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“Workers of All Countries, Unite”

Will This Include the U.s. Labor Movement?

Michael Yates teaches economics at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnsrown, is a labor educator, and the author of Why Unions Matter (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1998).


Capitalism is a system of production and distribution driven by the ceaseless efforts by capitalists to accumulate capital, that is, to maximize both profits and the growth of capital. Accumulation, in turn, is made possible by the exploitation of wage laborers, persons without any direct access to society’s productive property. Workers are forced to sell their ability to work but when they do, they are owed nothing by their employers except a wage. That is, the employers have no social obligation to the workers; their relationship to them is impersonal in the extreme. It follows that, in the abstract, employers do not care anything about the workers’ “characteristics.” To them, black workers are interchangeable with whites, men with women, one nation’s workers with those of any other. Employers are, in a word, equal-opportunity exploiters. They will replace one worker with another, move their capital to take advantage of cheaper labor (whatever its characteristics), and pit one group of employees against another, whenever such actions will, in their view, make it easier for them to accumulate capital.

Isolated and disorganized at first, workers eventually figure out what is happening to them. Herded together in factories and deskilled by the detailed division of labor and mechanization, they come to see that they must collectively organize to oppose their exploitation. If capital considers them to be one exploitable mass, that is how they must conceive of themselves. “In unity there is strength.” “An injury to one is an injury to all.” “The working class and the employing class have nothing in common.” And, of course, “Workers of all countries, unite.” As workers come to see themselves as an undifferentiated mass, they take action, forming unions that strike, picket, and boycott, and constituting political parties that vie for state power. Marxists believe that this propertyless mass of men and women, of all shades of color, and of every nation, is nothing less than the historic agent of the overthrow of capitalism and the beginning of communism.


At the high level of abstraction implied in the words above, all is clear. There are capitalists and there are workers; their interests are diametrically opposed; and workers will unify themselves to end their exploitation. Unfortunately, when we make our analysis less abstract, when we confront the world in all of its complex and historical concreteness, matters are not so clear. Two important problems confront the unity of the world’s workers.1 First, capitalism has always developed in the context of a nation, with an active and complicit state. Second, capitalism has, from its beginning, developed unevenly in different parts of the world. The original capitalist nations of Europe and, later, those special cases of the United States and Japan subjugated the rest of the world through their military and economic might, creating an imperialist system of rich and poor capitalist nations. These twin developments, nationalism and imperialism, have erected substantial barriers against the unity of the workers of the world.

If capital is bound geographically within a nation, it is certainly possible that organized workers will be able through their own actions to compel their employers to pay them more money, offer better benefits, reduce their hours, and better their working conditions. They will not need solidarity from workers in other nations to achieve these things. They may also be able to contest for state power on their own, so to speak. English craftsmen could and did organize effectively within England, and they did not require the help of French or German workers. The same is true for workers in the United States. Automobile workers organized the great sitdown strikes that brought General Motors to heel and, while they needed their wives, other workers, and some sympathy from the governor and the courts, they did not need an alliance with Mexican or Canadian workers to establish their union and win their first collective-bargaining agreements.

Not needing the support of workers in other nations does not, of course, mean that such support might not be useful or that it should not be requested. Perhaps the position of English craftsmen and U.S. automobile workers would have been even stronger—if not in the short run, then certainly in the long run—had they aligned themselves with the workers of other nations. So, why hasn’t international solidarity been labor’s rallying cry from the beginning? Two reasons suggest themselves. First, the power of nationalism as an ideology of exclusiveness quickly became very powerful. The establishment of official languages, the institution of a universal propaganda mechanism in the public schools, and the drafting of working people into national armies all had the effect of encouraging workers to be loyal to the nation. The converse of this loyalty has been distrust or even hatred of those who are “foreign.” My father was a union-factory laborer for forty-four years, but his life experiences were not conducive to international solidarity. The Second World War, especially, shaped him into an almost fanatical supporter of the U.S. government (and de facto supporter of U.S. capital in most respects) and into an outright xenophobe when it came to the Japanese or the Soviets or the Chinese.

Second, nationalism in the advanced capitalist nations was intimately connected to imperialism. The vicious exploitation of workers and peasants in Africa, Asia, and Latin America went hand-in-hand with the promotion of a racist ideology that taught that these peoples either deserved what they were getting or were lucky to be associated with the rich nations. Furthermore, the surplus value pumped out of the peripheral nations gave the large multinational corporations money which, under enough trade-union pressure, they could be convinced to share with workers. This went along with successful efforts by the corporations and the government to co-opt labor leaders, through the formation of various kinds of labor-management organizations and assignment to public boards and commissions. The goal here was to convince labor’s leaders, as well as union members, that imperialism was good for workers in the core capitalist nations. All of these efforts were, for the most part, successful. Labor organizations in all of the advanced capitalist countries have not only supported their own multinationals in the brutal exploitation of the economies and workers of the poor nations, they have even supported wars in which the workers of one rich nation fought against those of another.


