A Union Activist's Call for Change

Saturday, 08 January 2011 23:07 By Nick Egnatz, Online Journal | Op-Ed | name.

A Union Activist
(Image: Lexington Books)

Kim Scipes’ new book “AFL-CIO’s Secret War against Developing Country Workers” (Lexington Books, 2010) documents the history of AFL-CIO leadership in supporting the U.S. government policy of Empire in the developing world. AFL-CIO leadership, in secret and completely without the consent and support of their rank and file membership, has worked to thwart popular bottom-up organic democracy in the developing world and instead supported elite top-down democracy, friendly to U.S. corporate interests.

Specifically what is Scipes charging labor with?

“ . . . that since the end of World War II, U.S. Labor has intervened in a number of countries. These interventions fall into three categories:

directly operating to help undermine democratically elected governments which, in each case, led to the establishment of a reactionary military dictatorship, the death and/or imprisonment of thousands, and decimation of respective labor movements (as in Guatemala during 1954; in Brazil in 1964; and Chile in 1973);

supporting reactionary governments and their affiliated labor movements against workers and their organizations seeking democratic changes (Indonesia during the 1970s-late 1990s; El Salvador throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s; the Philippines, 1980s-early 1990s; and South Korea, 1970s-late 1980s;

indirectly operating with local labor movements to attack pro-labor, progressive governments (in Guyana in 1963; Dominican Republic in 1965; Nicaragua in the late 1980s; and Venezuela in the late 1990s to 2002-03 . . .

“Each of these interventions, ironically, limited if not destroyed militant labor movements in these countries, providing safe haven for U.S. corporate investment. Thus, the foreign policy activities of the AFL-CIO provided places for U.S. corporations to invest, taking jobs from and/or providing increased competition to companies that had American employees.”

Was the labor leadership simply carrying the water for the CIA and U.S. Empire? One might make that assumption, but Scipes demolishes the theory that labor leadership were merely accomplices to Empire.

“The fear of “communism” by labor leaders--beginning with (Samuel) Gompers, and then of subsequent AFL/AFL-CIO leaders--has been based on these labor leaders’ ideology, and not some rational evaluation of what really was taking place. In other words, these labor officials have tended to believe automatically that anyone who would challenge the status quo (and most especially, capitalism) and sought to fight for the well-being of workers--especially if they took a broader and more militant approach than that of AFL/AFL-CIO leaders--was a communist; these labor officials did it here in the United States, especially in response to the CIO, and they have done it all around the world, particularly in the so-called “developing countries” of Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East. It has not mattered if that person was a member of a communist party or just a militant trade unionist: a broader vision, militancy, and especially willingness to engage in more than negotiations for collective bargaining agreements, have been long seen as signs of the communists . . .

“Thus, the fear of “communism,” in reality, has been used against anyone or any project that might get out of labor leaders’ control. This is different than what has been claimed: labor leaders have claimed that members of a competing political system were trying to impose their control undemocratically upon workers; that, if successful, they would force workers to do whatever these competing political system leaders demanded; and, therefore, they were a threat to the workers’ lives, liberty and pursuit of happiness--and that the AFL/AFL-CIO leaders were there to ensure that this was not allowed to happen. The reality has been the AFL/AFL-CIO leaders used this “thing” this amorphous threat called “communism,” as a tool to ensure their continued control over “their” labor organizations and “their” members--and they did this by training their workers to stop thinking once the words “communism” or “communist” were mentioned. And a key tactic to undercut labor dissidents and activists has been to label them as “communists,” and therefore discredit them, no matter how valuable their efforts.

“In other words--and we will see this again in the future--efforts to ensure social control in the unions have often preceded efforts by the U.S. Government, basically showing the government “how to do it”: we have seen this in the United States, and we have seen it overseas.”

Scipes traces the origin of AFL-CIO collusion and support of U.S. Empire with AFL founder Samuel Gompers and his philosophy of “business unionism that accepts the domination of society by corporate power; that organizes worker-members to fight for their limited interests instead of those of all working people: that is isolated from the community and resources outside of the trade union movement; and that keeps its members subordinated and does not educate them . . .”

Scipes on U.S. Empire:

“We are taught, particularly through our primary and secondary school systems, that the United States is the greatest country on the planet and that, of course, our efforts around the world are benign, when they are not life-affirming. Unfortunately, the historical record challenges this interpretation of reality. It will be argued, again, that a more accurate understanding recognizes that the U.S. is an imperialist nation, and that the entire set of imperialist relations should be recognized as constituting the U.S. Empire.

“From this perspective--that the U.S. Government’s foreign policy since the middle of WWII has been designed to ensure that the United States exerts hegemonic control over the world--we see that Labor has been reincorporated into the U.S. Government’s foreign policy efforts. The process by which this has occurred is described, initially by providing an account of the development of Labor’s “institutes” in developing countries--with a particular focus on AIFLD, the American Institute for Free Labor Development, in Latin America--and the ideological efforts to get government and multinational corporations to join in support of Labor’s efforts. This is followed with accounts of the U.S. Government’s efforts to work with Labor through the Agency for International Development (USAID), the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), and the Advisory Committee on Labor and Diplomacy (ACLD). And through this examination, it will be seen that Labor’s foreign policy leadership has acquiesced, if not actively participated, in subordinating the labor movement to the interests of the U.S. elites.”

Concerning domination and hegemony. I am indebted to William Robinson (“Promoting Polyarchy--Globalization, U.S. Intervention, and Hegemony,” Cambridge University Press) for an understanding of hegemony, a word I, as a typical American, was unfamiliar with a relatively short time ago. Robinson refers to socialist intellectual Antonio Gramsci who wrote his “Prison Notebook” from a Mussolini jail. Gramsci said that the domination of the majority by a minority was hegemony when it became consensual. He further clarified it as consensual, but backed by armor. The majority have bought into their subservient position, but the armor was there for those who weren’t buying. Robinson’s groundbreaking book is but one of many adroitly used by Scipes.

