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Posts Tagged ‘unions’

The Multinational Trying To Bankrupt the Dock Workers Union Has a Sordid Past

Friday, January 17th, 2020

Image result for Ari PaulThe International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) is facing an existential crisis.

Founded by the militant labor icon Harry Bridges, the ILWU has made a name for itself as the take-no-crap West Coast dockers union, one that has engaged in work stoppages and other tactics both to protect their jobs and benefits, but also to oppose war and racism.

A federal jury in Portland, Oregon granted a $93.6 million penalty in November against the union to the American subsidiary of the Philippines-based International Container Terminal Services (ICTSI), which formerly operated the Portland terminal. The back story is a complicated one about union jurisdiction. In 2012, the local ILWU began a series of work slowdowns over two jobs that involved handling refrigerated containers (as well as electrical equipment related to those containers) that the union believed were wrongly being put outside of the ILWU’s collective bargaining agreement. Instead, these two port jobs were represented by the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW). ICTSI sued the ILWU, claiming the industrial action was an illegal secondary boycott and that years of battling the union had taken financial toil on the company. The jury sided with ICTSI.

The ILWU has $8 million in assets, according to its most recent Department of Labor filing (Local 8, the local involved in the suit, has $386,000 in total assets, according to its DOL filing). Needless to say, the award, if upheld by the judge in proceedings in February, will almost certainly lead to bankruptcy for the union.

While officials say that this would not be the end of the union necessarily, the restructuring of the union would likely cramp its ability to administer the business of representing and organizing workers. The union’s president, Willie Adams, said in a message in the union’s newspaper, the Dispatcher, “We’re hoping that the Court will review the verdict and explore a different outcome—one that is more fair and consistent with the evidence. If that doesn’t happen, there’s a possibility that we may seek protection in federal court to re-organize our finances under protections allowed by the federal bankruptcy court. While nobody wants to take this step, it may be the best way to protect the ILWU and to allow us to return to sound financial footing as quickly as possible.”

For maritime unionists, the involvement of ICTSI in this case raises eyebrows. It is one of the most notorious ports operator in the market, a company that profits off of war, misery and labor exploitation. The news that ICTSI would seek to destroy a union is in line with its troubling global track record of undermining workers’ rights—and exploiting low wages and poor working conditions to protect its profits.

An international labor-rights abuser

The company brings a global track record mired in accusations of labor abuses. Starting in 2017, the International Transport Workers Federation, the global alliance of transport unions, intervened in what it called a severe undercutting of labor standards by ICTSI, the operator at the Port of Tanjung Priok, in the Indonesian capital of Jakarta. Specifically, union activists alleged that the ICTSI-run terminal was paying workers 15% less than other nearby port operators. The International Transport Workers Federation (ITF) also alleged that the company had broken Indonesian labor law by continuing to outsource labor, against the government’s orders, and avoiding issuing overtime pay. As one Indonesian labor leader, Didik Noryanto, said at the time, “Workers at the ICTSI port are looking to the Indonesian Government to show leadership and step in to defend these workers’ basic human rights because ICTSI is waging an aggressive campaign to drive down their wages and conditions.”

These concerns led to the Maritime Union of Australia leading a several-week-long blockade in late 2017 of the Port of Melbourne’s terminals, run by the ICTSI, specifically on grounds that a firm with such a bad reputation within the ITF had no business in Australia. Paddy Crumlin, the IFT’s chief dockers official, said at the time, “Everyone is awake to ICTSI’s destructive ways and won’t cop it anymore.”

Crumlin described ICTSI’s rogue labor record as a “cancer” spreading around the world. Indeed, that same year, the Guardian uncovered union busting and low wages at Madagascar’s main port, also run by ICTSI. This drama, once again, made its way back to Australia, where ICTSI was looking to increase its presence. In 2018, the ITF demanded an investigation of the company after it was awarded the Webb Dock terminal at the Port of Melbourne. The ITF also raised concerns about the firm’s anti-union practices in Madagascar with ICTSI shareholders, urging them to vote out two board members for failing to reign in the company’s operations in places like Madagascar, where, according the trade journal Maritime Executive, ITF “said that hauler strikes and protests have led to delays, with some vessels reportedly anchored and unable to berth for weeks.”

Exploiting misery

But to fully understand the ICTSI’s reputation as a rogue operator in the world of port management, one must really look more at the company’s business model, one that specifically turns the economic misery and complete lack of democratic governance to its business advantage. And to understand that business model, you have to understand its chairman and president, Enrique Razon.

Razon is one of the richest people in the Philippines with a net worth estimated over $5 billion and is a scion of the ports industry. His grandfather came from Spain to Manila to establish its primary port. From there, Razon has built his shipping fortune—and notoriety—primarily by swooping into countries that are so undesirable from a human rights standpoint that he wouldn’t have to go into bidding wars with rivals and create a near monopoly for himself. He told investors in 2015: “I’m very bullish about Iran, Congo and Cambodia… It’s okay to say that if you make investments in bad places right now, over time, you’ll gain without competition.”

And Razon particularly likes setting up shop in sub-Saharan Africa, where  he’s faced accusations of union busting in Madagascar. Razon specifically highlighted that the desperation for infrastructure means he can charge higher fees. He told the Wall Street Journal in 2014, “Bottom line: Returns are best there with high yields in the handling business. To handle a box in our terminal in Yantai, [China], we charge about $45-$50. The same container in Africa easily goes for $200-$250.”

Crumlin put it crudely in a statement released August 2018: “[It is a] business model of deliberately prioritizing countries where human and labor rights are most at vulnerable and by partnering with some of the worst anti-democratic regimes implicated in crimes against humanity.”

But perhaps ICTSI’s most intriguing operations have been in the Democratic Republic of Congo. With relatively poor rail and paved transport infrastructure, the Congo River is the major highway for goods in the second largest country in Africa in terms of area. This past December, the company announced that it would spend $100 million to double container capacity at its port operations in Matadi, where it has controlling stake in the port company. Ten percent of that company is the state-owned Société Congolaise des Transports et des Ports. For the ITF, this means that ICTSI isn’t simply trading with a corrupt regime, but is inextricably linked to the regime of President Joseph Kabila, which the federation calls on its website ICTSI Exposed, “one of the world’s worst kleptocracies.”