Nowhere was the labor movement more nationalistic and anchored in imperialism than in the United States.2 While there have been individual workers, unions, and movements devoted to the concept and practice of international solidarity, these have always been a minority and suffered decisive defeats at the hands of their more numerous opponents. The historical record is both appalling and tragic. At every critical juncture, labor stood against internationalism. Samuel Gompers demonized Chinese workers in language befitting a Klansman, and even the egalitarian Knights of Labor barred Chinese workers from membership. (It should be noted that this hatred of the Chinese was rooted in the fact that the United States was founded with the stain of racism on its soul, a racism which made antagonism to workers in the rest of the world an easy pill to swallow.) The American Federation of Labor (AFL) gave its full support to the country’s entry into the First World War and helped government agents harass labor leftists opposed to the war. The AFL championed U.S. interventions in Latin America. The AFL and then the CIO refused to participate in international labor organizations that included left-led unions. Internationalists were routinely redbaited out of the labor movement (and out of their jobs), and at the beginning of the Cold War, almost all of the left-led unions were expelled from the AFL-CIO—allegedly for being dominated by communists but really for refusing to toe the imperialistic line. The AFL-CIO and some of the member unions were in league with the CIA and the State Department and wreaked havoc on progressive unions everywhere else in the world. The AFL-CIO eagerly supported the wars in Vietnam and Central America. It went on record in favor of employer sanctions against illegal immigrants.3

Those forces in the labor movement that favored international solidarity were dealt a deathblow during the Cold War. Before that time, there were always a fair number of radicals to counter the majority, but afterwards the Meanys, Lovestones, and Shankers were unopposed. Fanatical support for U.S. foreign policy and the championing of the corporate agenda implied by it were part of the so-called capital-labor “accord” of the postwar era. Corporations would continue to pay the largely white, male workers (who comprised the bulk of union membership) higher wages and benefits and the government would not encourage corporate warfare against unions or make war itself. In return, labor leaders would sing the praises of the “American Way” and refrain from any embarrassing criticisms of what the bosses and the state were doing to workers abroad (or, for that matter, to unorganized workers here, especially those neither white nor male).

Things went well for union leaders and many members until the long postwar boom ended in the early 1970s. Then all hell broke loose, as corporations once thought to be committed to the “accord” ripped it apart and went on the warpath against organized labor. The specifics of this attack and its devastating effect upon unions have been spelled out in Monthly Review before, but in the context of this essay, one aspect of it stands out.4 Capital shed any loyalty it had to a nationalist and Keynesian agenda and embraced neoliberalism. It fought for and won trade agreements that make it much easier for it to traverse national borders, and it made “free” trade the litmus test for its political support. Soon both Democrats and Republicans were onboard. To its former “accord” allies, it said, in effect, “We no longer need you. You are too weak to matter. You could not stop us if you wanted to. (And chuckling to themselves, they said, ‘You probably won’t even try.’) From now on the fruits of imperialism shall be ours alone.”


Capital and its labor partners did not anticipate that the free fall in the living standards of U.S. workers that occurred throughout the 1970s and 1980s and the failure of most unions to do much about it would generate reform movements and resurgent activism. Often spearheaded by progressives from the great social movements of the 1960s and sometimes supported by remnants from the old left, this activism took a variety of forms, including attempts to make the unions more democratic and opposition to U.S. foreign policy in Central America. Out of all of this came the ferment that led to the ousting of the old guard in the AFL-CIO by the “New Voices” team.

As other authors in this issue have noted, the new AFL-CIO leadership quickly dismantled the notorious International Affairs Division and began to make noise and take actions indicating a new commitment to international solidarity. In fact, even during the decade before the historic 1995 AFL-CIO convention, a number of unions had begun to realize the necessity of building bridges with workers around the world.5 The United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers (UE) made an alliance with an independent Mexican labor organization, the Authentic Labor Front (FAT). The UE helped finance FAT organizing campaigns in companies that also had plants employing UE workers in the United States. The FAT sent a fired Mexican organizer to Milwaukee to help the UE organize a plant there. The two groups jointly sponsored meetings among union representatives from both countries. The United Steel Workers brought the Ravenswood Aluminum Company in West Virginia to justice largely through an international solidarity campaign, which allied this prototypically nationalist union with workers in the Netherlands, Switzerland, Czechoslovakia (before partition), Rumania, England, and Venezuela.

