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Media Unionization Wave Continues: Worker Wins

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Our latest roundup of worker wins begins with organizing efforts at a publishing giant and includes numerous examples of working people organizing, bargaining and mobilizing for a better life. The end of 2019 saw a flurry of wins for working people, so this is the second in several posts that will cover the victories of the last quarter of the year.

Employees at Media Giant Hearst Magazines to Join Writers Guild: Employees at one of America’s oldest major magazine publishers are forming a union, becoming the latest big media organization to join the ranks of organized labor. Editorial, photo, video and social media employees working at 24 major Hearst publications voted to be represented by the Writers Guild of America, East (WGAE). The publications covered include Elle, Esquire, Town & Country, Cosmopolitan and others. Elle Culture Editor Julie Kosin, also a union organizer, said: “We’re excited to be a part of the labor movement among our peers, and most importantly create a fair and equitable workplace for the future of this industry.”

Chicago Teachers Union End Strike with New Contract: After an 11-day strike, the Chicago Teachers Union went back to work after approving a new contract. More than 25,000 teachers will be covered under the new contract and 300,000 kids returned to classes. Jesse Sharkey, president of the union, said: “This contract is a powerful advance for our city and our movement for real equity and educational justice for our school communities and the children we serve.”

New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority Workers Approve New Contract: The largest union representing Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) workers approved a new contract after six months of tense negotiations and no contract. Previous offers by the MTA sought to cut back on overtime, increase worker health care contributions and limit vacation time accrual for workers, proposals the union called “insulting.” The workers are represented by Transport Workers (TWU) Local 100, whose president, Ton Utano, said: “I am happy to report that we have reached a negotiated settlement with the MTA that I believe the Local 100 membership will ratify in overwhelming fashion.”

Massachusetts Marijuana Workers Join UFCW: Working people at Sira Naturals, a marijuana company in Massachusetts, voted to be represented by Local 1445 of the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW). More than 100 workers will be covered by the new unit. Sira’s chief executive, Mike Dundas, said the company voluntarily recognized the union. He said it would help attract and retain employees.

Musicians Reach New Film and TV Contract: Musicians represented by the American Federation of Musicians (AFM) have reached an agreement on a new contract for film and television with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers. The two-year deal was reached after the two sides settled issues relating to residuals for films and television shows made for streaming services.

Los Angeles Proterra Electric Bus Assemblers to be Represented by Steelworkers: Working people at Proterra’s electric bus assembly line plant California voted to join the United Steelworkers (USW) Local 675. The company’s leadership was amenable to the drive and worked with USW to help workers understand the need to a carbon-neutral economy. Blanchard Pinto, a supervisor at the plant, said: “This is my first time being in a union, and I’m actually excited about it. It was a no-brainer for me that it was something we could use for the job stability.”

Cedar Rapids General Mills Workers Ratify New Contract: More than 500 workers represented by the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union voted to approve a new three-year contract with General Mills. The workers had threatened to strike before the deal was reached. Tim Sarver, who has worked for General Mills for more than 37 years, said: “I am thrilled to know we will all be going to work tomorrow with the peace of mind of a strong union contract. Over 500 families can sleep well tonight knowing their needed benefits are secure for the next three years. The strength of our union during these first contract negotiations was extraordinary. I am proud to say that a union contract is now part of every balanced breakfast that comes from our General Mills plant.”

NBC News Universal Editorial Staff Vote to Join The NewsGuild: Editorial staffers at NBC News Digital voted overwhelmingly to affiliate with the The NewsGuild of New York (TNG-CWA). After the vote, the editorial workers requested that NBC voluntarily recognize the unit. The new unit covers staff from nbcnews.com, today.com, StayTuned, Left Field, msnbc.com and NBC News Now. Nigel Chiwaya, a data journalist and member of the new unit, said: “NBC News is a storied name in journalism, and we all feel proud to be a part of it. Forming the NBC NewsGuild is our way of protecting the legacy for everyone here now and for those who will come after us. We are organizing to make our newsroom stronger and safer for all.”

