A Forgotten Legacy: American Labor’s Pioneering Role in Global Support for Democracy

Eric Chenoweth answers questions about organized labor’s past campaigns against foreign dictatorships, and why such solidarity is lacking today.

AFL-CIO Solidarity button

AFL-CIO Solidarity button (University of Maryland, Labor in America Collection)

Eric Chenoweth answers questions about organized labor’s past campaigns against foreign dictatorships, and why such solidarity is lacking today.

Thirty years ago on June 4, Poland conducted its first semi-free elections since the country fell under communist rule and Soviet domination after World War II. Many in both Washington and Warsaw anticipated a victory for the ruling party and an allied front party, which had been reserved two-thirds of the seats. But voters refused to vote for their candidates, denying them many seats, and the candidates aligned with the independent Solidarity trade union movement won all competitive seats in a landslide victory that ultimately brought about a noncommunist government and triggered the collapse of Soviet satellite regimes across Central and Eastern Europe.

A crucial part in Solidarity’s success was played by the American trade union movement. American unions, under the leadership of Lane Kirkland, provided Solidarity with material, political, and moral support throughout its decade-long struggle, including for the election campaign. This contribution was in keeping with a long tradition of assistance to the cause of free labor around the world, including in the communist world, Latin America, and postcolonial countries. Today, unfortunately, that tradition is much neglected and often forgotten, to the detriment of global democracy.

In the interview below, Freedom House’s Arch Puddington discusses American labor’s role in the struggle for democracy in Poland and elsewhere with Eric Chenoweth, co-director of the Institute for Democracy in Eastern Europe. Chenoweth previously served as director of the Committee in Support of Solidarity from 1982 to 1987 and worked in the international affairs departments of the American Federation of Teachers and the AFL-CIO from 1987 to 1993. He is also the principal author of the Albert Shanker Institute’s Democracy Web, an extracurricular comparative studies resource for teachers based on Freedom House’s annual Freedom in the World report.

The American labor movement had a tradition of involvement in foreign policy that stretched back to the early Cold War years. How significant was this role, and what was the motivation behind it?

American labor’s involvement in international affairs actually dates to its beginnings in the late 1800s. Among the most significant accomplishments of the American Federation of Labor’s first president, Samuel Gompers, was helping establish the International Labour Organization. The ILO’s founding idea—and the reason President Wilson supported it at the Versailles Treaty talks after the First World War—was that the improvement of labor conditions would forestall the sorts of economic and political conditions that had led to that conflict. One motivation for Gompers and American labor was a basic belief that our freedoms and economic well-being here were tied to the freedom and economic well-being of others. That is, international solidarity.

As freedom and democracy retreated in the 1920s and 1930s with the rise of communism and fascism in Europe, some AFL leaders became active in trying to save trade unionists from repression, especially Jewish trade unionists facing Nazi persecution. In the mid-1930s they established an organization to carry out this work and to join antifascist efforts like that of Freedom House in the early 1940s. Some of its founders were immigrant Jews, like David Dubinsky of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union; others, like Matthew Woll, leader of the photo engravers’ union, was a Roman Catholic immigrant from Belgium. George Meany, from the building trades, came from an older Irish immigrant family. The immigrant roots of many American trade union leaders, by their own accounts, gave them an international perspective and an appreciation for the basic freedoms that America offered.

In the aftermath of World War II, the AFL’s leaders understood that they faced two challenges: rebuilding democratic trade unions in a devastated Europe and preventing the Soviet Union from dominating a reconstituted international trade union movement. Irving Brown and Jay Lovestone, who were former communists, were employed to lead the Free Trade Union Committee in this effort, with Brown serving as the European representative and starting an office in Paris.