“ . . . Labor’s foreign policy leadership is wedded to the idea of Empire: they believe that the United States should dominate the world, that unlimited financial resources should be dedicated to ensuring this, and that all other considerations are secondary or less. That they have been willing to mistreat workers around the world, especially in the developing countries, and disembowel labor democracy within the United States . . .”

“And that is why this struggle against the AFL-CIO foreign policy program is so very important: we will be unable to change our labor movement until we consciously repudiate the U.S. Empire and break AFL-CIO leaders’ collaboration with it . . .

This requires us to act to transform the American version of trade unionism in general, at least into social justice union forms of economic trade unionism, and preferably into social movement unionism.”

But Dr. Scipes is not some academic pontificating from an ivory university tower. Rather he is a former Marine (Vietnam Era) of working class background who has been a member of and involved in the organized labor movement his entire life with careers as a printer, inner city high school teacher and office worker before reentering academia and becoming Assistant Professor of Sociology at Purdue University North Central (PNC) in Westville, Indiana. In addition to “KMU: Building Genuine Trade Unionism in the Philippines, 1980-1984” Kim has authored over 130 articles and reviews, largely on the international labor movement.

While extremely critical of the foreign policy of the AFL-CIO leadership, Kim leaves no question of where his heart lies, “I am a strong believer in unions.”

Dr. Scipes union credentials include past membership in the Graphic Communications International Union, AFL-CIO; the American Federation of Teachers, AFL-CIO; and the National Education Association. He is a current member of the National Writers Union/United Auto Workers Union, AFL-CIO, serving as the Chair of the NWU’s Veterans’ Committee and is long-time member of the United Association for Labor Education (UALE).

It has been my great pleasure for the last five years to consider Kim as a friend and fellow comrade in the struggle for social and economic justice for all. Working with Kim on Indiana University Northwest’s Conference on Participatory Democracy in Gary, Indiana, I can still see him telling students “don’t let your learning get in the way of your education.”

Kim’s book builds on a rich history of largely ignored research and documentation of the U.S. as an Empire vs. the accepted myth that U.S. is a functioning representative democracy and the kindest and gentlest of nations, the City on a Hill.

Dr. Scipes reports on the state of democracy within the AFL-CIO. In 2004, four hundred delegates, representing 2.5 million workers (1/6 of the total national AFL-CIO membership), unanimously passed the “Build Unity and Trust Among Workers Worldwide” resolution at the Biennial California State AFL-CIO Convention. Among other reforms it demanded transparency in union funding of the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) that had been used to further U.S. Empire at the expense or organic workers movements in the developing world through what was called the Solidarity Center. All done without the knowledge or consent of AFL-CIO membership. National leadership under President John Sweeney changed the resolution so that the actual resolution presented to the national delegates in 2005 actually praised the Solidarity Center’s actions and called for no transparency. When delegates attempted to challenge the resolution they were undemocratically prohibited from speaking by none other than the Chair of the Convention, AFSCME President Gerald McEntee.

Kim was at the founding conference for United States Labor Against War (USLAW) which subsequently succeeded in getting the 2005 National AFL-CIO convention to pass a resolution demanding that U.S. troops be “rapidly removed” from Iraq. This resolution, a direct slap in the face to leadership’s support of U.S. Empire, was then ignored by the leadership. Democracy within Labor appears no better than U.S. democracy in general.

The book was a real eye opener for me, as one outside the U.S. labor movement, but committed to social and economic justice. When I first started to read the book I sent out an email promoting it and mentioned that it brought into question the relevance of the U.S. labor movement. A union organizer on my list responded, “Gee, thanks Nick! I guess I’ll just go home and quit my irrelevant attempt at organizing and representing workers! Btw, irrelevant to whom or what?”

I issued an apology because I am sure that most within the U.S. labor movement have the best of intentions and the highest of ideals and that the relevance of their union membership is of paramount importance to them and their families and I certainly meant no disrespect to them. I have no axe to grind with rank and file workers, inside or outside of organized labor. On the other hand, leadership that subverts internal democracy and upholds U.S. Empire is irrelevant to those it leads within Labor. Those outside Labor who have no one representing them in the workplace may actually depend more on organized labor for support than labor’s rank and file membership.

With union membership of private workers now only 7percent, it becomes clear, to me at least, that leadership’s embrace of U.S. Empire, “business unionism” and disregard for internal democracy within labor has created a cancer, that if neglected will result in the complete irrelevance of the U.S. labor movement and the accelerated demise of what little is left of U.S. democracy. There are activists like Kim Scipes within U.S. Labor and they need the support of the rank and file to make Labor more democratic and less imperial. With endless wars raging overseas and the lives of the U.S. working class in tatters, the American people need U.S. labor to assume its rightful position leading the fight for social and economic justice for all.

This must read, for both those inside and outside organized labor, may be purchased from the publisher Lexington Books (LexingtonBooks.com). Every purchase of it at the personally hefty price tag of $65 helps to bring the price down for future publisher runs, including a possible future paper back edition. It belongs in every library in the country.

Nick Egnatz is a Vietnam veteran. He has been actively protesting our government’s crimes of empire in both person and print for some years now and was named “Citizen of the Year” for Northwest Indiana in 2006 for his peace activism by the National Association of Social Workers. Contact Nick at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .  

Last modified on Sunday, 09 January 2011 08:31