Creating a New Internationalism for Labor
by Tim Shorrock
Dollars and Sense magazine Sept/Oct 1999
More than 800 South African rubber workers employed by Germany's Continental
Tire AG put down their tools for two hours last June in solidarity with
1,450 members of the United Steelworkers of America (USWA) who have been
on strike for nine months at the company's General Tire plant in Charlotte,
North Carolina. The workers, who belong to the National Union of Metalworkers
of South Africa, marched to Continental's main office in Port Elizabeth
and handed the CEO a letter. They demanded that Continental settle the strike
and rehire the American rubber workers. The U.S. workers were fired and
replaced in November after they launched an unfair labor practice strike
because the multinational refused to bargain fairly.
Continental is not alone in trying to bust U.S. unions. The past 10
years have been marked by major confrontations between U.S. unions and foreign
corporations. Japanese, Swedish and German corporations have replaced striking
workers or fired organizers in ways that would be difficult, if not impossible,
in their home countries (see box).
"It's like our companies going to Mexico," says Mark Cieskikowski,
a 21-year veteran of the Continental General plant in Charlotte. "It's
Wrong, but often legal. The erosion of workers' rights that began when
President Reagan fired striking air traffic controllers in 1981 has made
this country one of the worst violators of workers' rights-and an ideal
place for foreign multinationals to do business.
In the United States, the International Confederation of Free Trade
Unions (ICFTU) declared in a scathing report issued in July, the threat
of permanent replacement is used to scare workers during organizing campaigns,
to intimidate them at the bargaining table, and as a tool to eliminate union
But the ability to replace striking workers isn't the only lure for
foreign corporations, which invested $91 billion in the United States in
1998, according to a United Nations World Investment Report. Aside from
"high corporate profitability," the report said the chief attraction
for foreign investors in the United States was "its flexible labor
To economists and business people, that is just another way of saying
U.S. corporate managers-in contrast to their counterparts in Europe-hold
all the cards. In the United States, unions represent a paltry 10% of the
private sector workforce, while unionization rates are as high as 90% in
Sweden and 30% in Germany. Add to this mix the right-to-work laws in southern
states that make it difficult to organize unions and the ban on solidarity
strikes of the sort launched in South Africa, and foreign corporations think
they're in paradise. It's easy to understand why so many European and Japanese
auto manufacturers - such as BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Toyota, and Nissan-have
built U.S. plants in states like Tennessee, Georgia, and Alabama.
But U.S. unions have made it clear to foreign investors that "flexibility"
is not a green light for union-busting. Taking the lead are the Steelworkers,
the Teamsters, and Hotel and Restaurant Workers who organize international
campaigns in defense of U.S. workers against foreign corporations, often
with the help of global labor federations. The International Federation
of Chemical, Energy, Mine and General Workers Unions (ICEM), for example,
is coordinating the Continental campaign with the Steelworkers. (Full disclosure:
I edit the USWA's international newsletter on the strike and do occasional
work for the ICEM's North America office).
The AFL-CIO largely watches these developments from the sidelines, leaving
unfulfilled President John Sweeney's campaign promise to transform the federation's
international programs into a center for global organizing and solidarity.
Although the AFL-CIO devotes considerable time and money promoting labor
protections in trade agreements, this trade strategy is not yet linked to
the primary goal of Sweeney's New Voice campaign-organizing.
MULTINATIONALS, MEET THE GLOBAL UNIONS
The potential of international campaigns to build union power was revealed
in the summer of 1997, when the Teamsters successfully struck United Parcel
Service (UPS). The labor movement was galvanized by the strike, and won
a favorable contract in mid-August because of strong rank-and-file support
and the resonance of the union's key demand to end permanent part-time work.
But the strike was also won by a daring campaign in the heart of Europe,
UPS' most important international market when its North American operations
During the last three weeks of the strike, national Teamster officials
crisscrossed Europe with a small group of UPS workers, handing out leaflets
at UPS gates, and strategizing with the London-based International Transport
Workers Federation. By mid-August, unions in Belgium, Holland, France, and
Germany had agreed to stage simultaneous walkouts in solidarity with the
Meanwhile, AFL-CIO Secretary Treasurer Richard Trumka was set to announce
a broad international campaign to support the UPS strikers at a meeting
of the ICFTU. Two days before that announcement, UPS agreed to end the strike.
The company would not admit the European strike threat played a role, but
UPS officials I spoke with were clearly concerned about damage to the company's
reputation as a reliable package deliverer if its European workers walked
out, even for a few hours.
The lessons from the strike-that a deliberate, cross-border organizing
campaign could play a key role in winning a strike-were not lost on AFL-CIO
affiliates and some AFL-CIO staffers. Still, the federation did not build
on that experience to ensure that other unions would learn from it and from
one another, union to union, strike to strike.
