One of the great, and greatly under-appreciated, success stories of the 20th century is the tale of how the international work of the American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) helped the “third wave” of democratic expansion to crest. It is a story with a long pedigree, dating back to the earliest days of the American labor movement. More important, it is a story that deserves to have new chapters written for it, for labor unions are democracy multipliers by their very nature. In the transition from authoritarian political systems to liberal democratic ones in any society that has moved beyond reliance on traditional agriculture, no single factor is more important to sustainable success than trade union movements.
Trade unions produce a unique synergy of economic and political benefits. On the economic side, they ensure that workers gain a fair share of the income their work produces. Thus strong unions reduce stark inequalities within countries—a key goal of U.S. economic development strategies. A more equitable income distribution contributes directly to poverty reduction and, by increasing consumer demand, stimulates greater economic growth. On the political side, trade unions make major contributions to producing more vibrant civil societies. They encourage workers to participate in the political process, negotiate with other interest groups, and act as a check on government authority. Unions keep governments accountable by ensuring that the concerns of working people are represented not only in the workplace but in the public debate. They advance the social cohesion vital to democracy by bridging ethnic, religious, racial and gender divisions.
In sum, the experience of being a member of a trade union offers a laboratory in liberal democracy, teaching members about voting, encouraging individual agency and voice in free debate, engendering respect for the rights of minority members, and emphasizing the need to hold union leaders accountable. Particularly in societies that lack developed democratic habits of the heart, trade unions are the most powerful democracy teachers on this planet.
This is why independent trade unions have been and continue to be at the forefront of virtually every major democratic transition in recent memory. From Gdansk to Durban, from Seoul to Santiago, unions have been at the center of democratic struggle. When the world’s remaining dictatorships in Burma, Cuba, Syria, North Korea, Belarus, Zimbabwe and elsewhere fall, unions will be there leading efforts to build democratic institutions from the ground up. We grasp the importance of unions to democracy promotion not only from books about political sociology, but by watching the rhythms of history as they unfurl before our very eyes.
Any U.S. administration working to promote democracy in the world ought therefore to help the American union movement assist its counterparts abroad. Yet at a time when the Freedom Agenda is the central theme of U.S. foreign policy, that policy has never been less supportive of the critical international work of the American union movement than it is today. To understand why, we need to re-examine the AFL-CIO’s role in democratization’s third wave.
In November 1881, 107 delegates from 14 states convened in Pittsburgh for the first meeting of the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions of the United States and Canada, which became the American Federation of Labor (AFL) five years later. Naturally enough, the pioneers of the American labor movement were concerned mainly about their own people, but from the very start the movement had an international element. A resolution of that first convention spoke against “conditions of the oppressed people” of Ireland. Samuel Gompers himself, the AFL’s first president, took a strong interest in the Mexican Revolution and, following World War I, helped to found the International Labor Organization (ILO) in 1919.1
After the struggles of the Great Depression and World War II, the AFL, a major participant in the Marshall Plan, then helped to repair European trade union structures. Support for the Marshall Plan was also important to the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), which maintained an office in Paris at the time. Both the AFL and the CIO were also active in Asia, particularly in the democratic reconstruction of the Japanese labor movement. Then, after their merger in 1955, the AFL-CIO under George Meany led the defense of free and democratic trade unions around the world. In those Cold War years, the AFL-CIO established four regional institutes to support workers attempting to form independent unions: the American Institute for Free Labor Development (AIFLD) in 1962; the African American Labor Center (AALC) in 1964; the Asian American Free Labor Institute (AAFLI) in 1968; and the Free Trade Union Institute (FTUI) in 1977.
