Organized Labor

views updated Jun 27 2018

Organized Labor

Elizabeth McKillen

An oft-quoted blue collar worker, questioned about international issues by pollsters in the 1940s, quipped: "Foreign Affairs! That's for people who don't have to work for a living." Given the complexity of the world order that emerged in the aftermath of World War II and the long hours that most working people labored, such sentiments are easy to understand. Yet since the mid-nineteenth century, when national labor unions emerged in the United States, many workers, grassroots labor activists, and trade union leaders have believed that political relations among nation states, transnational economic developments, and international labor migrations should be of vital concern to the American working class. U.S. labor groups and trade unions have sometimes sought to exercise international influence through international labor organizations or by encouraging transnational forms of collective action among workers. At other times, they have focused primarily on influencing U.S. foreign policy and economic expansion. In an effort to wield power in Washington, D.C., labor groups have typically engaged either in traditional forms of interest group lobbying or have participated in evolving corporatist power-sharing arrangements among business, trade union, and government leaders within the executive branch of government. Dominant trade union groups such as the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations that pursued international influence both by participating in international labor organizations and by trying to forge a corporatist partnership with business and state representatives in promoting U.S. foreign policy goals often discovered that these two avenues to power led in different directions.


The first systematic efforts to encourage international cooperation between trade unions most likely occurred in Europe in the 1830s and 1840s. Labor leaders there sought to develop alliances with trade unions from other countries for reasons that would be familiar to workers today. In part, suggests Lewis Lorwin in his pioneering work The International Labor Movement (1953), they sought to prevent the importation of strikebreakers from other countries. They also feared competition from foreign sweatshop labor and believed it was in their best interest to try to raise workers' wages throughout Europe. Some anticipated the increasing concentration of international capital and sought to develop alliances with foreign workers in the same industry so as to prevent international financiers and capitalists from playing workers in one country against those in another. Finally, some unions initiated contacts with unions from other countries for the practical reason that they needed financial assistance for their organizing or strike activities.

Most of these early efforts at international labor cooperation were suppressed by European governments or came to naught. It was only in 1864 that European workers successfully formed the International Working Men's Association, later known as the First International. Among the most influential members of the organization was Karl Marx, who wrote the preamble and rules, as well as an inaugural address that included the now famous appeal "Workmen of all countries, unite!" The organization grew slowly at first, and national delegates expressed a wide variety of viewpoints about questions of capitalism and collective ownership. As the organization expanded, however, it became increasingly dominated by Marxists. Eventually, an internal struggle developed between Marx and the Russian revolutionary and writer Michael Bakunin. After Bakunin was expelled, the First International's headquarters were transferred to New York City, where it declined rapidly and was finally dissolved at a meeting of the General Council in Philadelphia in 1876.

How American workers responded to these early European efforts at international labor cooperation is not entirely clear. The First International boasted some twenty-seven American sections representing several hundred U.S. workers, mostly immigrants. The short-lived National Labor Union, under the leadership of William Sylvis, also announced its attention to affiliate with the First International and to adhere to its principles. But no record has been unearthed of an official relationship between the First International and the more predominant Knights of Labor, which was created in 1869 and reached a peak membership of some 750,000 workers in the mid-1880s. Indeed, some Knights of Labor activists and leaders adopted a hostile attitude toward socialists like those who dominated the First International. Thus, historians have often treated the Knights as a uniquely American organization that developed in relative isolation from the European labor movement. They emphasize the importance of an ideology of labor republicanism within the Knights of Labor that drew on American political traditions rather than on European socialist and Marxist doctrines emphasizing international labor solidarity.

But the Knights may not have been as isolated from European political currents and internationalist activities as previously assumed. Leon Fink and Kim Voss note parallels between the Knights of Labor's condemnations of wage labor and emphasis on worker cooperatives, and the socialist critiques and programs promoted by European labor activists. They suggest that the Knights' emphasis on inclusive membership and broad-based, working-class solidarity across nationality lines was similar to that of other industrial labor organizations developing in Britain and France at the time. Eric Foner notes the importance of immigrants within local chapters of the Knights of Labor and illuminates their role in promoting an ethos of international labor solidarity upon which future generations could draw.

Particularly important, suggests Foner, was the influence of Irish-Americans within the Knights of Labor, for they brought with them an interest in the land question in Ireland. When Knights of Labor chapters faced opposition from hostile clergy and local governments in areas such as the anthracite coal regions of Pennsylvania, Knights of Labor activists often met covertly under the guise of local Irish Land League chapters. A creative cross-breeding of Irish nationalist and American labor reform ideas resulted and frequently led workers to conceptualize their local trade union struggles as part of a worldwide struggle between the owning and producing classes. Terence Powderly, Knights of Labor "Grand Master Workman," embodied the inter-connections between class and ethnicity in shaping the international orientation of some Knights of Labor activists. Born in Carbondale, Pennsylvania, of Irish immigrant parents, Powderly became active in both Irish and labor activities as a young man. During his tenure as grand master of the Knights of Labor, Powderly also served as vice president of the Irish Land League Council. Inevitably, the two causes became intertwined as Powderly used Knights conventions to publicize the linkages between the Irish land struggle and the class struggle in the United States. Although Knights of Labor activists advanced few actual international programs and developed few substantial ties with foreign labor movements, they thus sowed fertile ground for future immigrant labor activists who would develop an international labor vision that clashed fundamentally with that of the American Federation of Labor.


Founded in 1886, the American Federation of Labor (AFL) was comprised predominantly of craft unionsmany of whom had fled the Knights of Laborthat emphasized improving economic conditions for workers rather than eliminating or fundamentally transforming industrial capitalism. Although the national organization claimed to represent all workers, many constituent unions were quite exclusionary in practice, primarily made up of skilled, white male workers. Despite its narrow focus and membership base, the fledgling AFL was not opposed to international labor cooperation. When an international conference of labor leaders convened in Paris in 1889 to create the Second International, AFL President Samuel Gompers solicited its support for the AFL's campaigns on behalf of an eight-hour day. The congress responded favorably and organized May Day labor demonstrations in conjunction with the AFL's eight-hour-day rallies in the United States. The demonstrations marked the beginning of the international trade union tradition of May Day labor celebrations and rallies.

But in the decade following the Paris Congress, the AFL remained largely aloof from the Second International. In part, the AFL failed to develop a relationship with the Second International for pragmatic reasons. Still in its infancy, the AFL could not always afford to send delegates to European conferences. The organization was also preoccupied during its early years with strike activity. Perhaps most importantly, both American and European socialists became increasingly critical of the AFL's conservative orientation. When Gompers tried to arrange an international labor conference at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, only the British Trades Union Congress responded favorably. Gompers subsequently canceled the conference and, while encouraging the exchange of fraternal delegates between the British Trades Union Congress and the AFL, largely eschewed contacts with European socialist and labor leaders.

AFL interest in European labor affairs revived only after 1904, when many individual unions within the AFL began to affiliate with international trade secretariats. These organizations were comprised of national trade unions from the same industry that came together to promote their international interests. For example, miners from France, Germany, and Austria created the International Miners' Federation in 1890. Constituent AFL unions became interested in these secretariats when they realized they could provide valuable information about international conditions in their industries and coordinate activities that would prevent businessmen from importing strikebreakers from other countries. Among the AFL unions that joined secretariats between 1904 and 1908 were the miners, molders, painters, shoemakers, lithographers, bakers, and brewers.

As more AFL unions joined their secretariats, Gompers in turn became more interested in joining the International Secretariat of National Trade Union Centers, which had been formed in 1903 at the behest of leaders of the international secretariats who sought an international trade union organization that would be independent of the Second International. Gompers attended one of its conferences in 1908, and the AFL convention subsequently voted to affiliate with the organization. The AFL was an active member of the International Secretariat of National Trade Union Centers between 1910 and 1913 and successfully promoted an initiative to have the organization's name changed to the International Federation of Trade Unions (IFTU). After failing in their efforts to use international labor organizations to prevent war in 1914, Gompers and other AFL leaders confidently waited for an end to the conflict, assuming that the AFL would play a predominant role in international labor organizations following the armistice.

