliers, competitors, stockholders or, if willing, across the table with the boss.

The Latina factory workers met with the plant owner to present their findings. Safety conditions improved, maternity leaves were granted, healthy babies were born, and little Jose Manuel now attends our events. Some of the workers were fired, most moved on to other jobs, some won legal settlements. Most remain active in the Hispanic Workers Circle.

The subcontracted retail workers successfully confronted top national corporate management. They ended the bullying management culture and maintain an ongoing social “solidarity union” collecting no dues and participating in all Workers’ Project activities.

The Burmese factory workers efforts are ongoing. They constitute a significant portion of our Burmese Workers Circle which is developing as a workers’ and civil rights organization.

Stay tuned for more news: All groups continue full-throated participation in Workers’ Project activities and Fort Wayne’s huge annual Labor Day picnic.

We think collective intellectual property is an intriguing innovation. As workers we are robbed of our intellectual property as employers pick our brains, pick our pockets, only to pick up and leave us jobless. As consumers, our data has collected by others, monetized and politicized at our expense to benefit wealth. Intellectual property we own collectively can help us bargain with anyone in the power spectrum, from private employer to the state.

Owning our own voices and power, collective human agency, is our democracy where we work and where we live. Valuing each other, sharing our experiences, information, ideas, and respect seems a great place to start especially when you are starting at scratch. Social organizing, old school or innovative, is still solidarity.

This blog was originally published at In These Times on November 16, 2018. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Tom Lewandowski is co-founder and director of the Workers’ Project in Fort Wayne, Ind.


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Improving Patient Safety: Worker Wins

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Our latest roundup of worker wins begins with nurses across the country winning new contracts and includes numerous examples of working people organizing, bargaining and mobilizing for a better life.

New Contract for More Than 14,000 California Nurses Includes Improved Protections from Violence and Harassment: Registered nurses at the University of California, members of the California Nurses Association (an affiliate of National Nurses United/NNU) voted overwhelmingly to ratify a new five-year contract. The contract covers more than 14,000 registered nurses at more than a dozen locations. “We are so proud to ratify this historic contract for all registered nurses at UC. Nurses stood together in solidarity and fought back over 60 takeaways that would have directly affected our ability to care for our patients,” said Megan Norman, RN, UC Davis. “We won new language addressing infectious disease and hazardous substances as well as stronger protections around workplace violence and sexual harassment.”

11,000 VA Nurses Ratify New Contract: More than 11,000 registered nurses at 23 hospitals run by the Department of Veterans Affairs, who are represented by the National Nurses Organizing Committee/NNU, voted to ratify a new three-year contract that features workplace violence protections, infectious disease training and emergency preparedness information. “I am very excited about the workplace safety provisions that will improve the safety of our nurses and protect them from violence and injury,” said Irma Westmoreland, registered nurse and National Nurses United board member.

Maine Nurses Win Increased Workplace Safety in New Contract: Neatly 900 members of the Maine State Nurses Association (part of the NNOC/NNU) who work at the Eastern Maine Medical Center (EMMC) ratified a new contract. “This new agreement sets a new bar for quality care and patient safety at our hospital,” said Dawn Caron, bargaining team member and chief union steward for the nurses at EMMC. “When we began this process back in February, we set out to protect the role of our charge nurses and all of the other safe patient care provisions of our contract. The nurses at EMMC are proud to announce that today, we have done exactly that.”

Disneyland Resort Workers Approve Contract with Wage Raise and Bonus: After more than a year and a half of negotiations, Disneyland Resort hotel workers approved a new contract that includes nearly $2 an hour in higher wages and the payment of $1,000 employee bonuses originally announced in January. UNITE HERE Local 11 represents the more than 2,700 hotel workers at Disney covered by the new contract.

UFCW Members at Four Roses Distillery Reach Agreement to End Strike: In September, members of United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 10D who work at the Four Roses distillery in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky, won a new agreement after a strike that lasted nearly two weeks. “We’re one big, happy, dysfunctional family around here,” Local 10D President Jeff Royalty said. “You know, just like brothers and sisters, you’ll have some hard feelings from time to time, but they’re short-lived.”

Columbia Postdoctoral Researchers Win Right to Form Union: The National Labor Relations Board ruled that postdoctoral researchers at Columbia can form a union. Official elections are being held this week to determine whether or not the Columbia Postdoctoral Workers become members of the UAW. “We are very excited that the NLRB finally issued the decision that Columbia’s postdoctoral workers can unionize despite the university’s efforts to undermine us,” said Alvaro Cuesta-Dominguez, a member of the postdoctoral worker organizing committee and a second-year postdoc researcher. “We look forward to the opportunity to really have our voices heard.”

Federal Judge Sides with FLOC, Rejects Anti-Union North Carolina Law: U.S. District Judge Loretta Biggs ruled that a North Carolina law limiting union organizing for farmworkers was unconstitutional. “North Carolina’s law is clearly designed to make it harder, if not impossible, for the state’s only farmworkers union to advocate for sorely needed protections against exploitation and bad working conditions,” said Brian Hauss, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union.