Primarily through these four institutes, the AFL-CIO provided moral and financial support for the formation and strengthening of independent trade unions for more than half a century. Many of its international partners played significant roles in the fight to overcome tyranny and have led mass movements for democracy. The role played by Solidarity (Solidarnosc) is perhaps the best known, not only for toppling the Communist government in Poland but for events that led to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the demise of the Soviet Union. But trade unions have also played key roles in advancing democratic governance elsewhere. Union opposition to apartheid in South Africa broke the back of a racist regime. Trade union opposition to military dictatorship in Brazil and a score of other South and Central American countries formed a vanguard for democratic change. Trade unions stood at the center of mass pro-democracy movements in South Korea and the Philippines in the 1980s. More recently, independent unions in Ukraine played an important role in the streets and at polling places throughout the country, ensuring that legitimate democratic elections would be held and honored in 2004. In every one of these cases, the American labor movement stood by and supported the work of its counterparts abroad, an achievement long recognized not only by labor’s “natural” Democratic political allies, but also by enlightened Republicans such as Senators Orin Hatch and Richard Lugar.
Nonetheless, political support for American labor’s role in promoting liberal and democratic institutions abroad has eroded significantly. The reasons are several. First and probably foremost, the focus of the American labor movement itself has shifted considerably over the last two decades as labor’s general role in American life has diminished. For that and other reasons, the views of many of our country’s most powerful political and economic leaders about unions have changed for the worse. With inexorable generational change, too, an appreciation of labor’s legacy has diminished among the U.S. foreign policy and foreign assistance establishments. Each of these themes deserves closer attention.
A Beleaguered Movement
The American labor movement is not what it once was. In 1948, 31.8 percent of American workers belonged to unions, and that figure either stayed steady or rose slightly for 15 years. Since the early 1960s, however, labor ranks have experienced a steep and steady decline. By 1980, only 23.2 percent of the eligible U.S. labor force was union organized, and by 2004 only 12.5 percent was. The decline in union membership has been particularly pronounced in the private sector, once the core of the movement, where union membership has fallen below 8.5 percent. While public-sector union density (union membership as a proportion of employment) has stayed at a third of the workforce (37.5 percent in 2002), it too has declined in recent years.
Many factors explain this decline. One concerns structural change in U.S. employment patterns. There has been a relatively rapid increase in the number of jobs created in industries where union density has been traditionally low (for example, the private services sector), and this has been coupled with the relatively slow increase, or even decrease, in the number of jobs in industries where union density has been traditionally high (for example, the manufacturing sector). These shifts in economic trends have been magnified by globalization and by U.S. trade and other policies, which have paved the way and even encouraged American companies to relocate production overseas.
Many argue that such policies have benefited the U.S. economy and American consumers, accounting for a long period of sustained low-inflation income and employment growth. There is some truth to this, but not all Americans have benefited. Millions of American workers, especially those enjoying better wages and benefits—mainly union members—have seen their jobs exported abroad. Furthermore, while productivity has increased, real wages even for skilled workers have stagnated. Between 1977 and 1992, the average productivity of American workers increased by more than 30 percent, while the average real wage fell by 13 percent. The logic is inescapable: No matter how much productivity increases by dint of value-added technological innovation, wages will fall if an abundance of workers competes for a relative scarcity of jobs. And hundreds of millions of workers in China, India and other parts of the world have entered the global labor market over the last 15 years alone.
Despite such trends, there are still many American workers who can be unionized and would benefit from so being. But a significant proportion of the U.S. workforce has no legally protected right to unionize. This includes most agricultural workers, independent contractors, household workers, supervisors and many Federal employees. Moreover, according to National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) records, illegal reprisals against employees attempting to exercise their legal rights under the National Labor Relations Act have reached alarming proportions.2 These illegal reprisals numbered fewer than a thousand per year in the 1950s, but reached 23,000 in 2003.