The old-guard Communication Workers of America (CWA) has worked with Canadian, European, and Mexican workers against the multinational communications giants that are gobbling up most of the world’s telecommunications companies, including many that were formerly publicly owned. As I stated in a recent book review, “The CWA has promoted corporate ‘codes of conduct’ (union members will oppose a corporation’s entry into a national market if it refuses to obey these), international strike support, information exchanges, political lobbying in support of workers in other countries, international conferences, legal complaints (under NAFTA, for example), product boycotts, newsletters, and cross-training of organizers to fight against such global behemoths as NYNEX, Northern Telecom, and Bell Atlantic.”6

The New Voices leadership has supported such actions and has taken some of its own, including mending fences with organizations once considered too radical. AFL-CIO President Sweeney has sent emissaries to South Africa to meet with unions his predecessors would have denounced as communist and has himself met with independent Mexican labor leaders. As David Bacon mentions elsewhere in this issue, the AFL-CIO has abandoned its Cold-War operations in post-Soviet Russia. The AFL-CIO and member unions have lent a helping hand to students who are politicizing college campuses around the nation with their antisweatshop and anti-child-labor campaigns.

This new AFL-CIO was there for all to see in all of its glory during the heady days in Seattle last fall. Union leaders and members marched, rallied, made impassioned speeches, and even confronted the police in a remarkable demonstration of unity. U.S. unionists mingled with those from many nations, both rich and poor. Pledges of solidarity were made. At one rally, American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees’ president Gerald McEntee urged the crowd to “name the system.” A South African brother invoked the name of Marx and was not only not shouted down but cheered. Teamsters mixed with environmentalists clad in turtle outfits. The International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) shut down the docks on the entire West Coast. (The ILWU is almost unique among U.S. unions in its commitment to international solidarity. Through boycotts and strikes, it has consistently allied itself with workers around the world).

There is no doubt that the WTO protests energized working people. Post-Seattle meetings and workshops have been packed with enthusiastic opponents of global corporations. A local labor leader in Atlanta told me that he was convinced that the large demonstrations against the flying of the confederate flag in South Carolina owed their size and fervor to the WTO protests. This past April, large demonstrations were conducted by a wide variety of organizations against the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which were having an annual meeting in Washington, DC. The AFL-CIO supported the Jubilee 2000 campaign to forgive third-world debt. All told, the past few months have given even the most pessimistic among us reason to hope.


Against this background of radical possibilities, it is necessary to be clearheaded. There are other signs which are not so heartening. Others in this issue have remarked on the fact that the AFL-CIO is still taking money from the U.S. State Department to finance some of its international operations. They have also expressed concern over Sweeney’s endorsement of the U.S. platform at Seattle (in return for Clinton’s promise to raise labor issues at the summit and his call for a labor subcommittee), as well as his presence and weak comments at Davos. In a lesser-known event, the AFL-CIO seemed not to have broken completely with its Cold-War past. When striking Mexican railroad workers reached out to U.S. workers recently, they were met with much enthusiasm. Several U.S. unions organized a group of delegates to go to Mexico City and then to the site of the strike in Northern Mexico. In Mexico City, they were met by the former director of the notorious American Institute for Free Labor Development (AIFLD), Jack Otero—accused by Philip Agee of being a CIA agent. Presumably dumped by Sweeney, Otero propagandized against the strikers, calling them communists; his agitation effectively paralyzed the delegation. At no time did the AFL-CIO leadership denounce Otero, and in fact worried that the delegates and their U.S. supporters would embarrass the official Mexican Railway Workers union—which, as we know, is a tool of the corporation-dominated Mexican government.7

The AFL-CIO’s early endorsement of Al Gore for President speaks for itself. Some of the industrial unions protested this, but these unions cannot be said to have been pioneers of international solidarity. The United Auto Workers (UAW) refused to endorse Gore but, with the exception of a few honorable locals and leaders, this union has long sung a nationalist line. I once taught UAW workers at a plant near Pittsburgh. During a week of classes, they got heavy doses of chauvinist reasoning and dislike of Japanese and Mexicans was often palpable. Their union leaders had done little to educate them beyond “Buy American.” George Becker, president of the Steel Workers and architect of the Ravenswood campaign, is now going all-out to build support for keeping China out of the WTO. According to a colleague of mine, at a WTO symposium at a local college, a steel union representative all but warned the audience of the “yellow hordes.” I was at a meeting recently to propose, among other things, that local unions include short, twenty-minute “educationals” in local union meetings. The WTO was suggested as a topic, but the focus was on the importance of keeping China out of the WTO. Progressive unionists agreed when I suggested that we should be careful not to encourage union members to think of the WTO protests in a potentially chauvinistic way, especially considering the U.S. labor movement’s long history of racism toward the Chinese. They also concurred when I said that there were plenty of sweatshops and prison-made goods right here in the United States, and we should engage workers on these issues, especially since we might be better able to do more about abuse here than in China. However, I was told that we had to meet the unions “where they were at.” That meeting was a dose of reality for me.


