Workers of the World: The AFL-CIO Struggles to Define a Global Agenda for Labor

By Reddy, Raahi | Colorlines Magazine, Spring 2004 | Go to article overview

Workers of the World: The AFL-CIO Struggles to Define a Global Agenda for Labor


Reddy, Raahi, Colorlines Magazine


In the 1980s American labor's solution to globalization was American protectionism. Today labor is entertaining new solutions to old problems, most specifically pursuing an agenda, however inconsistently, of global solidarity and cross-border organizing. A combination of the changing economic climate, new leadership, and innovative social movements outside of labor has nudged, and at times, pushed labor into a global justice agenda.

With 13 million members, the AFL-CIO has the people, resources, and history to have a real impact on U.S. foreign policy. And as the United States remains a unilateral superpower, the federation of American unions becomes an even greater player on the world stage through its acceptance or rejection of the standards of global trade.

Making a New Turn

What was once a home of cold warriors and state department officials--infamously dubbed the AFL-CIA--the new AFL-CIO under the leadership of John Sweeney, Linda Chavez Thompson, and Richard Trumpka boasts as its mission "to promote democracy, freedom, and respect for worker rights in global trade, investment, and development policies and in the lending practices of international financial institutions; and above all to help the world's workers secure a voice in the developing global economy."

This is a significant turnaround from the mission of the past, when the AFL-CIO's image around the globe was that of the U.S. government's labor arm in Cold War policy. One of its more infamous programs was the American Institute for Free Labor Development (AIFLD)--well known for its ties to the CIA and its support of repressive governments in Central and South America.

The AFL-CIO's change in direction from its cold warrior mandate to the present internationalist perspective is due in large part to a push from the bottom for new leadership at the top. Dissatisfied with the old guard leadership of Lane Kirkland, union activists helped propel the "New Voices" slate of Sweeney, Thompson, and Trumpka to victory in 1996. Soon after winning the elections, Sweeney pushed for a change in mission and orientation of the organization's international work.

One way he solidified this goal was through the staff. Barbara Shailor, previously with the International Affairs Department of the International Association of Machinists (IAM), was hired to head the AFL-CIO's international work. Shailor became instrumental in bringing IAM membership in anti-WTO protests in Seattle in 1999. She is credited with bringing into the newly revamped International Affairs Department staff with experience in international labor solidarity and cross-border organizing work. Shailor, along with Bill Fletcher, then head of the Education Department, and others began to shape the AFL-CIO's international work in dramatically new directions.

Nudged from the Outside

In 1999, as efforts began internally to move a program of international solidarity and cooperation in the AFL-CIO, another major movement was gaining influence on the global stage. With its involvement in the anti-globalization movement, the labor federation propelled its work in new directions that many had not imagined possible.

"Prior to November 30, 1999, even though the AFL-CIO had been working in coalition with a number of anti-globalization groups, there was a real skepticism about the capacity of these organizations," admits Bill Fletcher. "But the demonstrations in Seattle sent shockwaves throughout the AFL-CIO, and they helped orient the federation toward a more global justice perspective."

Community/labor organizations like Jobs with Justice, along with progressive labor activists and a new generation of AFL-CIO staff with experience in global justice work, played a crucial role in bridging the gap between the AFL-CIO and social movement organizations.

Another important development influencing the AFL-CIO was the dramatic growth of the anti-sweatshop movement on college campuses. …

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