The AFL's influence in postwar labor organizations, however, would ultimately be undermined by the corporatist role it had tried to carve for itself in shaping U.S. foreign policy during the previous two decades. The first U.S. foreign policy issue in which the AFL took a systematic interest was the McKinley administration's policies toward the Cuban rebellion against Spain in the 1890s. Like many groups in the United States, the AFL lobbied Congress to recognize Cuban belligerency. A majority of representatives from the constituent unions of the AFL apparently believed it was their responsibility to promote liberty for fellow workingmen. In the minority within the AFL, suggests Delber McKee, were those who warned that labor should avoid committing itself on the question because it might be encouraging a U.S. war with Spain. War, they argued, always disproportionately hurt the workingman, because they were the ones who fought and died. Fewer still were labor leaders like Andrew Furuseth of the Seamen's Union, who questioned whether business and government leaders supporting the Cubans might have imperialist motives of their own. As Furuseth explained, the question over whether to support Cuban belligerency was one of "whether the New York speculator or the Spanish capitalist should skin the Cuban workingman."

AFL President Gompers, for his part, supported proposals to recognize Cuban belligerency but opposed McKinley's decision to declare war against Spain. Yet the AFL did nothing to oppose U.S. mobilization for war. Instead, Gompers focused on opposing annexation of Spanish territories at war's end. Gompers highlighted his reasons for opposing empire in an article entitled "To Free Cuba, Not to Chineize [sic] America Was the War Begun." In part, as McKee has demonstrated, Gompers shared the racial assumptions of many white trade unionists of his day and feared that annexing territories would enable "semibarbaric laborers" to immigrate to the United States and undermine American labor standards. As a former cigar maker, Gompers also sought to prevent goods like cigars produced by sweatshop labor in Cuba and the Philippines from competing with American products in the U.S. market. Finally, the AFL president also hoped to preempt possible American business flight to these low-wage areas by stopping U.S. annexation.

But after the Senate approved a peace treaty with Spain that resulted in the formal annexation of the Philippines, Gompers came to what McKee calls a "tacit compromise" with the State Department. The AFL president toned down his opposition to U.S. imperial policies and even endorsed temporary ward status for the Philippines and Puerto Rico in return for government and business acquiescence in an AFL campaign to build labor unions in these areas. In rationalizing his policies, Gompers argued, "We realized that in order to protect our standards within the states we must help the Island workers to develop their own higher political, social and industrial problems [sic]."

Gompers and the AFL thus began to move away from a policy of opposing government and business imperialism and toward a corporatist partnership between business, labor, and the state in promoting American economic expansion. Gompers and other AFL leaders reasoned that if they could raise labor standards in the new island protectorates, then U.S. imperial control over them might actually benefit U.S. workers. Goods produced there would not undersell those made by U.S. workers for domestic markets and American businessmen would not be tempted to establish low-wage factories on the islands. On the other hand, wealthier island workers might welcome consumer goods from the United States, thereby promoting American economic growth in ways that benefited U.S. business and U.S. workers alike. The islands might also prove to be important strategic outposts for securing access to other markets or raw materials deemed vital to the health of U.S. industry. Lost in such reasoning, of course, were the aspirations of indigenous working-class populations in the islands for economic, political, and cultural independence.

Meanwhile, a more amicable alliance had evolved among labor, business, and state leaders to resolve domestic economic problems during the early twentieth century. In 1900 the National Civic Federation was formed to encourage a "community of interest" among the three groups that would reduce industrial strife and promote the development of a healthy capitalist economic system in the United States. Upon assuming office, President Woodrow Wilson built on the initiatives of the National Civic Federation by creating the Department of Labor and the Commission on Industrial Relations to oversee industrial arbitration and to make recommendations for promoting harmony and efficiency in industry.

But this cooperative agendato encourage industrial peace at home and American expansion and hegemony abroadwould fully blossom only during World War I.


For the first several months of the war, the American Federation of Laborlike most of the American publicremained adamantly opposed to U.S. intervention in the conflict. But in 1916, Gompers began to actively support the Wilson administration's preparedness campaigns. Gompers, like Wilson, was alarmed by Germany's use of submarine warfare and believed the United States might need to enter the war to stop German aggression. Equally significant, Gompers had watched with fascination the evolving wartime partnership between British labor and the government during the early months of the war. He anticipated that by supporting Wilson's preparedness policies he might gain a voice for the AFL in executive branch defense councils comparable to that which British labor had won for itself. Gompers's reasoning proved correct: in 1917 he was appointed to the Council of National Defense, an organization created to prepare the country for possible involvement in the war. Gompers subsequently formed a labor subcommittee within the council that brought together representatives from business, labor, and the government to study questions of industrial coordination and to draw up guidelines on wages, hours, and mediation in war-related industries.

When a U.S. declaration of war against Germany seemed likely in March 1917, Gompers called a special labor assembly of the leaders of the AFL's constituent unions and secured its support for an AFL pledge to support any future U.S. war effort. The assembly was widely criticized by local AFL activists, socialists, and some members of the syndicalist Industrial Workers of the World, who charged that the labor assembly was not democratically constituted. They demanded that the AFL have a referendum vote of its entire membership to determine if workers actually favored a U.S. declaration of war against Germany. But Gompers ignored such militant proposals and instead used the AFL's patriotic pledge of support for the government as a bargaining chip to gain more representation for AFL leaders within emerging wartime agencies and councils created to mobilize the country for war. He anticipated that the defense agencies, far from being temporary, would lay the basis for a new bureaucratic order in Washington after the war in which the AFL would play a prominent role.

Gompers also sought to use his new leverage within the Wilson adminstration to expand the AFL's diplomatic influence. He obtained AFL representation on the Root Commission, a council of emissaries whose purpose was to travel to Russia to encourage it to stay in the war. He also secured the Wilson administration's support for two AFL labor commissions to go to Europe to win support among discontented European labor movements for Wilsonian war aims and to thwart European trade union efforts to plan an interbelligerent labor conference designed to negotiate an early end to the war. The AFL labor missions, as Elizabeth McKillen has shown, were greeted with hostility by European labor leaders who complained that its members behaved "as if their mission was to convince the misguided foreigners how wrong it is to differ with Americans." Labor and socialist leaders, moreover, continued to promote an interbelligerent labor conference despite the AFL's opposition. Although their plans would ultimately be stymied by their own governments, the issue provoked a profound split between the AFL and European labor movements.

That chasm widened during the Paris Peace Conference. Both European labor groups and the AFL at first supported a plan for an international labor congress to be held at the same time and place as the conference. But when France's premier, Georges Clemenceau, refused to allow labor leaders from the defeated countries on French soil, European labor leaders changed the location of their meeting to Bern, Switzerland. Gompers and other AFL leaders boycotted the Bern meeting and instead traveled to Paris to be in close contact with the leaders of the Paris Peace Conference. In return for his loyalty, Wilson appointed Gompers to head the International Labor Legislation Commission, which in turn created the International Labor Organization, a labor adjunct to the League of Nations. The organization clearly bore the imprint of Gompers's corporatist thinking about labor's role in international affairs. Far from being purely an organization of trade union representatives, the International Labor Organization was designed to consist of national delegations comprised of representatives from business, labor, and government. The organization was empowered to create international labor legislation governing such issues as hours, working conditions, and the protection of women and child workers, which individual states could either accept or reject.

Not surprisingly, the Bern labor conference reacted with hostility to the creation of the International Labor Organization and drafted their own international labor charter. However, in an ironic twist of fate, European labor activists became dominant in the International Labor Organization after the U.S. Senate rejected the Treaty of Versailles, thereby preventing U.S. membership in the League of Nations or its adjuncts. Meanwhile, the AFL distanced itself from the newly reconstituted International Federation of Trade Unions, which committed itself to international collective labor action after the war. The AFL also bitterly opposed the activities of the Red International of Trade Unions, created by Russian communists and their allies to promote world revolution. By the early 1920s, Gompers's vision of the AFL as a partner with business and government in promoting U.S. foreign policy had thus produced a seemingly irreconcilable split between American and European labor.