Many progressives and leftists, in their desire to see improvements in the lives of working people, have too frequently ignored reality and jumped on the New Voices’ bandwagon, leaving their critical faculties behind. They ignore the obvious. U.S. labor leaders, with very rare exceptions, are not radicals and never will be. The twin ideologies of nationalism and imperialism cast long shadows over them, and the failure to understand this poses a number of dangers.

First, there is always the possibility that labor’s leaders will revert to old ways. If the right-wing forces within organized labor become stronger, there is a good chance that progressive leaders will also move to the right. In the process, they may look for scapegoats on the left and those leftists in important positions now will face expulsion. This is what happened during the Cold War. Progressives like Walter Reuther purged the left-led unions from the CIO and then led raids on them, continuing a move to the right that culminated in merger with the corrupt and reactionary unions of the AFL. That this happened to a strong left does not bode well for the much weaker left of today’s labor movement. It would be very surprising indeed if, in the face of a resurgent right, Sweeney and company moved to the left. There is no precedent for this in U.S. labor history. Or suppose that a powerful labor movement in a poor nation moved decisively to the left and posed a threat to U.S.-based corporations and to the stability of a government friendly to the United States. If the United States offered support for the beleaguered government, would the AFL-CIO show solidarity with that country’s left-wing labor movement? Or would it line up solidly behind the stars and stripes? History tells us that the latter is the more likely course of action. Left-wing labor leaders languished in Indonesian jails for years, yet even today you don’t see much in the way of AFL-CIO support for them, much less condemnation of the U.S. government for its decades of support for the mass murderers who ruled the country.

Second, AFL-CIO endorsement of the U.S. corporate and Clinton administration position on the WTO, president Sweeney’s visits to Davos, and comments made by Tony Blair and ICFTU president Bill Jordan, combined with conciliatory comments from the IMF, the United Nations (UN), and Bill Clinton suggest that we are witnessing the co-optation of liberal and progressive opponents of neoliberalism. Everyone agrees, these folks say, that global trade is a good thing; it increases the world’s output so significantly. All that is needed are some reforms—that is, the elimination of the worst abuses of workers, peasants, and the environment and some redistribution of this rising production to the world’s poor. Then global capitalism can continue indefinitely and benefit everyone. Sweeney, Jordan, Clinton, Blair, Kofi Annan, and the officers of the IMF are issuing stern warnings that unless global capital changes its ways and allows for some regulation, the “irrational” opponents of trade will win support from the public, to the ultimate detriment of all. The goal should be a global capitalism “with a human face.”

Of course, it is the “irrationalists” who are correct; the bad results of trade are inherent in the system itself. By conceding what needs to be contested, namely the private ownership of most of the world’s resources by a handful of corporations and the use of these resources for the sole purpose of accumulating capital, the liberals and progressives also concede the eternal rule of capital. The few crumbs they and workers might get will be given willingly by capital if this will defuse stronger critiques of capital’s legitimacy. Upon receiving these crumbs, labor leaders will then be duty-bound to condemn their radical brothers and sisters. What is happening now is much like what transpired when organized labor embraced labor-management cooperation. Employers admitted that they needed the workers to help make their enterprises more competitive. If workers would cooperate with management to raise productivity, the employers, in turn, would provide them with more security, allow them to learn new skills, and make them true partners in decision-making. Many trade-union leaders, often encouraged by progressive academics, bought this argument and made concessions on work rules, grievance procedures, and steady pay-raises that had taken years to win. But as numerous studies of these schemes have shown, management had no intention of ceding control to workers. Instead, these systems were the means by which employers enhanced their control at the same time that they began to wean workers away from their unions and secure their loyalty to the companies’ competitive agenda. Predictably, those opposed to cooperation, like the “New Directions” movement in the UAW, have been marginalized by the leadership, denounced as radicals and cranks.

The power of capital to co-opt labor should not be underestimated. Important leaders like Sidney Hillman and Philip Murray of the CIO were co-opted by the Roosevelt administration, lured by flattery and positions on various boards and commissions. There was a real possibility for an independent labor party in the 1930s, but this prospect was derailed—with the active participation of the labor movement. Indeed, in the 1930s a sizable fraction of the Communist party was mesmerized by FDR and the New Deal and, during the war, communists were completely co-opted by the Democrats.

