Coming in From the Cold in the Struggle for Solidarity

By Abby Scher

This article is from the September/October 1997 issue of Dollars and Sense: The Magazine of Economic Justice available at

This article is from the September/October 1997 issue of Dollars & Sense magazine.

issue 213 cover

We were winding up our interview when Wilfredo Larencuent mentioned in passing that the AFL-CIO's representative in Hondurus whom he'd met a few years before might have been a CIA operative. This, it seems, was a routine fear of left unionists struggling to do cross-border organizing while the Cold Warriors in the labor federation conducted their global affairs with government dollars.

Larencuent is a labor organizer in New York. It's now easier for progressive unionists to build trust across borders. But in 1993 he found himself wading through the enduring Cold War habits of the AFL-CIO when he helped initiate a relationship between his Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union (ACTWU) and the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) (now a single union, UNITE), and unions in his native Dominican Republic. It all started on a trip to visit family back home when he noticed factories plastered with the signs of companies ACTWU had under contract in New York. "No one was taking on the companies," he recalls.

When yet another company shifted work there—this time from Minnesota—it was time for action. So with a progressive buddy from the ILGWU, and another Dominican organizer from New York, Larencuent began exploring how unions in the two countries could collaborate. It was the "Jersey strategy"—when New York garment factories moved across the Hudson River to New Jersey, ACTWU followed. Now that garment factories were moving into the Caribbean (spurred partly by Ronald Reagan's tariff cuts to the region), ACTWU was looking for a way to move too.

At the time, ACTWU's president, Jack Shenckman, was in hot water with the AFL-CIO national leadership for a lot of reasons, including his solidarity work with left Salvadoran trade unions in the 1980s. This he had done without the national AFL-CIO's approval. Its officers viewed it as traitorous that he had conducted an "independent" foreign policy.

So when the notorious American Institute for Free Labor Development (AIFLD)—the national AFL-CIO's Latin American desk—found out what Larencuent and his friends were up to, it rebuked their bosses for allowing it to happen. No independent action. The unions cut AIFLD's man in the Dominican Republic in on the initiative. But this promptly lost them the tenuous relationship they were building with that country's progressive unionists, who refused to work with AIFLD.

Who can blame them? AIFLD's activities were truly shocking. Along with its covert activities—revealed in part by former CIA agent Philip Agee in the 1970s—AIFLD helped promote leaders and set up labor federations to challenge the left throughout Latin America. These house unions embodied the AFL-CIO's darkest days, days when it condemned the democratic election of socialist Salvador Allende in Chile in 1973 and supported Richard Nixon in his illegal bombing of Cambodia.

"We had a union movement until 1989 whose goal was geopolitical, all about the split between the Soviet bloc and the Western bloc, and got fought out in weird ways," says Andy Banks, the Teamsters' International Affairs director.

Formed in 1962 by an AFL-CIO drained of many left unionists during the McCarthy-era purges and by a board led by corporate titan Peter Grace, AIFLD was by 1989 part of a huge International Affairs department that was even less accountable to the membership than other parts of the AFL-CIO. It promoted abroad the same collective bargaining-focused "business unionism," based on collaboration and labor peace, that the AFL-CIO embraced at home, except overseas the bosses were often tied to ruling dictatorships. An even deeper political problem for Larencuent and those he was trying to work with was AIFLD's identification with the U.S.-installed military regime that ruled the Dominican Republic for 12 years after the Marines invaded in 1965.

Today, UNITE still backs 10 organizers in the Dominican Republic and an independent 4,000-member union in an industrial zone of more than 150,000 workers. Its organizers swap tactics with Dominican organizers about such matters as government demands that unions register their leaders' names (quickly passed on to bosses for easy dismissal). But who knows what the project would look like today without AIFLD's training on contract negotiations (conducted by staff who'd never done it) and its behind-the-scenes support for more conservative leaders.

Remaking the Future

Through such devious maneuvers, U.S. unions undercut their international strength during crucial years when multinationals grew more powerful. Now Larencuent and other unionists engaged in cross-border solidarity work are slowly entering a new age. The Sweeney-led AFL-CIO finally dismantled AIFLD last fall, along with the International Affairs department's Africa and Asia programs, although some of their old staff and the Eastern Europe program remain. Sweeney took the International Affairs Department off the U.S. government's payroll, although this funding had already dropped following the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 and was far from its 1980s heights, when it accounted for half of the AFL-CIO's national budget. And in a remarkable turnaround, the federation now declares it will cooperate with all workers fighting the same enemy, no matter what their politics.