Employer interference has had a devastating impact on a worker’s freedom to choose a union. A February 2005 poll indicated that 57 million workers want a union at their workplace.3 By contrast, only 80,000 workers, a little more than 1 percent of those who say they want a union, succeeded in forming one in 2004 through the National Labor Relations Board representation election process. If only a third of those who have said they want to join a union actually did, union density would jump to more than 26 percent, and there would be no crisis. Richard B. Freeman, a professor of economics at Harvard University, has concluded that “the National Labor Relations Act . . . has institutionalized a process that effectively gives management near veto power over whether or not workers become organized.”4
In addition to weakened freedom-of-association protections, American workers have experienced a commensurate erosion of their collective bargaining rights. Collective bargaining laws for public employees are virtually non-existent in 23 states, and campaigns are afoot in several others to eliminate or weaken existing protections. According to the 2004 annual report of the Government Accountability Office, 32 million American workers lack legal protection to form unions and to bargain collectively, and workers’ freedom to bargain collectively is often not respected even after they vote to form a union. According to Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service records, employers fail to reach initial collective bargaining agreements within two years with 45 percent of newly certified and newly recognized unions. This number, too, has been steadily rising. During the mid-1980s, unions were unable to negotiate first contracts after only a third of union representation victories. More recently, we have witnessed the use of the country’s bankruptcy laws to resist unionization, to undermine collective bargaining agreements and, in too many cases, to effectively strip workers of their pensions, health care and other benefits.
The rise in active employer resistance to unionization and collective bargaining is important for several reasons. Above all, the growing hostility has made domestic collaboration on a whole variety of workplace issues more difficult.5 The high-performance work methods that may hold the key to future U.S. economic success function best where the freedom to form a union is respected. As Karl Klare, internationally recognized expert on labor and employment law puts it, “wise managers know [that] . . . when employees feel secure, fairly treated, and welcomed as partners with a genuine voice in the enterprise, they contribute enormously to productivity, product innovation, and flexible adaptation to changing markets.”6 So it’s not just unions that have a problem with anti-union activities, but all Americans who care about the future of the U.S. economy.
Weakened and divided, the American labor movement has been increasingly preoccupied with its own struggle for survival. Daily life for most union leaders has been dominated by notices of plant closings and lay-offs and having to combat anti-union efforts by employers. A new generation of union neo-isolationists has emerged that is less able and less willing to see beyond the next local battle. The result is an increasingly besieged labor movement a third the size it was three decades ago in relation to the size of the labor force, with no end to its decline yet in sight. Under such circumstances few labor leaders spend much time focusing on the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, on the anti-democratic tendencies of Hugo Chávez, or the bloody tyrannies of sub-Saharan Africa. American unions cannot effectively play their leading historic role in defense of democracy abroad if they are fighting, and losing, a battle at home.
The American union movement’s tilt toward neo-isolationism did not happen all at once, but its proximate starting point is not in doubt. The end of the Cold War clearly marked a turning point for AFL-CIO activities and policies abroad in support of democratic struggle. As the labor movement became fixated on its domestic problems, a view emerged within the movement’s upper echelons during the 1990s that the Soviet collapse had sharply reduced the rationale for organized labor to involve itself in the formulation of U.S. foreign policy. According to this view, only international trade policy, which directly affected union interests, should concern the union movement. Meanwhile, union opposition to the trade policies of the Clinton Administration, especially NAFTA, reinforced the view that foreign policy had become a luxury for the union movement, and it undermined the coalition that the AFL-CIO and the Democratic Party had maintained for more than half a century.
As dissatisfaction grew during the early 1990s over membership decline and the accompanying loss of influence, many critics began to focus on the AFL-CIO’s perceived inability to develop a strategy for change. Initial disappointments with the newly elected Clinton Administration, combined with the political losses for labor during the 1994 midterm elections, were cited as proof of the AFL-CIO’s ineffective leadership. Internal criticism of the AFL-CIO’s international activities was often strident during the early post-Cold War period. Indeed, AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland’s apparent preference for international issues over domestic priorities, at a time when the American labor movement faced a growing crisis, galvanized opposition and helped fuel what became known as the New Voice challenge for leadership.
In 1995 the AFL-CIO experienced its first contested election since its inception forty years before. The election of the opposition New Voice slate, led by current AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney, signaled the beginning of a new era. The federation became far less vocal on foreign policy issues, especially those considered potentially divisive within the ranks or not directly relevant to the parochial interests of American workers. The federation focused instead on building a broad domestic coalition and international labor solidarity around global economic issues. This emphasis culminated in the 1999 Seattle protest against the World Trade Organization (WTO). While a handful of violent anarchists gained most of the media attention in Seattle, the fact was that more than 30,000 marched peacefully, and most of them were union members and activists.