A third danger lies in the realities of the domestic scene and the disconnect between these and the new internationalism of the AFL-CIO. Before it can build meaningful relationships with workers in poor countries, it might be necessary for white workers to unite with workers of color here in the United States. How can a movement that cannot organize black workers in the South and Latino workers in the Southwest build effective bridges with workers in Asia, Africa, and Latin America? How can a movement which ignores the struggles for land by Native Americans make common cause with landless peasants in Ecuador or Colombia? How can a movement that does not publicize and fight against the racism of the U.S. prison system and the increasing power of the prison-industrial complex be taken seriously when it rails against prison labor in China?

The biggest problem domestically is that labor will not divorce itself from the Democratic Party. The position in which workers in poor nations find themselves is the direct outcome of the neoliberal policies championed and put into practice by the U.S. government, and these policies are those of both political parties. The Democrats advocate privatization, trade agreements, the WTO, and structural adjustment policies and oppose any attempts by poor nations to develop autonomously. How can international solidarity be sustained by the U.S. labor movement at the same time that this labor movement is in league with a party whose every act undermines solidarity? But if we ask ourselves in all candor if we think that the New Voices leadership is going to abandon what it has been doing for so long, the answer must be “no.” It is true that the labor movement is at odds with the Democratic Party over admitting China to the WTO, but this difference is unlikely to push labor toward an independent politics. The neoliberal system will survive quite nicely with or without China in the WTO. And if the AFL-CIO succeeds in keeping China out of the WTO, where does it go from there? Will the corporations now benefitting from the cheap labor in China’s export zones suffer? Will China’s workers be better able to challenge the anti-working-class policies of their government? Will the protectionist spirit lurking underneath the AFL-CIO’s WTO opposition be driven further underground or will it rise to the surface?


As Khalil Hassan argues, it is extremely unlikely that an entirely new and independent labor movement can be built today in the United States. Therefore, it will be necessary for leftists to work within or alongside the AFL-CIO. However, leftists must organize themselves into a coherent and disciplined force. Building on the movement for democratic control of union locals and in alliance with left workers in other progressive social movements, the left in labor can critically support whatever good things the AFL-CIO does, while pushing it in a more radical direction. The more strength the labor left gains, the more difficult it will be for it to be dislodged from the movement. From within our own organizations and unions, we can reach out to like-minded workers around the world with an international labor left as its goal. Groups such as the Transnational Information Exchange (TIE) have already begun to do this. TIE should be supported and its efforts extended and deepened.8 Suggestions made by Hassan in his article in this issue should be debated and then implemented.

I have been somewhat harsh in my assessment of the possibility of organized labor in the United States helping to construct an international labor movement. But it is necessary to be blunt because the stakes are so high. Saying that the New Voices leaders are what they are—liberals, not radicals; limited opponents of neoliberalism, not enemies—is not blanket condemnation. But they are not all that the leaders of a labor movement need to be.


  1. My friend Elly Leary, who made helpful comments on an earlier draft of this essay, reminded me that a third critical factor is the division of workers inside of each nation by gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, disability, etc. Of course she is right, but I focus on nationalism and imperialism here because of the subject matter of the paper. Connections between internal and international divisions are brought out later in the argument.
  2. See Paul Buhle, Taking Care of Business: Samuel Gompers, George Meany, Lane Kirkland, and the Tragedy of American Labor (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1999).
  3. For details and references, see Michael D. Yates, Why Unions Matter (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1998).
  4. See Michael D. Yates, “Braverman and the Class Struggle,” Monthly Review, vol. 50, no. 8 (January 1999). For a more in-depth treatment, see Kim Moody, An Injury to All: The Decline of American Unionism (London: Verso, 1988).
  5. See Kim Moody, Workers in a Lean World: Unions in the International Economy (London: Verso, 1997); Tom Juravich & Kate Bronfenbrenner, Ravenswood: The Steelworkers’ Victory and the Revival of American Labor (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2000); and Larry Cohen and Steve Early, “Defending Workers’ Rights in the Global Economy: The CWA Experience,” in Bruce Nissen, ed., Which Direction for Organized Labor? (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1999).
  6. See my review of the Nissen book mentioned in note five, in Labor History, vol. 40, no. 4 (November 1999): 566.
  7. Peter Rachleff, “Rupture or Continuity,” New Politics, vol. VII , no. 4 (New Series) (Winter 2000).
  8. On TIE, see Moody, Workers in a Lean World.