Without fear of interference from AFL-CIO headquarters, progressive unionists are reinvigorating old ideas about how to build international campaigns. At the forefront are the usual suspects of progressive unionism, including the Teamsters, Communications Workers of America (CWA) and the United Electrical Workers (UE), which is not affiliated with the AFL-CIO, along with local labor/community coalitions like San Diego's Support Committee for Maquiladora Workers and the Coalition for Justice in the Maquiladoras. All support the expansion of independent unions abroad. Yet there are differences among them. The big unions target their support to those working for the same multinationals as their members in the United States, which they hope will lead to coordinated collective bargaining across borders. UE, with its history of social movement unionism, also takes a more grassroots approach and works largely with unionists sharing its progressive politics. The San Diego and other coalitions tend to support worker actions more broadly—not just in plants tied in some way to U.S. unions—providing a human rights focus that often speaks to a broader cross-section of people. In this they are continuing the work of independent organizations like the National Labor Committee, the Interfaith Center for Corporate Responsibility, and solidarity groups that for years brought international labor abuses into the public eye when unions failed to do so.

Union leaders will be the first to tell you their own approach is self-interested. U.S. unionists may once have benefitted from U.S. and corporate imperialism, as overseas adventures translated into more raw material for factories and more demand for consumer goods produced at home. But no longer. With dropping trade barriers, computerized banking and improved transportation systems, it is ever easier for companies to move industrial and even service jobs from high-wage to low-wage countries governed by iron-fisted (as opposed to our own velvet-gloved) antiworker laws or practices. In the race to the bottom, low wages mean, not cheaper prices, but higher corporate profits. And workers conform out of fear the companies will leave as easily as they came.

Now unions must translate to a global scale the old insight that U.S. workers are strongest in the most unionized industries. So says Andy Banks of the Teamsters. Industries must be unionized in both the United States and abroad for workers to have power. And the unions must be independent, not under the thumb of companies or governments—a painful fact of life for Mexican, Dominican and even those U.S. workers whose unreformed union bosses still cut sweatheart deals with employers that leave them out in the cold.

Global Tactics, permanent pressure

The unions' latest cross-border efforts feel like new because old lessons were either lost or never implemented beyond a few organizations; Cold War politics stopped many from fully acting upon their own insights as globalization gathered force. In fact, they knew a lot about dealing with globalization and the problems that arise from mobile multinationals well before the 1990s. In 1969, the International Chemical Workers Federation, an international secretariat of unions, coordinated bargaining for contracts in four countries (including the United States) with a French chemical company, St. Gobain. The secretariat's Canadian director, Charles Levinson, laid out a comprehensive strategy for cross border union work that included solidarity actions, financial help, and permanent committees of all unions representing a multinational's workers to coordinate bargaining and organizing drives. This sounds good, but when communist-led unions in Italy and Britain tried to collaborate on conflicts involving Michelin and Dunlop Pirelli in 1972, Levinson was unhappy. His strategy was not meant to include Reds. Yet no true cooperation with European unions was possible without them.

Now Levinson's strategy has a chance to be more broadly realized. Those creaky international federations linking unions in the same industry worldwide are finding new energy, cooperating on concrete campaigns instead of just providing a forum for bureaucrats to talk. For instance, the Teamsters recently prompted one of the federations to form a permanent council of all unions representing United Parcel Service (UPS) workers in 17 of the 100 countries where UPS operates. Similarly, CWA and other members of a 100-nation secretariat put corporate codes of conduct in plants abroad on contract bargaining tables since 1994. In March, the UE, its allies in the Mexican labor federation Frente Autentico del Trabajo (FAT) and the Canadian Steel Workers met for the first time to devise an organizing strategy for auto plants of the multinational Echlin, and to support one another's collective bargaining.

"We need permanent structures to provide permanent pressure," says Andy Banks of the Teamsters. "This to me is embryonic international bargaining and really is the future. It's the model."

Banks joked that being a representative to an international secretariat was once the "loneliest job in America"—nobody cared, and you had no influence within your union. Now reps from different unions meet to swap strategies, as are unions' international affairs directors at the prompting of Barbara Shailor, the AFL-CIO's new director of International Affairs.

