USA - The unions' backing for US imperialism - part II. From Korea to Afghanistan

May/June 2002

In the present war against terrorism, the American unions offered Bush their full backing regardless of his terrorist aggression against Afghanistan. This is nothing new. Just as in Britain, the US union bureaucracy has a long tradition of lining up unconditionally behind US imperialism. The following text is the second part of an article recalling the record of American unions in this field, which was written by the American Trotskyist group The Spark. The first part of this article was published in the last issue of our journal.

The US emerged from World War II as the predominant imperialist power in the world. Even before the end of the war, the AFL had begun to develop organisations to help US imperialism reinforce this position. In 1944, the AFL proposed the creation of the Free Trade Union Committee (FTUC) as a barrier against Communist Parties, which were influential in the working class movement in many countries around the world. In the waning days of the war, the FTUC gave aid to selected trade unionists, as a way to undercut the Communist-led resistance movements in France, Italy and Greece. In the early 1950s, the Chicago Daily News estimated that the FTUC had spent $5m from 1944 to 1950 in Europe to help "destabilise" Communist-led unions and to establish anti-communist unions. Later studies of the same years more than tripled that amount. In any case, the FTUC served openly as a conduit for US government money, which was flooding into Europe to "stabilise" the situation.

In France, the goal of the FTUC was to split the CGT, the main union federation, led at that time by the French Communist Party. By dripping money, it was able by the end of 1947 to bring about a split of one-fifth of the CGT's membership, which went on to form Force Ouvrière. In its early years, Force Ouvrière received $5,000 every three weeks from the AFL, not counting the money it got from the US government. Several recent studies put the amount of US funds disbursed in France to undercut the CP at about $2m a year in the post-war period.

In Germany, the unions had been decimated by Nazism. The FTUC moved to reestablish them on the "American model." The FTUC directly aided selected "leaders" to establish unions funnelling money, printing presses, paper, not to mention food and other supplies allowing their allies to survive in the desperate situation of the immediate post-war period. The FTUC also arranged with US military authorities in the Western zone to transfer buildings and other property formerly owned by pre-Nazi unions, over to FTUC allies. At the same time, the US military authorities acted to block the development of other unions.

In Greece, the FTUC effectively destroyed the main union confederation, funding a group led by a former fascist against the leadership of the confederation, which had been headed by Communist activists. The FTUC's man went on to become a staunch supporter of the military dictatorship that took power in Greece in 1967. In Italy, the FTUC was not able to throw the union movement into nearly as much disarray; nonetheless, there, too, it engineered a minority split.

In the French port of Marseille and other Mediterranean harbours, the FTUC hired gangsters to break strikes which were organised to prevent the US from unloading arms and munitions in 1949. Bloody confrontations sent a number of union activists to hospital with serious injuries. In Marseille, several people were killed.

Certainly, the American FTUC, by itself, would not have been able to control what happened to European unions. The role played by Communist Party and Socialist Party-led unions throughout Europe during this period where for the most part they openly lined up with their own bourgeoisies to help "rebuild the national economy" and therefore opposed strikes - opened the door to the FTUC. Ironically, the FTUC was also working to reinforce the bourgeois order throughout Europe - but with an eye toward making Europe safe for US investment, which now began to blossom throughout the western part of the continent.

The AFL, in this period, also played a similar role in Japan, serving as a conduit for US funds, estimated to be about $2m a year after 1947, to a committee set up to "extirpate communism" from Sambetsu, the Japanese union federation.

For a short period, the CIO appeared not to be involved in these activities. While the AFL was setting up the FTUC as an "anti-communist" instrument, the CIO had even been working in the World Federation of Trade Unions, whose membership included some of the same union bodies the FTUC was attacking, as well as trade unions from the Soviet Union.

But the CIO left the World Federation almost as soon as the Truman Administration took the first actions leading to the Cold War, which dominated US foreign policy for the next decades. Joining with the AFL to establish the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) in 1949, the CIO attempted to bring other unions with it, effectively splitting the World Federation.

This was parallelled by the move of CIO leaders inside the US to purge their unions. Under the banner of a "fight against communist domination of the unions," the bureaucrats stood aside while the companies fired many of the activists - communists and others - who had led the strikes of the 1930s and built the unions. In other cases, the bureaucrats moved directly to expel these activists from the unions. Those unions which did not agree to purge their membership were expelled from the CIO. All told, 11 unions were thrown out of the CIO. The unions which remained saw many of their most devoted activists driven out. This drive to tame the unions inside the US was part and parcel of the policy being led by the union bureaucrats overseas: in both cases, what they did worked directly to serve the interest of American capital.