Today, Razon’s business empire includes casinos, a venture he has jokingly called his night job, but the gaming side of his operations is no less sordid. In 2016, cyber thieves made off with $81 million from the central bank of Bangladesh’s American account at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, with $29 million winding up in an account for Solaire, one Razon’s gaming subsidiaries. Razon insisted that the scandal did little damage to his business’ reputation.

Australian labor’s resistance to ICTSI operating ports was based on the fear that the company—seeking to expand its presence around the globe—would drive down standards for the country’s port workers. Australian unions had a right to be worried: Economic liberalization has led to a decline in union bargaining power in Australia, and union membership is declining. In fact, the MUA faced a crippling lawsuit, similar to the one the ILWU is facing, regarding a work stoppage involving Chevron cargo, and the MUA ended up merging with another union.

Rattling the transport labor movement

ICTSI is no longer operating at the Portland terminal. But its existence there, unless the judge in the ILWU case decides to rehear the matter or grant some sort of appeal, will forever leave a stamp in American maritime unionism and rattle the transport labor movement worldwide.

It should be noted, however, that ILWU’s campaign at the Portland terminal may be considered ill-advised. The dispute in Portland stemmed from the fact that the jobs in question related to electrical operation of refrigerated containers. Thus, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers claimed, the jobs rightly belonged to the IBEW. ICTSI had made the argument that as the port operator, the ILWU’s targeting of ICTSI in what was ultimately a dispute over union jurisdiction was a secondary boycott. Was it really the best use of the ILWU’s time and energy to fight over a few workers who were likely going to end up with some sort of union representation? In hindsight, it certainly was not.

It isn’t clear if ICTSI-related companies have any port operations in the United States or plan to compete for opportunities at U.S. ports anytime soon—the company did not respond to a request for comment. What is clear from this debacle is that employers are ready and willing to use the secondary boycott ban against transport unions to the extent that it could cripple unions’ operations. Employers have happily embraced the jury award, saying that it puts the union—and rank-and-file port workers—on notice.

“It hearkens back to the Gilded Age when corporations used employer friendly courts to bankrupt and destroy unions,” said James Gregory, a labor historian at the University of Washington. “More important, it threatens the existence of a union that has long been a model of progressive politics and democratic governance, a union that fights for labor rights worldwide, a union that has beaten back every challenge since 1934. And if the courts are again going to issue rulings bankrupting unions, no union is safe, nor are the workplace rights that all of us—union and no union—rely upon.”

This article was originally published at InTheseTimes on January 16, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Ari Paul has covered politics for The NationViceThe GuardianDissentJacobinAl Jazeera America and many other outlets.

Joe Biden Thinks Coal Miners Should Learn to Code. A Real Just Transition Demands Far More.

Thursday, January 16th, 2020

Image result for mindy isserAs of 2016, there were only 50,000 coal miners in the United States, and yet they occupy so much of our political imagination and conversation around jobs, unions and climate change. During the 2016 presidential election, Donald Trump ran on bringing coal jobs back to the United States, and Joe Biden said on December 30 that miners should learn to code, as those are the “jobs of the future.” His comments, made to a crowd in Derry, New Hampshire, were reportedly met with silence.

While coal miners aren’t the only workers in our society, coal miners’ voices do matter, and we can’t leave anyone behind. And it’s clear that they are hurting, a point illustrated by the coal miners currently blocking a train carrying coal in eastern Kentucky, demanding back pay from Quest Energy.

The coal industry is in decline, and mining jobs are disappearing. And the science shows that the vast majority of coal needs to stay in the ground if we want to have a shot at stemming climate change. But does that mean miners need to learn to code in order to earn a living? Coding isn’t necessarily bad or unimportant, and it could potentially be one of many retraining opportunities. But coal miners are skilled workers who do much more than just hit rocks all day: Many of them are trained electricians, engineers and builders. There’s no reason they necessarily need to learn new skills when their skills are easily transferable to other industries.

The Green New Deal, popularized by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), puts forward a bold program for a just transition to a low carbon economy. Of course, this includes moving away from coal. This transition would include a federal jobs guarantee to both clean up the damage inflicted by extractive industries and to provide jobs for workers in those industries in lower carbon work. The training, expertise and experience that coal miners and other workers from these sectors have would be an invaluable contribution towards harnessing new sources of energy and repairing damage caused by climate change. Whatever skilled coal miners do next, they should have a say in it.

In These Times spoke with Terry Steele, a retired member of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) in West Virginia, about Joe Biden’s comments and the future of coal mining in the United States.

Mindy Isser: Can you share your work and union history?

Terry Steele: My name is Terry Steele. I have worked in the coal industry for 26 years. All that time was union: United Mine Workers. I’ve worked over 50,000 hours underground, and I belong to UMWA Local 1440 as a retired member.

Mindy: Can you describe the work you did in the mines? Feel free to be as detailed as possible.

Terry: I’ve done about everything there is to do in the mines—from running shuttle cars to roof bolting to running scoops. A lot of my mining career was on a move crew: We moved belts, we moved power, we also ran coal when the sections were down, we built stoppings. About anything there was to do in the mines, I have done it. I haven’t done any electrical or maintenance work or anything like that, but as far as running equipment and stuff I can run about anything in the mines.

Mindy: When did you become union?

Terry: I went in the mines on my 19th birthday: May 27th, 1971. I’m a fourth generation coal miner. My dad worked in the mines, my grandfather and my great grandfather all worked in the mines. At that time, if you wanted to make good money and have healthcare, that’s what you did in the area that we lived, you went into the mines.

Mindy: Why did you leave the mines?

Terry: I got laid off and had a hard time getting back on at a union mine. There were jobs in the non-union mines, but I didn’t want to do that, so I just went and started doing carpenter work and things like that. I also had to leave the area for awhile, and when I came back I took my pension at age 55, which the UMWA allowed me to do with 20 years of vested time in. I could take my pension and also get my healthcare. So I’ve done that.

Mindy: Why didn’t you want to go to a non-union mine?

Terry: Well, one reason I worked in union mines, besides the pay and healthcare and benefits, there’s another thing you can do in a union mine: You can speak your mind. And I always liked being able to do that, because when you’re underground between two rocks, there’s no one who’s going to take care of you but yourself. And in a union mine you can speak up with no fear of being retaliated against.