The AFL's diplomatic programs also spurred profound divisions within the ranks of labor at home. The greatest opposition to the AFL's postwar international agenda came not from the Socialist Party or the Industrial Workers of the World, both of which had been greatly weakened by wartime persecution and were ridden with factionalism at war's end, but from militant AFL-affiliated city labor councils and local unions with strong ties to immigrant communities. Leading the rebellion was the Irish immigrant John Fitzpatrick, president of the powerful Chicago Federation of Labor (CFL) and the Labor Bureau of the American Commission on Irish Independence. Following in the tradition of Terence Powderly of the Knights of Labor, Fitzpatrick drew on the intellectual heritages of both the American labor movement and Irish nationalist movement in trying to understand the global condition of workers. In contrast to Gompers, Fitzpatrick bitterly opposed all forms of imperialism, arguing that imperial control by industrially developed countries of underdeveloped hinterlands buoyed the power of the capitalist class at the expense of workers. Fitzpatrick and his colleagues also believed that war was the inevitable by-product of the capitalist quest for markets and natural resources. They energetically opposed U.S. intervention in World War I until 1917, when the AFL's declaration of labor loyalty made continued agitation strategically unwise. The CFL, however, remained critical of the AFL's wartime partnership with the Wilson administration, believing it hindered labor's advancement both at home and abroad, and launched the Farmer-Labor Party movement following the armistice.

Although an electoral failure, the Farmer-Labor movement, as McKillen has shown, served as a haven for AFL dissidents from city labor councils and trade union locals across the country that opposed Gompers's and Wilson's international programs. Along with the powerful Chicago Federation of Labor, particularly important in shaping the movement were the Seattle Central Labor Council, New York Labor Union, delegates from locals of the United Mine Workers and the railway brotherhoods, and representatives from a host of small-town labor councils that had created local labor parties in the aftermath of war. In contrast to Gompers and the AFL executive council, party advocates bitterly attacked the Versailles peace treaty, arguing that its terms were dictated by the leading imperialist powers on behalf of international capital. Labor Party leaders opposed the League of Nations on the grounds that it would "not be satisfied with a league of imperialist governments dominated by an international league of money bosses to cement an international control of industry by a small group of men who manipulate the bulk of the world's wealth." Rather than seeking token representation for labor in the league-sponsored International Labor Organization, Labor Party advocates sought representation for workers in international tribunals "in proportion to their numbers in the armies, navies, and workshops of the world." Representatives from the Farmer-Labor Party also expressed sympathy with the Irish, Mexican, and Russian revolutions and promoted an anti-imperialist agenda for the United States in Latin America and Asia.

Since many of the activists within the Farmer-Labor Party also belonged to immigrant nationalist groups, their ideas received wide circulation and swelled the tide of opposition to the peace treaty and to the Wilson administration. That Gompers viewed such a rebellion within the ranks as a threat to his efforts to promote both a corporatist international role for labor and a Wilsonian blueprint for a new world order was evidenced by the energy he devoted to suppressing the movement. Yet it was not Gompers who succeeded in destroying the movement but communist activists within the Chicago Federation of Labor such as William Z. Foster, who outmaneuvered Fitzpatrick and won control of the executive council of the Farmer-Labor Party. Subsequently, Fitzpatrick and most other local AFL activists disavowed the party and officially renewed their commitment to the AFL's supposedly nonpartisan politics. With the Farmer-Labor Party died a unique vision of U.S. labor's international role that emphasized the responsibility of U.S. workersas heirs to traditions of American labor republicanism and a diverse array of immigrant labor ideologiesto lead in the battle against international capitalism and international organizations that reified imperial forms of control by industrial-creditor nations over their less economically developed counterparts.


With internal critics silenced, Gompers and his successor, William Green, were free to devote the AFL's international energies in the 1920s to developing a leadership role for U.S. labor in the Western Hemispherea renewed interest that in part was inspired by the AFL's alienation from European labor diplomacy. Unable to shape either the International Federation of Trade Unions or International Labor Organization in ways it deemed constructive, the AFL instead chose to concentrate after 1920 on exercising influence over its immediate neighbors. Economic issues also played a role: AFL leaders recognized that American business was expanding rapidly throughout the hemisphere and that immigrants from Canada and Latin America were swelling the U.S. workforce. Since many AFL unions had already established strong footholds in Canada by World War I, AFL leaders primarily focused on encouraging better relations with Latin American labor movements. Their avenue to influence was the Pan American Federation of Labor, created in 1918 with secret financial aid from the Wilson administration. The Pan American Federation sought to raise labor standards in Latin America, curb abuses of labor by international capitalists, and promote the growth of unions in the Americas. Gompers and the AFL also wanted to use the organization to resolve immigration problems between Mexico and the United States and to give legitimacy to corporatist-oriented labor organizations such as the Confederación Regional Obrera Mexicana at the expense of the Industrial Workers of the World and other anarchist, communist, or socialist labor movements and organizations, which were winning converts in Latin America and within the Mexican-American community in the U.S. Southwest.

Although the Pan American Federation and the AFL sometimes condemned U.S. military interventionism within Latin America, AFL delegates often asserted that the U.S. presence in Latin America was primarily a beneficial one. Significant within the Pan American Federation conventions, as Sinclair Snow has shown, were debates over the Monroe Doctrine, with delegates from the AFL defending the doctrine as one that protected Latin American countries from greedy European powers, and many Latin American trade unionists condemning it as an instrument of U.S. imperialism. The AFL's frequent support for U.S. foreign policy and predominant role in the Pan American Federation fostered much criticism among radical Latin American trade unionists, who came to view it as a tool of U.S. imperialism. The organization declined rapidly as more left-leaning labor organizations gained influence in Mexico and Latin America in the mid-and late 1920s.

Largely isolated from their European and Latin American counterparts, the AFL at first promoted a nationalist response to the Great Depression. The organization resisted Franklin D. Roosevelt's efforts to expand trade through reciprocal agreements with other countries and instead suggested that the best way to end the depression was by implementing a thirty-hour work week. Mandated shorter hours, argued AFL leaders, would force employers to hire unemployed workers and lead to increased spending. To further stimulate the economy, many AFL unions recommended increased tariff protection for some industries and even promoted William Randolph Hearst's "Buy American" campaigns. Yet the AFL's isolationist impulse proved temporary. German and Japanese aggression in the 1930s, as well as challenges from the newly created Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), forced the AFL to take a renewed interest in international affairs. In 1933 the AFL instituted a boycott of German goods and supported Roosevelt's ban on strategic materials to Italy. Although AFL leaders continued to support the neutrality laws and to oppose U.S. military involvement overseas throughout the 1930s, it reaffiliated with the International Federation of Trade Unions in 1937. In part, the AFL sought to support antifascist forces in Europe. But equally important it hoped to prevent the organization from admitting either the CIO or labor delegates from the Soviet Union.

The symbolic origins of the CIO lay in United Mine Workers President John L. Lewis's historic right-cross punch to the chin of William Hutcheson of the Carpenters Union during an AFL convention in 1935. The fistfight occurred following a heated debate in which Lewis attacked the AFL for failing to take advantage of the depression and Roosevelt's labor policies to organize the unorganized. Following the 1935 convention, Lewis met with other disaffected leaders to create the Committee for Industrial Organization, which would spawn the Congress of Industrial Organizations. Although the AFL had many semi-industrial unions by the 1930s, leaders of the new CIO objected to the slow rate at which the AFL organized unskilled workers and to the continued dominance of craft unions within the organization. Capitalizing on rank-and-file labor militance in industries like rubber, automobiles, and steel, the CIO organized mass industrial unions that incorporated most grades of workers within particular industries. The CIO became famous for its militant tactics, scored decisive victories for workers in numerous industries, and vied with the AFL for leadership of the American labor movement.

Less well known than the domestic quarrels between the AFL and CIO were their conflicts over foreign policy. In contrast to the AFL's heavy-handed "Monroe Doctrine" for labor, CIO leaders preached nonintervention in the internal affairs of Latin American unions. When pursuing negotiations over labor issues, moreover, the CIO chose to bargain with leftist and often communist-led organizations like the Confederación de Trabajadores de América Latina rather than with AFL-inspired organizations such as the Inter-American Labor Union. Such activities won the CIO much goodwill among Latin American trade unionists, as did its decision to endorse Mexican President Lazaro Cardenas's decision to expropriate British and American oil fields in 1938. By contrast, AFL leaders argued that Cardenas's nationalization programs were a violation of the right to private property. The CIO also parted ways with the AFL in its willingness to envision the Soviet trade union movement as a part of future international labor organizations.

