The Spark

the Voice of
The Communist League of Revolutionary Workers–Internationalist

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.”
— Karl Marx

United States:
100 Years of U.S. Imperialism:
Stamped with a Union Label

Apr 10, 2002

On Sunday, October 7, 2001, the U.S. began its bombing attack on Afghanistan.

Two days later, the AFL-CIO Executive Council took out two-page ads in the most important newspapers in the country, proclaiming, "we’re standing behind our President in the counterattack on terrorism." Two days after that, the UAW took out similar ads, announcing: "America stands united. We are united in combating terrorism at home and around the world."

Both ads complained that Congress was not repaying union efforts: the AFL-CIO reproached it for not providing relief for airline workers in the bailout of the airlines; the UAW reproached Congress for considering "fast-track" authorization of free trade agreements. Neither of the union ads both filled with patriotic, flag-waving graphics acknowledged that the U.S. was actually bombing Afghanistan, not to mention that there would be horrible consequences for the Afghan population. No, this president, whom they "stood behind," was simply "combating terrorism."

In the months since, the official union movement, with the exception of only a few local officials, has done everything it could to push support for the war.

When contending for the leadership of the AFL-CIO in 1995, the Sweeney slate, along with the leaders of the unions like the UAW which supported them, hinted vaguely that they disagreed with the way the old leadership had involved the federation in foreign adventures in pursuit of U.S. foreign policy. The main axis of the Sweeney- Trumka campaign was the need to overcome the erosion of union membership and influence but they at least hinted that there might be a connection between the unions’ domestic failures and their longstanding unquestioning support for U.S. foreign policy. Once in office, the new AFL-CIO leadership reorganized the AFL-CIO department which had been directly implicated in the unions’ support for wars, military coups and dictatorships, as well as in subversion of unions in other countries.

But the first time their disagreement was put to the test, they simply joined the unbroken line of union officials, stretching back almost to the formation of the AFL (American Federation of Labor) in 1886, who had used their position at the head of a union federation to carry out imperialism’s dirty work. They became cheerleaders for U.S. imperialism’s latest war.

The AFL: "America Is First"

Before the Spanish-American War, the AFL and its member unions had in general opposed foreign adventures. Like many other union officials at the turn of the century, Samuel Gompers, president of the federation since its formation in 1886, was a declared pacifist but as, events were to show, he gave a very elastic meaning to the term.

Although the AFL spoke about international working class solidarity and denounced oppression of the colonial peoples, its "non-interventionist" policy was essentially an isolationist one, viewing the rest of the world as something better left alone.

Speeches by federation leaders were long marked by the vulgar isolationism which was common in the country. A 1909 statement by Gompers was typical. After visiting a number of European countries, he declared, "The Old World is not our world. Its social problems, its economic philosophies, its current political questions are not linked up with America. All the people of the globe may be on the broad highway to social justice, peace among men of all tongues, and universal brotherhood, but all nations and governments have not reached the same points on the road. In the procession, America is first."

In the years leading up to the Spanish-American War, the federation had publicly opposed war with Spain. But with the obvious approach of war, Gompers became a sudden partisan of Cuban "independence" in other words, of a U.S. war to wrest Cuba and other colonies from Spain, taking them over as U.S. colonies in everything but name.

Immediately after the war, the AFL opposed the annexation of Hawaii, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines. But behind its talk about respect for Cuban independence, lay the AFL belief that annexations would open the door to unlimited immigration of low-wage unskilled labor, bringing pressure to bear on AFL wages. In fact, the AFL regularly demanded limitations on all immigration for the same reason. When it came to China and other parts of Asia, however, it demanded an outright ban, arguing that "the maintenance of the nation depended upon the maintenance of racial purity." Its claims of class solidarity did not prevent the AFL from exhibiting blatant racism, chauvinism and hostility to workers from other countries.

This simply reflected what the AFL proposed to do inside the country: to organize the most privileged layer of the working class, the skilled workers assuming that their skills gave them a kind of monopoly which would force the bourgeoisie to come to terms with them turning their back on the rest of the working class in this country, just as it did on any real international solidarity.