The AFL helped with direct support to rebuild free trade union movements throughout Europe and fend off communist-dominated labor federations supported by the Soviet Union. Free trade union federations in France, Italy, Germany, and elsewhere helped establish stable conditions for democracy and public support for the Marshall Plan in Western Europe at a time when Stalin was entrenching Soviet control in Eastern Europe and trying to undermine Western democracy. The importance of labor and trade unions in ensuring a democratic—actually a social democratic—outcome in Western Europe is often ignored. They were central, from the Nordic countries down to the Mediterranean.

The second challenge was linked to the AFL’s understanding of the slave labor system maintained by the Soviet communist regime. It was the AFL that published the first map of the GULAG slave labor camps in 1947; its campaign against slave labor at the UN was important in Eleanor Roosevelt’s long battle with Stalin’s envoy Andrey Vyshinsky at the UN Commission on Human Rights. Roosevelt’s victory in that battle led to the clear language of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The AFL also helped create the free international trade union movement. As the Soviet trade unions came to dominate the World Federation of Trade Unions, free unions broke away to join the AFL in establishing the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU).

The American left sometimes criticized the mainstream US labor movement as an agent of imperialism and of the CIA. Was this criticism at all warranted?

I would say no. The US labor movement was always independent, carrying out its own foreign policy. There was some concordance of interests between US foreign policy and the AFL and later the merged AFL-CIO. Both accepted government funds to carry out this work. In the immediate postwar period, the AFL did receive CIA funding—it was the only such funding available—for support of independent trade unions, the Marshall Plan, and building a broader international base for the ICFTU to compete with communist trade unions. But the left’s or really the New Left’s critique of American labor’s foreign policy was based on opposing the AFL-CIO’s anticommunism, and so the critique exaggerated the “CIA” connection. Left-oriented scholars, like Anthony Carew in his book American Labour’s Cold War Abroad, have concluded that the AFL and CIO both acted independently and often in conflict with the CIA and the US government. The conflicts emerged especially in Africa, but also in Asia and Latin America, where American labor supported democratic and anticolonialist trade union movements and opposed US government support for repressive regimes. Irving Brown’s support for the Algerian trade union movement, which was aligned with the National Liberation Front, is particularly noteworthy. The support of anticolonialist trade union movements was anti-imperialist. And certainly there was not an imperialist dimension to the recovery of Europe. Rather the opposite.

One can point to where the AFL’s anticommunism did prevent effective support for some trade union and freedom movements that were also courted by the Soviet Union. The black trade union leader A. Philip Randolph, for example, was critical of the lukewarm support offered to Kenya’s and Ghana’s trade union leadership (later Brown did provide greater support) and had to take on himself the task of organizing labor opposition to the South African apartheid regime in the 1950s and 1960s, when the AFL was reluctant to support the African National Congress due to its alliance with the South African Communist Party. But later, in the 1980s, the AFL-CIO strongly backed the fight for sanctions against South Africa and supported the emerging black trade unions, including those tied to the ANC.

The AFL-CIO’s and George Meany’s position in support of the Vietnam War did long-lasting harm to their domestic standing within the left and the Democratic Party. While support for the war was mistaken, especially in retrospect, Meany’s position wasn’t in support of American imperialism. He argued that a communist victory would bring great suffering and repression for South Vietnamese workers. He wasn’t wrong in that. And generally, the anticommunist position was a principled one against slave labor and against rigid state-party control over workers and trade unions.

There were a number of successful transitions from right-wing dictatorship to democracy during the 1970s and 1980s, before the fall of communism in Eastern Europe. Did organized labor play a significant part in these transitions?

Yes, it’s important. The AFL and CIO were antifascist, antimilitarist, and anticommunist. American labor’s opposition to the Portuguese and Spanish fascist regimes, for example, was long-standing, and the AFL-CIO revived the Free Trade Union Committee in 1973—it had been supplanted by regional institutes in Africa, Asia, and Latin America—to support the revived democratic trade unions after the Carnation Revolution in Portugal. It was active also in Spain to help the revival of free trade unions following the death of Franco.