Content Producers at Philadelphia’s WHYY Join SAG-AFTRA: Journalists and other content producers at WHYY in Philadelphia have voted to join SAG-AFTRA. The vote was nearly unanimous, and the 90 workers represented by SAG-AFTRA will next negotiate their first collective bargaining agreement. In a statement, the union said: “We’re thrilled by our strong showing. We look forward to beginning a democratic process to hear from our members about what they would value most from a contract with management.”

UAW and Ford Reach Agreement: The UAW reached a tentative contract in November. The contract covers 55,000 hourly Ford workers in the United States, the most of any domestic automaker. Rory Gamble, vice president of the UAW Ford Department, said: “Our national negotiators elected by their local unions have voted unanimously to recommend to the UAW-Ford National Council the proposed tentative agreement. Our negotiating team worked diligently during the General Motors strike to maintain productive negotiations with Ford. The pattern bargaining strategy has been a very effective approach for UAW and its members to secure economic gains around salary, benefits and over $6 billion in major product investments in American facilities, creating and retaining over 8,500 jobs for our communities.”

This blog was originally published by the AFL-CIO on February 4, 2020. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Kenneth Quinnell is a long-time blogger, campaign staffer and political activist. Before joining the AFL-CIO in 2012, he worked as labor reporter for the blog Crooks and Liars.


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Unions face another year of eroding membership as the war on workers continues

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The share of U.S. workers represented by a union ticked down slightly from 2018 to 2019, dropping from 11.7% to 11.6%; the share of U.S. workers who are union members also dropped from 10.5% to 10.3%. The overall number of workers represented by a union stayed about the same, growing by 3,000. (Interestingly, unions grew by 47,000 members in Missouri, hitting a 15-year high.)

While the picture for unions remains dim, after decades of decline, it’s worth noting that the Supreme Court’s anti-union Janus decision hasn’t—so far, anyway—dealt public-sector unions the intended death blow. “The meaningful decline in the union membership rate among local government workers (from 40.3% to 39.4%) might suggest Janus is having its intended effect. However, there was not a similar decline among state government workers,” the Economic Policy Institute reports. But “The share of state government workers who are members of unions rose substantially between 2018 and 2019, from 28.6% to 29.4%.”

This article was originally published at Daily Kos on January 25, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is a Daily Kos contributor at Daily Kos editor since December 2006. Full-time staff since 2011, currently assistant managing editor.

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Bernie’s labor support snowballs

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Image result for Holly Otterbein

Most national unions haven’t picked a favorite yet in the Democratic presidential primary.

It’s been a boon for Bernie Sanders.

Sanders has already racked up 11 labor endorsements, more than any of his Democratic rivals, most of which are from local, regional and statewide unions. And some are among the most powerful labor organizations in early-voting and Super Tuesday states.

“He’s picking up more labor endorsements because the national unions, almost without exception, have not made endorsements, which implicitly or explicitly sets the local and regional unions free,” said David Kusnet, a former speechwriter for Bill Clinton who co-authored a book with an ex-AFL-CIO president. “He has a lot of friends and fans and supporters in the union movement, and some of them are succeeding in pushing their local labor unions to endorse him.”

The local endorsements are filling the political void left by national unions, still gun-shy after the acrimonious 2016 primary election left many rank-and-file members furious that their leaders supported Hillary Clinton over Sanders. Most are staying neutral for now, including some that have longstanding relationships with Joe Biden.

Five unions have come out for Biden, including three international or national unions, and three have gone for Warren, one of which is a national group that also co-endorsed Sanders. None has endorsed Pete Buttigieg.

The support of labor unions such as New Hampshire’s SEIU Local 1984, which represents more than 10,000 members, gives Sanders a boost of momentum and ground troops in critical early-voting states. Sanders has also won the backing of large teachers local unions in California, which votes on Super Tuesday, and in Nevada.