The AFL regularly pushed for free trade and elimination of tariffs on the assumption that U.S. labor would thus benefit. U.S. labor was, according to Gompers, "the most efficient, intelligent, alert, conscientious and productive.... America’s supremacy as an exporter of manufactured goods is certain and inevitable.... Never was labor better organized and more alive to its interests than now and never was America’s foreign trade so stupendous as now." (From a 1901 article Gompers signed in "The Federationist.") Of course, domination of markets did not depend only on how "productive" American workers were; it also required military force. And, as soon as the U.S. state moved to impose the "free market" through the use of force, the AFL proved itself ready to abandon all pretensions to pacifism.

In fact, the AFL simply viewed the world through the eyes of a rapidly expanding American imperialism. In 1898, in a speech to a pacifist committee of which he was part, Gompers had already declared: "We do not oppose the development of our industry, the expansion of our commerce, nor the power and influence which the United States may exert upon the destinies of the nations of the world."

In any case, while the AFL supported the U.S. war and extension of imperialist investment around the world, this didn’t produce many rewards for the AFL leaders. During this period, the bourgeoisie didn’t have much use for them, regardless of how much they fell in line with American capitalism’s needs.

The AFL Asks to be Made a Junior Partner

It was only the approach of World War I that brought sections of the American bourgeoisie and, more particularly its state apparatus, to see what a useful role the AFL could play both inside the country and outside. This war between the biggest imperialist powers for domination of the world market pitted the working classes of the world against each other. The U.S. stayed out of the conflict at first, pretending to be "neutral," but, with the outbreak of the Russian revolution and the approach of the end of the war, it found pretexts to intervene in order to take part in the reorganization of the world’s markets.

The AFL leadership mirrored these apparent twists and turns in U.S. policy. When war broke out in Europe in 1914, most of the AFL leadership denounced it, warning against the U.S. entering the war. While this reflected the sentiments of a big majority of the working class and the farming population, it did not put the AFL in open opposition to the policy of U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, who claimed to stand above the European war. The federation also opposed moves in the U.S. toward conscription, but only to argue for a better paid, much larger professional army, something the American state was already implementing, in anticipation of going to war.

After the presidential election of 1916, which Wilson had won on the basis of his campaign that he "had kept us out of the war," the tone of his public statements shifted. With it becoming patently clear that the U.S. was going to war, Gompers began to advocate U.S. intervention in the war. Gompers and some of his associates took part in "preparedness rallies" organized by right wing and business organizations. Supposedly aimed at building support for a naval defense of American cargo ships crossing the Atlantic, these rallies were in fact propaganda vehicles to prepare the population for war. Often they were made up of thugs who went on to attack anti-war demonstrations organized by the IWW (Industrial Workers of the World), anarchists, socialists and local peace councils. Within the AFL leadership, Gompers carried out a systematic campaign to get the federation to shift its isolationist position.

In October 1916, Wilson appointed Gompers as labor’s representative to the Advisory Commission of the Council for National Defense. It was the first time organized labor had been awarded such an official position and Gompers soon used the appointment to argue that if labor wanted further recognition, it had to join forces with the Wilson administration. According to Gompers, the war was going to happen, labor couldn’t stop it so the only course for the AFL was to be inside government circles in order to defend labor’s interests. There was, however, some opposition on the AFL Executive Council. The Mineworkers Union was completely opposed to any U.S. war, and other unions, including the Teamsters, argued that the AFL shouldn’t "push the president" into the war.

Nonetheless, Gompers was able, in March of 1917, to put the AFL Executive Council on record in support of U.S. intervention: "But, despite all our endeavors and hopes, should our country be drawn into the maelstrom of the European conflict, we, with these ideals of liberty and justice herein declared, as the indispensable basis for national policies, offer our services to our country in every field of activity to defend, safeguard and preserve the Republic of the United States of America against its enemies whoever they may be." Of course, there was no question of who the U.S. would go to war against. Germany, its main competitor, was the "enemy." And Gompers, who regularly denounced the Kaiser and the German autocracy, well knew it.

In return for support, AFL leaders asked for positions on all commissions and boards set up to carry out the war; they also asked for government limits on profits, trade union wage rates in military goods industries and equal pay for women. They got their positions on the commissions and boards.

