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Kim Scipes, AFL-CIO's Secret War against Developing Country Workers: Solidarity or Sabotage?

Kim Scipes, AFL-CIO's Secret War against Developing Country Workers: Solidarity or Sabotage? (Lanharn, Maryland: Lexington Books 2010)

MANY UNION activists in the US and Canada know at least vaguely about the sinister nature of the AFL-CIO'S foreign policy record. Under its agency for Latin America established in the early 1960's, the AFL-CIO was involved in the overthrow of democratically elected governments in Brazil and Chile, and participated in interventions in Guyana, Dominican Republic, Trinidad and Tobago, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua. (35) The actions of the AFL-CIO internationally have led to countless murders of trade unionists and the destruction of labour and socialist movements via support for authoritarian and repressive regimes and the undemocratic unions linked to these regimes. Scipes notes that these actions, pursued in the name of US workers, have occurred without their knowledge or consent. While Scipes demonstrates that these activities have long been supported and funded almost entirely by the state, he breaks from the idea that the AFL-CIO'S work in support of US imperialism was state-led and argues that this imperialist orientation emerged from within the labour movement itself. Scipes refers to this as labour imperialism, a policy whereby the AFL-CIO has worked to dominate foreign labour movements especially in developing countries in an effort to advance the interests of the US Empire. (xxiv)

Scipes's approach to this history and the issues arising from it is very clearly linked to and revealing of his many years as a union activist engaged in struggles to build grassroots international solidarity within the US labour movement. AFL-CIO's Secret War against Developing Country Workers: Solidarity or Sabotage? draws from decades of activist work and scholarship that emerged from a number of international solidarity movements within US labour that challenged the AFL-CIO's participation in American imperialist projects. It is foremost a damning critique of the AFL-CIO leadership's development of labour imperialism and a call to action. Scipes's accounting of this history dates the emergence of labour imperialism prior to the Cold War and as continuing through the post-Sweeney era, making a strong case against efforts to dismiss these activities as simply outgrowths of the Cold War that have now been abandoned. The importance and urgency in challenging the AFL-CIO's past and present collaboration with US imperialism arises from the threat it poses to trade unionists globally and the obstacle it creates for those who are working to transform the labour movement locally.

While much has been written on this issue over the past 30 years, this work is an important contribution in a number of ways. It offers to current and future labour activists a compendium of the vast array of writing on labour imperialism, as well as the debates on the AFL-CIO's historical record. The endnotes alone provide a rich resource for future activists and scholars who want to explore these histories further or take them on politically in their union. Scipes sorts through this literature, periodizing the various approaches to the question of why labour imperialism emerged, from the early accounts that understood it as being externally imposed by the state and state agencies like the CIA to more recent accounts that see it as emerging from within the labour movement and linked to the rise of business unionism. He also categorizes the various labour imperialist projects into three types. First, the AFL-CIO directly operated to challenge democratically elected governments and contributed to the rise of military dictatorships that cost thousands their lives and destroyed their respective labour movements, for example Chile in 1973. (xxxi) Second, they supported reactionary regimes and the labour organizations that backed them against workers' movements struggling for democratic change, as in the Philippines in the 1980s. And third, they indirectly operated with local right-wing labour organizations to attack pro-labour progressive governments, as in Venezuela in the late 1990s and during 2002-03. (xxxi)

While quite briefly and mostly with a focus on the post-Sweeney era, Scipes includes a history of resistance to labour imperialism. In the third chapter he outlines some of the efforts by activists to build worker-to-worker international solidarity, providing a landscape of the current organizing as well as some of the challenges to expect. This is an area that could be a site for future work if trade unionists do take up the call posed by Scipes. Particularly, a more detailed history of the organizing, approaches, and strategies of resistance would be a real contribution to thinking through how we build grassroots worker-to-worker international solidarity movements.

Scipes's chapter on the role of the state includes much important new information that is quite incriminating of the staff and leadership in the post-Sweeney era, especially in light of their promises and proclamations of establishing a new direction for international solidarity with the replacement of the International Affair Department and the labour institutes with the solidarity centres. The most glaring contradiction identified by Scipes is the involvement of staff and leaders in the State Department's Advisory Committee on Labor and Diplomacy throughout the Bush Administration and the role of the National Endowment for Democracy in continuing to serve as the primary funding source for the solidarity centres. (105)

Rather than provide a country-by-country accounting of the AFL-CIO's operations, Scipes's endeavour is to map out the how and why of labour imperialism. Scipes covers the role of the AFL-CIO in Chile, the Philippines, and Venezuela in detail and points to several others through his analysis of the origins of labour imperialism and via his notes. The book points to the unevenness of the existing scholarship geographically and the need to deepen our understanding of the history of labour imperialism in the Near East, and much of Asia and Africa outside of the well-documented case of South Africa.

While Scipes ends by indicating that the answer to the question of why labour imperialism emerged is still unknown, the question shapes the text and clues to the answer are considered in the account of the origins of labour imperialism in the AFL. In particular the role of white supremacy and the emergence of alliances based on race rather than class in the growth of business unionism are touched on in Scipes's discussion of the AFL's championing of the Chinese Exclusion Act. (12-15) Scipes provides a more explicit consideration of this question and its significance in his more recent piece in WorkingUSA in December 2010 where he develops an analysis of how the ideological framework of American nationalism, intimately tied to white supremacy, empire, and capitalism, serves to maintain labour imperialism. It is a useful addendum to this text.

I agree with Fred Hirsch's review of this text in Monthly Review that it is a great resource that should be made accessible to trade union activists and rank-and-file members. If, for instance, the Worker-to-Worker Solidarity Committee takes up the challenge and produces a pamphlet based on this text, I think it would be useful to include a more explicit accounting of why challenging labour imperialism and building worker-to-worker solidarity is so critical to the broader struggle to transform organized labour.


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Author:Nastovski, Katherine
Publication:Labour/Le Travail
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2011
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