New York Port Authority Workers Win Wage Increase: After a long fight, working people at the New York Port Authority represented by the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union/UFCW (RWDSU/UFCW) and UNITE HERE won an increase to a minimum wage of $19 per hour by 2023. The new agreement includes nearly 5,000 catering workers that were excluded from the previous policy. The proposal could impact tens of thousands of workers at other area airports, as well.

ExpressJet Pilots Overwhelmingly Approve New Contract: United Express pilots at ExpressJet Airlines, represented by the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA), have won a new contract that increases pilot pay. More than 90% of those who voted supported the new three-year deal.

This blog was originally published by the AFL-CIO on October 3, 2018. Reprinted with permission. 


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Workplace Deaths Are Rising. Trump-Era Budget Cuts Could Make It Worse.

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In an alarming development in the world of workplace safety, the latest statistics reveal that the number of accidental deaths on the job in America is on the rise, reversing the longer-term trend toward fewer fatal incidents.

The number of deaths hit a total of 5,190 in 2016, up from 4,836 in 2015, according to an April 2018 report by the AFL-CIO. That’s about 14 deaths each day from preventable worker accidents. It’s also the third year in a row that the number has inched up, and the highest death rate since 2010, the labor federation reported.

Workplace safety systems are “definitely in the failure mode,” says Peter Dooley, a consultant with the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health who was worked closely with labor unions over the years. “In the last two years it is getting dramatically worse. It’s just outrageous.” 

The precise reasons for the rise are not simply stated, adds Peg Seminario, AFL-CIO’s long-time director of occupational safety and health. Overall patterns such as very high rates of injury in the logging and construction industries are consistent over time, she says, and there is no single employment trend that accounts for the recent rise. “The numbers are actually down in construction, but they are up almost everywhere else,” she says.

Inadequate enforcement of existing safety rules is the most commonly cited explanation for the rise, Seminario tells In These Times. A Jan. 8 report from NBC News estimates that the Labor Department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) employs only about 1,000 inspectors to cover all workplaces in America—and that the number of inspectors has declined four percent since President Donald Trump took office. The number of inspectors is far too low to be effective, Seminario suggests, and OSHA has been “under resourced” for years, including during the Obama administration years.

“Construction is a good example. OSHA has a big focus on construction and construction deaths are down. The areas where OSHA has less interest are up,” she says

The figures cited by Seminario and Dooley are taken from the Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries published annually by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The way the figures are compiled is a problem in itself, Dooley says, because it zealously protects the anonymity of employers. That diverts attention from specific workplace behavior that needs close examination and corrective action to reduce accidental deaths over time, he says. 

The National Council’s answer to this problem is to publish its own “Dirty Dozen” list of employers notable for health and safety problems among their workforces. The Council uses a standard of measurement that includes non-fatal injuries and other factors, but the list stands out in that it names some very well-known companies. For example, the online retailer Amazon is on the list because it has seen seven of its warehouse workers killed since 2013. Lowe’s Home Improvement operations have seen a total of 56 deaths associated with paint stripping chemicals. And the largest garbage disposal company in the United States, Waste Management, has had an excessive number of OSHA citations and fines. Other companies on the list are Tesla Motors and Dine Brands Global (owner of IHOP and Applebee’s restaurants).

“There is injustice in the Bureau of Labor Statistics as a totally anonymous database. There is no public record of who is dying and who the employers are,” Dooley says. The information actually does exist deep in the Labor Department files, he adds, but government policy is to keep this information out of public hands, or for use by safety experts. “This needs to be changed,” he says.

Seminario and Dooley agree that the worker safety signals coming from the Trump administration are troubling, even if the statistics are not up-to-date enough to make a direct link to increased workplace deaths. Trump’s budget proposal last year called for a 21 percent cut in Department of Labor spending, and the initial proposal for this year call for a 9 percent cut. Congress pared back last year’s proposed cut, and is expected to do so again this year, but it is clear that current Labor Department officials have no plans to take the initiative against the rise in workplace deaths, Dooley charges.

In issuing its report, the AFL-CIO noted: “The Trump administration has moved to weaken recently issued rules on beryllium and mine examinations and has delayed or abandoned the development of new protections, including regulations on workplace violence, infectious diseases, silica in mining and combustible dust.”

“At the same time, Congress is pushing forward with numerous ‘regulatory reform’ bills that would require review and culling of existing rules, make costs the primary consideration in adopting regulations, and making it virtually impossible to issue new protections.”

The reference to workplace violence represents one of the most troubling statistics buried in the government reports. According to a press release from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Workplace homicides increased by 83 cases to 500 in 2016, and workplace suicides increased by 62 to 291. This is the highest homicide figure since 2010 and the most suicides since the National Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries began reporting data in 1992.”

“It’s a very complicated problem,” observes Seminario. “You can devise safety regulations to avoid common and predictable accidents. But how do you do that with a homicide?”

This article was originally published at In These Times on June 18, 2018. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Bruce Vail is a Baltimore-based freelance writer with decades of experience covering labor and business stories for newspapers, magazines and new media. He was a reporter for Bloomberg BNA’s Daily Labor Report, covering collective bargaining issues in a wide range of industries, and a maritime industry reporter and editor for the Journal of Commerce, serving both in the newspaper’s New York City headquarters and in the Washington, D.C. bureau.


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