One month after the AFL gave its advance approval, the U.S. entered the war. Gompers in his autobiography later was to explain the AFL’s position: "Organized labor realized that the most valuable service it could contribute to winning the war was to help maintain and raise production levels."

Despite the U.S. entry into the war, the summer of 1917 was marked by an important wave of strikes many of them led by the IWW, the union whose goal was to build one single union of all the workers and which continued to oppose the war.

In this situation the AFL endorsed the recommendations of the War Labor Conference Board, on which its representatives sat, that there be no strikes and no lockouts. The prohibition on strikes was acceptable, said the AFL, because the board also declared that workers would have the right to organize trade unions and to bargain collectively during the course of the war. But it also declared that workers could not use "coercive measures of any kind to induce persons to join their organization, nor to induce employers to bargain or deal therewith." In other words, the AFL unions could increase their membership and collect more dues, so long as they carried out no actions which might allow the workers to protect themselves.

In exchange for AFL assurances of labor peace during the war, Gompers asked the government to recognize the AFL as the representative of workers, organized and unorganized. He wrote to Wilson, "It may be said as a truism that either the government and the employers will have to deal with the representatives of the bona fide organized constructive labor movement of the country or they will have the alternatives of being forced to take the consequences of the so called IWW with all that implies."

World War I Opens the Door to Markets and for the AFL

As soon as the U.S. entered the war, the Socialist Party, which at that time had real roots in the working class and among the small farmers, held an emergency convention. Restating its opposition to the war and to any U.S. intervention, it called for a massive mobilization against conscription, and it pledged its member sections and militants to carry on "continuous public opposition" to the war.

The growing movement in opposition to the war had important roots inside the AFL itself, with many local leaders joining the IWW and the Socialist Party, as well as other opponents of the war in establishing local Workmen’s Councils, which were part of a broader movement to establish a nationwide peace organization, called the People’s Council. In New York City, where the Workmen’s Councils had got their start, over 90 local unions, representing 900,000 workers were enlisted in this movement against the war. The People’s Council called for a nationwide founding convention for September 1917 in Minneapolis.

Gompers proposed that the AFL set up a competing organization, the American Alliance for Labor and Democracy, whose purpose was to "increase working class enthusiasm" for the war. He was joined by a group of so-called "pro-war socialists" who had left the SP when the war began. The Alliance provided propaganda materials, organized rallies, circulated "loyalty pledges" in workplaces. It also called for a pro-war conference, also in Minneapolis and also in September at the same time the People’s Council was to meet. The Alliance announced it had given its support to the U.S. government until "complete military victory" was gained. Echoing Wilson’s claims that the U.S. was fighting a war to "make the world safe for democracy," the Alliance declared that anyone who publicly disagreed with the war "should be repressed by the constituted authorities." So much for "democracy."

While the Alliance was, to all appearances, a creation of the AFL, it was in fact funded and directed by the bourgeois state. The Committee on Public Information one of the new governmental bodies set up to serve the war effort began to transfer funds secretly to the Alliance. Moreover, George Creel, who headed the committee, called on various capitalists to contribute money to the Alliance also secretly.

Creel, in fact, directed the Alliance, writing its publications and resolutions, proposing its activities. Labor simply provided the foot soldiers for carrying them out. Among other things, Creel advised Gompers to use the kind of radical language which would not threaten the war effort, but which would give the appearance of "independence" to the Alliance and to the AFL. It should, for example, proclaim itself in favor of free speech, although it should not go so far as to condemn the governor of Minnesota, who had issued regulations preventing the People’s Council from holding its meeting to protest the war.

In November 1917, Wilson addressed the AFL Convention, which was being held in Buffalo. Not only was his trip to the convention his first outside of Washington since the U.S. had entered the war, Wilson was the first American president ever to appear at a labor convention. Delegates opposed to the war found it difficult to oppose the patriotic steamroller that Gompers had organized. The convention passed a resolution demanding that aliens be inducted into the armed services or be deported. The next year, the AFL followed this up by endorsing the Espionage Act of 1917, which effectively made it illegal to oppose the war, and the Alien and Sedition Act of 1918, which made it a crime to criticize the government during wartime. Under the Sedition Act, Eugene Debs, Socialist Party candidate for president, was prosecuted and sentenced to ten years in prison.