“We will have boots on the ground, canvass for him, get out the vote,” said Rich Gulla, president of SEIU Local 1984. “He’s talking good-paying jobs, he’s talking health care. I think he’s resonating with labor and, quite frankly, with a lot of working people in this country that are finding it more difficult to make ends meet, and I think that’s why he’s getting the endorsements that he’s getting.”

Though Biden has fewer unions backing him, he won the support of two international unions that together represent nearly 400,000 U.S. members: the International Association of Fire Fighters and the Iron Workers. Sanders has three national unions behind him.

Given teachers’ and nurses’ close relationships with members in their communities, Sanders’ team is hopeful that their canvassing will be especially effective.

It’s unclear which candidates other labor groups will endorse as the primary unfolds. More building trades are expected to side with Biden at some point, and there is a possibility that some pro-Sanders local unions will put pressure on their national unions to put their weight behind him.

Robert Reich, who served as labor secretary under the Clinton administration, suggested that Sanders’ success stems from his work courting unions and their members, including by proposing to offer them advantages if Medicare for All passed. Under his plan, businesses whose workers have union-negotiated health care coverage would have to renegotiate their contracts if single-payer became the law of the land — and direct any windfall to the employees.

“Sanders has been particularly diligent in appealing to unions and workers. He’s proposed expanding union power and doubling union membership during his first four years in office. He’s demonstrated solidarity with striking workers,” Reich said. “Many unions are still weighing other candidates, especially Elizabeth Warren and Joe Biden, but Bernie seems to be in the lead right now.”

Sanders might also be benefiting from the effort he’s made to professionalize his 2020 campaign, including his political operation. In 2016, he had no political director. Analilia Mejia, who previously worked for SEIU and UNITE HERE, is now his national political director.

“I come out of the labor movement. My deputy comes out of the labor movement. A bunch of the staff comes out of the labor movement,” she said. “I was talking to one labor leader and they were like, ‘It’s nice to talk to a campaign that understands the difference between a lockout and a strike.’”

Sanders’ campaign has also texted and emailed its supporters to encourage them to stand on picket lines and raise money for labor groups.

“When I was political director [for unions], the thing I most wanted was a big turnout at my actions. And we were like, ‘Hey, wait — we have a list of people who care about Bernie. Let’s tell them they should come out in solidarity,’” Mejia said.

While Sanders’ supporters in labor unions are campaigning for him in early states, the pro-Biden Fire Fighters are blanketing the same areas. In Iowa, international leaders are meeting with locals and educating them about the caucus process, including how to persuade people during the second alignment.

“That is when you can use the influence, the voice, your reputation with your neighbors to say, ‘Come stand with us. Stand with your firefighters and stand with Joe Biden,’” said Harold Schaitberger, president of the IAFF. “They trust you, they admire you, they hold you in high regard.”

This article was originally published by Politico on January 24, 2020. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Holly Otterbein is a reporter.


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Trump Labor Department gives big companies the go-ahead to exploit franchise workers

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The Trump Labor Department is taking action to protect massive corporations from their low-wage workers seeking justice in court, because the Trump Labor Department, currently headed by Eugene Scalia, is all about putting a boot on the neck of workers. The department is finalizing a rule making it more difficult for workers at franchise businesses or contractors—like fast food workers or warehouse workers technically employed by staffing agencies—to sue the companies they actually work for for wage theft and other such violations.

The Labor Department is tightening up the joint employer standard that the Obama administration had made more worker friendly. Under Obama, companies would have counted as joint employers if they substantially set the terms of employment even if they only exerted indirect control over any individual worker. So McDonald’s, which exerts incredibly tight control over every detail of its franchisee-owned restaurants and has even told some franchisees they were paying workers too much, would count as a joint employer of McDonald’s workers. Under Trump, McDonald’s is off the hook unless it directly hires and fires workers, directly supervises the workers and sets their schedules, directly sets their pay, and manages their employment records.