I noted the reorientation in South Africa to more actively oppose the apartheid regime and to support black trade unions. The Asian American Free Labor Institute supported the emergent trade unions in South Korea, whose strike movement helped bring an end to the right-wing dictatorship, and also in the Philippines and Taiwan, helping to bring about democratic change there as well. There are other examples.

One can exaggerate the role of the trade unions and of the AFL-CIO. And they made mistakes of judgement. But in every country where there was democratic transition, trade unions played significant roles in mobilizing worker support for change. The AFL-CIO was there generally to help those unions.

What was organized labor’s role in pushing for a strong American response to the emergence of the Solidarity movement in Poland? What were American labor’s most important contributions to Solidarity?

I would say Poland is where the AFL-CIO, under the leadership of Lane Kirkland, distinguished itself. It is hard to imagine now, but in August 1980, when the general strike of millions of workers was organized in communist Poland, the US government was tepid in its support. President Jimmy Carter urged Kirkland and the AFL-CIO not to take any actions that might “provoke” the Soviet Union. Kirkland instead called for international support of an American-led boycott of Polish shipping—Teddy Gleason of the longshoremen’s unions led the American side—to put pressure on the Polish government to negotiate an agreement with the workers. That agreement, the Gdansk Accords, recognized the right to organize free trade unions. Five days after the agreement was signed, Kirkland announced a public fund that ultimately raised $250,000 (more than $1 million in today’s dollars) to help Solidarity, the new independent national union.

When the Polish government cracked down on Solidarity in December 1981, it is also hard to imagine today—and people forget—that the US government even under President Reagan was quite slow to respond. The AFL-CIO and Lane Kirkland organized a public campaign for a stronger response, which led to more serious sanctions and conditionality for their being lifted. The AFL-CIO had to pressure the administration throughout the 1980s not to lift sanctions until the main condition, relegalization of Solidarity, was met. The toughest sanctions did stay in place until the Polish government agreed to negotiations to relegalize Solidarity after renewed strikes in 1988. The AFL-CIO and the ICFTU had both kept up steady financial, political, and moral support for Solidarity’s underground trade union, through and after Solidarity’s relegalization. Kirkland’s support for the creation of the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) helped deliver greater public financial support for Solidarity through the Free Trade Union Committee and other organizations, like the Committee in Support of Solidarity, which I directed.

One can say without the AFL-CIO’s broad support, the Solidarity trade union movement may not have survived as it did. The voices in the State Department that wanted to lift the sanctions in exchange for a few prisoner releases would have won out even within the Reagan administration. Such action would have made Reagan’s political and rhetorical support less effective. On the international trade union side, the AFL-CIO’s leadership was important, but the ICFTU was united on this issue. Solidarity brought the two institutions back together in a strong stance against communist-controlled unions and for free trade unions.

What it all says is that democratic change in the Eastern bloc was not foreordained. It required support.

Why did American labor step back from its global involvement after the collapse of communism? How have democracy promotion efforts been affected by its diminished participation?

One reason was a change in leadership away from staunch internationalists like Meany and Kirkland. Kirkland’s successor, John Sweeney, won the AFL-CIO presidency in large part on a platform promising to focus on domestic organizing and less on international work. That became entrenched under the current leadership.

The broader reason, though, has been a decades-long assault on trade union rights in the United States and a long period of free trade policy that helped reduce the number of blue-collar union jobs. Both factors, economic and political, put the AFL-CIO on a long decline in membership and in a defensive and more isolationist stance. Furthermore, on the left and in the Democratic Party, there was less support for trade unions as either a progressive force in domestic politics or as a democratic force in international politics. Part of that stemmed from the false narrative about the AFL-CIO’s connection to the CIA, which you asked about above, but it was more a general lack of appreciation for the democratic internationalism that the AFL-CIO had embodied.