In February of 1918, the AFL, through the Alliance, organized a one week nation-wide "labor loyalty" program, drumming up support in the workplaces for the war. The AFL made a constant barrage of propaganda against strikes: "No strike should be inaugurated which cannot be justified to the man risking his life on the firing line." It is the same cynical argument heard over and over in every war: opposition to government, its wars and its policies is an attack on... the troops.

No! "The man risking his life on the firing line" is attacked by the government which sent him into battle to defend profit.

The AFL was not able fully to overcome the strong sentiment opposing the war, but it certainly helped mute it, just as it helped block the development of the strikes that had broken out in the early months of the war. In the last months before he came out openly for the war, Gompers had declared: "No class renders such sacrificial service during war as does labor. In war labor sees the results of years of struggle for wider justice swept away." It’s as fitting a description as any of what World War I meant for the working class.

"Labor Statesmen"

In the spring of 1917, Wilson invited the AFL to send a representative with a U.S. delegation going to Russia after the fall of the Czar in order to convince the new provisional government of the need to remain in the war against Germany and to try to moderate the Russian movement. James Duncan, AFL vice-president, later said he went to explain that "the right to strike does not mean that we want to strike....responsibility sobers men and makes them more careful in their action." Gompers wired the Soviet in April that "freedom is the product of evolution, not revolution." In May, he wired again, calling on the Soviet to disregard all movements for peace, which could only be coming from "German agents."

The AFL’s first attempt at "labor diplomacy" was not a roaring success. Nonetheless, it marked another new step for organized labor. It was the first time an American administration had asked labor’s help in carrying out foreign policy. It was not to be the last. Cables regularly flew across the Atlantic from Gompers and other AFL leaders. Labor missions were sent to various allied countries, with the aim of reinforcing the commitment of the British Labour Party as well as other European socialists to the war. When Europe’s "moderate" socialists, reflecting the war-weariness of European workers, began to raise the idea of an international peace conference regrouping labor and socialist delegations from both sides, the AFL stalled it, arguing that any movement for peace coming then could only serve the Kaiser. Lurking behind every peace move was the Kaiser, the Autocracy and German expansionism this was a regular refrain coming out of AFL headquarters.

Productivity was another. In the spring of 1918, Gompers proposed to send labor delegations "to inspire the workers in Allied countries to the same single-minded devotion to prosecuting the War that characterized the American working man." Secretary of State Lansing instructed the U.S. ambassador to Britain to give the delegation whatever aid it needed, adding that it was coming "to discuss labor conditions and to seek the most effective way in which the laboring classes can cooperate with and advance the policies of their respective governments in prosecuting the war."

AFL leaders began to look upon themselves as "labor statesmen." They had been given positions and status, which had been denied to labor before. They were now ready to be the loudest supporters of "total victory."

In the waning months of the war, Gompers made a tour of the Allied countries. Going to speak, supposedly, to the workers of the Allied powers, he in fact spent most of his time being feted by U.S. diplomats, government ministers, kings, queens and European and U.S. businessmen. He went to the front lines (more exactly, near them) in each country, where he had his picture taken for home consumption. When he did speak to European audiences, it was essentially to argue that peace can be attained only through military victory. To a meeting of the Genoa Italy Chamber of Commerce, Gompers declared: "Germany must be destroyed; she must not only have the consciousness of her defeat but also the suffering." After Germany proposed to negotiate an end to the war, based on Wilson’s 14 Points, Gompers attacked anyone who favored negotiations as traitors to their own country. His statement to this effect ended a meeting in France, which erupted in an uproar after his denunciations.

He and other AFL leaders attended an Inter-Allied Labor and Socialist conference held in London in September 1918, where they wrote the conference’s statement on war aims even though they were in the minority at the conference. The AFL leaders took over the resolutions committee after threatening its other members by waving around their dossiers which Scotland Yard had transmitted to them, via the U.S. ambassador.

Returning home, Gompers declared, "America is more than a country. America is more than a continent. America is an ideal, the apotheosis of all that is right." Apparently, "all that’s right" was not above using police threats to get what it could not get by force of argument.