One war barely over, another started

With the victory of the Chinese revolution in 1949, the US moved to build a barrier against the spread of the anti- colonial revolution into other areas of Asia. Korea was its first direct target. Despite the witch-hunts in and out of the unions, and the public hysteria which Senator Joseph McCarthy and others attempted to foment about "the communist menace," the US population never enthusiastically supported the war against Korea. In January 1951, barely seven months after US troops were sent into Korea, a Gallup poll showed that 66% of the population favoured pulling "our troops out of Korea as quick as possible." There were other indications of working class opposition to the war. A candidate for president of the big UAW Local at Ford's main Rouge complex ran for president in December 1950 on a two- point program: "End the Korean War, Build a Labour Party." He almost beat the long-term president, who was supported by the national UAW leadership, losing by only 476 votes out of nearly 33,000 votes cast. Whatever other issues were involved, roughly half the local was ready to vote for a candidate who made opposition to the war part of his program.

Never fazed by being out of step with their membership, the top bureaucrats rushed to support the war. AFL President Green immediately called for "mobilisation of labour" to support the war effort; CIO President Murray promised his "whole-hearted and unstinting support" for the war. Just over a month after the start of the war, AFL Secretary-Treasurer George Meany declared: "I haven't any doubt at all that labour will give a no- strike pledge when the time comes."

In fact, organised labour never did give a no-strike pledge. It is not so likely the union bureaucracies could have held on to their positions if they had confronted the working class head on. The McCarthy period purges may have put people like Reuther in office or reinforced others, like the TWU's Mike Quill. But the new bureaucrats heading the CIO unions were still struggling to establish their own hold on the union apparatus. They couldn't afford not to authorise, lead, or even appear to initiate strikes during this period - sometimes very long and hard-fought strikes. Competition between the two federations for members added to the instability of the situation.

All of this made the union officials less able - at least at that moment - to impose this new war on the working class. On the other hand, it was during this period that the CIO more and more adapted to the long-standing sectionalism of the AFL. The workers had developed habits during the 1930s of joining their struggles together, and at the very least, working to give each other active support when they fought. The union leaderships now moved to keep workers divided in their struggles, putting in front of them the narrow conception which tied their gains to specific companies and union contracts.

US imperialism found itself in a stalemate in Korea, which it could not overcome short of stepping up the war immensely. Faced with opposition to the war at home and with continuing strikes against the war's economic impact, US leaders moved to put the war on the back-burner. The strikes that were led during the Korean War probably played a role in bringing this war to an end, but they were never led in a way that allowed the working class to become conscious of its power.

In 1955, the two federations joined forces, forming the AFL-CIO. It was not an indication that the working class was more unified only that the bureaucrats were now in more total control of all the unions.

Helping to keep US imperialism's backyard safe

The outbreak of the anti-colonial revolution had its counterpart in struggles throughout Latin America, even if most of the countries had long enjoyed formal political "independence." The ripples spreading out from the Cuban revolution forced US imperialism to turn its attention to its own backyard.

The Bay of Pigs fiasco in early 1961 demonstrated that the US was in sore need of means other than purely military ones. Among other things, the Kennedy Administration called for a Latin American labour program, "through which the talents and experience of the US labour movement could be brought to bear on the danger that Castro ... might undermine the Latin American labour movement." The AFL-CIO responded by establishing the American Institute for Free Labour Development (AIFLD). US diplomats were not able to get inside the existing unions; they couldn't even get much information about what was going on inside of them. The AFL-CIO could. It soon was to demonstrate its willingness to act as agents of the US intelligence and secret military services - in other words, to undermine the Latin American labour movement.

By 1967, the AIFLD acknowledged a budget of over $6m a year. While the US Agency for International Development (AID), contributed about half the money, about 40% more came from various foundations that eventually were demonstrated to be direct CIA conduits. The remaining 10% of the AIFLD's funding came about equally from the AFL-CIO and from businesses which had large holdings in Latin America. By the end of the 1970s the AIFLD's financial ties with the CIA had been pretty well exposed. The scandal led the government to turn more to AID and to other State Department-run foundations for funding the AIFLD. By 1987, AID, by itself, was giving the AIFLD almost £14m a year, while providing another $15m total to the three other regional "institutes" the AFL-CIO had set up for Asia, Africa and Eastern Europe.