The top leaders of the CIO hierarchy, such as Sidney Hillman, Philip Murray, James Carey, and Walter Reuther, were all noncommunists who had battled communists during their ascent to power. Yet all were willing to work with communists at home when it supported their purposes and to negotiate with communist labor leaders abroad because they believed their support to be critical to the defeat of fascism and to future international labor cooperation. Such sentiments were comparable to those of the European leaders of the International Federation of Trade Unions, who had battled the Red International Labor Union in the 1920s but who saw the need for a popular front against fascism in the 1930s. By contrast, the AFL remained vehemently anticommunist throughout the 1930s and strongly opposed Soviet participation in the International Federation of Trade Unions. AFL leaders argued that only "free" trade unions, unattached to government parties or institutions, should be allowed to join international labor organizations. Soviet supporters countered that Western labor movementsincluding the AFLwere not entirely free of state interference either. A full debate on the issue of Soviet participation in the International Federation of Trade Unions was postponed in 1939 because of the Nazi-Soviet Pact. But the success of the Grand Alliance during World War II again led western European and CIO unionleaders to speculate about the value of a postwar labor organization that would include the communist world.


Replicating a pattern that developed during World War I, many European labor movements as well as the AFL and CIO worked closely with their respective governments to promote efficient wartime economic planning and aid their countries' war efforts. The British Trades Union Congress also sought to promote the war effort (and to preempt British communists) by forming the Anglo-Soviet Trade Union Committee, designed to encourage cooperation and solidarity between unionists in the two countries. The British Trades Union Congress subsequently invited the Americans to join the Anglo-Soviet Trade Union Committee, but these efforts failed because of the unwillingness of the AFL to work with either the Soviets or the CIO. In early 1945, however, the British trade union leaders hosted a labor conference designed to create a new international labor organization that would include the Soviets. The AFL refused to attend, but the CIO eagerly sent delegates, and in October 1945 the new World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU) was created.

This new federation embodied the hopes of a generation of trade union leaders for a substantive role for labor in international affairs. Most did not foresee for it a revolutionary role comparable to that sometimes espoused by the International Federation of Trade Unions. Rather, suggests Victor Silverman in Imagining Internationalism (2000), the leaders of the World Federation were labor bureaucrats who "envisioned a corporative worldone ruled by global institutions that would represent all elements of society." Yet the corporatist vision of these leaders differed in important ways from that of Samuel Gompers during World War I. Gompers had envisioned the International Labor Organization comprised of national delegations representing equal numbers of business, labor, and government officials. By contrast, World Federation leaders believed it was vital that labor have its own organization that could speak independently for world labor and represent the world's working classes within the United Nations.

The drive for a powerful labor international that included all significant elements of world labor was apparently given momentum by an increased spirit of internationalism that pervaded working-class life in the major democracies after 1941. Silverman suggests that in Britain the war fostered a greatly increased awareness and concern for foreign relations among workers and argues that a "vague sympathy for the Soviet 'experiment' grew into tremendous enthusiasm for cooperation in reordering the world." Because the working-class population in the United States was more diverse than that of Britain, it failed to develop a comparable consensus on internationalism or on cooperation with the Soviets. Nonetheless, many American workers had come to feel vaguely sympathetic toward a new labor internationalism by war's end. As one union carpenter cited in Silverman explained, "We can't stay on our side of the pond anymore. It's one world now and we got to go in and do our share. The Union's taught me that. Workers everywhere want it fair for all." In contrast to their British counterparts, however, many American workersespecially first-or second-generation immigrants from Eastern Europewere distrustful of the Soviets. Yet perhaps because of their long experience with redbaiting in the unions, workers were initially slower to embrace the Cold War than wealthier Americans. The lack of a Cold War consensus about America's postwar role within the working class in turn bought time for CIO leaders to experiment with a reordering of international labor politics within the World Federation.

In addition to supporting the federation's major efforts to gain a role for itself within the United Nations and to encourage cooperation between communist and noncommunist trade unions, the CIO took the lead in developing the federation's colonial department. In contrast to many European trade union leaders, the CIO promoted independent trade unions in colonial areas and supported their efforts to gain representation in the federation. Even French communists within the organization, for example, battled CIO representatives over the question of representation for African labor, insisting that the French trade union delegates to the federation already represented workers from French possessions in Africa. Of course, CIO leaders could sometimes be naive about their own country's imperial record, as when James Carey insisted that U.S. rule in the Philippines had been entirely benevolent and designed to give democracy to the Filipinos. CIO leaders, moreover, embraced a Rooseveltian faith in the virtues of free trade that sometimes blinded them to the dangers of economic imperialism. Nonetheless, Silverman suggests that the CIO's defense of colonial rights within the federation earned it popularity in much of the underdeveloped world and offered hope that the new organization might serve the interests of Third World labor.

But several factors ultimately undermined the federation. The AFL's Free Trade Union Committee collaborated with the State Department to weaken the organization by sowing discord between communist and noncommunist unions in Europe. As Peter Weiler has shown, the AFL also successfully worked to prevent international trade secretariats from affiliating with it. Without the trade secretariats, the task of coordinating labor activities within individual industries proved impossible. Meanwhile, both the CIO and AFL became increasingly vulnerable at home following passage of the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947, which required that all union leaders sign affidavits pledging that they were not Communist Party members. The predominantly noncommunist CIO leadership at first resisted but soon chose to purge communists and communist-led unions from their ranks. Their support for purges was likely motivated both by a desire to consolidate their own leadership positions within their unions and to safeguard their unions from government persecution. Desperate to appear loyal in the face of the anticommunist hysteria sweeping the nation, the CIO also embraced the Marshall Plan and, along with other Western unions, asked the World Federation to endorse it. As Weiler wrote, the "introduction of the Marshall Plan into the WFTU brought the Cold War directly into the international trade union movement." Predictably, the Soviets opposed an endorsement of the Marshall Plan and instead advocated neutrality on the issue. Leading Western union movements with the exception of the French Confédération Générale du Travail and Italian Confederazione Generale Italiana del Lavoro then withdrew from the federation in 1949 and, in concert with the AFL, created the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions.


One of the primary goals of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) was to support people trying to free themselves from totalitarianism. Silverman has revealed that CIO leaders, in joining the new international, expressed hope that the organization would support neither "Stalin" nor "Standard Oil" but a "broad democratic middle where people may fight to have both bread and freedom." The CIO placed faith, in particular, in the capacity of the organization to assist in implementing the Marshall Plan in ways that would benefit European workers. True to their New Deal roots, many CIO leaders anticipated that the Keynesian spending fostered by the Marshall Plan would stimulate European economies. The ICFTU, meanwhile, would encourage labor-management cooperation in increasing productivity and presumably both European workers and business owners would benefit.

Workers in many European countries, however, failed to profit from the Marshall Plan to the extent that AFL and CIO leaders envisioned. The activities of the AFL, and to some degree the CIO, in undermining communist-led unions and in encouraging splits within them, helped to weaken the labor movements in many countries and prevented them from claiming an increased share of their nation's wealth in the postwar era. For example, Ronald Filippelli and Federico Romero have demonstrated that in Italy the AFL worked in collaboration with the U.S. State Department to encourage discord between communists and noncommunists within the Confederacion Generale Italiana del Lavoro, or Italian General Confederation of Labor. Subsequently, both the AFL and CIO supported the formation of rival free trade union organizations in Italy that were devoid of communist influence. While some divisiveness within Italian labor circles would likely have occurred regardless of American meddling, the AFL and CIO nonetheless played some role in making the Italian labor movement one of the most faction-ridden and weakest in Europe by the 1950s. Thus, while Italy experienced the miracalo italiano, or the Italian economic miracle, in the aftermath of Marshall Plan spending, Italian workers remained among the lowest paid in the developed world. As European workers became increasingly dissatisfied with the fruits of the Marshall Plan, European trade union leaders within the ICFTU challenged many American initiatives and a greater balance emerged between the Europeans and Americans in the organization. (In 1969, the by-then merged AFL-CIO withdrew from the ICFTU because it believed that Europeans within the organization had become soft on communism. The AFL-CIO rejoined the ICFTU only in 1984).

The AFL and CIO's early Cold War foreign policy activities also produced mixed results in occupied Japan and in Latin America. As Howard Schonberger has demonstrated, American labor officials played an important role in the U.S. occupation of Japan because U.S. policymakers hoped to build a strong AFL-styled union movement there to check the power of traditional business and political elites whom they believed responsible for Japanese aggression during World War II. A powerful Japanese trade union movement, moreover, would force Japanese Zaibatsu corporations to share some of their profits with workers and lead them to redirect some trade exports toward their domestic markets and away from other markets where they might compete with U.S. goods. In 1945 occupation officials sponsored a trade union law that established the legal framework for Japanese workers to organize unions, bargain collectively, and strike. The Japanese labor movement subsequently grew exponentially and by 1949 represented more than half of all Japanese workers.