"America’s Manifest Duty"

With the conclusion of the war, Gompers took his place beside Wilson when Wilson went to Versailles where the imperialist victors negotiated a redivision of the world.

Gompers played hard cop to Wilson’s soft cop, continuing to oppose any idea that working class leaders from both sides of the war might sit down together, demanding that Germany be made to pay the cost of "its" war. And he took the chair of the International Labor Commission set up at Versailles diverting its discussions into the development of legislation to be presented to the various governments to ratify. At the same time, he proclaimed that the U.S. could not be bound by any decisions taken there, and in fact argued against many of them on the grounds that they were too "socialistic." In any case, the Labor Commission had been a dead letter from the start.

On the return home after Versailles, Gompers took the podium against the recurrence of isolationist sentiment growing up in the U.S., arguing that it was "holding America back from her manifest duty." In arguing that the U.S. now enforce an "Open Door" for American products around the world, not only was Gompers expressing the AFL’s long-time stance, he was also acknowledging the aims for which the U.S. had entered the war: to be able to break Europe’s hold over areas that U.S. corporations wanted to enter.

The end of the war brought revolution in Europe and a stupendous strike wave inside the U.S., including the Seattle general strike and the great steel strike. The new "labor statesmen" strove to show their sense of responsibility. Gompers strove to block support growing for the Russian workers’ revolution, even inside the AFL itself, where there were calls for recognizing the new Soviet government, lifting the blockade and withdrawing U.S. and other troops from Russia. In both the 1919 and 1920 AFL Conventions there were sizeable minorities raising these issues. In 1919, the Gompers forcese substituted a vague resolution calling for the withdrawal of all troops from Russia, "at the earliest possible moment," ignoring the question of recognition. In 1920, the final resolution was a condemnation of the Soviet government.

Gompers linked the AFL’s denunciation of the workers revolution in Russia with its attempt to oppose the strike wave in 1919. Denouncing the "red menace," and "Bolshevism raising its head in the U.S. labor movement," top AFL leaders came out against the Seattle general strike, which had been organized by local AFL leaders, as well as the steel strike, again organized within the AFL. The AFL leaders were not able to channel this vast movement behind them in fact, they weren’t even interested in doing this, turning their back as they did on the unskilled production workers. But their actions did throw up roadblocks in the way of the movement.

The state moved with force against the strike movement, expelling immigrants in the Palmer raids; framing up Sacco and Vanzetti, in preparation for executing them; assassinating and imprisoning native born strike leaders of this vast movement. The first targets may have been the IWW, anarchists, socialists and rank-and-file fighters. But the attacks which the corporations and their state carried out spilled over into attacks on the AFL. Gompers and other leaders proposed no way to resist. The federation saw its numbers, which had increased during the war, drop precipitously. Between 1920 and mid-1929, AFL unions lost almost one-third of their members.

And, if Gompers expected to go on playing the diplomat’s role after Versailles, he was sorely mistaken. He continued to denounce the Soviet menace; he supported the U.S. invasion of Nicaragua in 1927. But there were no more invitations to accompany the president, no more invitations to dine with European royalty.

World War II Gives the Unions a Permanent Position in the State Apparatus

It required the coming of the next war for the bourgeois state to call labor back into service. By this time, however, the AFL did not stand alone. It had been joined by the CIO (Congress of Industrial Organizations), formed by the second great explosion of the unskilled workers in the sit-down strikes of the mid to late 1930s. In many ways, it was the CIO bureaucrats who played the most important role in reining in the workers during World War II, precisely because they sat on top of the federation whose unions had won the confidence of the most combative layers of the working class during the strike waves.

World War II was a continuation of World War I all over again, just writ large. Once again, the imperialist powers went to war to redivide the world; once again the Soviet Union was dragged into the fray by both sides; and, once again, the U.S. stayed out of the war for several years, letting the European powers weaken each other before it finally intervened.