Mindy: Do you feel like you’re skilled as a mine worker, a skilled laborer?

Terry: I thought I was then. Some of the work that we’ve done—especially on the move crews—when you’re moving belts and power, people have been at it on these crews for years and they know every move to make. No boss has to tell them what to do, they already know what to do. Some of that work was very skilled. But the thing about it is working underground is a whole lot harder simply because you’re in close quarters, and things are not as simple underground as they are outside.

Mindy: I’m not sure if you’ve heard, but a couple of weeks ago, Joe Biden said, “Anybody who can go down 300 to 3,000 feet in a mine, sure in hell can learn to program as well, but we don’t think of it that way.” He was encouraging miners to learn to code as a transition away from mining. What do you think miners should be learning to do or transitioning towards with work? Do you think coding makes sense?

Terry: Just to be honest with you, I had to go look up what the hell coding was. I had no idea. Coding and programming is something I don’t have a clue about. And I don’t really know whether I could learn it or not. A lot of miners probably could. But the thing about this is, even if you could learn it, where in these areas are these jobs available at? Especially here in southern West Virginia and eastern Kentucky, where these miners have lived their whole lives and want to live the rest of their lives. And where are these jobs that pay money like these miners were making in the mines and that also have health care? And especially if you worked for a union mine, a pension.

Biden, in a way, makes me mad for the same reason Obama and a lot of the Democrats make me mad—and I’m a liberal. I’m a progressive Democrat. I just think this is another one of these stupid remarks that the Democratic party makes at times.

The Democratic Party has become a bunch of pussy-footers. We have become a person that takes blue collar work and labor for granted. And that’s why they lost the damn election, that’s why we have an idiot in the White House now. So I want to know where those coding jobs are at, and what they pay, and if they’re gonna last for years to come, and if a person could actually stay in an area and buy a home, and live where he wants to live with something like this.

Mindy: Everyone deserves to live where they want to live.

Terry: I think they do. My family all worked in the mines. My dad worked 45 years in the mine. He died with silicosis (lung disease) after he’d been on a respirator for two months at Cabell Huntington Hospital. I’ve seen what mining does to people. It kills people. We live in an area here where they wanted us to be miners, and in a way they forced us to be miners. This is not as simple as what Biden makes it out to be—“just go ahead and do this if you can’t do that.”

We’ve put up with this for years in our area where we live. For many years, West Virginia was as blue as a state could be. But we ended up being first in the things that were bad, and last in the things that were good. So, I can see why the people in this state are mad. But I think we jumped out of the frying pan and into the fire. Now we have an idiot in there that tells us what we like to hear, but he definitely don’t do what we know needs to be done.

Mindy: And what do you think needs to be done?

Terry: For one thing, coal is not going to be around forever. And I’ll tell everybody that, I’ll even tell my union officials that. I’m a union miner, I’m not a coal miner. We understand it good in our local because we’re all retired. Retired people look at things differently than what the active coal miner would. We’ve already put our time in. We’ve already worked all we’re gonna work. So we’re looking to get what was promised, and coal companies certainly haven’t lived up to their responsibilities. So it’s kind of passed over to the taxpayers, and then the taxpayers are saying, “Why should I take care of something like your pension or your healthcare or stuff like that?”

And I would tell them, simply, that we’re in this shape mostly because these coal companies filed bankruptcy under laws that allow corporations to pass the responsibilities to the taxpayers. So if you’re angry because the coal companies’ responsibilities were passed on to you and you voted for these sons of bitches, don’t quarrel at me, honey, you’re quarrelling at the wrong man. Because we put our time in, we’ve done what was required of us. We worked a dangerous occupation.

Mindy: Do you have any ideas of jobs miners could do that are similar to the jobs they’ve already been doing?

Terry: We’ve been in the energy industry. We have provided our electric, we’ve provided the coal to make steel from, we’ve provided the things that the country needed to have during the time of war. And here in the southern part of West Virginia and Eastern Kentucky and Southwestern Virginia, after they mined most of the coal underground, they started blowing the tops of the mountains off: mountain-top removal. And they blew them off under the pretense of creating jobs, when actually what it did was put underground miners out of work. It was a cheap way of making more money for coal corporations before they took their last shit on people and moved out of the area.

In our area right now, people think coal is coming back. I am under no impression at all that coal is ever going to be coming back. The county where I was raised in—Mingo—most of the coal there has already been mined. About all that’s left is coal that’s hard to get to and that they have to cut a lot of rock to even mine, which will cause more cases of Black Lung. And Black Lung is on the increase again, and that’s one reason why.

You asked me what could these areas do and what kind of jobs could these areas have. One thing I’ve always been hollering about is I’m sitting here—I’m in Nicholas County right now—we own a home in Nicholas County. We also own our home in Mingo County. The union allowed me to do that. Because of the union, because I’m union. My wife belongs to the union too, she was a school teacher. These jobs allow you to do things you couldn’t do.

But my whole point is, I’m looking right now as I’m talking to you, at dozens of wind turbines in Greenbrier County. And they’re building more. These things have to be built somewhere. Solar panels have to be built somewhere. Batteries and the technology that goes along with storing electricity has to be built somewhere. What other, better place to build them then these areas that have no jobs, that have sacrificed everything for this country already, than areas like this right here?

I know for wind turbines, there’s probably a lot of pipe fitting and welding and things along those lines, which miners are good at. As far as solar jobs, I don’t know what it entails exactly, but miners are smart enough to do those things if they’re trained. That’s the only thing I think that Biden was right on in that sense, that they’re smart enough to do some of these jobs with the right training. But to get people to get behind something like the Green New Deal, it’s difficult until you give them something to go on. Build one of these things and hire them, and you’d see them flood to your site. You’d see them flood to these jobs.

Mindy: If you could wave a magic wand in your area, what kind of jobs would you hope for? Would it be rebuilding coal towns, creating public gardens, cleaning coal ash? Anything you could think of in West Virginia and eastern Kentucky, what would you want those jobs to be?