But that’s the point—McDonald’s and other big companies that want to keep wages and working conditions at rock bottom while maintaining plausible deniability have gotten really good at getting franchisees and contractors to do their dirty work. They claim—and the Trump administration will back them up on this—that it’s not McDonald’s or Walmart engaging in wage theft and forcing workers into unsafe working conditions, even as the wage theft and working conditions are found across dozens of franchisees and contractors with McDonald’s or Walmart as the common factor. The common employer, in fact, exerting significant control over the places where its business is conducted.

This is a plan to let major companies abuse and exploit their workers without any legal risk for the labor law violations involved. Or, in Republican-speak via Scalia, “This final rule furthers President Trump’s successful, governmentwide effort to address regulations that hinder the American economy and to promote economic growth.” Economic growth for multi-billion-dollar companies at the expense of low-wage workers, that is.

This article was originally published at Daily Kos on January 15, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is a Daily Kos contributor at Daily Kos editor since December 2006. Full-time staff since 2011, currently assistant managing editor.

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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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House Democrats plan push to pass PRO Act strengthening workers’ organizing rights

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House Democrats are getting ready to pass another pro-worker bill in the coming weeks, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer announced Friday, tweeting that “House Democrats are proud to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with working men and women across the country. I look forward to bringing the PRO Act to the House Floor for a vote prior to the President’s Day district work period to protect the right to organize and bargain collectively.”

The PRO Act would strengthen the right to organize in several ways. It would create real penalties for employers that fire workers for exercising their National Labor Relations Act right to organize, and get those workers their jobs back much more quickly than in the current system. It would streamline the union representation election process, preventing employers from holding captive-audience meetings at which they try to intimidate workers away from union support, forcing companies to disclose the money they spend on anti-union consultants, and “If the employer breaks the law or interferes with a fair election, the PRO Act empowers the NLRB to require the employer to bargain with the union if it had the support of a majority of workers prior to the election,” the Economic Policy Institute explains.

Once workers have a union, employers often drag out and delay the process of negotiating a first contract. The PRO Act cracks down on that, pushing employers into mediation and even binding arbitration if they won’t bargain in good faith. On top of that, it “overrides so-called ‘right-to-work’ laws by establishing that employers and unions in all 50 states may agree upon a “fair share” clause requiring all workers who are covered by—and benefit from—the collective bargaining agreement to contribute a fair share fee towards the cost of bargaining and administering the agreement.” It protects the jobs of striking workers and lifts the prohibition on secondary boycotts. And it cracks down on misclassification of workers as either independent contractors or supervisors to make them ineligible for union representation.

Rep. Mark Pocan and Kenneth Rigmaiden, the president of the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades, offered an example of workers the PRO Act could help. “[D]uring a construction project in Nashville, Tenn., 120 misclassified drywall finishers were never compensated for overtime work and two weeks of work at the end of the project,” they wrote in The Hill. “The Painters Union and other labor groups are fighting back to win these workers their fair pay. The PRO Act would ensure that employers could no longer dodge wage and hour standards by misclassifying workers.”

As usual, House Democrats will do something good for working people and then Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell will send it to his legislative graveyard. But when Republicans claim that Democrats are too busy with impeachment to do things for the American people, remember this and so many other bills. Democrats are getting shit done. It’s just that Republicans are determined to keep working people down.

This article was originally published at Daily Kos on January 10, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is a Daily Kos contributor at Daily Kos editor since December 2006. Full-time staff since 2011, currently assistant managing editor.

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Major campaign to organize tech and video game industries launches, this week in the war on workers

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There are increasing signs that workers in the tech industry are starting to see themselves as … workers. Maybe it’s the 100-hour workweeks as video game companies get products ready for launch, or maybe it’s the layoffs that come after a big release. Maybe it’s the increasing realization that companies such as Amazon and Wayfair are doing terrible work for the Trump administration, and that their employees are helping make that happen and have no control over it.

Workers at tech companies have staged a series of walkouts over a variety of issues, and subcontractors for Google recently unionized. Game Workers Unite, a grassroots group, has called for unionization in the video game industry. Now, following conversations with Game Workers Unite and with one of its founders onboard as a full-time organizer, the Communications Workers of America is launching a major organizing drive, the Campaign to Organize Digital Employees (CODE).