Charged with directing the growth of the Japanese labor movement in ways the U.S. government deemed constructive was the Labor Division of the occupation bureaucracy. The Labor Division always contained AFL representatives, and in 1947, James Killen, vice president of the International Brotherhood of Pulp, Sulphite, and Paper Mill Workers within the AFL, was appointed chief of the division. Occupation leaders sought Killen's help because they feared the Japanese labor movement was drifting to the left and were concerned about the militant tactics adopted by Japanese unions. Killen sought to counter the influence of communists by establishing anticommunist cells called mindo within Japanese unions. Yet Killen was also critical of the occupation bureaucracy for not stemming the tide of inflation, which undermined any gains workers achieved, and for its decision to remove government workers from the trade union movement. Eventually, convinced that occupation leaders were more concerned with weakening the Japanese labor movement than with eliminating communist influence, Killen resigned, as did several members of his staff.

Nonetheless, AFL and CIO leaders cooperated with occupation officials in 1949 and 1950 in encouraging the development of an anticommunist labor federation in Japan called Sohyo, which they hoped would affiliate with the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions. But much to the chagrin of AFL and CIO leaders, Sohyo did not affiliate with the ICFTU en bloc but instead allowed individual unions to choose whether or not to affiliate. Thus, by 1954 only one-third of Japanese union members belonged to organizations that affiliated with the ICFTU. Even more problematic, Sohyo became one of the leading critics of U.S. foreign policy in Asia. Sohyo lead-ers, for example, persistently criticized the peace and security treaties proposed by the Americans for terminating the Japanese occupation because they did not include Russia and the People's Republic of China and because they did not remove U.S. military bases from Japan. Sohyo leaders also opposed the Korean War. By the spring of 1953, the AFL's Free Trade Union Committee had concluded that Sohyo was a puppet of the Kremlin.

Although its independent positions on foreign policy issues and increasingly militant tactics won it the admiration of many Japanese workers, Sohyo nonetheless failed to develop into a sufficiently strong and unified organization to act as a formidable counterweight to the power of Japan's large Zaibatsu corporations. Enterprise unions, or unions within one company, continued to flourish, helping to cement the loyalty of permanent workers to their companies. Meanwhile, many temporary workers remained without union representation altogether. The fragmented nature of Japan's labor movement undermined Japanese workers' efforts to gain a larger portion of business profits, thereby undermining domestic consumption and propelling the Japanese economy along an export-driven path. Thus, American labor's goals for postwar Japan were largely frustrated.

The AFL and CIO, meanwhile, also became very active in Latin America during the early Cold War. The interest of AFL and CIO leaders in Latin America stemmed not just from their anticommunist animus but from their belief that Latin America was a vital source of raw materials for the United States and an important market for U.S. industrial products. Thus, despite their early differences on Latin American policy, both AFL and CIO leaders supported a plan proposed by Secretary of State William Clayton in 1945 that called on Latin American nations to lower tariff barriers on U.S. goods in return for greater U.S. investment in extractive and agricultural industries. Ronald Radosh has demonstrated that many Latin American labor leaders, by contrast, opposed the plan, which they argued would result in "uncontrolled foreign capital investment in Latin America [which] will cause the deterioration of programs which look to the industrialization of the countries of Latin America, aggravating their great dependence on one crop culture and exports." AFL and CIO leaders believed that communist labor leaders posed a particular threat to American economic expansion and in 1951 developed a Latin-American affiliate of the ICFTU known as the Inter-American Regional Workers' Organization (ORIT). This organization was designed to promote anticommunism within the labor force of Latin America and to undermine support for the communist-led Confederation of Latin American Unions.

The AFL and ORIT became particularly involved in Honduras and Guatemala during the early 1950s. The U.S.-based company United Fruit played a dominant role in the economies of both countries. When impoverished Honduran workers struck United Fruit in 1954, demanding a 50 percent wage increase, the AFL and ORIT intervened. According to a Senate study cited by Al Weinrub, they soon "gained the leadership of the strike." AFL President George Meany encouraged mediation by the State Department and the company quickly chose to settle. Honduran labor activists complained: "After the strike, the AFLCIO, the U.S. Embassy and ORIT" descended upon them "like a plague," gaining them special favors with employers in return for embracing AFL principles of collective bargaining. Meanwhile, left-leaning Jacobo Arbenz Guzman was elected president of Guatemala in 1950 and began a process of land reform that involved expropriating hundreds of thousands of acres of unused United Fruit Company land. Arbenz also enacted a generous labor code that gave trade unions unprecedented rights. Yet AFL President Meany protested the Guatemalan leader's toleration of communists in the labor movement and the AFL and ORIT tried to establish a rival free trade union confederation in Guatemala. Arbenz's government, however, arrested or deported many of the leaders of the new organization.

Following a private conference between Central Intelligence Agency Director Allen Dulles and Meany, the AFL president announced that U.S. labor supported a plan to come to a showdown with communists in Guatemala. In June 1954 an invasion force that included members of the free trade union confederation created by the AFL and ORIT crossed the border from Honduras and toppled the Arbenz government. As subsequent scholars would reveal, the coup was financed and carried out under the direction of the Central Intelligence Agency. The AFL immediately hailed the coup as a victory for democracy. By contrast, some CIO leaders initially opposed the coup, suggesting that communist penetration in Latin America had been greatly exaggerated and that State Department policy was really driven by its desire to give aid to the United Fruit Company. After Carlos Castillo Armas took power in Guatemala, AFL, CIO, and ORIT members traveled to Guatemala to reorganize the labor movement along anticommunist lines. Yet his government proved quite hostile to labor and thousands of unions were dissolved by the military regime. Union membership plummeted and Guatemalan workers remained impoverished. The Armas government, however, satisfied the U.S. government and corporate interests by returning expropriated United Fruit land. Activities like these helped to discredit ORIT. As the U.S. Senate conceded, "To many Latin Americans ORIT is an instrument of the U.S. State Department."

The AFL and CIO merged in 1955, and during the 1960s, to overcome its increasingly bankrupt image in Latin America and other underdeveloped regions, the AFL-CIO created three new labor centers: the American Institute for Free Labor Development (Latin America), the African-American Labor Center, and the Asian-American Free Labor Institute. The organizations' goals were to provide education and training for trade unionists from underdeveloped countries. Yet some charged that paternalistic assumptions permeated the centers' educational programs. As Nathan Godfried writes, American labor leaders active in the centers tended to assume a stage theory of trade union development comparable to the stages of economic development posited by Western economic theorists for developing countries. Trade union movements in the Third World were allegedly in a "primitive" stage of development and thus were preoccupied with unrealistic political and radical agendas. By contrast, mature unions from the developed world focused on plausible economic goals that could be obtained through peaceful collective bargaining. Thus, Everett Kassalow, director of the AFL-CIO's Industrial Union Department, argued that American labor-education efforts would enable unions in the Third World to skip "long years of struggle which molded Western union leadership and membership." But critics from Africa, Asia, and Latin America countered that U.S. models were often unsuitable for conditions existing in other areas of the world.

More troubling than criticisms of the content of the centers' educational programs were charges that the institutes worked with the Central Intelligence Agency and other U.S. government operatives to undermine democratically elected but left-leaning governments in Third World areas. The American Institute for Free Labor Development, in particular, was implicated in U.S. efforts to undermine the governments of Joao Goulart in Brazil in 1964 and of Salvador Allende in Chile in 1973. In both cases, the institute channeled money to conservative union groups that staged disruptive protests and strikes designed to paralyze their governments. Both Goulart and Allende were eventually overthrown in military coups supported by the United States. Former CIA agents such as Philip Agee subsequently disclosed that the institute was riddled with CIA operatives during these years and was a conduit for the agency. In contrast to the early Cold War period, the institute's activities provoked dissension within the U.S. labor movement as critics like Victor Reuther of the United Auto Workers concluded that it represented "an exercise in trade union colonialism." By the 1980s many grassroots labor councils had also emerged to oppose U.S. policy in Central America and to criticize the AFL-CIO's collaboration in these policies. The African-American Labor Center and Asian-American Labor Center operated in greater obscurity, but they too faced increasing criticism for allegedly collaborating with the CIA and other government agencies to promote U.S. Cold War objectives.