Terry: From what I do know of the Green New Deal, the transition off of dirty fuels onto newer energy sources, like solar jobs and building wind turbines and battery and storage power. It should be in areas that have had the coal mining, areas that are in a depressed state right now. We’re the ones that need those jobs, and it could create thousands of new jobs. It could create a different type of mindset. And we could do them, our miners could do those jobs. Miners can weld, they can build stuff, they’re great with their hands, and they’re great with their minds, too. We could do these things, but right now we have a country that seems like they want to shoot these jobs off to some other place where they can get them done cheaper instead of bringing them back here. And I think the Democratic Party is guilty of these things.

The North American Free Trade Agreement was a total screwup on Bill Clinton. It’s like what they said, that Bill Clinton got things done for Republicans that they could have never get done for themselves. He is what has happened to the Democratic Party, people like Clinton, and Obama to a certain extent. And that’s why Hilary got beat. People were tired of hearing the same old same old bullshit as they kept on going downhill.

Mindy: Who do you like for president right now?

Terry: There’s two I really like. I’ve been a Bernie man, and I could vote for Elizabeth Warren. I do not like Joe Biden, and I do not like Pete Buttigeg, because I think he’s a middle-of-the-road guy too. And I have to tell people the only thing that happens to middle of the road people is like a dog that sits in the middle of the road—most of the time they get run over. And that’s how I feel about Biden and several of the others too, including the senator from Minnesota, Amy Klobuchar.

Mindy: I’m curious about your thoughts, and maybe some of the other retirees’ thoughts, around climate change. Does everyone believe in climate change? Are people resistant to it because they want coal jobs to come back?

Terry: I know that man is affecting climate, I know that. I think several of our members in our local know that, especially ones that are in positions of control know that. We have a very progressive local, and I do think we’ve had pretty good leadership higher up in the union. I think they’ve done a good job, especially on our healthcare and our pensions. But you know, they’re in a tough boat to tow right now, because they’re the leader of a dying industry. So when you’re the leader of a dying industry, you have to find other ways to grow union membership. And the union is not just coal miners, we have other workers who are members. And I think we need to be more worried about finding union people than we should be about finding coal people.

I’m an oddball: I’m a coal miner who’s an environmentalist. But I can see the mistakes in both the coal industry and in the environmental industry. Every time you take somebody’s job, there’s a face behind that, there’s a family behind that. There’s somebody that’s looking to have something for Christmas that don’t have shit, after you take their job and you don’t give them no hope for a future or anything.

That’s what some of the environmental people have done to this area, even though they were right—mountaintop removal should have been stopped. But they could have come in here and brought 500 good green jobs by building a solar plant, or something that people could have worked at. And instead of creating 500 miners or workers who are screaming at you, you could have created 500 environmentalists. Because they just need work. They don’t care if it’s coal mining. I’ve never met a miner who wanted his son or his daughter to go into the coal industry, to go underground between two rocks, because of how dangerous it is. But we kept electing people who decided that’s the only thing we could do.

Mindy: I know you said you’re an oddball because you’re an environmentalist coal miner, and I am wondering what you think UMWA and other miners think about the Green New Deal and climate change? Do they believe it’s real?

Terry: It’s hard to get somebody to believe in something if your job depends on not believing in it. So, we have that group. But we have other people, especially in locals like ours, that actually do believe that we’re going to have to do something else to make a living in our area if we’re going to live here and our children are going to live here. We’re going to have to get our people to look at the facts. And train our people, and train our union people to be smarter than these idiots that are friends of coal people. And I think we can do that, I think we have good leadership in the UMWA. I think getting 100,000 miners pensions and healthcare secured is a pretty big hurdle.

The one thing I think that would probably help to unionize this whole country is if we would take the healthcare issue off of the table to start with, and just give everybody government healthcare like they should have. You know, when you start bargaining, that’s the first thing now that comes up. So take that off the table and we’ll bargain for what we need to be bargaining for: wages and pensions and days off and safety and things.

Mindy: What do you think the union could do to lead on climate change? It feels like we’re trying to hold on to these industries that are dying, and like we are banging on this door that’s closed. What do you think union leadership could do to embrace the Green New Deal, and accept the fact that climate change is real and move forward from there?

Terry: As far as transitioning to something else, they need to be looking at other industries. Take Walmart for one thing. If Walmart was unionized, it would be the biggest union in the world. That probably won’t happen because people don’t believe that it could happen.

We keep telling people about how good the economy is and everything, but yet, if you look at it—I read something today that about 40% of people, if they miss their next payday, they couldn’t pay their bills. And the primary reason for that is low wages, no healthcare, and no pension system. Something that unions brought us.

Mindy: How do you think the labor movement and the climate movement can link their struggles together more? Like with mountaintop removal—the environmentalists were right, but it didn’t mean that union members were on board or on their side. So what do you think can be done to get those two sides united for good green jobs?

Terry: People who are really pushing the green jobs need to push for are for jobs to go into these areas that are struggling right now, and to let them be union. I know that would break some of their hearts—to come in here and give something in these areas and let them be union. But you’ll see what that does about switching some of the coal miners’ mindsets in these areas.

We need to go into these areas where the fight needs to take place and build these plants. Build them in these areas that have supplied the energy and the needs for this country for the last hundred years, and build them in these areas where people have suffered—both environmentally and physically, in the sense that the land has suffered and also the people have suffered. I think if you do that, and have them to be union, then you’ll get the union in on it. Because the UMWA is, I believe, a union that will be open to any industry that wants to become a member of the UMWA. It’s like I said, are we coal miners or are we union miners? I’m a union miner.

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

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

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

Monday, January 13th, 2020

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.

Labor 101 for Undergraduate Workers Seeking To Unionize

Thursday, January 9th, 2020

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.

Bosses Are Charged with Breaking the Law in Over 40% of Union Campaigns

Friday, December 13th, 2019

Labor unions are more popular than they’ve been in over 15 years. Yet a record-low number of workers belong to them. The gap between the public perception of unions and their actual membership illustrates just how difficult it’s become for workers to organize.

In a new report, the progressive think tank Economic Policy Institute (EPI) found evidence that employers are increasingly brazen in seeking to obstruct workers’ attempts to unionize. Records of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), which oversees private-sector labor rights and union elections, reveal that in more than 40% of the 3,260 union elections during 2016 and 2017, employers have been charged with unfair labor practices aimed at undermining electoral procedures and retaliating against pro-union workers.

