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How the AFL-CIO Can Fight Imperialism and Climate Change

The US labor movement has a long history of aiding US imperialism. By adopting a strong internationalist strategy, making solidarity with the global working class a top priority — including on fighting climate change — the AFL-CIO can reverse that history.

AFL-CIO building dedication with David Dubinsky, William Green, President Dwight D. Eisenhower, Walter Reuther, Jacob Potofsky, James Mitchell, and others, June 4, 1956. Kheel Center / Flickr

A few weeks into the new decade, international headlines were dominated by the catastrophic bushfires raging in Australia and Trump’s dangerous escalation of hostilities with Iran. Both stories are stark examples of the two most destructive forces facing the world in the 2020s — climate change and endless war.

The blame for much of the misery caused by global warming and militarism can be laid at the feet of the US government, US corporations, and US-dominated international institutions. Together they constitute an empire, making undemocratic decisions that have dire consequences for working-class people across the planet.

Considering the AFL-CIO’s long record of aiding and abetting imperialism, as I recently wrote about in Jacobin, the US labor movement bears responsibility for many of the historical injustices the US government and US capital have inflicted on our fellow workers abroad. At the same time, workers in the United States are well-positioned to use our collective power to oppose this global empire — particularly by taking on the military-industrial complex, the fossil fuel industry, international finance capital, and similar forces that cause so much harm around the world.

From challenging militarism to championing a Green New Deal, various networks of US labor activists at the grassroots level are already confronting empire by fighting for a more just, peaceful, and sustainable world. But national labor leaders with the AFL-CIO and many of its affiliated unions are not.

Imperialism is a labor and class issue, not only because workers are its most common victims and capitalists its most common beneficiaries, but because of how it stunts class consciousness and poisons solidarity by breeding jingoism, xenophobia, and racism. This all but guarantees the working class remains divided, allowing right-wing, fascist movements to win power through appeals to economic and ethno-nationalism.

To do the kind of transnational, multiracial organizing needed to solve the climate crisis, bring an end to “forever wars,” and achieve a socialist society, then, it’s vital that the US labor movement also be an anti-imperialist movement. More specifically, the AFL-CIO — which, representing 12.5 million workers from fifty-five unions, remains the official voice of organized labor in this country — will have to embrace anti-imperialism as a guiding principle of its international organizing.

Towards an Anti-Imperialist Labor Movement

There is some precedent for this within the labor federation. In the 1980s, the presidents of over twenty national unions, most of them AFL-CIO affiliates, formed the National Labor Committee in Support of Democracy and Human Rights in El Salvador (NLC) to oppose Reagan’s effort to prop up El Salvador’s brutal and corrupt far-right government, which was waging a murderous counterinsurgency war against that country’s revolutionary left. The NLC was formed as a rebuke to the AFL-CIO leadership of the time, which was supporting Reagan’s Central America policy even as he ushered in a new era of union-busting at home.

Spurred into action by the demands of the union rank and file, the NLC sent fact-finding delegations of US unionists to El Salvador and later Nicaragua, forged bonds with leftist unions in Central America facing right-wing violence, lobbied Congress to cut off military aid to the Salvadoran government, and helped mobilize mass demonstrations protesting Reagan’s foreign policy. In contrast with the AFL-CIO’s leadership, the NLC protected the rights of Central American workers under attack and played a critical role preventing direct US military intervention in the region.

Besides the NLC of the 1980s, another example of how the US labor movement can fight imperialism, rather than aid it, in solidarity with foreign workers is US Labor Against the War (USLAW). Founded in 2003 to oppose Bush’s invasion of Iraq, USLAW — a network of unions, worker organizations, and labor activists — continues to call for an end to the so-called “war on terror” and for the demilitarization of the US economy. At the 2005 AFL-CIO convention, USLAW successfully pushed the federation to adopt a resolution that not only called for rapid withdrawal of US troops from Iraq, but also criticized the Bush administration for misleading the public in the run-up to the war.

Organized labor in the United States has also used the power of the strike to show solidarity with foreign workers and demand an end to war, as the history of the independent (non–AFL-CIO) International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) demonstrates.

Loading and unloading cargo from ships all along the West Coast, ILWU dockworkers are situated at a strategic chokepoint in the global capitalist economy. Between the 1960s and 1980s, they used that position to bolster South Africa’s anti-apartheid movement, refusing to handle South African goods on several occasions as part of a global boycott against the apartheid regime. And on May 1, 2008, 10,000 ILWU members protested the US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan by going on strike and shutting down every port on the West Coast.

Employees at big tech corporations like Amazon, Google, and Microsoft — who are just beginning to unionize — are also well-positioned to disrupt the imperial war machine, since the companies they work for are often allied with the military-industrial complex through Pentagon contracts. In what could be a sign of things to come, in 2018, several Google workers protested the company’s decision to provide the military with artificial intelligence for drones by resigning en masse. In trying to unionize tech workers, the AFL-CIO’s affiliated unions would be wise to organize around this demonstrated anti-militarist sentiment.

With the potential for a disastrous war on Iran threatening millions of innocent lives, and with the Democratic-controlled Congress recently authorizing another $738 billion in military spending, it’s past time for organized labor — particularly at the level of the national AFL-CIO — to take some bold stands against empire.

During the Cold War, the decisions surrounding the AFL-CIO’s imperial interventions were almost always made in secret by a small group of high-ranking labor officials, without the knowledge, input, or approval of union members. When the rank and file became aware of what the AFL-CIO was actually doing abroad, they organized to oppose the federation’s imperialist foreign activities.

