The foreign policy of organized labor in the context of globalization Book Chapter

Cox, RW, Bass, GN. (2012). The foreign policy of organized labor in the context of globalization . 56-78. 10.4324/9780203121610-9

cited authors

  • Cox, RW; Bass, GN



  • Introduction As part of the corporate political mobilization of the 1970s, business organizations such as the Business Roundtable devoted considerable resources to weakening organized labor in the US. The Roundtable embarked on an anti-labor initiative as part of its campaign to reduce the costs of wages and thereby roll back the wage gains made by workers during the highly combative strike wave of 1967 and 1974. Specifically, the Roundtable was committed in its earliest years to three policy goals designed to limit, weaken, and control the power of trade unions. The first was the repeal of the Davis-Bacon Act of 1931 mandating that workers be paid a prevailing wage for work on public projects; the second was the reform of the Wagner Act of 1935 to strengthen antistrike provisions; and the third was the coordination between corporate members of the Roundtable to devise “legal contrivances” to allow for “double-breasting, " a “formerly illegal arrangement in which a firm establishes a parallel nonunion operation to avoid paying workers union wages and benefits” (Horn and Schaffner 2003: 64). The latter effort involved considerable cooperation between the Roundtable and the Nixon Administration in an effort to shield corporate members of the Roundtable from antitrust law. By the mid-1970s, the labor movement faced a crisis that threatened to derail the gains of the New Deal Era. As emphasized in this volume, the structural transformation of global capitalism played a crucial role in explaining the shifts in capital-labor relations in the US that began during the 1970s. Corporations represented by the Business Roundtable sought to lower labor costs in the US as part of a process of the transnationalization of production. This entailed greater reliance on foreign direct investment, outsourcing to non-union production networks, and linkages with foreign supply and distribution networks. As documented in previous chapters, the shifts toward transnational production strategies involved cooperation between corporate political organizations and the US state to provide greater opportunities for capital accumulation in foreign markets. These processes weakened the position of US labor unions to demand wages and benefit gains commensurate with those achieved during the 1960s and early 1970s. At the same time, the weakness of US labor was not just structurally determined by the transformation of global capitalism, but also a legacy of its own history of privileging “business unionism” as the primary strategy for securing gains in wages and benefits during the early decades of the Cold War. The outlines of business unionism as a political strategy involved four prominent features. First, there was broad acceptance of the existing politico-economic order as a framework for bargaining over wages and working conditions. Second, there was a willingness on the part of organized labor to give up any efforts to control management and production decisions in exchange for bargaining rights over wages and working conditions. Third, there has been a top-down structure of union organization that leaves most decision-making in the hands of a hierarchy of national and local officials, who then engage in collective bargaining and grievance handling for their members in exchange for union dues (Dreiling and Robinson 1998: 167). As Dreiling and Robinson have observed, “union leaders who practice this kind of unionism are no more concerned with internal democracy than business managers, whatever the constitutional formalities” (ibid.: 167). And, most relevant for this chapter, the fourth feature of business unionism has been collaboration between the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), US state, and transnational corporations in the area of foreign policy. Here we will focus on the foreign policy aspects of “business unionism, " which will include a historical overview of labor-state-business cooperation during the Cold War and post-Cold War periods. This will be followed by a more detailed analysis of the International Solidarity Center, a foreign policy arm of the AFL-CIO that was established in 1997 with the stated goal of promoting global solidarity among unions in response to this latest phase of transnational production. AFL-CIO leaders have argued that the policies of the Solidarity Center represent a break with Cold War policies in which labor followed the lead of the US state and corporate interests. Supporters of the Center have pointed to the replacement of Cold Warriors that had dominated previous AFL-CIO policies with a new group of labor reformers committed to organizing solidarity campaigns with unions in the developing world (Rodberg 2001). Others have pointed to the involvement of the Solidarity Center in global campaigns targeting corporations who have systematically violated worker rights with boycotts and worker solidarity campaigns. At their most sophisticated, these new campaigns involve direct cooperation between the AFL-CIO, foreign union organizations, human rights groups, and anti-sweatshop organizers to pressure corporations to implement labor agreements that recognize the rights of labor to organize for better pay and working conditions. These global organizing efforts have involved pressuring transnational corporations at various pressure points along the global supply chain, where retail corporations that purchase products produced using “sweatshop labor” are targeted with boycott efforts by a variety of pro-labor organizations in the US and abroad (Quan 2008). With the creation of the Solidarity Center in 1997, the key questions are: have the foreign policies of the AFL-CIO shifted during the recent phase of globalization? Or are the policies of the AFL-CIO consistent with past Cold War policies? Has the “war on terror” served to replicate the “war on communism” in the foreign policies adopted by the AFL-CIO? The role of labor in US foreign policy post-New Deal reveals a central pattern of tight collaboration between corporations, the US state, and organized labor. As described in several works, including Beth Sims Workers of the World Undermined: American Labor’s Role in U.S. Foreign Policy, the foreign policy arms of organized labor (specifically the AFL-CIO) worked in