About 30% of unfair labor practice (ULP) charges analyzed by EPI involved allegations of threats, surveillance or harassment of workers. Another 30% involved allegations of illegal discipline, with one in five elections marred by the charges of illegally firing workers for supporting the union. Workforce size is a factor: the highest rate of ULP claims—more than 50%—was seen among firms with potential bargaining units of 61 workers or more. The anti-union actions occurred at a higher rate during the two-year period than during the early 2000s.

This pattern of union busting could help explain why private-sector unionization has dwindled to just 6.4% in 2018. Ben Zipperer, co-author of the report, told In These Times that the study suggests “the hostile atmosphere towards labor, or basically the employer aggression against workers trying to form unions, is the main obstacle.”

In one case of election-related ULP claims, workers at Trump International Hotel Las Vegas, who sought to unionize with UNITE HERE in 2016, just ahead of Trump’s election, charged their employer with a number of retaliatory actions, including tightening supervision or increasing the workload of some employees, and “disparately enforc[ing] its new Grooming Policy” to coerce targeted workers into changing their hair color.

Although EPI does not cover the outcome of the cases (charges are often dropped and litigation might drag on for years), the prevalence of ULP charges is telling. It’s likely that the employees who file a formal legal charge represent only the fraction of workers who have the resources and wherewithal to wage a legal battle with their employer. After all, the most successful union-busting campaigns may be the ones that never come to light because the workers have been thoroughly suppressed—or ousted.

“Employers pursue a variety of tactics that would otherwise be illegal or unfair, that never make it to the charging stage,” says Zipperer, “because it’s a very difficult and lengthy process with little reward for the worker at the end.”

Filing an unfair labor practice charge is the basic tool that workers have to hold employers to account under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). To protect workers’ right to organize and maintain the integrity of union elections, under the law, employers cannot threaten to shut down a plant, or fire workers or take away their benefits if they seek to unionize. Bosses are barred from coercively interrogating workers about their union activities, or attempting to spy on them. The NLRA also broadly prohibits employers from discriminating against workers who support unionization—for example, by demoting or laying off workers who promote unionization to their coworkers.

While the NLRB should act as the central arbiter of labor relation, the agency has little leverage over employers that engage in union-busting. Typically, even if a company is proven to have acted illegally, the NLRB cannot force it to pay damages, beyond back wages and reinstatement. On top of those structural barriers, the current Republican majority on the NLRB ensures that whatever cases do go before the Board, there is a good chance they will result in an anti-worker ruling.

The overarching weakness of the NLRA is what it does not cover. Employers are free to deploy various anti-union tactics on their worksites, including broadcasting arguments against unionization and launching smear campaigns against the “third party” union organizers who threaten to undermine the workers’ relationship with their boss.

The market for anti-union tactics has given rise to a cottage industry of union-busting firms. Overall, EPI estimates that companies pour an estimated $340 million every year into “union-avoidance” consultants. Among the top spenders are Nestle, Fedex, Mission Foods and Trump International Hotel Las Vegas. The anti-union consultancies specialize in flooding workplaces with propaganda as well as orchestrating so-called “captive-audience” meetings, in which companies pressure workers to attend anti-union lectures.

Allegations of intimidation, retaliation and disinformation are at the center of recent clashes at GoogleHousing Works and Johns Hopkins University Hospital—a purportedly progressive tech giant and two nonprofits—where workers have accused their employers of using dirty campaign tactics to crush union drives.

The current unionization drive by Hearst employees has prompted the company’s executives to set up a microsite featuring pointedly biased explanations of the consequences of unionizing, according to Vice. Workers were warned, “All terms of pay, benefits, and working conditions would be up for discussion. No one can guarantee in advance what that contract would include.”

Last April, Labor Notes reported that at a captive-audience meeting at a Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee, workers were bombarded with pro-business messaging from Gov. Bill Lee, who sang the praises of Volkswagen for bringing jobs to the state and telling workers it was best to “have a direct relationship” with the automaker, free of union interference.

While some aggressive anti-union practices are perfectly legal, EPI notes that the NLRA’s protections for workers’ organizing rights can be strengthened simply by giving the law real teeth. The recently introduced Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act would create civil penalties for abusive employers, ban captive-audience meetings and allow workers to press unfair labor practice claims in civil courts, rather than just the NLRB.

“One of the simplest things that we can do,” Zipperer said, “is we can actually make labor law matter by attaching meaningful and significant penalties to employers when they violate that law.”

Under the current legal framework governing union elections, the fact that unions remain so popular in public opinion surveys shows that despite the hostile political climate, workers still believe in the power of collective action. Imagine what might be achieved if labor law stopped getting in the way.

This article was originally published at In These Times on December 12, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Michelle Chen is a contributing writer at In These Times and The Nation, a contributing editor at Dissent and a co-producer of the “Belabored” podcast. She studies history at the CUNY Graduate Center. She tweets at @meeshellchen.

In Wisconsin, the Teamsters Faced a Revolt from Below

Tuesday, December 3rd, 2019

Every day, Nikki Sampson drives from her home in Portage to Madison, where she works as a dispatcher for the city’s bus service. To get there, she drives along a 40-mile stretch of highway, which crosses the Wisconsin River twice and then slices south through farms and municipalities. That road lies at the heart of the region represented by Sampson’s 4,256-strong union—Teamsters Local 695.

Sampson has worked for Metro transit for over 20 years, and says that as a younger employee there, she counted on the union to fight for workers in contract negotiations and file grievances on their behalf when things went wrong. But over the last two decades, Sampson says, the union has developed a reputation as weaker, and unable—even unwilling—to push back against managerial wrongdoing.

“We on the floor are our own union representation. We assist each other with filing a grievance,” says Sampson. “We go to fellow coworkers and we get together and we look over our union contract.” Sampson says that she has regularly looked into grievances on behalf of her coworkers—rather than stewards, the workers who represent the union on the shop floor.

So Sampson and her colleagues ran a campaign to elect a new slate of officials to head the Teamsters local. The slate, which called itself Rebuild 695 and was comprised mostly of Madison Metro Transit employees, came 96 votes short of unseating the incumbent leadership of the local on Friday, October 25.

