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Summer 2002 • Vol 2, No. 7 •

Book Review

U.S. Labor’s Own Central Intelligence Agency

Reviewed by Bob Mattingly

Workers of the World Undermined:
American Labor’s Role in U.S. Foreign Policy

By Beth Sims, South End Press, Boston, MA, 1992. $9.00, paper.


Like many leftists the author had become distressed by the labor federation’s known or suspected foreign policies and overseas activities. Her research turned-up “a network of labor operations intertwined with the foreign policy apparatus of the U.S. government…” More specifically, the foreign arms of the AFL-CIO, often called institutes, “have historically provided a channel through which the CIA could penetrate foreign labor sectors. They have offered a useful cover for intelligence operatives and supported undercover operations.” Additionally, AFL-CIO operatives “have been identified as intelligence agents who operated with the direct assistance of U.S. embassies and the CIA overseas.”

Who pays?

One wonders then in what sense does the labor federation remain a private, independent organization of workers? What’s certain is that the organization doesn’t finance much of its overseas “labor operations.” Sims reports that Washington paymasters finance just under 100 percent of the AFL-CIO’s foreign operations. Current estimates of Washington payments for the AFL-CIO’s overseas operations are about $15,000,000 a year. But it seems reasonable to suspect that not all monies and assignments are honestly recorded. Sims writes that before the 1955 merger with the CIO, AFL president George Meany headed a “labor advisory program” that operated out of the State Department, citing The Political Role of International Trades Unions (1983) by Gary K. Busch.

Ms. Sims tries her hardest to present a balanced account of her findings, and notes that “the AFL-CIO is [not] always a stooge for big business,” and the federation’s “union-building activities do help favored unions fight economistic (sic) battles against particular employers.” Still, a page later she reports that “the federation and its institutions have sabotaged workers unity, promoted conservative and apolitical trade unions, and built parallel unions to sap the strength of more broad-based and progressive labor organizations.”

For example, in June 1986 the White House asked for and got the AFL-CIO’s help to deal with “the presence of radical labor unions [in Haiti] and the high risk that other unions may become radicalized.” But Sims rightly notes that the “radicalization of the Haitian labor force seems a quite reasonable response to Haiti’s dire poverty…” The federation also helped set-up a Haitian labor body, “a cosmetic formality” that permitted Haitian and “U.S. assembly plants … duty free access to the U.S. market” under the U.S. sponsored Caribbean Basin Initiative.

Following the 1983 U. S. invasion of Grenada, says Sims, a U.S. “team” recommended that an AFL-CIO institute “should assume responsibility for restructuring and training the nation’s unions. Redirecting union radicalism and strengthening ‘democratic’ labor leaders were the objectives of the program.” In Chile, during the CIA-backed coup that murdered the nation’s president, Salvador Allende, the federation’s institute-trained “communications and maritime workers kept lines open for the military.” In addition to Latin America, Ms. Sims briefly discusses the federation’s worldwide foreign affairs and dealings.

Foreign policy and ‘business unionism’

Ms. Sims concludes that the federation’s perspective on foreign policy is deeply rooted in its domestic practice of business unionism. She doesn’t attempt to explain at length the development of business unionism or the organically associated profound bureaucratization of American unions; but she knows business unionism when she sees it, when she cites a statement given congress by a then top federation official (William Doherty) that sums up the union’s chief occupation overseas and, come to think of it, at home. “Our collaboration [with business] takes the form of trying to make the investment climate more attractive and more inviting.” Union negotiators mean the same thing when they warn workers not to demand too much, not to kill the goose that lays the golden eggs, not to snivel about take-aways and be grateful that the union got them a job.

When John J. Sweeney’s “New Voice” slate replaced the Kirkland/Donahue administration, many progressives felt that for the first time in many years, they had “some space” to participate in and rally support for the policies of the AFL-CIO. Perhaps those progressives still think that way. But suspicions about the AFL-CIO’s current activities in Venezuela are strengthening doubts of other labor lefts who from the first counseled waiting to see if the New Voice slate’s actions aligned with their words.





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