The Vietnam War also provoked opposition to the AFL-CIO's international agenda during the 1960s and 1970s. George Meany, president of the organization during these years of turmoil, unstintingly supported the policies of the Lyndon Johnson administration, as did the regular yearly conventions of the AFL-CIO. The executive council, in defending the AFL-CIO's hawkish position on the war, argued that to undermine support for U.S. military forces in Vietnam would be aiding the "communist enemy." Newscasts left an indelible imprint on the American memory by featuring demonstrations of "hard hat unionists" supporting the war and sometimes attacking antiwar demonstrators. Yet opposition to the war within the labor movement began to build from at least 1967, when a National Labor Leadership Assembly for Peace met in Chicago. Chapters of the assembly spread to at least fifteen cities. Following the bombing of Cambodia, United Auto Workers President Walter Reuther condemned the widening of the war, as did a host of other labor unions and local and regional labor bodies. The dissenters ultimately failed to alter the prowar policies of the AFL-CIO, but they set the stage for revival of debate within the labor movement over the proper direction of the AFL's international policies in an increasingly global economy.


Confronted with economic stagnation in the 1970s and 1980s, many labor activists began to question not only the morality of the AFL-CIO's Cold War policies but also whether they protected the economic interests of American workers. Undergirding the AFL-CIO's international agenda during the early Cold War lay the assumptions that a freer international marketplace would enable American capitalism to flourish and that some of the profits would trickle down to U.S. workers. Yet as industrial products from other countriessuch as Japanese carsflooded U.S. markets, many American workers faced layoffs and concessions and began to question whether a freer marketplace was really in their best interest. Thus, activists from the United Auto Workers launched a "Buy American" campaign and staged demonstrations at which they bashed Japanese cars with sledgehammers to demonstrate their point. UAW leaders sought to discourage the racism that surfaced in these campaigns but nonetheless jumped on the bandwagon of economic nationalism by promoting domestic content legislation. Such legislation took into account the global assembly line, recognizing that even cars bearing an American logo were often partly or wholly produced abroad, while some foreign companies had plants in the United States. The solution, believed UAW leaders, was to legislatively mandate that most cars sold in the United States have a 25 percent U.S. domestic content. Faced with widespread discontent among constituent unions, even the national leadership of the AFLCIO beganin seeming contradiction to its earlier Cold War advocacy of a freer marketplaceto promote protectionist legislation.

Other labor activists, however, eschewed economic nationalism and believed that globalization instead called for a new kind of labor internationalism. The reform initiatives of these activists were given momentum by the fall of communism in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.

With no Cold War to give legitimacy to their policies, Lane Kirkland and his advisers within the AFL-CIO increasingly found it difficult to defend the organization's international strategies. The AFL-CIO hierarchy temporarily joined hands with reformers in 1992 and opposed the North American Free Trade Agreement. But as union membership continued to plummet and U.S. workers continued to feel themselves at the mercy of globalization, reformers gained ascendency within the AFL-CIO and in 1995 elected as president John Sweeney of the Service Employees International Union.

Sweeney revamped the AFL-CIO's foreign policy apparatus, shutting down many of its existing overseas operationsincluding the CIA-linked American Institute for Free Labor Development. In its place the new American Center for International Labor Solidarity was created. The AFL-CIO's International Affairs Department was placed under the direction of the reformer Barbara Shailor of the International Association of Machinists, an experienced transnational strategist in labor solidarity. Many credited the AFL-CIO's new foreign policy team with helping to defeat the Clinton administration's efforts to gain congressional ratification for special presidential authority to "fast-track" North American trade agreements in 1997.

Also propelling the U.S. labor movement along a new international track in the 1980s and 1990s were individual AFL-CIO unions that initiated negotiations and forged ties with Canadian and Latin American unions representing workers in comparable industries. The case of the United Mine Workers of America is one of the most striking. When the Exxon Corporation closed a coal mine in West Virginia in 1983 and instead invested in one in El Cerrejon, Colombia, the United Mine Workers eschewed economic nationalism and chose to help the Colombian miners union, SINTERCOR, in its fight for better wages for Colombia miners. Perhaps most notably, the United Mine Workers filed a protest in the early 1990s under the Generalized System of Preferences, a U.S. tariff system, which charged Exxon with violating internationally recognized workers' rights. It also joined the International Metalworkers Federation in publicizing the plight of Colombian miners throughout the world. Significantly, SINTERCOR won substantial wage increases for Colombian miners in 1992 and 1993 without resorting to a strike. The United Mine Workers president, Richard Trumka, defended his union's activities on behalf of Colombian miners by arguing that if the American labor movement did not help strengthen unions and improve working conditions in low-wage countries, then "the multinational corporations will attempt to lower our standards to the lowest international common denominator."

Trumka's arguments suggested that the American labor movement had come full circle in its approach to international affairs. During its earliest years, the AFL-CIO had tried to foster international labor cooperation in an effort to gain some influence for workers over global economic and political developments. Yet for most of the twentieth century, the AFL, and later the AFLCIO, seemed to place greater priority on promoting national economic expansion and U.S. foreign policy goals than on fostering international labor solidarity through international labor organizations. The dangers of the AFL-CIO's nationalist approach became particularly apparent during the Cold War, when AFL leaders engineered the destruction of the World Federation of Trade Unions and often joined government officials, U.S. businesspersons, and CIA operatives in undermining left-leaning and communist labor movements and governments abroad. Such activities often had the long-term effect of weakening foreign labor movements and helping create lowwage economies that invited capital flight and encouraged a loss of U.S. jobs. As the twenty-first century dawned, however, many labor activists seemed reawakened to the need to continue the task of building a strong international labor movement that European workers had begun early in the nineteenth century.


Andrews, Gregg. Shoulder to Shoulder? The American Federation of Labor, the United States, and the Mexican Revolution, 19101924. Berkeley, Calif., 1991. The best account of U.S.Mexican labor relations in the early twentieth century.

Babcock, Robert H. Gompers in Canada: A Study in American Continentalism Before the First World War. Toronto and Buffalo, N.Y., 1974.

Barrett, James R. Work and Community in the Jungle: Chicago's Packinghouse Workers, 18941922. Urbana, Ill., 1987.

Berger, Henry W. "Union Diplomacy: American Labor's Foreign Policy in Latin America, 19321955." Ph.D. diss. University of Wisconsin, Madison, Wis., 1966.

Brundage, David. "Denver's New Departure: Irish Nationalism and the Labor Movement in the Gilded Age." Southwest Economy and Society 5 (winter 1981): 1023.

. "Knights of Labor." In Mari Jo Buhle, Paul Buhle, and Dan Georgakas, eds. Encyclopedia of the American Left. 2d ed. New York, 1998.

Buhle, Paul. From the Knights of Labor to the New World Order: Essays on Labor and Culture. New York, 1997.

Busch, Gary K. The Political Role of International Trades Unions. New York and London, 1983.

DeConde, Alexander. Ethnicity, Race, and American Foreign Policy: A History. Boston, 1992.

Eisenberg, Carolyn. "Working-Class Politics and the Cold War: American Intervention in the German Labor Movement, 19451949." Diplomatic History 7 (fall 1983): 283306.

Filippelli, Ronald L. American Labor and Postwar Italy, 19431953: A Study of Cold War Politics. Stanford, Calif., 1989.

Fink, Leon. Workingmen's Democracy: The Knights of Labor and American Politics. Urbana, Ill., 1983.

Frank, Dana. Buy American: The Untold Story of Economic Nationalism. Boston, 1999. A fascinating study of impulses toward economic nationalism within American society from the Revolution to the present.

Foner, Eric. "Class, Ethnicity, and Radicalism in the Gilded Age: The Land League and Irish-America." Marxist Perspectives 1 (summer 1978): 655. A pathbreaking article on the linkages between ethnicity, class, and international attitudes.

Foner, Philip S. U.S. Labor and the Vietnam War. New York, 1989.

Godfried, Nathan. "Spreading American Corporatism: Trade Union Education for Third World Labour." Review of African Political Economy 39 (September 1987): 5163. An insightful article exploring the activities of the African-American Labor Center.

Gompers, Samuel. Seventy Years of Life and Labor: An Autobiography. New York, 1925.

Gordon, Jerry. Cleveland Labor and the Vietnam War. Cleveland, Ohio, 1990.

Grubbs, Frank L., Jr. The Struggle for Labor Loyalty: Gompers, the A.F. of L., and the Pacifists, 19171920. Durham, N.C., 1968.

Larson, Simeon. Labor and Foreign Policy: Gompers, the AFL, and the First World War, 19141918. London and Rutherford, N.J., 1975.