In the 1970s, for example, after activists exposed the AFL-CIO’s role in the violent overthrow of Chile’s socialist president, Salvador Allende, US union members and local labor councils demanded that the federation’s Latin American nonprofit, the American Institute for Free Labor Development (AIFLD), be shut down. Partnering with the CIA, in the run-up to the 1973 Chilean military coup, AIFLD had supported gremios — associations of right-wing, middle-class professionals — which held a series of crippling strikes aimed at creating economic chaos and destabilizing Allende’s government.

During the 1980s, rank-and-file unionists associated with groups like the NLC also protested AIFLD’s role in helping El Salvador’s government implement a violent counterinsurgency land reform scheme. After years of sustained opposition from within the US labor movement, AIFLD was finally shut down in the 1990s.

To ensure national labor officials aren’t misrepresenting US union members abroad today, the foreign policy of the AFL-CIO and its affiliates must be democratized. Rank-and-file members and local union leaders will need to demand increased transparency around the AFL-CIO’s international affairs, articulate a clear vision for global labor solidarity, and hold labor officials accountable if they refuse to listen.

The first step towards transparency will have to be coming to terms with the AFL-CIO’s imperialist history. In 2005, a coalition of union activists tried to do exactly that. At that year’s AFL-CIO convention, they brought forward the “Build Unity and Trust Among Workers Worldwide” resolution, which would have committed the federation to fully account for — and formally renounce — its decades-long record of interfering in foreign unions and undermining progressive governments in service to US empire.

Though approved by the 2 million-member California Labor Federation, the resolution was effectively killed by the national AFL-CIO before it ever made it to the convention floor. Since then, there has been no sustained, coordinated effort to get the AFL-CIO to officially break with its imperialist past.

At the same time, the federation’s operational arm in the Global South — the Solidarity Center — is funded primarily by the US government, including by the State Department and National Endowment for Democracy (NED). Known for meddling in the democratic processes of other countries and promoting “regime change,” NED is not the kind of agency the labor movement should be associating with, especially considering the ugly history I described here. No matter how much good work it may do, as long as the AFL-CIO’s Solidarity Center remains one of NED’s four core grantees, it will be impossible for workers in the United States and around the world to believe that the federation is no longer a tool of imperialism.

If labor activists and rank-and-file union members want the AFL-CIO and its national affiliates to take up a truly anti-imperialist foreign policy in genuine solidarity with the workers of the world, we’ll need to demand the federation not only own up to and apologize for its past alliances with US empire, but dissolve all of its present-day ties as well. This would require an embrace of vigorous discussion and debate within the labor movement that is currently absent.

Building Global Solidarity

For a US labor movement openly opposed to empire and seriously committed to transnational solidarity, the most urgent global priority would be tackling climate change, not least because the United States dumps more carbon into the atmosphere than any other country. Fighting imperialism and fighting climate change go hand-in-hand, not only because the US military emits more greenhouse gases than many industrialized countries, but also because the level of grassroots mobilization needed to prevent wars drains organizers of the time, energy, and political space needed to stop global warming.

Unions should be — but generally are not — at the forefront of framing the climate crisis in class terms, fighting for a Green New Deal, and using the power of the strike to force the kind of radical systemic change needed to reach zero carbon emissions in a matter of years.

A Green New Deal is supported by 62 percent of US union members and has been endorsed by independent unions like SEIU and the United Electrical Workers. But the AFL-CIO has said that it is “not achievable or realistic,” dismissing the idea of a “just transition” to good-paying, unionized green jobs.

Such a position in the face of an unprecedented emergency only benefits fossil fuel companies while betraying the billions of poor and working-class people around the world (including in the United States) whose lives are endangered by climate change. While energy sector unions have legitimate concerns about what will happen to their members in a transition away from fossil fuels, the Green New Deal would address this by ensuring workers in extractive industries can get unionized, clean energy jobs.

US labor could also show more meaningful solidarity to workers in the Global South by confronting international financial institutions, namely the IMF and World Bank, which are effectively controlled by the United States. The AFL-CIO should educate US workers about how the same forces imposing austerity and starving the public sector here at home have long been doing the same thing overseas, resulting in the effective continuation of colonial power relations.

Being better situated to pressure US-dominated international financial institutions than workers in developing countries, the AFL-CIO could make bold demands like total debt cancellation for the Global South and reparations for centuries of colonialism, which could dramatically improve the lives of foreign workers. Organized labor could also make stronger demands around international trade, rather than settling for tinkering at the edges of neoliberalism, as the AFL-CIO recently did by unnecessarily endorsing Trump’s NAFTA 2.0.

A Transnational Working-Class Movement

In pursuing an agenda for transnational solidarity, there is a web of international institutions with which the AFL-CIO and its affiliates are already connected to, including the International Trade Union Confederation, the Trade Union Advisory Committee to the OECD, the International Labor Organization (ILO), and the Global Union Federations, the latter of which bring together unions representing specific industries around the world. Through instruments like ILO conventions and global framework agreements, these institutions do a lot to raise labor standards around the world.

The enforceability and meaningfulness of such standards, however, are ultimately dependent on the strength of organized workers. The AFL-CIO’s foreign policy should therefore be primarily geared toward fostering direct worker-to-worker solidarity through educational exchanges (which can be done using video chat services and translation technology), cross-border organizing, and — most importantly — sustained, collective action on a global scale.

Organized labor around the world should be striving toward the creation of a truly united, transnational working-class movement, dependent only on its own collective strength and dedicated to replacing capitalism with socialism. While this may seem obvious, it has historically not been the approach of the AFL-CIO, which, at its worst, has assisted the US empire in dividing workers abroad. In the 2020s, the most urgent priority of such a transnational movement would be taking on the fossil fuel companies and other powerful players in the global capitalist economy to end climate change.

If the federation won’t bring itself to embrace anti-imperialism and take bold action in support of the workers of the world, then it is clear which side the AFL-CIO is really on.