tandem not only with the US state but also conservative business groups to implement probusiness, pro-US, and pro-status quo oriented policies in the developing and developed world alike. This was done through a variety of labor-supported international arms and institutes such as the Free Trade Union Institute, the American Institute for Free Labor Development, and especially through the AFL-CIO’s own foreign policy arm: the International Affairs Department. Largely termed “corporatist” unionism, this sort of relationship has a nationalistic character; with the key role of labor to maintain wage gains at home while supporting a pro-business foreign policy that involved collaboration with conservative trade unions and centrist-to-conservative political parties. During the Cold War, this relationship between capital and labor pivoted around the politics of anti-communism, and was heavily dependent on the ability of organized labor to exchange wage gains at home for a willingness to join business interests in removing the left from positions of political influence both at home and abroad. In this way, organized labor’s role is merely “business unionism” on a larger (international) stage. With this type of capita-labor-state relations, unions (through their executive committees and leadership) worked on maintaining standards for domestic organized labor and pushed for labor in the rest of the world to fall in line with a pro-business framework that was by default also defined by the US state and US business organizations as “pro-American.” This resulted in the discouragement and downright opposition of US labor to any sort of independent left unionism which called into question the central tenets of capitalism (from the New Deal through the late 1960s) and later neoliberal capitalism (from the early 1970s to the present). The rhetoric of the AFL-CIO leadership would suggest that the foreign policies of the organization have in fact shifted in response to the new circumstances of globalization. In 1997, after decades of internal turmoil amongst rank-and-file members about the policies of the AFL-CIO’s four regional foreign policy arms, newly elected President John Sweeney consolidated all four institutes into the International Center for Labor Solidarity. Many rank-and-file union members, activists, and scholars who had been critical of the relationships between the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), the US Agency for International Development (USAID), and the AFL-CIO foreign institutes during the Cold War welcomed the consolidation as a new chapter in cross-border solidarity. The consequences of neoliberal globalization and growing corporate power (many of which have been discussed in this volume) were too daunting for the rigid, nationalistic, and business unionism oriented policies of the past according to critics of the AFL-CIO’s foreign institutes. The creation of the Solidarity Center offered hope that AFL-CIO foreign policy strategy would shift away from collaboration with the US state and corporate interests toward a new strategy of promoting union organizing abroad. However, the Solidarity Center, like the four labor institutes that preceded it, remains tied to government funding for 90 percent of its budget (Kelber 2005). Specifically, the Center continues to get its money from the National Endowment for Democracy and the State Department, especially the Agency for International Development, which has been an important source of funding during the most recent period after 9/11 associated with the US global “war on terror.” This pattern of funding has skewed the activities of the Solidarity Center toward locations where the US government is actively promoting a “democratization, " development, and security agenda that privileges neoliberal reform and cooperation with conservative trade unions and civil society groups supportive of US foreign policy goals. As a result, in these contexts, the AFL-CIO continues to work with its traditional partners in US foreign policy in Latin America, Eastern Europe, Asia, and the Middle East, where the Solidarity Center often relies on political relationships established during the Cold War period to advance its current agenda. That agenda mirrors the tenets and practices of business unionism at home in that the Solidarity Center operates within a foreign policy context that is often structured by patterns of US political and military intervention. In Haiti, where the AFL-CIO had long participated in legitimizing the Duvalier dictatorship during the Cold War by working with pro-Duvalier unions, the Solidarity Center has worked with anti-Aristide unions in helping the United States delegitimize his rule (Sprague 2007). In Venezuela, the Solidarity Center has been active in working with unions opposed to the government of Hugo Chavez, utilizing relationships established during the Cold War period, and in fact was engaged in collaboration with US government officials in the attempted coup against Chavez in 2002 (Gollinger 2006; Scipes 2006). In Egypt, the Solidarity Center has worked with conservative trade unions that have supported privatization and a neoliberal agenda, and has worked closely with US officials in trying to ensure that the new Egyptian government, post-Mubarak, follows policies that are acceptable to the US foreign policy establishment (Bolton 2011). In Sri Lanka, the Solidarity Center has piggy-backed off of the most conservative alliances in AFL-CIO history, siding with US foreign policy goals as part of the “war on terror” (Gamage 2010). What is the extent and degree of the continuity between the policies that the AFL-CIO pursued during the Cold War and the policies pursued via the Solidarity Center from 1997 to the present? In order to address this question, we start with an overview of the Cold War history of AFL-CIO foreign policy, and then examine in more detail whether or not the funding priorities of the Solidarity Center dovetail with many of the policy goals carried out during the Cold War. A striking finding is that the overwhelming dependence of the Solidarity Center on US government funding has led the Center to follow the lead of US foreign policymakers by going to locations and regions that have been defined as central to US geostrategic objectives, economic interests, and, increasingly, the “war on terror.”.

publication date

  • January 1, 2012

Digital Object Identifier (DOI)

International Standard Book Number (ISBN) 13

start page

  • 56

end page

  • 78