The AIFLD regularly declared that it was working to "build free trade unions," or to "create the foundations for democracy" and other such wonderful-sounding assertions. But when AIFLD representatives went to Congress to justify their budget, they put aside all such nonsensical claims. William Doherty, Jr, the AIFLD's Executive Director, told Congress in 1967, "Our collaboration [with business] takes the form of trying to make the investment climate more attractive and more inviting." Peter Grace, chairman of the AIFLD's board, explained that the AIFLD's aim is to "teach workers to increase their companies' business."

Until 1981, the AIFLD's Board of Directors included representatives from corporations with some of the biggest holdings in Latin America. Peter Grace, while he was the AIFLD's chairman, was also head of the WR Grace conglomerate, whose holdings included vast plantations, distilleries, box factories, textile mills and shipping interests throughout Latin America - as well as anti-union factories inside the US! He was joined on the board by representatives from AT&T, Kennecott and Anaconda copper companies, Pan American World Airways, as well as the Rockefeller financial interests. In 1981, the AFL-CIO, somewhat embarrassed by the constant criticism of its ties with companies that carried out open anti-union policies inside the US, finally replaced corporate representatives on the board. This did not in any way change the AIFLD's policies. Commenting on the removal of corporate representation, Doherty said, "We welcome cooperation, not just financially, but in terms of establishing our policies. The cooperation between ourselves and the business community is getting warmer day by day."

The AIFLD's cooperation with the repressive arms of the US state apparatus was equally "warm." The meeting at which this institute for "free labour" development was established in 1961 included not only Arthur Goldberg, US Secretary of Labour at that time, and George Meany, representing the AFL-CIO, but also representatives of the State Department and the CIA, hardly bastions of democracy and free trade unionism. Serafino Romualdi was pulled out of the ranks of the OSS, the CIA's predecessor, to become the first head of AIFLD. Ex-CIA agents like Philip Agee have testified that the CIA has at least one agent in every AIFLD office.

In any case, regardless of what direct links the AIFLD had with the CIA itself, the fact is that the AIFLD acted as another branch of the US state apparatus, one which carried out a great many covert activities against the labour movement in Latin America.

If one were to make a list of the military coups and attempted overthrows of elected governments in Latin America, there would hardly be one where AIFLD did not play a role: Guyana and the Dominican Republic, both in 1963; Brazil, in 1964; Chile in 1973; just as an earlier AFL committee gave moral and material support to the military coup which overthrew Guatemala's government in 1954. The AIFLD gave money to unions that supported right wing elements in Nicaragua and Haiti. AIFLD and AFL-CIO officials openly claimed credit for this activity. Doherty, for example, after the military coup in Brazil, bragged that trade unionists tied to the AIFLD "were so active that they became intimately involved in some of the clandestine operations of the revolution before it took place." What Doherty called "the revolution" was the military coup whose agents subsequently attacked the AIFLD unionists who had helped the military come to power.

AIFLD agents in the field worked to build up and fund unions linked with dictatorial regimes, such as the unions tied to the military in El Salvador, Argentina, Brazil and Chile after military coups in those countries, or in Nicaragua under Somoza. The AFL-CIO's other regional institutes worked to build union support for dictatorial regimes in Indonesia, the Philippines, South Korea or South Africa (before the fall of apartheid). They provided information about trade unionists to the military in various countries. The AIFLD itself has often announced these "victories" - in the name of "anti- communism," of course.

The development of these institutes worked against the interests of workers not just in other countries, but in the US as well. By helping control the workers movement in Latin America, AFL-CIO leaders reinforced the low wages that prevail there, attracting still more direct US investment in the area, especially in factories built especially for export to the US. Union officials now regularly denounce the "runaway shop," but they helped lay the groundwork for it. Their support for military regimes, their opposition to unions which had led struggles in various countries, their attack on union leaders they couldn't control - none of this created "free" trade unions. It simply contributed to making it easier for US corporations to increase exploitation of workers throughout the world.

Opposition to the war in Vietnam

The Vietnam war was, in many ways, a repetition of the Korean war: both were fought to stop the spread of nationalist struggles in the underdeveloped world, and both called forth enormous opposition at home. And, in both cases, the top union leaders lined up almost unanimously in support of these wars.