But the Teamsters and other unions are going well beyond Levinson's old strategy. Cross-border work must be built from the bottom up, not just by the bureaucrats and international secretaries operating from the top down. You need face-to-face contact between real organizers and workers to truly build cross-border alliances. The key to winning campaigns against multinationals at home is cooperating with unions abroad. Delegations bear fruit years later as unionists in Mexico or the United States rush to support struggles of compatriots across the border (see box on CWA). Sometimes the fruit is borne faster. A month after the new UPS council first met this February, the Irish sent an organizer over to the United States. He hung out with a UPS local, got some training and a truckload of data about the company. He returned to Ireland with all the power that comes from the support of the Teamsters and the other council members, and by June the Irish UPS workers had won recognition.

What's Next

Despite the pockets of good news, there are plenty of pitfalls. The split between the UAW and Canadian auto workers in 1984 makes you wonder how stable international bargaining is if this seemingly easy collaboration fell apart. The Canadian section of the UAW was one of many Canadian unions formed by U.S. organizers who went north in the 19th and 20th centuries and which remained part of U.S. unions. But the Canadians refused to go along with the UAW's concession bargaining during economic hard times in Detroit. Things weren't so bad economically up in Canada, they were more activist, perhaps less tied to business unionism, and they had no health and pension benefits to concede since these came from the government, not from the company. Other affiliates seceded too so that the proportion of Canadian unions with U.S. affiliations dropped from 50% to 25% from 1976 to 1996. (Interestingly, at the same time, Canadian unionization rates dropped only slightly, to 34%.) To its credit, the AFL-CIO invited the Canadian Labor Congress for their first ever formal meeting together this past June, and the CLC reports it has hope for better cooperation with the Sweeney team!

Progressive unionists are slowly learning other late-breaking lessons. "Buy American" campaigns are not the way to stop the export of jobs overseas (some already knew this), and it's hard to get gringos to see they may not always know best. U.S. organizers should not think they are qualified to direct campaigns in Mexico, for instance. To counter this tendency, UE held a two day orientation for those traveling on week-long delegations last year. But all unions should take the UE's other step, says Mary Tong of the San Diego Committee, which is to begin to educate its membership as a whole. Imagine if those efforts grew so that hundreds or even thousands of unionists talked as excitedly about what they saw in Mexico as do organizers from UE or the Teamsters or CWA. Would we all see more clearly the alternatives to "business unionism" that led the AFL-CIO to narrow its focus to wage issues and contract bargaining for so long? Would our unions decide, for instance, that they should organize worker-owned cooperatives and neighborhood groups, as does Mexico's FAT?

Unions' cross-border projects are still small, especially compared to the strength of multinationals. Some of the old International Department staffers are still hanging on. And Larencuent, our friend from UNITE, has not yet won the trust of left Dominican unionists. But at least some unionists are untying their hands in the international arena. Perhaps the way we all envision trade union work will soon change through their new cross-border encounters.

CWA: 'Doing Real Organizing'

Since AIFLD was the brainchild of a Communication Workers of America (CWA) president, it is only fitting that CWA is now helping lead the charge in cross border work.

  • CWA's new era began in 1989, when it secured the help of its Canadian counterparts in organizing the U.S. workers of Telecom, a British phone service company.
  • CWA followed Bell Atlantic and Southwestern Bell to Mexico and began working with STRM (Sindicato de Telefonistas de la Republica Mexicana) even before NAFTA when the corporations took advantage of the privatization of the telecommunications industry there.
  • After Sprint illegally fired workers from La Connexion Familiar, its Spanish-language affiliate in San Francisco (in 1994), STRM filed a grievance through NAFTA's Mexican labor board on their behalf and called for blocking Sprint's entry into Mexico. (The board upheld the complaint.)
  • A joint training between 15 CWA organizers and 18 of their Mexican counterparts from STRM in September 1995 continues to bear fruit years later. "We developed a relationship, and then saw how we can be a help to each other," recalled Virginia Rodriguez of CWA, who was then working with the fired La Connexion Familiar workers. "It was very much an educational process for me when we saw the difficulty they had in building democratic unions. The fact that there is a one-party system: PRI (the government party) dominates and controls the labor movement and doesn't allow workers to fight for their interests. The telephone workers are building independent unionism. They are PRI-associated but they're part of a new group of unions (the Foro) that are like-minded."
  • Last year, a Tucson local began supporting fired workers at a maquiladora that made keyboards for the Taiwanese company Maxi-Switch. The workers were beat up by thugs; when they tried to form a union they discovered they were already represented by one—a PRI-allied "ghost." Mexican unionists gathered data they passed onto CWA, which filed a grievance to the NAFTA labor board. In April, soon before the complaint was to be heard, the Mexican government agreed to recognize the independent union, although fired workers are not yet rehired.
  • Mexican unionists recently came up to help a CWA organizing campaign of Los Angeles truckers.

