Foreign policy is too important to be left in the hands of the State Department. U.S. transnational corporations and the Bush administration have very different world interests than American labor. In the era of capitalist globalization, “Workers of the World Unite,” is not just a good idea, it is critical to the very survival of the labor movement.

The Bush administration represents the rabid right wing of U.S. imperialism and the transnational corporations. Their interest is the free flow of capital and maximizing profits. They are interested in U.S. domination of world political, economic and social relations.

For labor, international solidarity, peace, full equality of labor and rising standards for all workers and their families are the key interests.

In the last 20 years there has been a steadily growing left-center coalition in labor that understands this class struggle reality of foreign policy. In the last eight years these left-center forces have made some fundamental changes in the direction of true international solidarity.

This coalition of forces includes labor activists and leaders with deep roots in the struggle against the AFL-CIO’s support for the war in Vietnam and Southeast Asia. It includes leaders and rank-and-file activists who bucked Meany and Kirkland to support freedom and labor struggles around the world, like opposing U.S. aid to Apartheid in South Africa, opposing aid to the Contras in Nicaragua and the death squads in El Salvador, and supporting an end to the blockade of Cuba. And it includes thousands of trade unionists who opposed government and CIA use of the AFL-CIO’s international affairs apparatus to subvert and sabotage labor movements around the world in the name of “stopping communism.”

The cold war and labor

Big business launched a many-sided assault on labor after World War II. In the first place, it was to weaken and tame a labor movement that had grown “too strong.” CIO organizing victories in the basic industries and labor’s contributions to the defeat of fascism had greatly enhanced labor’s standing.

After voluntary wage restraints during the war years, a united labor movement was demanding an advanced social program including national health care, enhanced social security and pensions, shorter hours and pay raises. The cutting edge of big business’ attack was the McCarthy witchhunt to drive out Communist, left and militant trade unionists.

Another target of the corporate attack was labor’s international ties and independent foreign policy. The expulsion of left trade unionists and left-led CIO unions helped usher in right-wing, class collaborationist leaders like George Meany. And it allowed extreme anti-communists like Jay Lovestone to completely take over AFL-CIO international and foreign affairs. Thus began the most disastrous period of American labor’s international relations.

The State Department and the CIA used the AFL-CIO to help engineer a split in the world trade union movement, in line with U.S. imperialism’s cold war policies. In later years this split greatly helped the process of capitalist globalization by weakening world labor’s ability to resist.

Increasingly, AFL-CIO foreign affairs was dominated by a tiny handful of “professionals” with ties to the State Department and worse. In the name of the AFL-CIO, Lovestone and Co. ran secret and subversive government operations around the world. Many were directly financed by the CIA. This greatly tarnished the image of American labor around the world as simply a willing arm of U.S. government policy and intrigue. (Ironic in light of the anti-communist cliché that unions in Socialist countries are not real unions, but arms of their governments.)

Mistrust of American labor was particularly sharp in African, Latin American and Asian countries. Here, U.S. government policy was clearly aimed at derailing freedom and liberation struggles and overthrowing democratically elected, pro-labor governments.

A chilling effect

Cold war hysteria in labor also dampened free and democratic discussion of foreign policy issues. In the Meany/Kirkland years the maxim was concentrate on bread-and-butter issues and leave foreign policy to the experts and the State Department. (Whether the Meany/Kirkland leadership contributed much to any real fight on bread-and-butter issues is debatable.)

Only a small sector of the AFL-CIO executive board decided international questions. Even middle-level leaders who questioned policy were quickly shut up. Central Labor Councils were threatened with losing their charters for daring to question the war in Vietnam.

A new day in labor

John Sweeney’s 1995 defeat of Lane Kirkland in the first-ever contested election for leadership of the AFL-CIO was an important turning point. It set the stage for the re-emergence of progressive left-center coalitions in labor.

Much of the impetus came from those alarmed at the steady decline of labor in the past 30 years. Still another force for change was a whole generation of rank-and-file activists from the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s, now elected to all levels of leadership including top positions in local and national unions and in central labor councils.

They came from union rank-and-file reform movements based on a whole range of issues from peace and solidarity to union democracy, from advocates of militant and aggressive organizing to fighters for unity and equality for African-American, Latino and other oppressed workers. Rank-and-file caucuses in the unions, which championed immigrant rights, women’s rights and environmental issues were also a big source of support for the dramatic change represented by the new Sweeney leadership.

Perhaps the most important dynamic of this change was the squeeze that globalization and the flight of capital was putting on American workers and their families. Contrary to some conventional thinking, while the greatest and sharpest impact of globalization is on basic manufacturing workers, the ripple effects does great damage to all workers, including increasingly in the service and public sectors.

Individual unions, as well, were pressed to a more internationalist outlook as they faced the reality of globalization. For example the Steelworkers found that the solidarity of unions, even Communist- and left-led unions, overseas was key to winning the Ravenswood Aluminum and Firestone Tire struggles.