”We’ve been watching the amazing organizing of workers across the industry,” CWA organizer Tom Smith told the Los Angeles Times. “And workers themselves reached out to us while doing that amazing self-organizing, and said, ‘Can we do this in partnership with the CWA?’”

This could get very interesting—and it could really underline the point that unions are not just for blue-collar workers.

This article was originally published at Daily Kos on January 11, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is a Daily Kos contributor at Daily Kos editor since December 2006. Full-time staff since 2011, currently assistant managing editor.

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Climate Activists Can’t Afford to Ignore Labor. A Shuttered Refinery in Philly Shows Why.

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In the early morning hours of June 21, 2019, a catastrophic explosion tore through the Philadelphia Energy Solutions (PES) oil refinery in the southwest section of Philadelphia. The training and quick thinking of refinery workers, members of United Steelworkers Local 10-1, averted certain disaster and saved millions of lives. One month later, on July 21, PES declared bankruptcy—their second in as many years—and began to close down the refinery in the following months, laying off almost 2,000 people with no meaningful severance. According to workers who spoke with In These Times, the refinery stopped running crude oil in early August, although there are fewer than 100 workers who were kept on as caretakers for the waste water and steam generating units.

The fire on June 21 and the mass layoffs that followed impacted more than just the physical site of the refinery and the workers who made it run. It also ignited a debate throughout the city about what would become of the refinery site, which has been in operation for more than 150 years. On the one hand, the explosion underscored the dangers the refinery posed to the community immediately surrounding it, and the city as a whole. On the other, the subsequent closure of the refinery meant that workers were suddenly out of work, with no plan from PES or city officials of how to put them back to work.

This debate, while focused on Philadelphia, reflects much larger questions roiling supporters of a Green New Deal: how to ensure a just transition for fossil fuel workers who lose their jobs, and how to build bonds between unions looking out for their members, and climate organizers trying to stop fossil fuel extraction. Interviews with community organizers trying to curb the refinery’s toxic pollution, and workers laid off from the refinery, indicate that the answers are not easy, but require listening to workers, many of whom are already thinking about climate change—and forced, right now, to deal with the hardships of losing their jobs. In the words of Jim, a former worker who requested only his first name be used due to fear of retaliation, “Fossil fuels need to be phased out aggressively. That being said, I’m in the industry. You can’t just allow the people in that industry to become like the coal miners, just floundering.”

A toxic polluter

Such questions have been the focus of ongoing organizing by community members who have long been concerned about the health impacts the refinery has on the soil, water and air. The refinery is in the 19145 zip code, which has one of the highest rates of hospitalization for asthma in the city, along with one of the highest cancer mortality rates, in a city that has the “highest cancer rate of any large city in the United States,” according to the National Cancer Institute.

The connection between illnesses and the refinery is not lost on community members, nor on Philly Thrive, an organization founded in 2015 to “win a just transition of the Philadelphia Energy Solutions oil refinery, the largest and oldest oil refinery on the East Coast.” The organization knocked on doors around the refinery and embarked on a “listening project” in order to better understand the experiences of neighbors, most of whom are Black and low-income. Alexa Ross, co-founder of Philly Thrive, says that the organization exists outside of the “non-profit, white, middle class” environmental movement, and is currently focused solely on its “Right to Breathe” campaign, which is organizing around health and safety over profit, no fossil fuel expansion, and a green economy for all.

After hearing countless horror stories from neighbors about asthma, bronchitis, cancer and early deaths, Philly Thrive was unable to ignore the urgency of the crisis. Ross told In These Times that “you can compare the refinery to the next 100 sources of pollution all together, and the refinery is still the majority of toxic emissions.” The refinery was the number one source of air pollution in Philadelphia, responsible for 9% of the city’s fine particle emissions and 20% of greenhouse gas emissions, according to the Department of Public Health. It was also the single largest emitter of toxic pollutants, including known carcinogens, representing nearly 57% of such emissions in 2016.