Now, says Steve Early, CWA's international director, "We're sending three organizers over there to live with Mexican workers, to help organize U.S. based multinationals operating there. This is sort of a first. It's not just making empty speeches, but doing real organizing."

UE: Grassroots Across Borders

Perhaps it's the radical history of the United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers of America (UE) or its independence from the AFL-CIO that allows the union to be innovative, more rank-and-file oriented, and more attentive to the lessons to be learned across the border. Or perhaps its UE's small size—with 40,000 members, it's the size of a single local of some of the larger unions.

  • UE began collaborating with the Frente Autentico del Trabajo (FAT), an independent labor federation in Mexico, in organizing maquiladora workers even before NAFTA. First they supported organizing drives of General Electric and Honeywell workers who faced vicious abuse. Then, together with the Teamsters, the union filed a complaint under NAFTA on the FAT's behalf. They then decided to support two organizers in Mexico City and establish a workers center on the border to educate workers about their rights and promote a new model of unionism. It opened last year in Juarez, where 3,000 foreign-owned factories employ almost a million people with no real union protection.
  • The UE and the FAT commissioned four murals for each other to express their solidarity. One of the first murals, unveiled in the FAT office in April, was a true process of collaboration since the American artist revised his original idea with the help of FAT members. Now the mural displays a distinctly Mexican, volcano-strewn landscape and Emiliano Zapata as the major figure, flanked by Lucy and Albert Parsons, the legendary U.S. labor activists.
  • Because the union has relatively slim resources, UE devised a "sponsor an organizer in Mexico" campaign, collecting pledges from individuals, groups and unions to help pay the salaries of FAT organizers. One of its locals in Iowa devised a supplemental dues check-off for their members to support a FAT organizer—even though it represents government workers who have no immediate self interest in organizing Mexican workers.
  • Left to their own devices, male leaders have been known to pack delegations over the border with their own kind. International Affairs Director Robin Alexander noticed the problem after the union's first exchange with Mexico and devised all-women's delegations for the next time. The exchange, held in August and September last year, had Mexican unionists amazed at the heavy machinery women operate here and U.S. unionists impressed by the diversity of activities, including coops within the FAT federation. An Oregon group decided to sponsor a woman they met on the tour as a FAT organizer. This year, "we have exchanges of one or two people that stay in one place for longer periods of time," said Alexander.

San Diego is right across the border from Tijuana, and right across from Plasticos Baja California where the first union election in a local maquiladora in 15 years was held in 1993. "On the day of the election," recalls Mary Tong, director of the San Diego's Support Committee for Maquiladora Workers, an independent group supporting organizing in Tijuana, "15 company thugs were around the table calling the photographers over. People were having to vote out loud." The union called off the vote.

At a party later, Tong had the chance to talk to a maquiladora manager, who mentioned that the maquiladora association raised money for the owner to pay the workers severance pay and close the plant. "It means that when you go up against a single plant, you're going up against an entire industry."

Out of that eye-opening experience, Tong formed the San Diego Committee. It organizes support for Tijuana workers within San Diego and with 650 Canadian and U.S. organizations through an emergency response network. It also links up Mexicans with American unions like the United Steel Workers and the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers who are supporting organizing in the region. OCAW even held their national convention in San Diego to help set up these relationships, and ended up donating money and sending people down to help build a workers center in Tijuana.

"At (first) AIFLD was very strong and they didn't want any individual organizing going on. Some unions helping us were actually threatened by their international," says Tong. "We've had people basically working on a very under the table, low profile basis. That's all changing now."

Abby Scher is co-editor of Dollars & Sense and a sociologist.

Sources: Harvey Levenstein, Labor Organizations in the United States and Mexico (1974); Larry Cohen and Steve Early, "Defending Workers Rights in the Global Economy: The CWA Experience" (May 1, 1997); Andy Banks, "New Voice for Workers, New Vision for Global Unionism"; "Meeting the Corporate Challenge," Transnationals Information Exchange Report 18/19; Beth Sims, Workers of the World Undermined: American Labor's Role in U.S. Foreign Policy (1992).
end of article