Given that the slate had only a 100-day notice for the election, it is notable that it came this close to winning.

The reform push in the Wisconsin local has grown out of a broader push to reform Teamsters by electing members to leadership locally and nationally. In the last two years, Teamsters members in Washington D.C.,Texas and, most recently, North Carolina, have successfully installed reformers in office at their locals.

The recent reform campaign by members of Teamsters Local 71 in North Carolina yielded an overwhelming win for the reform slate, with 757 votes cast for reform candidates and 286 for the incumbent. Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU), a coalition of Teamsters members that has fought corruption in the union and won members the right to elect the union’s leadership, hailed the North Carolina reform effort a “grassroots victory” and wrote in a blog post about the election that leadership had “paid the price for being out-of-touch with the rank-and-file.”

Formed in 1976, TDU has pushed for more equitable pay structures within the union and backed reform campaigns nationally. In 2016, TDU-backed Fred Zuckerman nearly unseated Teamsters president James P. Hoffa, who has held office since 1999 and has faced corruption investigations.

For reform-minded union activists like those at Madison’s Metro Transit, TDU offers guidance for running a local campaign. According to Jake Puls, who ran for president of the Rebuild 695 slate, the reformers consulted TDU materials in preparation for its campaign.

The Local 695 reform candidates pointed to declining membership and increasing salaries for leadership of the local as evidence of a disconnect between workers and their representatives: Membership fell by about 40% between 2000 and 2018, and the top three union officials earned approximately $130,000 as of last year. The reform campaign attributes member attrition to disenchantment with the union, while current leadership at 695 argues that the closure of businesses explains most of the decline in membership since 2000. The union has lost 223 members to decertification, which accounts for about 16% of membership loss since 2011.

Local 695 officials defend their salaries, arguing that officer salaries are on par with other union leaders in the country and that “it is a good paying job, but so are other jobs that require years of experience and no time off.”

Members also identified aspects of the local’s current bylaws as undemocratic. The bylaws include, for example,  a rule that stewards “shall be selected and removed in such a manner as the local union executive board or the principal executive officer may direct.” This wording indicates that whether stewards are elected or appointed is up to the executive board, which can override the results of an election with its own appointee.

Sampson, who has spoken about racism in her workplace since as early as 2014, says that she has found little support from stewards at her local in challenging discriminatory hiring and disciplinary practices by management. And when she ran for the position of steward, Sampson says she was met with resistance from the union.

“I was voted in as a union steward, and they did not like that at all,” said Sampson. Two weeks after she took the position, Sampson says, she was removed and replaced by a steward that the union appointed.

The Rebuild platform promised to adjust salaries for union leadership and campaigned on a platform to expand communication between union officials and membership by “[building] a website for our local, send[ing] emails & text messages and start[ing] newsletters so that Teamster members know what is happening in the local and know how to get involved.”

Instead of union leadership reserving the right to appoint shop stewards, the Rebuild slate said that it would work with members to institute regular elections for the steward position, arguing that elections will “make sure union stewards are doing what the members want.”

Sampson said that she hoped the Rebuild candidates would push hard against contract violations by management. “[Management] understands that we have such a weak union at this point,” says Sampson. In 2014, Sampson and three other Metro Transit workers went to local press to protest what they identified as racist hiring and promotional practices, which were prohibited by the union contract. Sampson is emphatic that the union did not help and has not been friendly to her and her coworkers’ complaints of racial discrimination.

“I want to go back to the union that I was introduced to 24 years ago. A strong, solid, united front,” said Sampson. “A union that represents you and understands what a union is about, to fight for the rights of the file and the represented, not the management.” Once, she said, while driving to work, she was greeted by honks of approval—a fellow Teamster, seeing the Rebuild 695 stickers on her car, rolled town the window to cheer her along.

Puls said that the campaign was predicated on the goal of establishing direct channels of communication between members and the local, and avenues for members to fight for better work conditions.

“The more you get people to feel like they matter and that they have a voice, the more they stick together and the stronger the union becomes,” says Puls.

The Rebuild slate and its supporters also say that union members at shops around the state perceive stewards as reluctant to file grievances and slow to meet with workers to talk about issues at work.

“We always went to our stewards. And our stewards would just blow it off. You have no idea how many times we were told by stewards, ‘Oh no, you shouldn’t file a grievance, oh no, you can’t file a grievance,’” says Sampson. She says that  while campaigning, the reform slate met with members at other shops complained that stewards were “best friends with management” and unwilling to help file a grievance.

Representatives of local 695 responded to the allegation that members around the state did not have knowledge of union operations and personnel such as business agents (who are the primary point of contact between shops and the local headquarters), calling the claim “just silly.” Union leaders also dismissed claims that they had not maintained communication with members in a campaign blog post: “Members can attend our General Meetings that are held on the third Tuesday of every month…Be active in the Union, run for steward!”

Still, Soncerethia (Sonci) Stone, who currently works as a bus driver for Metro Transit and ran for vice president of 695, emphasized the need for transparency between the leadership and its members during contract negotiations in her local.

“The city of Madison is getting a whole lot off our backs. And nothing is returned. In some cases our work conditions are absolutely horrible, and they look at us like, ‘Oh yeah, be glad you got a job,’” says Stone, citing 16-hour work days and long periods without a bathroom break.

“Our plan going forward first off is to be totally transparent about what’s going on, about what management is trying to do, what we can try to fix and how we can fix it, whether or not management is working with us or against us,” Stone continues. “The employees need to know every detail of what’s going on, especially as far as contract negotiation goes.”

Workers at Madison’s Metro Transit account for approximately 11% of the labor force in Teamsters 695, which represents union members in transportation, construction and other occupations across Southwest Wisconsin. To reach workers across the Wisconsin local, candidates on the Rebuild 695 slate traveled across the state, waiting near shops to intercept workers before and after shifts.

Candidates campaigning for the Rebuild slate were joined by fellow union members at Metro transit in Madiso— some of whom say that they put in up to 20 hours a week off-the-clock on the campaign.

Cody Hanna, a mechanic at Metro transit, says that his familiarity with president-hopeful Puls, plus a sense of disillusionment with current union leadership, pushed him to not only support but actively campaign on behalf of the Rebuild team. Hanna says that he traveled to Janesville—about an hour drive from Madison—to speak with Teamsters members at shops there.