Levenstein, Harvey. Labor Organizations in the United States and Mexico: A History of Their Relations. Westport, Conn., 1971.

Lichtenstein, Nelson. Labor's War at Home: The CIO in World War II. New York, 1982.

Lorwin, Lewis Levitski. The International Labor Movement: History, Politics, Outlook. New York, 1953. One of the few books that covers U.S. labor groups and their involvement in early international labor activities.

McKee, Delber Lee. "The American Federation of Labor and American Foreign Policy, 18861912." Ph.D. diss. Stanford University. Stanford, Calif., 1952.

McKillen, Elizabeth. Chicago Labor and the Quest for a Democratic Diplomacy, 19141924. Ithaca, N.Y., 1995.

. "Ethnicity, Class, and Wilsonian Internationalism Reconsidered: The Mexican-American and Irish-American Immigrant Left and U.S. Foreign Relations, 19141922." Diplomatic History 25 (fall 2001): 553587.

McShane, Denis. International Labour and the Origins of the Cold War. New York, 1992.

Moody, Kim. Workers in a Lean World: Unions in the International Economy. London and New York, 1997.

Nelson, Bruce. Workers on the Waterfront: Seamen, Longshoremen, and Unionism in the 1930s. Urbana, Ill., 1988. Examines the international orientation of maritime workers in addition to domestic issues.

Radosh, Ronald. American Labor and United States Foreign Policy. New York, 1969.

Roberts, John W. Putting Foreign Policy to Work: The Role of Organized Labor in American Foreign Relations, 19321941. New York, 1995.

Romero, Frederico. The United States and the European Trade Union Movement, 19441951. 2d ed. Translated by Harvey Fergusson. Chapel Hill, N.C., 1992.

Schonberger, Howard B. Aftermath of War: Americans and the Remaking of Japan, 19451952. Kent, Ohio, 1989. Includes an excellent chapter on U.S. labor's participation in the occupation of Japan.

Silverman, Victor. Imagining Internationalism in American and British Labor, 19391949. Urbana, Ill., 2000. A fresh approach to the history of labor internationalism in the post-war era that includes much fascinating material on working-class attitudes toward international issues in Britain and the United States.

Sims, Beth. Workers of the World Undermined: American Labor's Role in U.S. Foreign Policy. Boston, 1992.

Snow, Sinclair. The Pan-American Federation of Labor. Durham, N.C., 1964.

Voss, Kim. The Making of American Exceptionalism: The Knights of Labor and Class Formation in the Nineteenth Century. Ithaca, N.Y., 1993.

Weiler, Peter. "The United States, International Labor, and the Cold War: The Breakup of the World Federation of Trade Unions." Diplomatic History 5 (winter 1981): 122.

Weinrub, Al, and William Bollinger. The AFL-CIO in Central America. Oakland, Calif., 1987.

See also Economic Policy and Theory; Internationalism; Multinational Corporations; Race and Ethnicity; Tariff Policy; Wilsonianism.


In 1917, when AFL President Samuel Gompers staged a meeting to secure approval of a labor declaration of loyalty to the government during wartime, he purposely excluded representatives from local labor councils, correctly suggesting to advisers that many were centers of pacifism. City labor councils often became hotbeds of antiwar and anti-imperialist sentiment during World War I because they were more organically connected to local working-class subcultures than to the AFL leadership. Chicago boasted one of the most oppositional labor subcultures of the World War I era. It was one of those rare places, suggests James Barrett, "where it was easier to be a union member than to be nonunion" in the early twentieth century. Disillusionment with President Woodrow Wilson's war policies in the city's teeming immigrant working-class neighborhoods inspired a labor party that raised critical questions about the AFL's unwavering support for Wilsonian foreign policy. Similar labor parties erupted in some forty-five other cities in the immediate postwar period and eventually culminated in the Farmer-Labor Party of 1920, a party with a strongly anti-Wilsonian agenda. Local, regional, or ethnic working-class subcultures could thus sometimes inspire alternative visions of labor internationalism that impeded AFL attempts to win working-class support for its international policies.

Other forms of oppositional working-class subcultures sometimes developed within particular industries or vocations. For example, maritime workers, by virtue of their travel, often came in contact with other cultures and ideas that instinctively bred a sense of internationalism. Yet the conditions of a seaman's life, suggests Bruce Nelson, were also characterized by "raw exploitation" and "a legendary rootlessness and transiency that led to a persistent isolation from the main integrative institutions of American society." Such a subculture lent itself to militant and sometimes violent displays of international labor solidarity. Seamen and other maritime workers were particularly aggressive in opposing fascism during the 1930s. One typical incident occurred when crew members from American and Danish merchant ships joined together to pull a swastika from a German ship trying to enter Olympia Harbor in Washington State in July 1933. Such seamen were aware well in advance of most Americans that Nazism posed a danger to the rights of democratic trade unions. In another instance, in 1935, seven thousand longshoremen, machinists, and scalers in San Francisco struck to protest a German ship entering San Francisco Harbor with swastika flying. Maritime workers also mobilized to protest Mussolini's invasion of Ethiopia and refused to load cargo bound for Italian soldiers participating in the campaign. The militancy of the maritime workers proved difficult for either the AFL or CIO to contain.

Oppositional labor subcultures also proved critical in stimulating an independent labor internationalism during the Vietnam War. Despite the AFL-CIO's unwavering support for the nation's war effort, a host of local labor groups such as the Cleveland Federation of Laborwith strong community supportopposed U.S. government policy in Vietnam. Such examples suggest the need for historians to examine the dynamic interaction between labor leadership and oppositional subcultures within the labor movement when exploring questions of labor internationalism.

Organized Labor

views updated May 14 2018


The ranks of organized labor expanded enormously over the course of the Great Depression. The number of employees represented by unions grew from 3.6 million to 10.5 million between 1930 and 1941. As a percentage of the non-agricultural labor force, union membership rose from 11.6 percent in 1930 to 27.9 percent in 1941. The labor movement's progress, however, was hardly steady or inexorable. Throughout the 1930s workers alternately encountered success and failure, employer resistance and cooperation, ineffective and responsive labor leadership, and a protective but ultimately constrained federal government.

After a steep decline in the early 1920s, unions had begun to recover by the end of the decade. The American Federation of Labor (AFL), the umbrella association of craft unions that represented the vast majority of organized workers, had worked successfully to develop amicable relations with employers. This was a practical strategy when the economy was healthy but it left the AFL completely unprepared for the economic crisis that accompanied the stock market crash of 1929. Rather than proposing aggressive strategies for tackling unemployment and employers' wage cuts at the onset of the Depression, AFL president William Green pleaded for labor-management cooperation, a thirty-hour workweek, and a public works program; he was late in supporting unemployment insurance and refused to endorse a candidate in the 1932 presidential election. As jobs became scarce and labor leadership failed to respond effectively, union membership steadily dropped to 3.2 million in 1932, its lowest level in over fourteen years. Workers appeared demoralized and withdrawn, displaying none of the radicalism that had characterized their response to the earlier depressions of the 1870s and 1890s. Whereas prior depressions featured prominent national strike waves, fewer than 200,000 workers, a new low, took part in work stoppages in 1930.

Federal legislation and the efforts of a rising cadre of industrial unionists breathed new life into the labor movement. In 1932 Congress passed the Norris-LaGuardia Act, which gave employees the right of association, outlawed "yellow-dog" contracts that stipulated that workers could not join unions, and restricted the use of federal injunctions to stifle pickets or boycotts. Although its effects arguably were less profound, the National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933 provoked a far greater reaction from unions. Its famed section 7(a) required that the industrial codes drawn up under the law grant employees the right to bargain collectively with employers without coercion or discrimination. Unions felt that the federal government, at last, had become a tool rather than weapon to be used against them. Organizers from the United Mine Workers (UMW), distorted the law's meaning but demonstrated its rallying potential in recruitment signs that announced "The President wants you to join a union."

Well before many codes were drawn up, workers began returning to the labor movement. There were more work stoppages in 1933 than the previous two years combined. By 1934 violent strikes demanding union recognition had broken out in the steel, automobile, textile, lumber, and shipping industries. San Francisco faced a city-wide general strike in which longshoremen, led by Harry Bridges, broke from the AFL, set up the independent International Longshoremen and Warehousemen's Union, and won a favorable settlement. Rank-and-file unionists (i.e., those who were not leaders or officers) and their insurgent leaders threatened not only employers, who resisted forcefully, but the AFL's authority within the labor movement.