In early 1965, with the US build-up in Vietnam already causing protests, the AFL-CIO Executive Council rushed to support President Lyndon Johnson's actions. George Meany, declared: "In South Vietnam we are there because we have an obligation to be there. We made a commitment to help the people defend their freedom. And we are in Santo Domingo for the same reason, because we have a commitment to our membership in the Organisation of American States to keep Castroism from making any further encroachments." In a refrain which was to be heard all through the Vietnam War, Meany warned that those in the labour movement who criticised Johnson's policy were allowing themselves to be "victims of Communist propaganda."

After the fact, Walter Reuther, head of the UAW, has been portrayed as an early opponent of the war. In fact, in 1965, Reuther simply proposed that the AFL-CIO go on record as not precluding negotiations. In a show of unity, the AFL-CIO Executive Board put that recommendation in its statement, adding that President Johnson favoured negotiations too! By a unanimous vote, Reuther included, the AFL-CIO gave its approval for "all measures the Administration might deem necessary to halt Communist aggression and secure a just and lasting peace."

Union officials found many arguments for supporting the war, not simply anti-communism, which by the 1960s was wearing a bit thin. Many union officials openly argued that wars themselves produce jobs and that if the US were to pull out of Vietnam, that would mean an immediate increase in unemployment. "The effect of our war, while it is going on, is to keep an economic pipeline loaded with a turnover of dollars because people are employed in manufacturing the things of war. If you ended that, tomorrow these same people wouldn't start making houses." So spoke Joseph Beirne, president of the Communication Workers of America and an AFL vice- president. He was not condemning US capitalism for its inability to provide houses for its people; he was simply arguing for the unions to continue supporting the war.

Union support for the war was not limited to words. In 1967, New York City unions helped organise a "Support the Boys" March. Joining forces with the right-wing John Birch Society and the American Legion, some union delegations, especially from the construction unions, attacked bystanders who voiced any opposition to the war. Some of these same thugs had already been used in the streets of New York against peace marchers. Union activists who questioned the war in union meetings found themselves under attack as enemy agents, with references made to a 1966 AFL-CIO Executive Board warning: "Those who would deny our military forces unstinting support are, in effect, aiding the Communist enemy of our country."

Despite the AFL-CIO's steady drumbeat for the war, opposition grew, especially in the working class. In a March 1968 poll, taken after the Tet Offensive, 69% of those interviewed said they favoured US withdrawal from Vietnam. In 1968, Lyndon Johnson himself drew the conclusion that he could not run again. In that same year, the Pentagon concluded that it could not win in Vietnam without stepping up the war enormously, and yet it could not step up the war because of the war being carried on at home in the streets by the black population.

Finally, at this late point, a few union leaders began to question whether the war was a "mistake." Several hundred union officials, calling themselves the Labour Leadership Assembly for Peace, had met in Chicago at the very end of 1967. The statement they issued conveys how tentative was their opposition: "American labour must play its part in bringing this savage war to a swift and just conclusion, so that we may devote our wealth and energies to the struggle against poverty, disease, hunger and bigotry." To that end, they proposed only to "stimulate free discussion of foreign policy in every trade union in the land." Even the "anti- war" union leaders were far behind their membership. And no top union leaders were willing to go on record calling for an immediate US withdrawal from Vietnam.

In 1969, the UAW, along with the Teamsters, which had earlier been expelled from the AFL-CIO on charges of gangster infiltration and corruption, and the International Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers Union, formed the Alliance for Labour Action. American policy in Vietnam was supposedly one of the issues that brought these unions together. And yet all they could say about the war was:"We take our stand for Peace and an End to the War in Vietnam." Meany often said the same thing, that he stood for peace and an end to the war - and that this was why he supported Johnson's efforts to bring it to an end!

Even more important than what these "anti-war" leaders did not say, was what they did not do. These bureaucrats, who knew very well how to carry out activity abroad and at home when they supported US wars, had nothing to propose to American workers which would have let the workers demonstrate how strongly they opposed the war. Nonetheless, the US bourgeoisie once again confronted problems at home, which led it to retreat from a war without winning it.

In many ways, Vietnam was a defeat for US imperialism - both on the scale of the world, and at home. For a whole period afterwards, US leaders were forced to be very careful about what they demanded of their population - both as far as economic sacrifices and in support of foreign policy.