Sweeney had proposed to do just that in his 1995 campaign for the AFL-CIO
presidency. A "Transnational Monitoring Project" would work with
AFL-CIO affiliates to develop organizing strategies for international campaigns
and monitor global institutions like the World Bank. But change has come
slowly, and the AFL-CIO's overall level of international solidarity work
falls far short of where it could be.
THE AFL-CIO'S INTERNATIONAL ROLE- A MIXED PICTURE
One of Sweeney's first major steps on the international front was to
dissolve the AFL-CIO's American Institute for
Free Labor Development (AIFLD). AIFLD was notorious in Latin America
as a conduit for CIA funds, its role in covert operations, and intervention
in national labor movements. In the early 1980s, AIFLD earned the enmity
of the human rights community by blocking a U.S. government investigation
into labor rights violations in El Salvador, arguing that the unions suffering
repression were communist fronts.
After getting the axe, AIFLD, along with other regional institutes for
Asia and Africa, was reorganized into a single "Solidarity Center"
that trains foreign unionists. Despite an article in the AFL-CIO News that
the center would no longer accept government funding, it continues to be
supported by the U.S. State Department's Agency for International Development
(AID) and the Congressionally funded National Endowment for Democracy (NED).
Government money in itself is not a bad thing; nearly every national
labor center in the world receives some of it.
Yet AID and NED money targets its support to U.S. foreign policy objectives
that do not necessarily mesh with the need to build trade unionism abroad
-and, more importantly for AFL staffers, they cannot be used to support
Then there is the issue of personnel. While a few of the more notorious
Cold Warriors have retired from the AFL-CIO, many have remained at their
jobs, particularly on the Asia, Africa and Eastern Europe desks. While they
have less influence than before, they remain the face of the AFL-CIO in
its contacts with unionists abroad.
One of the more curious of these figures is Harry Kamberis, who quietly
took on the directorship of the Solidarity Center in 1996. The AFL-CIO originally
hired him to work for its Asian American Free Labor Institute (AAFLI) after
a long stint with the State Department in Bangladesh, Pakistan and Greece.
During the 1 980s, when Kamberis served as staff in the Philippines and
South Korea and then director, the institute refused to openly support independent
unions in Korea being attacked by the military government. In the Philippines,
it saw its primary mission as undermining a leftist labor federation suffering
intense repression. AFL-CIO staffers and human rights groups who questioned
Kamberis' credentials were told he was chosen because of his familiarity
with the mechanics of State Department and AID funding.
GOOD NEWS ON THE INTERNATIONAL FRONT
Beyond the operations of the Solidarity Center, the new AFL-CIO has
played a constructive role supporting unions emerging in post-Cold War
Europe and Asia. This is due in large part to Sweeney's appointment
of Barbara Shailor, a highly respected economist from the International
Association of Machinists, to run the International Affairs Department (of
which the government-funded Solidarity Center is only one part).
Shailor, along with David Smith, director of public policy, and Ron
Blackwell, director of corporate affairs, have given the AFL-CIO a new,
activist persona overseas. Gone are the days when U.S. Iabor officials stormed
out of the International Labor Organization to protest Third World influence
or supported unions and labor federations solely on the basis of their allegiance
to U.S. foreign policy.
To see the difference, take the Korean general strike in 1997. The long-shunned
Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, a progressive coalition representing
workers at Hyundai and other large conglomerates, launched the protest after
the government refused to recognize independent unions or allow public employees
to organize. The International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU)
hesitated to support the general strike because the "official"
Federation of Korean Trade Unions (FKTU) was not yet on board. The AFL-CIO
convinced ICFTU leaders to support it anyway and Sweeney then helped resolve
the dispute by convincing Harold Ickes, the New York labor lawyer and friend
of the Clintons, to intervene on labor's behalf.
In another major step, the AFL-CIO has made new alliances with independent
unions in Mexico, and Sweeney has played an important role convincing Japanese
and European labor federations to support U.S. unions' fights with foreign
corporations. AFL-CIO researchers and organizers frequently work on the
international part of affiliates' campaigns, and AFL-CIO staffers routinely
watch out for international connections to domestic organizing.
Much of this shift is due to Shailor's persistence and staff appointments
of both Stan Gacek, an experienced international organizer with the United
Food and Commercial Workers, and Bill Goold, a labor rights specialist with
experience in Congress. Their presence in the AFL-CIO hierarchy sent a signal
that the AFL-CIO would no longer tolerate departments like AIFLD interfering
in the political process of other countries. And despite Cold War holdovers
staffing other desks, respected organizers have been hired to direct the
Solidarity Center's Latin America and Mexico City office.
THE TRADE DIVIDE
If the AFL-CIO's foreign policy seem schizophrenic- torn between reform
and the seduction of government money -the AFL-CIO faces an equal muddle
on trade policy because of the diverse economic base of its member unions.