After Seattle, the AFL-CIO and its affiliates lobbied the Clinton Administration to include worker-rights language in the body of new trade agreements, with some success. Union leaders saw the worker-rights language contained in the October 2000 U.S-Jordan free trade agreement, for example, as a significant enough advance on previous trade agreements that the AFL-CIO did not oppose its passage. But such modest successes could not reverse the continued downsizing of the American labor movement. A growing frustration with the AFL-CIO’s direction under Sweeney’s New Voice leadership resulted in the emergence of a new opposition grouping calling itself Change to Win. As the AFL-CIO’s July 2005 biennial convention drew near, tensions over a mix of substantive and personal issues between the Change to Win unions and the remaining affiliates reached a breaking point. The Change to Win unions decided to leave the AFL-CIO to form their own federation, taking upwards of 40 percent of the AFL-CIO’s membership with them.
In contrast to the 1995 debate, the international work of the AFL-CIO was not a contentious issue in the 2005 breakup. Indeed, both sides advocated enhancing the engagement of U.S. unions globally. By 2005 nearly all unions had come to recognize that workers overseas would not be able to organize independent, representative unions unless the political climate enabled respect for the rule of law, human rights and democratic participation. They recognized that democratic development is clearly in the interest of American workers, not only for ideological reasons, but because successful union movements abroad would mitigate the labor exploitation that gave foreign countries trade advantages over American workers, especially in the manufacturing sector. It follows that union growth abroad can slow, and perhaps eventually end, the proverbial “race to the bottom.”
On this very important issue, the American labor movement today remains united despite the 2005 split. Indeed, the unions in both federations praise the programs of the AFL-CIO’s Solidarity Center, which was created from the 1997 unification of the four regional centers founded in the 1960s and 1970s. And several Change to Win unions want to continue the working relationship they enjoyed with the Solidarity Center before the split. Also much appreciated is the Solidarity Center’s greater emphasis on working with other international trade union bodies, such as the International Trade Union Congress (ITUC) and its regional organizations.7 This has increased the willingness of foreign labor activists to work with the Solidarity Center in a number of places, including the Middle East, where purely bilateral relationships with an American organization are often not politically expedient.
Despite the Solidarity Center’s good reputation, generational factors have eroded American trade union participation in national and international discussions on democracy promotion. Most union leaders who were peers of Lane Kirkland and who actively supported the AFL-CIO’s international programs are now gone, and their successors lack a similar broad internationalist perspective. Many labor leaders also now face growing antiwar pressure within their unions, and virtually all have been alienated by what they have seen as the politicization of the democracy discussion by the Bush Administration. Most American labor activists believe that exporting democracy to Iraq was invented as the pretext for the American invasion only after weapons of mass destruction were not found. The Administration’s co-optation of “democracy promotion” language has clearly pushed labor away from the democracy discussion, despite the fact that labor participates, through the Solidarity Center, as one of the National Endowment for Democracy’s four constituent parts (along with the Center for International Private Enterprise, the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute).
The most pressing reason why the American labor movement’s historic legacy may be coming to an end is that funding for its overseas work has been drying up. Partially as a result of labor’s own internal change of view during the 1990s, many of those who saw labor’s programs overseas in a positive light became ambivalent. Support began to waver in Congress, at the Departments of State and Labor, and at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), a major funder of labor’s overseas programs.
Much of the budget of the Solidarity Center has come over the years from the U.S. government, and its programs have generally enjoyed bipartisan congressional support. The bulk of the funds have come from USAID and the NED, the principal expression of the American commitment to expand democratic values and governance worldwide. USAID in particular supported the work of AFL-CIO international institutes during every Administration since its creation in 1961. Labor was central to the conception of the Alliance for Progress in the Kennedy Administration, and the recognized importance of organized labor in world affairs led to the creation in 1961 of a special adviser in the Office of the Secretary of State. In the 1980s the AFL-CIO was a principal partner of the Reagan Administration in launching the National Endowment for Democracy, and it has consistently defended the NED on Capitol Hill and elsewhere. Organized labor has also been an active participant in the coalition to defend and expand foreign assistance and to keep human rights high on the priority list of American interests.