The sentiment of the population was overwhelmingly opposed to a U.S. entry into the war. That can be seen, for example, in the widespread movement for the Ludlow amendment to the U.S. constitution, which would have required that any decision to go to war be submitted first to a popular vote by the population. Polls reported that it was supported by almost three-quarters of the population. Certainly, as documents and records of discussions recently released have shown, the Roosevelt Administration was very aware that they had work to do to bring the population into support for the war. Roosevelt’s advisers told him that without a first strike by Japan, it would be almost impossible to muster the support needed to carry out a new war. It took several more years and Pearl Harbor, which the U.S. provoked by blockading Japan and cutting it off from necessary materials, to get that support.

Nonetheless, it was evident by 1940 that the Roosevelt Administration was preparing to go to war. It passed two new laws to deal with the opposition it would face in carrying it out: one, the Smith Act, an addition to the World War I sedition acts, which now declared it a crime simply to publish or circulate seditious literature or to establish an organization that would "teach, advocate and encourage" sedition. The other was the Voorhis Act which required all organizations affiliated with an international body to give a list of their members to the government apparently in the event that any organization tried to build an international solidarity campaign in opposition to the war.

At the same time, the government moved to block the development of further strikes with the support of many CIO leaders. On the one hand, the Roosevelt administration pushed recalcitrant companies like Ford and "Little Steel" to recognize a union; on the other hand, it prepared to move against strikes which the new bureaucrats couldn’t control. The year saw an especially high number of strikes, a number of which hit companies already heavily engaged in war production. The most notable of these were the Vultee, Allis-Chalmers and North American Aviation strikes, which were all denounced by the Roosevelt Administration as "blows to national defense." With his attack on the North American Aviation strike in the middle of 1940, Roosevelt stepped forward openly as a strike-breaker. He sent combat troops, armed with heavy weapons (including mortars and anti-aircraft guns!) who broke the picket lines and drove workers from the area near the plant. Martial law was declared in the area. When workers returned to work, troops stood at the gates, pulling out strike leaders, preventing them from going in.

This vicious attack was supported by CIO leaders. Amalgamated Clothing Workers President Sidney Hillman one of the leading lights of the CIO was photographed at Roosevelt’s side when he telephoned the order for the troops to move. National UAW leaders finished the job after the strike was broken by suspending all local officers.

In the middle of 1941 came another key attack in preparation for the war: the indictment and trial of 29 people who had been connected with the strikes and organizing drive of the Teamsters throughout the upper Middle West, including the three Minneapolis strikes in 1934, which had opened the flood gates to the strike wave that built the industrial unions. With ink on the newly passed Smith Act barely dry, the government used it to prosecute the the defendants, most of whom came from the Trotskyist organization, the Socialist Workers Party. This trial was an attack on the one political organization that continued to oppose the coming war and, at the same time, on one of the most militant centers of the union movement of the 1930s.

The national leadership of the Teamsters rushed to the government’s aid in fact, it had attempted several times to take over the local, without much success. Now it sent in goons, led by none other than Jimmy Hoffa, to attack the Minneapolis workers, while it formally took control of the local.

There would be no recognition of "the constitutional right to free speech" in the trial which railroaded the Minneapolis militants to prison, just as there was none in Debs’ trial during World War I. The new war to "save the world for democracy" was to be carried out on the home front every bit as undemocratically as the previous one had been.

Maintaining "A Stable, Responsible Leadership" in the Interest of War Production

Long before the Roosevelt administration took the U.S. into the war, AFL and CIO leaders offered their services, asking that labor be given "full representation on all government defense agencies." In December of 1940, Sidney Hillman was appointed an associate director of the Office of Production Management. Philip Murray, head of the CIO, proposed to create industry councils, with labor representation, to coordinate production, train workers and "promote industrial peace." Murray and an AFL official were given spots on the 9-member National Defense Mediation Board.

Immediately after Pearl Harbor, Roosevelt called a labor-management conference, both sides of which agreed there should be no strikes during the duration of the war, an agreement the top union officials steadfastly kept to with the one notable exception of John L. Lewis. Echoing Gompers, R.J. Thomas, then head of the UAW, proclaimed, "Our union cannot survive if the nation and our soldiers believe that we are obstructing the war effort."