A lack of trust

And although Philly Thrive also lists a commitment to a “just transition to clean energy and living wage green jobs” on its website, it also publicly acknowledges that “it has been very difficult to carve out substantial time in our organizing” to build relationships with workers at the refinery. Ross says Thrive was “told by our connections to USW that they wanted nothing to do with us if we were anti-fossil fuel. We’re one of the only environmental groups that hasn’t been invited to the table with labor, because we don’t think we can afford to say anything besides that we need to transition from fossil fuels now. So we’ve been denied access to the labor movement and USW in particular.”

This lack of trust between community members and refinery workers has been painful for both groups, and the challenges they’ve encountered connecting these two distinct, but ultimately connected, struggles have been difficult to transcend. Philly Thrive says that at public meetings about the future of the refinery, “fear, anger and grief have found likely targets in each other instead of the companies and executives responsible for the refinery.”

One former refinery worker even took to Twitter shortly after the explosion to slam Philly Thrive. Jim Savage, former President of USW Local 10-1, the union that represented workers at the refinery, wrote that “hypocritical opportunists ran to microphones, with fires still burning out of control, calling for the immediate shutdown of the refinery with an ‘oh, by the way, take care of the workers by doing x, y, and z.’ Workers that they didn’t bother to speak with first. A week later, they’re still doing it and still no conversation with the workers. Obviously, they prefer the flowery words of solidarity without any actual effort to create solidarity.”

Jim, the refinery worker mentioned earlier, says that workers saw Philly Thrive “as advocating for a total shutdown, no industrial use, which to people who work there is very scary. We talked about some transition with some relief for the workers and this wouldn’t fit that bill.” When pressed about what a transition with relief for workers would look like, he said that “it would include medical [insurance] while we are laid off with schooling or training included… A severance would have helped. This is just me though. A lot of workers wouldn’t agree but I think a substantial amount would. Some won’t be happy with anything less than their refinery jobs back.”

And it’s not hard to understand why. The PES refinery provided around 1,100 full-time jobs and as many as 850 contracted positions to workers largely in the Philadelphia area. Most of the workers I spoke with only had high school degrees, and ended up making at least $100,000 per year, often closer to $150,000 or $200,000 with overtime and bonuses, thanks to their strong union and the dangerous nature of their work.

B.N., who requested only his initials be used due to fear of retaliation, worked at the refinery since 2006 and is now a facilities manager at a university, making about half the money he previously made. He says “it’s much safer, but I do miss the money, and it’s very hard to go backwards.” He says that for his old coworkers, the job search is “brutal,” with people getting offered jobs that pay $17 an hour. Some haven’t found anything at all and are still relying on unemployment. Others have moved to Texas, Arkansas, or Louisiana, chasing refinery jobs on the Gulf Coast, leaving their families behind.

When faced with the option of either keeping well-paying jobs or putting what may feel like blind faith into hypothetical plans for a transition of the site in the spirit of the Green New Deal, it’s not hard to understand why refinery workers have fought to keep the refinery open—especially when they are not included in the discussions around what a transition could or should look like. The challenges facing community members and workers in Philadelphia over the future of the former PES refinery site are not unique, but rather, indicative of a wider gap that must be bridged in order to eventually win a Green New Deal.

The labor movement and climate movement have often been painted as unlikely allies, locked in a natural and consistent conflict. Although some unions have begun to embrace the need to move away from fossil fuels and seriously confront climate change, many unions have dug their heels in and reaffirmed their commitment to extractive industries, such as Laborers’ International Union of North AmericaInternational Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and United Mine Workers of America. The AFL-CIO infamously came out in support of building oil pipelines in the face of massive protests by Indigenous communities in the Dakotas.

While there’s a lot of talk of a “just transition” away from fossil fuels—both in Philadelphia around the refinery, and beyond—we don’t have any examples in this country to model this transition after yet. It makes sense that a union whose members work in the fossil fuel industry would see its interests as tied to the fate of that industry, especially given the tendency of many unions to see their role as fighting solely for the interests of their members, divorced from the interests of the working class as a whole.