International solidarity

The new Sweeney leadership initiated a thorough review of international work. Sweeney himself had been at odds with AFL-CIO foreign policy. As president of the Service Employees International Union, he had joined the steering committee of the National Labor Committee in Support of Democracy and Human Rights in El Salvador. The National Labor Committee was an important labor voice in exposing the horrible role in Latin America of the American Institute for Free Labor Development (AIFLD), then an arm of the AFL-CIO.

The Sweeney leadership appointed Barbara Shailor, from the International Association of Machinists (IAM), to head the International Affairs Department. Shailor had helped establish the National Labor Committee.

Quickly after the 1995 election, the AFL-CIO’s top International Affairs Committee (IAC) was asked to make recommendations on changes. The IAC, then newly chaired by George Kourpias of the IAM, developed a whole list of changes that within a short time resulted in sweeping reorganization of international work.

The IAC’s suggestions led to the dismantling of four of the federation’s most tarnished institutions, the Free Trade Union Institute, AIFLD, The African American Labor Center and the Asian-American Free Labor Institute. The AFL-CIO established instead a new institution, the American Center for International Labor Solidarity, popularly known as the Solidarity Center.

One of the strong recommendations of the IAC was that the Solidarity Center should not be funded by government or quasi-government sources like the National Endowment for Democracy (NED). The NED had been set up by Congress in the wake of Watergate and subsequent revelations of CIA secret funding, to “legalize” government funding of subversive projects around the world. They recommended that all future international solidarity work and the Solidarity Center “should be funded without government supervision, foreign or domestic.”

These changes in international affairs were part of other positive structural changes. At the same time, new departments designed to help fight capitalist globalization and corporate abuse, like the Corporate Affairs and the Public Policy departments, were established. These are designed to help labor better track and fight the transnational corporations and the trade policies they advocate.

Another important aspect of this new direction has been AFL-CIO efforts to build coalition relations with anti-globalization groups, student anti-sweatshop campaigns, movements like Jubilee 2000 for debt forgiveness to developing countries, and groups fighting the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. The “Battle in Seattle” was a high-water mark of this development. Likewise, the AFL-CIO’s global justice campaign to promote the International Labor Organization’s eight core labor protocols is important, though not enough is done to point out that the U.S. Congress has only ratified two of these core labor rights standards.

It is significant that not just the AFL-CIO, but also individual unions are staking out independent positions on foreign affairs. The United Steelworkers of America’s (USWA) unprecedented lawsuits against Coca Cola and Drummond Coal regarding the murder of trade unionists in Colombia and their organizing activities against the government’s ‘Plan Colombia’ are good examples. These efforts are fully supported by the AFL-CIO and the Solidarity Center. There are many other examples, like United Auto Workers, USWA and United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America efforts in supporting organizing drives against U.S. transnationals in the maquiladora zones on the Mexican border.

So what about Venezuela?

It would be a mistake to underestimate how critical all these changes are for a serious discussion of problems in labor’s foreign policy. The new, more democratic atmosphere in the AFL-CIO and labor’s heightened level of activism make such discussion much more possible.

But a full discussion still needs to take place. Events in Venezuela make it clear. Despite the recommendations of the AFL-CIO’s own IAC under Kourpias, it is apparent that government and NED money is still financing questionable activities in the name of the AFL-CIO overseas.

It has to give pause to anyone concerned about the AFL-CIO’s image with Latin American labor that the Solidarity Center was widely seen as being in lock-step with the Bush administration’s not-so-secret efforts to overthrow the democratically elected president, Hugo Chavez. As the Monterey Bay Central Labor Council put it in a letter to John Sweeney, “We hope that the recent revelation regarding Solidarity Center activity in Venezuela involving State Dept./NED money does not signal a resumption of AIFLD-style meddling in the affairs of other countries.”

George W. Bush has just been given “fast-track authority.” Number one on his agenda is the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA). The Venezuela events can only hurt hemispheric unity in the fight to defeat FTAA. Who will fully trust those taking money from the very government that is trying to ram FTAA down the throats of all workers of the Americas?

Open, grassroots debate

A thorough grassroots discussion in labor is the best way to arrive at an independent foreign policy in the best interests of working people. Despite all the positive changes, foreign policy is still too much confined to the top leadership of labor. That top labor leaders still sit on State Department committees where the discussion is “very hush-hush,” is a problem also. The working class needs no secrets in foreign policy.

Resolutions calling for such discussions have passed in several key Central Labor Councils in California and Washington State. Open discussion, admission of past harmful policies and mistakes, including “opening the books” on past activities, will not hurt labor, but only serve to strengthen it for the global struggles ahead.

There will be ongoing struggles in labor over foreign policy issues. Besides Venezuela, China, Cuba and the Middle East come immediately to mind. The point of this struggle for the left is to show ever larger sections of the working class and labor that international solidarity is central to the class struggle.

American workers have international interests that are diametrically opposed to the interests of the corporations and U.S. transnational capital. Our interests lie with the workers and oppressed people’s of all countries. The changes in labor open the door to such a new and independent labor foreign policy. Globalization demands it.

Scott Marshall is a vice chair of the CPUSA and chair of its Labor Commission. He can be reached at