“You get a lot of people who are saying our contracts are so weak and our negotiation teams just kinda go with it and they don’t fight it,” Hanna says.

The election on October 25 was the first challenge the current leadership of local 695 has faced since 1998. Most top officials at the local have served for over 15  years; the incumbent officials—calling themselves the Wayne Schultz slate, in a nod to the current secretary treasurer—have run a campaign whose focal point was the relative experience of each set of candidates.

A flyer circulated by the incumbent campaign states, “It takes years of knowledge and training to keep the local running smoothly, and we know they don’t have it.”

Puls says the reform push in Wisconsin is far from over: “We have three years to plan for the next time … We’re not done, we’re not giving up. And they know we’re paying attention as members. hopefully we’ve woken them up.”

This article was originally published at InTheseTimes on December 3, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Alice Herman is a writer based in Madison, Wisconsin, where she works at a restaurant. She contributes regularly to Isthmus, Madison’s alt-weekly, and The Progressive magazine.

Trade Unions Demand Governments Address Gender-based Violence in the World of Work

Monday, December 2nd, 2019

Image result for cassandra waters afl cio

This week marked the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, and trade unions around the world are demanding governments ratify and implement International Labor Organization Convention 190 (C190), on ending violence and harassment in the world of work.

Read the statement from the International Trade Union Confederation in EnglishSpanish or French.

C190 was adopted last June at the International Labor Organization. The AFL-CIO and trade unions around the world campaigned for more than a decade to win this important new global standard, and now are leading the fight to see its framework adopted by governments and employers.

Gender-based violence and harassment is a particular threat to women, LGBTQ workers and other marginalized groups. Homicide is one of the leading causes of death on the job among women in the United States, accounting for almost a quarter of workplace deaths among women, while it accounts for only 8% of workplace deaths among men. It is also a particular threat to workers in low-wage, precarious working arrangements, as poverty and marginalization can prevent workers from escaping or challenging dangerous conditions.

The C190 framework emphasizes that everyone has the fundamental right to be free from violence and harassment at work, and requires governments adopt an inclusive, integrated and gender-responsive approach to end it. C190 requires governments and employers address the root causes of gender-based violence at work, including discrimination and unequal power relationships. Violence is a tool that both reflects and reinforces a gendered power hierarchy at work and in society, and ending violence requires allowing women workers to take collective action to confront this hierarchy directly.

C190 also calls for investigating sectors and occupations that are more likely to experience violence and harassment. In the United States, the U.S. House of Representatives recently passed legislation to adopt specific violence protections for nurses, medical assistants, emergency responders and social workers. These workers are predominantly women, and they face extremely high rates of violence on the job. The law would require employers to develop an enforceable, comprehensive violence protection program in U.S. workplaces.

This article was originally published at Aflcio on November 27, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author:  Cassandra Waters is the global worker rights specialist at the AFL-CIO.

 

 

 

Trump’s SEC Chairman Proposes to Disenfranchise Investors and Reduce Shareholder Democracy

Friday, November 8th, 2019

Image result for Brandon Rees"In a partisan 3-2 vote, the Trump administration’s Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) proposed to curtail the rights of investors to file proposals for a vote at company annual meetings. If adopted, these changes will hinder shareholder proposals by union members and their pension plans to hold corporate management accountable.

“We strongly oppose the SEC’s shareholder proposal rule changes that will limit the ability of working people and their pension plans to have a voice in the companies that we invest in,” said AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka (UMWA). The proposed changes include dramatic increases in stock ownership requirements and vote resubmission requirements.

Corporate CEOs of the Business Roundtable and the Chamber of Commerce have long wished for these changes to the shareholder proposal rule. In a 2017 letter to the SEC, the AFL-CIO showed how these proposed rule changes will undermine efforts to increase corporate responsibility for environmental, social and governance issues.

“The right to petition corporate management by filing shareholder proposals is an integral part of shareholder democracy in the United States,” Trumka explained. “The SEC should protect the rights of working people as the real main street investors, not the interests of overpaid and unaccountable corporate CEOs.”

For more information about the efforts of SEC Chairman Jay Clayton, nominated by President Trump, to disenfranchise investors and reduce shareholder democracy by curtailing the shareholder proposal rule, please visit the Investor Rights Forum.

This article was originally published at AFL-CIO on November 5, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Brandon Rees is the Deputy Director of Corporations and Capital Markets for the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO). The AFL-CIO is a federation of 55 national and international labor unions that represent 12.5 million working men and women.

Labor Needs To Embrace Social Justice Unionism

Thursday, November 7th, 2019

Proponents of the “rank-and-file strategy” (RFS) emphasize the need to lay the foundations of a revitalized labor movement through rank-and-file workers—as opposed to union staff or leadership. As Laura Gabby notes, this idea has a long history: In the 1970s, for instance, thousands of leftists (myself included) of both working-class origin and otherwise entered the workforce to build a real working-class Left and rebuild organized labor.

Though this rank-and-file emphasis is more of an orientation than a full strategy, it is good in that it encourages people on the Left to engage as rank and filers—to enter into the working class as coworkers rather than staff. The idea is not, as Andrew Dobbyn argues, elitist; instead, it suggests fellow workers have something to teach, rather than simply being vessels for knowledge from leftists.

But the current discussion has certain important blind spots. First, the mostly white socialists discussing the RFS often fail to recognize that leftist formations composed mostly or entirely of people of color have historically been instrumental in developing and leading efforts to retool the labor movement. The direction and character of these formations has frequently differed from that of white-led formations.

Peter Shapiro presents one example in his Jacobin article, “On the Clock and Off,” drawing on his work with the League of Revolutionary Struggle. He writes about the Mexican immigrant women who emerged as rank-and-file leaders in the 1985–87 frozen food strike in Watsonville, Calif. They were not part of their union’s progressive reform caucus, the Teamsters for a Democratic Union, nor would they have been considered part of any conventional “militant minority”—which is why, Shapiro writes, “some strike supporters on the Left viewed them skeptically.” But these women established their own informal infrastructure, bound together through the solidarity of not just working together but the shared experience of racial and gender oppression, and propelled the strike to victory.