A common enemy

It’s clear that a basis for a higher level of solidarity must be found to overcome this division. One potential way to do this is to identify a common enemy, one who is responsible for both exploiting and endangering the safety of the workers in these often dangerous industries, and for the devastation these industries have on the surrounding communities. This common enemy is, of course, the boss, who is often aided by tax breaks and political support from local and state governments.

The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania provided PES with $25 million for refinery equipment upgrades and rail car infrastructure in 2012, along with numerous other tax incentives and write-offs. PES was also granted protection by the state for liability related to historical environmental contamination at the site, or contamination resulting from Sunoco’s (the previous owner) operations. Following the June 21 explosion and subsequent bankruptcy filing, PES executives were paid $4.59 million in retention bonuses. In a November 22nd filing with the U.S. Bankruptcy Court, PES requested to create an additional bonus pool to payout executives, ranging from $2.5 million to $20 million if the sale of the refinery generates $1 billion in net proceeds. Philadelphia Energy Industries, created by former PES chief executive Phil Rinaldi and S.G. Preston, a biofuels company, have put in a bid to purchase the refinery in order to reopen it. Rinaldi left PES in 2017, but other executives with whom he had worked closely for years were the ones who closed the refinery, filed for bankruptcy, and received massive payouts for themselves. And in the aftermath of the devastation caused to the lives of refinery workers and the surrounding community, Rinaldi has cynically emerged as a key figure calling to restart operations at the shuttered refinery site.

Even though USW Local 10-1 President Ryan O’Callaghan has publicly bashed the executives for their lavish payouts, he also said, “The idea of retraining us for jobs that don’t exist is not the answer. The idea to put a solar panel farm on the site is not the answer. The answer is to restart the refinery now.” So even though union members were sold out by the owners of PES—who took giant payouts while leaving them with nothing—the union is indirectly allying with them to work to re-open the refinery.

But is it really about the refinery, or is it about good jobs? B.N. said that “If it was a solar or a wind farm, and they were paying what the refinery paid, [the workers] would be there in a second. It’s about the money. They’re not defending the industry—they’re defending their job and their paycheck. If they could make the same money working for Greenpeace, they would do it.” When the only option is to either defend the fossil fuel industry or have a poorly paying, insecure job, the vast majority of workers are going to defend the industry—no matter their personal beliefs about climate change.

On January 17, the site will be put to auction, with multiple companies lining up to re-open the refinery. Residents and community groups like Philly Thrive don’t have a seat at the table in discussions about the refinery’s future, but USW does because it is a creditor in the refinery’s bankruptcy case. What would it be like if the union chose to partner with Philly Thrive instead of with the 1%, and signed on to their demands of health and safety over profit, no fossil fuel expansion, and a green economy for all? The union could stand with community members and commit to shutting down the refinery, for both the safety of the workers, the surrounding community, and our hope for any kind of fossil fuel-free future—but only if there is a plan for severance pay and health insurance for workers, along with training and job placements at either the old refinery site or elsewhere.

The people most affected by climate change will be in the working class, whether they’re members of USW Local 10-1, members of another union, or not union members at all. The Phil Rinaldis of the world, by contrast, will be much more insulated from climate catastrophe. This is a pressing challenge to both the labor and climate movement, given the particular urgency for drastic action to address the impacts of climate change before it’s too late. How can the labor movement move towards acting in the interests of their members, yes, but increasingly in the interests of workers as a whole? And how can the climate movement engage labor to help make the Green New Deal a more concrete program that workers can believe in? In order to fully confront the complexities of how to actually have a just transition away from fossil fuels, workers in those industries need to be at the front of those conversations.

As B.N. puts it, “We’ve done a lot of great things in this country. We can transition. Look at World War II, GM stopped making cars for commercial production—they started devoting all of their efforts to the war. We can do big things in this country.”

This article was originally published at InTheseTimes on January 10, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Mindy Isser works in the labor movement and lives in Philadelphia.