Despite this record, USAID support for labor programs overseas may now be coming to an end. These programs have never been particularly popular within the USAID bureaucracy, and the virtual disappearance of any appreciation of what independent trade union movements have done over the years does not help. USAID’s overall budget support for labor programs has always been fairly modest. Since 1997, USAID has provided the Solidarity Center a core grant of up to $9 million annually, which the Solidarity Center has leveraged to gain matching funds in several countries, providing an additional few million dollars more per year. This compares to a USAID annual budget for democracy promotion that has averaged well over $200 million, and to the tens of millions of dollars provided to promote private enterprise. USAID has been attempting to zero out the Solidarity Center’s core budget for the past three years, and beginning in 2005 it has reduced the annual core grant for labor to $7.5 million, despite bipartisan congressional opposition. Solidarity Center funding from USAID remains precarious and at an historic low. The loss or further reduction in such funding would strike a significant blow to the advancement of U.S. foreign policy goals that seek to promote democracy, human rights political stability and broad-based economic development.
Fortunately, funding for labor’s overseas activities from the NED has increased in proportion to the growth in NED’s overall budget over the past few years. This has partially offset the USAID reductions. Despite this, NED funding still represents less than 40 percent of the Solidarity Center’s overall budget.
Unions and the Middle East
This is a terrible time to weaken a key means of supporting the growth of liberal institutions abroad, not least in the Middle East. As much as any mass-based institution can, a thriving labor movement responds to the alienation felt by the millions of working poor in the Muslim world and provides a vehicle for inclusion and participation.
That is certainly the case in Iran. On May 1, as many as eighty unions affiliated with the Workers’ Organizations and Activists Council (WOACC)—all officially illegal in Iran today—took to the streets to demand higher pay, better working conditions, free speech and freedom to organize Iran’s workers. There were clashes with security forces, with scores of arrests as teachers demonstrated near the Majlis Building. The largest demonstration took place in Amjadien Stadium in Tehran, which was ringed by strutting security forces bent on intimidation. The regime has tried to frighten Iranian unionists in the past, for example, by brutally assaulting Mansour Osanloo, who is head of the bus drivers’ 17,000-member union. The regime jailed him, beat him and even cut off part of his tongue before releasing him. As was clear from this year’s May Day demonstrations, Iranian unionists are not intimidated.
This same point was highlighted in the December 2004 report of the Department of State’s Advisory Committee for Labor Diplomacy (ACLD), which proposed a labor diplomacy strategy for the Muslim world. The report noted that
in our transformed, post-9/11 world, the U.S. needs a strategy to reach entire populations, especially those of the Arab and Muslim countries . . . that appeals to the material interests of common people to improve their standard of living and satisfies their spiritual need for self-dignity and control over their own destinies. . . . [A] central element in the strategy is based on our recognition that worker organizations are currently one of the strongest secular countervailing forces against religious extremism in the Muslim World . . . [one that has a] wide geographical presence that reflects all or most of a country’s ethnic, religious, tribal and linguistic groups. . . . [Unions] provide a venue for national consensus building around issues of common workplace and community concern, and they can effectively communicate democratic political values and modern economic principles down to the workplace level.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in Iraq. As sectarian violence has grown, Iraq’s fledgling unions have continued to function. Several trade union groups at the national and regional levels quickly arose after the fall of Saddam Hussein. Worker organizations have also emerged at the enterprise level and along sectoral lines. Under extremely difficult circumstances they have attempted to represent the interests of their members, especially with regard to wages, job security and working conditions. There are now five major trade union federations and several independent sector unions, most notably in the enormous oil sector.
This development is particularly remarkable in light of the fact that all real, independent trade union organization was banned under Ba‘athi rule, when only a state-controlled union structure in the minuscule private sector was permitted. Unfortunately, Saddam-era labor laws are still technically in effect, despite an effort by the International Labor Organization to assist in drafting a new labor code in conformance with ILO standards. This labor code was never adopted under the Coalition Provisional Authority, nor has it been adopted since by the sovereign elected government of Iraq. This means that emerging Iraqi trade unions operate with virtually no legal protection.