Unable to harness the anger and excitement of ordinary workers, the AFL also suffered from its own tactical errors. The national textile strike of 1934 (the largest in American history at that date) was prematurely called off, sacrificing critical momentum, when President Franklin Roosevelt promised an investigation into working conditions. The AFL's rigid attachment to craft unionism, in which an industry's employees were split off into separate unions on the basis of occupation, cost it the loyalty of workers who had organized and formed relationships across job categories and did not care about the national unions' jurisdictional boundaries. As a result, thousands of workers who had taken part in strikes gradually dropped out of the unions after the immediate conflict was resolved.

John L. Lewis, president of the UMW, argued that the AFL's single-minded focus on craft workers came at the expense of the unskilled and semi-skilled operatives prevalent in the mass-production industries. A more promising approach lay with industrial unionism, which held that a single union should encompass all workers in a given industry. Most importantly, Lewis decried the AFL's disinclination to mount aggressive organizing campaigns until jurisdictional issues were resolved. When the leadership of the AFL irreconcilably fragmented, Lewis and his associates announced on November 9, 1935, the formation of the Committee for Industrial Organization (CIO), an alliance of some of the AFL's most militant unions, and vigorously began recruiting industrial workers. The split was later completed when the CIO permanently became the Congress of Industrial Organizations.

The CIO's efforts were greatly assisted when Congress passed the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, also known as the Wagner Act. The Act reaffirmed the protections of labor that had been implemented in the National Industrial Recovery Act (which the Supreme Court declared unconstitutional that same year), granting labor the right to organize and bargain collectively with employers, but it also extended those protections by creating the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to investigate complaints of unfair labor practices, enforce the right to form unions, and oversee the election of representatives by employees. Unlike earlier pro-labor legislation that merely removed constraints to labor organization, the National Labor Relations Act committed the federal government to supporting union activity within established limits.

There is considerable debate about the contribution of the National Labor Relations Act to the subsequent escalation of industrial unrest. Some historians believe that the law and the hearings of the La Follette Civil Liberties Committee, which were chaired by Senator Robert M. La Follette, Jr., of Wisconsin in order to support the National Labor Relations Act by compiling evidence of employer violence and industrial espionage, encouraged ordinary workers to defend their interests. Once the law was upheld on April 27, 1937, by the Supreme Court in NLRB v. Jones and Laughlin Steel Company, the NLRB energetically began to enforce the law that employers previously had disobeyed openly. Between 1935 and 1945, the board handled 36,000 cases of unfair labor practices and held 24,000 elections, 83.9 percent of which resulted in the certification of unions.

Others historians attribute the success and abrupt rise of rank-and-file militancy to the CIO's organizing campaigns and the competition for members that finally mobilized the AFL. Certainly, Lewis's efforts in forming Labor's Non-Partisan League in 1936 helped politicize workers and contributed to Roosevelt's landslide re-election. More decisively, the CIO's on-the-ground organizing led to the resurgence of the labor movement. Its innovative approach included promoting interracial solidarity, appealing to ethnic workers by expanding the concept of Americanism, utilizing the radio to spread its message, and cooperating with Communist and Socialist activists who proved to be some of its most effective organizers.

The first test of the nascent alliance came in late 1936 when militant autoworkers at a General Motors plant in Flint, Michigan, staged a nonviolent sit-down strike. Recognizing its broader implications in one of the nation's vital non-unionized industries, Lewis quickly championed the strike, which spread throughout the company. When bloodshed seemed imminent, Lewis interceded, secured the support of Roosevelt and Governor Frank Murphy, and on February 11, 1937, won an agreement whereby for the first time General Motors recognized the United Automobile Workers (UAW) as the bargaining agent for its members. Worried about similar disruptions, U.S. Steel, the target of the CIO's most aggressive organizing campaign, settled an equally historic agreement on March 2, 1937, that recognized a CIO union (one that would become the United Steelworkers of America), raised wages by 10 percent, and introduced a forty-hour workweek. These two victories galvanized workers throughout the country, who struck for union recognition, as well as better wages and improved conditions. Even the AFL got busy organizing mass-production industries, responding to the demands of its own energized membership and the success of the CIO. By the end of 1937, the CIO claimed 3.7 million members and the AFL another 3.4 million, together more than doubling the union membership of 1932.

The momentum of 1936 and 1937 proved difficult to sustain. Although cumulative union membership continued to grow through the end of the Depression, several high-profile organizing failures and the economic downturn of late 1937 and 1938 hurt the labor movement. Collective bargaining reached its limit when employers refused to negotiate with labor representatives in good faith. Layoffs shrank the membership of some industrial unions and forced others to accept wage concessions; the AFL, meanwhile, withstood the recession with fewer setbacks. Roosevelt's waning interest in broad social and economic reform also took a toll. By the late 1930s, Roosevelt shifted his attention to diplomacy, which widened the growing split between the pacifist CIO and the interventionist administration. Tensions mounted until Lewis, who once had been a vocal supporter of the president, declared his endorsement of Republican Wendell Willkie in the 1940 election.

The rank and file took its own path in the election. Working-class voters, even those in Lewis's own UMW, overwhelmingly cast their ballots in support of Roosevelt. Indeed, throughout the decade ordinary workers took matters into their own hands, often without consulting or despite the contrary wishes of union leaders. Early in the Depression the paralysis of AFL leadership sometimes was broken by spontaneous strikes touched off by local incidents and popular radicalism. Many of the alliances that workers formed at the local level were improvisational and unconventional. For instance, in 1934 strikers in Toledo, Ohio, secured the support of A. J. Muste's Unemployed League to win union recognition. Later efforts by the CIO proved so successful in part because they merged the resources of national unions with sensitivity to local community autonomy. The CIO not only generated but identified and supported rank-and-file militancy.

While workers displayed more enthusiasm than union officials for direct action, they often were motivated by less radical social values. Whereas union leaders, particularly those in the CIO, sometimes supported a wide range of reforms and political philosophies, workers themselves often cared only about their specific demands. Their activism, therefore, arose out of a defense of the implicit prerogatives they had established with employers in prior decades. Social transformations also indirectly increased participation in union activity. Ethnic divisions that inhibited unionization earlier in the century fell away after immigration was severely curtailed in the early 1920s. The arrival of mass consumption allowed workers to develop a separate working-class culture with ties beyond their neighborhoods.

All workers did not share equally in the advances made by organized labor. Workers in the South and West remained much less organized than those in the Northeast and Midwest. Union organizers targeted several industries, such as textiles and garments, that employed women in great numbers and others, such as automobile, rubber, and metalworking, that employed few, but increasing numbers of, women. Nevertheless, unions remained led by men and oriented toward the interests of male workers. For instance, many unions embraced discriminatory employment policies in which women were laid off first under the assumption that men provided their household's primary income. Long ignored or discriminated against by AFL unions, African Americans and Mexican Americans were slow in joining the labor movement. The CIO made great efforts to attract them, however, partly because it understood that by using African-American strikebreakers employers had fostered racism to divide workers. The CIO's concern for unskilled and semi-skilled industrial workers also led to its particular interest in African Americans and Mexican Americans, who disproportionately filled those positions. Still, racism was not absent altogether from even the CIO unions. Moreover, the single major union dominated and led by African Americans was part of the AFL. In line with the AFL's craft constituency, A. Philip Randolph's Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters represented relatively prosperous railway workers, though it also would become an institutional channel for the integration of the AFL Executive Committee and was a forerunner of civil rights activism.

Few could have predicted in the early 1930s that by the decade's end more than a quarter of the workforce would be unionized and that collective bargaining would be protected by the federal government. Nevertheless, the Depression years also amply illustrated the limitations of American unions and anticipated future troubles. But before confronting these enduring difficulties the labor movement would enjoy yet another prolonged resurgence during World War II.



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Eduardo F. Canedo

Organized Labor

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303. Organized Labor

a form of labor-management negotiation in which management opens with a generous offer that is subject to little or no bargaining.
a member of a political party or other group allied with the interests of labor.
the beliefs of bands of early 19th-century English workmen that attempted to prevent the use of labor-saving machinery by destroying it. Also Ludditism. Luddite, n.
the practices and policies of a labor union. unionist, n., adj.
a system of permanent voluntary boards in English industries in which both management and workers settle matters of wages, hours, etc.

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