But by the 1980s, the US began a few small operations, some, it would seem, mainly to get the population used to the idea that there would be more wars: the invasions of Grenada and Panama, particularly. These were followed by the bombing of Libya; the dispatch of military "advisers" to El Salvador, troops to the Sudan and money to anti-communist guerrilla movements in Nicaragua, Angola and... Afghanistan, that is, Afghanistan the first time round. Finally, came the Gulf War of 1991, which, in fact, was more of a vast bombing campaign than a war carried out with troops on the ground. And this bombing has continued up to the present.

In all of this, the AFL-CIO leaders were less reticent than the American bourgeoisie. They were right out front, waving flags, wearing yellow ribbons, spouting jingoist attacks on nations all over the world.

Sweeney's servility with a difference

When the Sweeney slate took over leadership of the AFL-CIO in 1995, they announced that they were changing the focus of the AFL-CIO's international activities, and the new executive council merged the three "institutes" for Latin America, Africa and Asia into the American Centre for International Labour Solidarity (ACILS). At the same time, the new AFL-CIO leaders "recommended that ACILS be funded without government supervision, foreign or domestic."

Nothing, however, was mentioned about money with good reason, since the ACILS continues to get its money from the same foundations that funded the AFL-CIO's three regional institutes. Among some of the biggest contributors to ACILS is the National Endowment for Democracy, which gets its money from the US State Department. It is stretching the bounds of reason to believe that the State Department funds ACILS, but does not "supervise" it.

In any case, these cosmetic changes did not at all mean a change of policy. If Sweeney and the others had broken with the old policy, they would have denounced the continual bombing of Iraq which did not stop with the end of the Gulf War. Instead, they maintained a prudent silence, thus giving their tacit approval. And, even when they seemed to take an independent stance toward Cuba (which isn't all that independent, given the number of important figures, starting with Jimmy Carter, who have been calling on Cuba lately), they did so in a way to continue supporting US contentions. Claiming they "felt" for the suffering of the Cuban people, they blamed it on the Cuban regime, not on the US embargo, nor on the multitude of other actions the US has taken to sabotage the Cuban economy.

A week after September 11, AFL-CIO President Sweeney and other labour leaders met with business leaders, including US Chamber of Commerce President Tom Donohue. They declared a kind of "truce." Sweeney said that all of labour's plans for major strikes or even tough labour negotiations have been put on hold. Donohue urged businesses not to lay off any workers, even if tough times develop.

Obviously, the union leaders kept their side of the bargain; as usual, business did not.

None of that kept the AFL-CIO from rushing to enroll their support for the war against Afghanistan as soon as Bush sent the bombers on their way. Whatever its complaints that Bush is not treating US labour well inside the country, it has given him a blank cheque to carry out not only this attack on the Afghan population, but an unending war in the whole world against "terrorism." And that entails, in addition, new attacks on civil liberties, including the provisions of the "New American Patriot" bill which made it a crime to demonstrate against a war. To this, Sweeney and the others replied with only a mild complaint, reminding Bush that this country was founded on "respect" for civil liberties.

With their response to the war against Afghanistan, the Sweeney leadership proved itself as loyal to US imperialism as any of its predecessors.

Every little crumb carries a big price

The policy of class collaboration that Gompers advocated in the Spanish-American War was fully realised in the following decades, running from World War I to World War II, continuing through the Cold War, Korea, Viet Nam, on up until today.

One could say that from the point of view of the union apparatus, it has been something of a success. The union apparatuses have benefited. They were certainly given posts and prestige in bourgeois society. They were even allowed to join the bourgeoisie for an occasional dinner or vacation jaunt. And they were given some material advantages to distribute to at least a part of the working class, advantages which amounted to nothing but crumbs when compared to the wealth which American capital has accumulated, but which have been used to tie some parts of the working class to the policies of imperialism.

But for the working class this class collaboration between its unions and the bourgeoisie and its state has been a complete disaster. Not only did the working class send the bodies that fought in these wars; the workers were also incomparably weakened and demoralised in their fight for their own interests and needs inside the US itself.

The leadership of the unions cannot serve - in Daniel DeLeon's words - as the "labour lieutenants of capital" around the world without doing the same thing at home.

What is most criminal in this century-long record the leaders of the unions have accrued is not simply that they supported imperialism's wars, military coups, torture, strike-breaking, etc - although this already is a record of infamy. The worst thing they have done was to block the US working class in those periods when it had shown itself ready to resist these wars and the sacrifices that the bourgeoisie demanded. Those were lost opportunities, for which the working class itself continues to pay a very heavy price.

April 10, 2002