As AFL-CIO president, Sweeney has run a carbon copy of the trade policy
he inherited from past presidents Lane Kirkland and Tom Donahue, albeit
with less focus and verve. In 1993, Kirkland's AFL-CIO poured tremendous
resources into the congressional battle to defeat the North American Free
Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Donahue, a trade expert, argued labor's case for
linking trade with worker rights.
Those campaigns laid the groundwork for labor's 1996 fight against "fast-track"
trade legislation, which requires Congress to vote trade agreements up or
down without amendments. At first, senior AFL-CIO officials resisted the
idea of an all-out fight on fast-track that could pit the federation against
the Clinton ad
ministration. Several unions, including the Teamsters, threatened to
fund the fight on their own. While the AFL-CIO eventually threw its lobbying
weight behind the battle, the big industrial unions most affected by trade
won enough lawmakers to their side to force Clinton and House Speaker Newt
Gingrich to pull the legislation.
That marked a turning point for U.S. trade policy. Since the defeat
of fast-track in 1997, the debate over trade has focused on whether labor
rights or the environment should be defended as much as intellectual property
was in NAFTA. Labor stiff opposition to new free trade agreements gives
the labor movement strong leverage with the Clinton administration, which
in turn pressed labor's agenda at the International Monetary Fund (IMF)
and other international organizations. In November, the AFL-CIO will be
working in a broad coalition to organize large demonstrations at the World
Trade Organization's (WTO) ministerial meeting in Seattle to protest the
WTO's refusal to include labor or environment in the rules of trade.
Still, the industrial unions want the AFL-CIO to take a much stronger
stand on trade, a position that reflects a widening rift between manufacturing-based
unions like the steelworkers and auto workers, and the service unions where
Sweeney spent his career. This divide was visible just a few months after
the fast-track victory in the summer of 1997, when Asia's so-called "tiger
economies" began to collapse. The economic crisis spread rapidly, causing
deep concern in the Clinton administration about the political stability
of East Asia. By early 1998, the Clinton White House cut a deal with the
AFL-CIO and Gephardt. Clinton agreed to back away from new free trade legislation
while his labor and Democratic allies agreed to work with the administration
on legislation to fund the IMF's $80 billion bailout of Asia.
There was considerable debate within the AFL-CIO about this risky policy.
The industrial unions and some AFL-CIO staffers opposed it because they
felt the IMF bailout and the depreciation of Asian currencies would benefit
Asian industries weakened by over-capacity and boost manufacturing exports
from Asia-a prediction that came to pass. Those who had worked to defeat
fast-track also didn't trust Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin's promise to
include stronger worker rights protections in the IMF bill.
Both camps were overruled by senior AFL-CIO leadership, apparently convinced
by Rubin that the U.S. economy would be wrecked by a catastrophic collapse
if strings were attached to the IMF money. When a left-right coalition eventually
emerged to oppose the IMF bailout- and its aid to global banks that had
poured speculative capital into Asia-the AFL-CIO was nowhere to be seen.
The only opposition in Congress came from the Republican Party, Vermont
socialist Bernie Sanders, and a tiny group of maverick Democrats.
To fulfill its side of the bargain with labor on the IMF bailout, the
Clinton administration pushed international financial institutions to open
lines of communication with trade unions and include union officials in
reviews of economic development projects. The Treasury Department hired
a labor policy analyst for the first time, while the World Bank recently
approached the Solidarity Center for help evaluating labor markets. Even
these largely symbolic policy shifts have not been welcomed by Clinton's
senior economic advisers or the IMF. "The Treasury is pretty damn resistant
to it," one U.S. official told me.
Meanwhile, the AFL-CIO's silence during the Asian crisis was deafening.
Despite prodding from affiliated unions and some senior AFL-CIO staffers,
the Solidarity Center didn't organize a single event for trade unionists
to discuss the impact of the crisis on workers or develop common strategies
to deal with the IMF. Whether out of fear of rocking Clinton's boat, or
concern that such an event might conflict with State Department policies-and
bite that hand that feeds the AFL-CIO's Solidarity Center-an important opportunity
was lost to develop an international trade union agenda.
The AFL-CIO is not ignoring important global issues. If anything, it
is taking a lead role in promoting workers' rights. But, contrary to its
early promises, the federation has left solidarity campaigns like the one
involving the South African trade unionists largely to the unions that make
up its federation. This has costs. As a veteran international organizer
put it to me in a recent discussion about the steelworkers' campaign against
Continental: "Why do these unions have to do it all over again when
it's been done before?" That's a question that begs an answer.
Tim Shorrock is an independent journalist whose writings on labor and
East Asia have appeared in The Nation and The Los Angeles Times. He also
works as a writer and editor for union publications and covered labor for
seven years at The Journal of Commerce, where he served as president of
a union affiliated with the Communications Workers of America. He interviewed
a dozen staffers of the AFL-CIO and its affiliated unions for this article.