More broadly, proponents of the rank-and-file strategy must look beyond the clear, identifiable base of organic leaders and leftists and assess the forces within any workplace, including conservatives and pragmatists. As Fernando Gapasin and I write in our book, Solidarity Divided, to defeat the conservative elements, the Left must pull the center along. Advocates of a “militant minority” can be skeptical of such alliances, but this is a mistake.

William Z. Foster, a brilliant trade unionist who led the Communist Party USA, advocated a militant minority strategy but later adjusted his approach to pursue a “Left-Center Alliance,” recognizing that, even in the militant 1930s, the Left was not sufficiently powerful to act alone. Workers will not necessarily agree with the total program of a leftist, so it is unlikely that leftists will be organizing workers around an exclusively left-wing program. To the extent to which we ignore the center we cede territory to conservative forces that will build their own alliances to crush the Left.

Leftists in the labor movement must also look beyond the narrow objectives of trade unionism as we know it, centered on making gains within the workplace. In fact, the Left needs an alternative framework, a “social justice unionism,” with objectives focused on the larger working class—which includes, for instance, what Stephen Lerner and others refer to as “bargaining for the common good.” Here, the union takes issues of the larger community to the bargaining table. Unions, too, might provide active support to or establish shared agendas with other worker or progressive community organizations.

Lastly, rebuilding the labor movement requires recognition that labor, as Andrew points out, is not only trade unions. The rise of so-called alt-labor, such as worker centers and domestic worker organizations, is part of this rebuilding. Leftists play a major role in this sector, which is disproportionately workers of color. Unions can and should provide direct material assistance to this organizing; the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions, for instance, has worked to ally with informal economy workers.

A Left without a working class base is not a Left, but a collection of advocates for change. Our mission is to rebuild that base, transforming the Left and the labor movement together.

For alternate perspectives on the rank-and-file strategy, see Want To Build the Labor Movement? Get a Job at a Union Workplace.”and “90% of Workers Aren’t in a Union. Labor’s Future Depends on Them.”

This article was originally published at Daily Kos on November 6, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Bill Fletcher, Jr. is a talk show host, writer, activist, and trade unionist. He is the executive editor of The Global African Worker, a co-author (with Fernando Gapasin) of Solitary Divided, and the author of “They’re Bankrupting Us”–Twenty Other Myths about Unions. You can follow him on Twitter, Facebook and at http://www.billfletcherjr.com.

90% of Workers Aren’t in a Union. Labor’s Future Depends on Them.

Thursday, November 7th, 2019

My comrade Laura Gabby says that “supermajorities are necessary to raise class consciousness, fight capital, strike and win,” and I agree. But we diverge on how to get there.

She and other rank-and-file strategy (RFS) supporters suggest realigning internal union politics from the inside out through a “militant minority.” As Kim Moody argues in his seminal pamphlet about RFS, unions have to “take a central role … by virtue of their size and their place at the heart of capitalist accumulation.”But, in practice, attempts at union realignment through RFS have mixed results, while most workers remain without a union. What’s needed, instead, is a broad “yes, and” approach with an emphasis on new organizing.

Many unionists were first exposed to RFS in August through a series of unfortunate articles in Politico and the New York Times, detailing activities from the Labor Branch of New York City’s chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America. (Laura is a member.) These DSAers called for socialists to get union jobs in specific “strategic industries” to form a “militant minority” and change unions internally. This strategy was reiterated in the national RFS DSA resolution and in a pamphlet, put out by Young Democratic Socialists of America and Democratic Socialist Labor Commission, titled, “Why Socialists Should Become Teachers.”

While the news articles unfairly portray RFS as a devious plot, they highlight real failures in political strategy. NYC-DSA is, anecdotally, disproportionately white; the optics aren’t good for them to take over unions with membership that is mostly people of color.

Organic worker-leaders built our movement; if socialists want to lead, they must become organic leaders, not tack themselves on like some gaudy ideological accessory. Laura says organic leaders and socialists must work together, but the problem remains: The union realignment strategy treats union members as constituencies to be managed, rather than organic partners.

The strategy also leads to a militant minority divorced from the larger union, leaving the efforts of RFS reform caucuses decidedly mixed. While the rank-and-file caucus in the Chicago Teachers Union has seen success, New York’s Movement of Rank and File Educators (MORE) has seen less. MORE is a favorite of NYC-DSA Labor Branch members, yet its vote share in the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) presidential election dropped from roughly 10,000 in 2016 to less than 2,500 in 2019, and the incumbent UFT Unity Caucus captured all 102 seats on the executive board.

If leftists want to transform the labor movement, there’s a much easier route: Unionize the unorganized. Surveys show that at least 48% of workers would like a union, but 90% do not have one. Unions enjoy high levels of public support, and millennials are joining in disproportionately large numbers.There is no better time for the Left to organize new unions or add new bargaining units. Leftists should focus on developing organizing committees before a union steps in, ensuring unions will actually commit resources to finish the job and that the workers joining do so on their own terms.

A partnership between the progressive International Longshore and Warehouse Workers (ILWU) and DSA San Francisco shows how this organizing can be done. DSA members spent months with Anchor Brewing workers developing the organizing committee, researching unions and writing the campaign plan, and only then reached out to the ILWU, chosen because of its democratic practices and militant politics. Together, they won.

As Moody himself admits, the conservative craft unionism of the Teamsters, for example, only changed because leftists organized huge swathes of new workers. These leftists weren’t outsiders, but organized their neighbors and coworkers. As the Anchor group put it, “We can’t be outsiders helping the labor movement; we have to be organic partners.”

The nature of new organizing reveals why this works: Because workers must take huge risks to form unions, newly organized unionists are likely to be active, politically astute and militant. The bonds forged in this struggle, between leftists and their coworkers, build the relationships necessary to transform the labor movement.

If we want to change the labor movement, our goal shouldn’t be internal realignment, but new unions for the 90%.

For alternate perspectives on the rank-and-file strategy, see “Want To Build the Labor Movement? Get a Job at a Union Workplace.” and “Labor Needs To Embrace Social Justice Unionism.”

This article was originally published at Daily Kos on November 6, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Andrew Dobbyn is a rank-and-file elected leader in CWA Local 1104 and former co-chair of Suffolk County DSA.
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