In return for their loyalty, the Roosevelt Administration gave the unions "maintenance of membership clauses" in the military goods industries. The ruling of the War Labor Board which first awarded "maintenance of membership" expressed the government’s interest in this affair: "Too often members of unions do not maintain their membership because they resent the discipline of a responsible leadership. A rival but less responsible leadership feels the pull of temptation to obtain and maintain leadership by relaxing discipline, by refusing to cooperate with the company, and sometimes with unfair and demagogic attacks on the company. It is in the interests of management, these companies have found, to cooperate with the unions for the maintenance of a more stable, responsible leadership." Commenting on the ruling, the chairman of the War Labor Board said: "We’re going to have to call on the leaders of labor to put this [wage stabilization] over. That being so, this is another reason for the maintenance of a more stable, responsible leadership."

During World War II, both AFL and CIO leaders organized "defense" rallies, pushed "war bonds," set-up "victory gardens" and all the other propaganda activities aimed at building active support in the population for the war. But their most important duty was to blunt any expression of the workers’ growing anger over the sacrifices they were being called upon to make on the "home front." Starting as early as 1942, the number of strikes spread practically all of them wildcats, most of them short-lived, but nonetheless indicating that the working class was much less ready than the bureaucrats to keep to agreements which penalized the workers and which the companies, in any case, were not respecting themselves. By early 1944, the Wall Street Journal complained, "Workers ... seem to be grabbing almost any excuse for a strike these days."

The old-line bureaucrats needed the aid of the Communist Party, which had enlisted in the war effort, as a "struggle against fascism" and a "fight to defend the Soviet Union." Its militants, who had earned the confidence of the workers in the many fights they had organized during the 1930s, regularly stood hand in glove with the AFL and CIO bureaucrats who moved to break strikes.

The most important official defiance of the no-strike pledge came during the widespread series of strikes carried out by the soft coal miners in 1943, which pushed the mine workers president, John L. Lewis, to openly defy the Administration. When Roosevelt’s threats of drafting the miners didn’t bring an end to the strike, his administration offered the Smith-Connelly bill (the same Smith whose name is attached to the 1940s sedition act). This bill carried a series of measures aimed against the unions, including heavy fines and prison penalties for striking. The bill was passed by a Democratic controlled Congress. Roosevelt, who wanted stiffer measures, including a proposal to establish "labor conscription" for all workers between the ages of 18 and 65, vetoed the measure (which was quickly passed by Congress over his veto). The heads of the AFL and the CIO immediately wired Roosevelt their thanks for the veto!

The miners were only the tip of the iceberg. All through the war, workers fought. Even in 1942, the first year of the war, almost a million workers went out. And this was the low point. In the three years and eight months of the war, the government recorded almost 15,000 wildcat strikes (14,471, to be exact) involving 6,774,000 strikers. Union convention after union convention saw bitter struggles over the no-strike pledge, with UAW officials unable to keep the lid on. The rubber workers local to which the national URW president belonged expelled him from their local because he had tried to expel strikers from another local.

Certainly, all during the war, AFL and CIO bureaucrats complained that the administration wasn’t really keeping to its promise (which it had never really made) to control prices. But that didn’t prevent them from doing everything they could to attack the workers who organized a defense. At one point, the rubber workers union imposed a fine of $10,000 on workers who had struck.

World War II was a replay of what happened in World War I. An attack was waged at the end of the war against the militants who had led the struggles of the 1930s or the wildcat strikes during the war. At the same time, the state moved to reinforce the position of the bureaucrats who had proved themselves trustworthy.

By the end of World War II, the American bourgeoisie had come to recognize the advantage the unions could play in providing stability and cooperating to achieve "more efficient production."

Playing the Anti-Communist Card

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

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

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

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

In Marseilles and other Mediterranean ports, the FTUC hired gangsters to break strikes which were organized to prevent the U.S. from unloading arms and munitions in 1949. Very bloody confrontations sent a number of union militants to the hospital with serious injuries. In Marseilles, several people were killed.

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

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

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

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

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

One War Barely Over, Another Started

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

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

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

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

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

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

Helping to Keep U.S. Imperialism’s Backyard Safe for Investment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Opposition to the War in Viet Nam

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A "New Focus" until the Next War

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Every Little Crumb Carries a Very Big Price

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

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

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

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

What is most criminal in this century-long record the leaders of the unions have rolled up is not simply that they supported imperialism’s wars, mil