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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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Labor 101 for Undergraduate Workers Seeking To Unionize

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Image result for Olivia GiegerDolly Parton’s “9 to 5” plays in a classroom at the University of Massachusetts Amherst (UMass Amherst) as students mill about with pink “Undergraduate Workers UNITE!” buttons pinned to their shirts.

Nearly 40 students from 10 institutions across the Northeast gathered Nov. 15–17, 2019, at UMass Amherst, a highly unionized workplace, for the Northeast Undergraduate Worker Convention (NEUWC). The convention is the first in the nation aimed at training undergraduate student workers in collective organizing. UMass Amherst is home to one of the country’s only undergrad unions, known as RAPMU, which represents residential assistants (RA) and peer mentors.

The event gave students a space in which to unpack attitudes surrounding undergraduate labor, and to understand how such attitudes can lead to poor working conditions. “When I’m employed on campus, the way [my supervisor talks] about my employment is very much like, ‘This is you building your skills, it’s a good opportunity for you,’” says Ben Hayes, 23, a senior at Skidmore College. “It’s using the idea that you’re a student and therefore not a worker [who has] to be paid a fair wage and have good working conditions and be treated right.”

Led by labor organizers and educators, the workshops covered unique organizing challenges faced by undergrad workers. For starters, many students are unaware that unionizing is even possible. The largest logistical hurdle is the high turnover rate for student workers: Students graduate, study abroad, take on extracurriculars and leave campus for breaks, often interrupting organizing momentum.

As the price of higher education skyrockets, working has become a necessity for many. “I feel strongly that everyone who has this job needs it,” says Violet Daar, 19, an RA and sophomore at Wesleyan University. Emma Rose Borzekowski, 23, one of the convention organizers and a recent Wesleyan graduate who worked as an RA, says that RA positions are one of the highest paying jobs on campus.

A position as an RA is a particularly fraught one because students live in the same place they work, so it becomes more difficult to take needed breaks. Many attendees are frustrated that their work stipends don’t cover the cost of housing, despite the job requiring residing on campus. At UMass Amherst, RAPMU has bargained for higher pay and more dignified working conditions.

Elizabeth Pellerito, director of the UMass Lowell Labor Education Program, presented on the importance of inclusion. She noted that, historically, cis white men have been overrepresented in union leadership, and that there’s still a long way to go before leadership truly reflects membership. “We are a movement that’s about power, so how are we sharing the power and recognizing the privilege?” she asked.

Though the convention attendance itself was overwhelmingly white, many expressed a need to change. Conference organizer James Cordero, 21, a senior at UMass Amherst and RAPMU member, explained how RAPMU incorporated racial justice training for RAs in its bargaining contract after racist incidents on campus in 2018. “We are building a new chapter of the labor movement to improve upon past mistakes, incorporating more social justice into the movement,” Cordero says.

“The big takeaway for me is to have union organizers who are racial justice organizers, who are environmental organizers,” says Joy Ming King, 22, a Wesleyan senior.

Convention organizers stressed relationship-building as central to the success of student unions. “We wanted this [convention] to be a chance for undergraduates to meet each other [and] know they’re not alone,” Borzekowski says, which the convention facilitated. Over an afternoon break, students shared curly fries and contact information, and brainstormed strategies to bring back to their campuses.

Most convention attendees were students at private institutions, who face a pivotal moment: The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) proposed, in September 2019, to overturn its 2016 ruling which designated student workers at private institutions as “employees”—and allowed them to unionize.

Though the young organizers worried about the NLRB’s proposal, the mood at the conference was hopeful. “We still have all of the power that selling our labor gives us and that building relationships with one another gives us,” Borzekowski says. For Lucy James-Olson, 19, a sophomore at Mount Holyoke College, “underlying all of the conversations about organizing and improving the material conditions of workers is just a conversation about love and care for each other.”

This article was originally published at InTheseTimes on January 9, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Olivia Gieger is editor-in-chief of the Amherst Student newspaper at Amherst College, where she is a junior.

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