This is certainly a situation that U.S. diplomacy can help rectify. The Iraqi union movement is no small thing. At the end of 2005, three of the major labor groups joined to form the General Federation of Iraqi Workers (GFIW), which claims a membership of more than 300,000. The Kurds have their own trade union structures with a membership of more than 100,000. These unions stand out as virtually the only institutions in Iraq that cut across ethnic, religious and political lines, and as such they are a last critical remaining bulwark against an expanding sectarian civil war. Iraqi unions, particularly through the GFIW’s president, Abdallah Muhsin, also steadfastly support a democratic Iraq and actively oppose anti-democratic elements. Case in point: Union workers at an aluminum and sanitary-supplies factory in Nasiriyah refused to evacuate their workplaces so that the militia of Muqtada al-Sadr could convert them into military positions against U.S. and Italian troops.
Leaders and members of Iraq’s trade unions come from Sunni and Shi‘a Arab as well as Kurdish and other communities. Working women also represent a significant percentage of membership. Because Iraq’s unions represent a potent economic and political force in opposition to sectarian efforts to divide the country, trade unionists have been targets of harassment, assassination and torture from all sides of the conflict, including the police. Scores of labor leaders have been kidnapped, tortured and assassinated. The 2005 assassination of Hadi Saleh, one of the country’s top trade unionists and a leading advocate for a democratic Iraq, attracted much international attention and protest.
The global labor movement has been providing support to Iraqi unions since they emerged after the fall of Saddam Hussein. This has included significant support from the AFL-CIO’s Solidarity Center. Iraq’s unions have not been reluctant to receive assistance from American unions. On the contrary, they have reached out to the American labor movement for help, and expressed frustration over the difficulties in establishing a fraternal relationship. If the Solidarity Center had more resources at its disposal, those difficulties would have been less severe.
Rebuilding Labor’s International Role
Former AFL-CIO President Kirkland was fond of recalling how many times in his organization’s history an obituary had been written for the America labor movement. After three decades of decline culminating in the 2005 split, the obituaries are once again appearing with some regularity. America’s unions may be down, but they are not out. Despite the many challenges of recent years, almost 16 million American workers belong to unions, roughly the same number as forty years ago, making American labor one of the largest grassroots movements in the United States. Unions gained 213,000 new American workers in 2005, and a number of important unions affiliated with the AFL-CIO and Change to Win are growing in absolute terms. Union membership is also more diverse than ever, reflecting the changes in our demographics, including working women, who now make up 43 percent of union membership. For that reason, labor’s political clout may be growing despite the overall decline in the union share of workers.
Nor are America’s unions giving up the fight. Unions of the AFL-CIO and Change to Win are both devoting substantially more resources to organizing new members than they were ten years ago. There is agreement across the board that they need to support more actively the global struggle for workers’ rights. All union leaders understand that if the “race to the bottom” accelerates abroad, American unions cannot succeed at expanding their own numbers. And they understand, too, that only in countries where the rule of law takes root, where freedom of association is respected, and where collective bargaining emerges, will workers gain some control over their lives. In other words, only in countries where democracy is advancing are the prospects bright for effective global solidarity action.
American labor is therefore no fair-weather friend of democracy promotion. Labor’s core interests lead it to support the growth of liberal institutions abroad, so labor has every incentive to help worker movements around the world. American labor needs to expand its capacity to lead the struggle for liberty and freedom, both here and abroad, and the U.S. government, if it understands its own interests properly, should have every reason to help it do so.
That help should come in two basic forms. First, the next administration, if not the present one, should take a leading role in leveling the playing field for labor in the United States. The intent of American labor law, and indeed international labor standards, to protect the right of workers to join organizations of their own choosing without interference from employers and government, must become a reality—as it is in virtually every developed country in the world. A top priority of the American labor movement is passage of the Employees Free Choice Act, the first significant modernization of the country’s labor laws in decades. Bipartisan coalitions in the House and Senate have agreed to co-sponsor the legislation, and in September 2006 the centrist Democratic Leadership Council endorsed the bill. This suggests that a broader political community is becoming aware of the pressing need to modernize American labor law and to protect the right of American workers to unionize. The bill (HR 800) was passed by the House on March 1, and the focus has now shifted to the Senate.