The effects are large. One should note there is still international work—the AFL-CIO’s Solidarity Center has combined the four regional institutes and has many programs aimed at combatting the most exploitative practices found in the world. But the programs have diminished. When “democracy promotion” was launched through the NED, its work was modeled on the AFL-CIO’s active presence on all continents. Today, the NED and other democracy promotion institutions dwarf the Solidarity Center, and they tend not to focus on supporting mass-based organizations like trade unions.

Modern authoritarians have given careful study to the dynamics of successful democratic revolutions, especially those that brought down communist dictatorships. What steps have regimes in countries like Russia, China, or even Hungary taken to prevent the reemergence of a dynamic trade union movement with ambitions for democratic change?

The most important lesson learned was to act decisively against any mass-based political or trade union movement and to prevent any freedom of association from taking hold. We are observing the 30th anniversary of the suppression of the Tiananmen Square protests. China’s government understood from then on that it had to repress all manifestations of democratic society, and it particularly has repressed all worker activism outside official trade union structures. Russia under Putin has acted to prevent mass protests and to prevent trade unions from emerging as democratic forces. Hungary has now set out to remove labor protections, enacting its “slave labor” law allowing unlimited overtime. This has actually renewed interest in trade union organizing. But the unions are weak for now.

It’s worth noting that after the Cold War ended, there was a broad consensus in the West that trade unions were no longer important in establishing democratic systems. Whereas trade unions were essential to rebuilding democracy (and social democracy) in Western Europe after World War II, there were only limited protections for free unions in Eastern Europe as it moved to a market economy. President George H. W. Bush told Lech Wałęsa that he would have to destroy Solidarity to have a successful market economy. This was the advice given to democrats at the outset of the transition by Western leaders.

It was a very strange reaction to how we witnessed change take place through mass organization and protest action in all the countries of the former Soviet bloc, beginning with Solidarity’s trade union movement and extending to East Germany, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Romania, the Baltics, Belarus, Russia, Ukraine, the Caucasus countries, and even throughout Central Asia. Bush’s advice to Wałęsa was generalized, and it was truly a misunderstanding of history as economic determinism. It represents the false understanding that free markets, not free institutions, bring political and civic freedom.

What are the prospects for unions playing a greater role in democratic transformations around the world today? Can you think of any countries where conditions are ripe for such involvement?

There is an indication that “neoliberalism”—which took hold in the Reagan-Thatcher era and at its core was an anti–trade union ideology—is running its course. There is a growing understanding that simply unleashing the forces of capitalism or free trade hasn’t brought about the type of political or even economic progress that was expected. That lesson about capitalism’s limits should have been learned from the first half of the 20th century but somehow was lost. When the developed world relearns that history more fully, there will be better conditions broadly for trade unions and trade union involvement.

We can now see at least a general understanding that “market capitalism” alone didn’t bring freedom to China as people broadly assumed would happen—even after the horror of Tiananmen Square. That change of understanding is significant. Thirty years after Tiananmen, we are witnessing a revival of worker activism and protest in China, but not yet independent worker organization. When that happens, and when the West understands it must support such worker organization, there might be better prospects for democratic change. But it is more difficult 30 years later. The Chinese government has had that time to institute many more repressive mechanisms.

There is also a growing understanding that trade unions are not historical anachronisms but still essential institutions both for defending workers from economic exploitation and also for protecting basic democratic interests and representation. We see a revived interest in organizing trade unions here in the United States and Europe. And there are certainly many countries where a revival of international solidarity and direct support for trade unions could bring democratic change, from Hungary to Zimbabwe. But we need to have a genuine revival of trade unionism here and also a realignment back from the abstract “civil society” concept of “democracy promotion” to a more concrete support for mass-based worker and political organizations. It is such organizations and movements that can both bring about and institutionalize democratic change. This is what didn’t happen after 1989.

Solidarity for Freedom

Editor's note: The text was updated on June 18, 2019, to remove a factual error. The deleted sentence incorrectly stated that the AFL-CIO no longer has an international affairs department.