by Paul Buhle
Kim Scipes: AFL-CIO's Secret War against Developing Country Workers, Solidarity or Sabotage? Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2010, ISBN-13: 978-0739135013, 276 pages, hardcover $65, paperback $34.95.
(Swans - July 4, 2011) In a sometimes difficult but highly valuable work, Purdue sociologist Kim Scipes recuperates the evidence of intelligence activities among American labor's elite for the last half century or so, and offers some guidelines for understanding its deeper significance.
The subject is not new, and this reviewer reluctantly mentions his own Taking Care of Business (1999), a study of the nation's labor boss-friendly, radical-hating bureaucracy. Scipes has also been studying the phenomenon for decades, asking the painfully obvious question: why have labor leaders been so eager to do the dirty work of intelligence agencies in supposed "democracy" and "solidarity" that, at close glance, are usually quite the opposite? And more recently, the crucial follow-up question: have these policies changed significantly since a palace revolution in the AFL-CIO pushed the worst of the creatures aside in 1996? We scholars and others have also, it is important to say, been following the lead of critics within labor, especially Harry Kelber and Fred Hirsch, often defeated but never daunted in their efforts at real labor solidarity.
Scipes's discussion of the evidence is excellent and his update, if not nearly comprehensive, is at the least very useful. The vision of mainstream labor bosses, especially since the expulsion the left unions from the CIO in 1949, has been to build a global business unionism loyal to the interests of (American) business and to commands from AFL-CIO Central. In so doing, they have frequently choreographed "labor unrest" among such unwanted figures as Salvador Allende of Chile; fingered local activists to be isolated, beaten, or even assassinated; taken part in arranging the success of pro-business candidates against populists, or overturning elections with undesirable results; and generally coordinated activities with the CIA field offices, sometimes from the same building. They have also invited thousands from abroad for weeks or longer. The so-called "training sessions" for foreign unionists from the Pacific and Asia to Africa, the Middle East and Latin America, have basically been induction and indoctrination, with a promised career (i.e., financial) payoff for those who carry the message back home.
Many of the most notorious AFL-CIO operatives were pushed into retirement in the later 1990s, though not all; and after the first moments of apparent change, the new leadership settled into familiar patterns, with only a bit more caution. After all, the AFL-CIO's international activities are funded by the government, and why would any American government program conducted by unionists fail to support US interests against radical unionists, hostile elected governments and so on? The big tip-off came with AFL-CIO involvement in the US-sponsored but unsuccessful coup against Venezuela's Chávez in 2002. Failure and exposure brought a double dose of embarrassment to the George Meany Center. In fairness, the current labor leadership has been less hawkish than its predecessors (while ignoring successful antiwar convention resolutions proposed by US-Labor Against War as much as possible), mostly going silent on continued US invasions/occupations rather than supporting them avidly, as in the past. AFL bigs even protested, albeit rather quietly, the newest phase of what used to be called Gunboat Diplomacy, that is, the military coup pulled off with CIA assistance in Honduras, blessed by the State Department after the fact.
What does this shift from historical policies add up to? Not much, now that labor has so little influence between elections. Perhaps no more could be expected from a labor movement going down the drain? Or perhaps such a troubled movement would logically seek to embrace progressives, as it has very tardily embraced undocumented immigrants, a drastic shift from the exclusionary attitude practiced since Sam Gompers declared race war on Chinese-American cigarmakers in the 1880s. Still, American labor has great difficulty overcoming what may best be described as a Shanker Sore, a herpes-like infection inherited from the late teachers' leader, race-baiter, and fanatic Vietnam War supporter, Albert Shanker. His bloodthirstiness tainted labor's blood supply, and a complete cure is not yet in sight.
Scipes weighs down his message with academic jargon here and there, and his insistence that labor bureaucrats have been following their own (reactionary) lights all this time rather than taking their cues from the government and business is unproven by the evidence he offers. It will also not ring true to historians who have looked closely at the twisted minds and repugnant lives of George Meany, Lane Kirkland, and their ilk. It would be more true to say they considered the labor movement their corporate business enterprise, themselves the high-flying executives. Readers can easily read past these conclusions of Scipes, which do not become wearisome until the final chapter, where we face "Polyconflictualism" among a small handful of other semantic unknowables.
Never mind. This is a good study of an important subject. Get your local library to order a copy.
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About the Author
Paul Buhle retired from college teaching to produce radical comics fulltime. His latest include Studs Terkel's Working, A Graphic Adaptation [reviewed in these pages], The Beats, A People's History of the American Empire (aka an adaptation of Howard Zinn's classic) and a pictorial biography of his childhood hero, The Art of Harvey Kurtzman. Buhle is working on his ninth comic book. (back)