At the same time, union leaders need to respond wisely to the support of this broader community. Former AFL-CIO President Tom Donahue has argued that when it comes to attracting new members, the AFL-CIO needs to change its emphasis from simple militancy to a more nuanced approach. Most American workers in the new economy want “respect, decent work opportunities and education opportunities and advancement, rather than marching and demonstrating….Prospective members in most industries don’t want to join the union to go to war”, Donahue said.
A more nuanced approach could have implications for the labor movement’s international work. Some companies, for example, seek to distinguish themselves from the worst corporate abuses both in the United States and abroad. Labor leaders, who have longed recognized the difference between the “high road” and the “low road” of corporate behavior, should support such efforts by toning down their rhetoric and joining broad coalitions in pursuit of common causes. This will help labor re-establish itself as a respected contributor in the democracy and broader foreign policy discussions. Only in that way can the movement continue to receive significant public funding for its work on the ground in support of real, grassroots democratic struggle.
And here is where U.S. government support for labor’s overseas effort comes in. The level of effort American labor unions need to mount abroad, particularly in the Middle East but elsewhere as well, must rise. The government, whether through USAID, NED, or programs of the Departments of Labor and State, should be at the forefront of helping the American labor movement do what is clearly in the interest of all Americans. The combined annual budget of $23 million from USAID, NED and other public sources should be tripled over the next five to ten years. Given the fact that the Solidarity Center has had to significantly reduce or eliminate its programs in such strategically important regions as central and eastern Europe, Russia and the Newly Independent States, and Central America, efficient absorption of those funds would not be a problem, since an initial focus of expansion would be on re-establishing and strengthening relationships and programs that already exist. Also desperately needed is a simplification of the mechanisms for funding labor programs. The task of administering multiple grants from multiple sources occupies more than a third of the funding received by the Solidarity Center. Significant savings could be realized and devoted to the program if the process were streamlined.
Labor can play a significant role in the formation and implementation of U.S. foreign policy, just as it did during the Cold War. Now as then, the goals of labor and the goals of freedom are the same. To miss this opportunity to seal a new pact between government and labor in pursuit of core U.S. foreign policy aims would truly be a tragedy. It would be bad for labor, bad for America, and bad for freedom everywhere.
1Editor’s note: The ILO is the specialized UN agency that promotes social justice and internationally recognized human and labor rights around the world. It is the only surviving major creation of the Treaty of Versailles and it became the first specialized agency of the UN in 1946. Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s account of the ILO’s origin follows this article.
2Government Accountability Office, “Collective Bargaining Rights: Information on the Number of Workers With and Without Bargaining Rights” (September 2002).
3Peter D. Hart Research Associates, Study No. 7518, AFL-CIO Union Message Survey (February 2005).
4Freeman, “Searching Outside the Box: The Road to Union Renascence and Worker Well-Being in the U.S.”, Julius G. Getman and Ray Marshall, eds., The Future of Labor Unions: Organized Labor in the 21st Century (University of Texas Press, 2004), p. 75.
5The recent formation of two major business-labor coalitions to fight for improvement in health care may signify a major step forward in this regard. One coalition includes the nation’s largest union in the health care sector, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), and Wal-Mart, a target of a large union campaign because of its perceived anti-worker practices. The other coalition includes the AFL-CIO, the Business Roundtable and the AARP.
6Klare, “The Right to Organize: A Basic Civil Right”, unpublished paper, 2002.
7Created in November 2006, the ITUC brought together two of the major international labor federations of the 20th century, the International Confederation of Trade Unions (ICFTU) and the World Confederation of Labor (WCL). It claims to represent 168 million workers in 153 countries and territories and has 304 national affiliates. The AFL-CIO is a founding affiliate.