Labor and Repression: Contradictions Persist in the Global Labor Struggle

Hard Hat Riots 1970


Lenin recognized that at his time, imperialism was being pursued by social democrats, reformers, and progressives. Imperialism “emerged from the domestic tract of the Western trade union movement.” The social imperialists in the rich countries believed that Western workers would have to advance first and then they could lead the rest of the world into a more progressive history. In reality the “progress” and “civilization” promised by the West amounted to right-wing dictatorships, genocide, sanctions, war, and exploitation for the Global South. Decades of imperialism allowed large trade unions in the Global North to focus on winning welfare concessions and nothing else. As British economist Alan Freeman puts it, “The imperialist state is a dialectical unity of colonial militarism and domestic collaboration which determines these specific necessary class alliances.”

Dialectical materialism teaches us that it is possible for opposites to transpose each other or become one. Trade unions in the rich countries struggle against their capitalists to win concessions for their workers. However, when it comes to the international movement, the two opposing sides become one and unify to defend the material interests both have invested in imperialism. How can the trade unions of the North win concessions if their capitalists lose a key source of income in the Global South? 

The UK union UNISON recognized this unity of interests when last year they decided to stay silent when Colombian miners went on strike for more than two months. The mine where Colombians were striking, Cerrejon, is owned by numerous foreign entities one of them being the British mining company Anglo-American plc. In this case, the interests of British labor and British transnational corporations intersect to oppress workers in the developing world. 

In some cases the imperialist state becomes directly involved in the labor struggle in order to direct the movement in a way that is beneficial to international imperialist interests. The workers in this instance often go along so long as those same unions being funded and created by the state also provide benefits to the workers. Such was the case in 1961 when the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), the largest federation of unions in the United States, founded the American Institute for Free Labor Development (AIFLD). The AIFLD was funded by USAID and worked to create U.S.-backed labor unions and leaders in the Western Hemisphere. 

The AIFLD was headed by Serafino Romualdi, an Italian-born union activist who fled Italy in 1923 and relocated to the United States, where he became involved in the labor struggle. While in the U.S., Romualdi became a U.S. intelligence agent and began working for the CIA. 

In the middle of the Cold War, with workers in the socialist states receiving far more of their necessities than those in the capitalist world, the capitalist West needed to make itself appear worker friendly. At the same time, it needed to undermine the growth of labor struggle that could potentially lead to revolutionary struggle. The creation of capitalist backed unions through the AIFLD headed by Romualdi was the solution to this problem. They infiltrated nations in the Global South to manipulate and co-opt the masses while isolating revolutionaries.  

In 1950, Guatemala elected President Jacobo Arbenz who redistributed land, seized the property of corporations like the United Fruit Company, and appointed leftists and communists to his government. His progressive reforms led to a CIA coup which put the military dictator Carlos Castillas Armas into power, who quickly outlawed left organizations and trade unions. Romualdi, who was in Guatemala before and after the coup of Arbenz, said of the dictator Armas “the President himself meant well and was at heart favoring the rebirth of a healthy, free and independent trade union movement.” At the same time Romualdi also observed, “in the Ixcan region, workers were being paid 50 cents a day and were forced to work 81 hours a week.” Romualdi was in charge of building unions in Latin America which were anti-worker, pro-imperialist, and ignored the atrocities of the comprador dictator usually in charge.

El Salvador is another nation where the AIFLD worked in the interest of US imperialism. Decades of military dictatorship, imperialism, and exploitation resulted in the civil war in El Salvador and a military dictatorship in 1979. The coup government claimed they would bring about liberal reforms in the country, yet went on to repress the socialists and communists of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN). The coup military government was supported by the United States through arms and aid. 

When the AIFLD under Romualdi began its work in El Salvador, it sought to undermine the communists and socialists by winning over sections of workers, campesinos, and unionists with leftist or socialist sympathies. The AIFLD began to provide training and education programs on union organizing to the youth. The schools where people were taught were created and run by CIA agents that produced graduates that were “imbued with cold-war, pro-business outlooks.” The graduates were described as being “at the forefront of battles against left-leaning unions in their countries.”

The AIFLD also provided grants for agricultural credit unions and housing construction projects to Salvadoran unions. However, these seemingly progressive acts were not without their trade-off as the funds usually went to anti-communist unions. In the rural regions of the country, the AIFLD sought to organize the local campesinos. They established the Salvadoran Communal Union (UCS) a pro-government campesino cooperative. They also created a “land reform program for El Salvador modeled after the one used by the United States as a counterinsurgency weapon in Vietnam.” This was a coordinated attempt by the dictatorship of El Salvador and the U.S. imperialists to co-opt the workers and campesinos as well as the union bosses in order to undermine the revolutionaries.

The revolutionaries responded to the CIA and AIFLD tactics by supporting an alternative organization, the Democratic Revolutionary Front (FDR), which was a coalition of revolutionary supporting unions. As the civil war broke out, the Salvadoran government passed stricter anti-union legislation and intensified their repression of leftists which would leave more than 5,000 dead between 1980-1983. 

The AIFLD decided to create its own federation of unions called Popular Democratic Union (UPD). As thousands of unionists and communists were being massacred by the government, the UPD was allowed to operate freely. It corralled workers into believing that it was a “good” union that would help institute better reforms for workers through the electoral process. In the 1984 elections, the UPD supported José Napoleón Duarte Fuentes who, with the support of Ronald Reagan and the CIA, would intensify the persecution of civilians, campesinos, and communists. After the election many of the workers co-opted into the CIA backed unions felt betrayed and manipulated by the UPD and Duarte. 

The tactic of creating unions and cooperatives while pushing liberal reforms is another development in imperialism that often goes overlooked. As anti-imperialists we tend to focus on direct invasions, sanctions, or corrupt electoral processes. We study the right-wing reactions to progressive or socialists in the Third World only when it is too late, when the coup has happened or is in the process of happening. What we need to investigate and criticize is the process of winning over workers and leaders as well as creating organizations that work in the interest of the imperialists which take years and often goes unnoticed until the major right-wing coup kicks into action. The imperialists directly target workers and campesinos by providing moderate reforms which do not interfere with the profit-making of capitalists. They instill in these workers that the socialists do not have their best interests, that they are dangerous, and that society will only get worse if they take power. They do this recognizing the potential danger a mass workers movement would be to corporate interests.   

In 1997, the AIFLD was consolidated and merged with other union organizations to become the Solidarity Center. Still under the AFL-CIO but now receiving money from the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), the Solidarity Center went on to continue the work of the AIFLD in creating pro-imperialist, pro-NATO unions. 

The Solidarity Center’s best work could be seen in Venezuela, where it provided funding for the plotters of the 2002 coup against Hugo Chavez. It continues to operate in Venezuela, working with parties and unions in opposition to the Bolivarian Revolution, like Acción Democrática. In Ukraine, the Solidarity Center worked with the Confederation of Free Trade Unions of Ukraine (KVPU) which sided with the fascist coup plotters in 2014 to install a pro-NATO government.  

During the 2004 coup in Haiti against Jean-Bertrand Aristide and the Lavalas party, the Solidarity Center funded and worked alongside anti-Lavalas politicians, businessmen, and organizations to provide “educational services” which further demonized Aristide and the masses of Haitians protesting the U.S.-installed government. These are only a few cases where the Solidarity Center is involved, however, a quick view of their website and one will see that they have operations everywhere from Africa, to Eastern Europe, Asia, and Latin America. 

Neither the AFL-CIO or the Solidarity Center has acknowledged or tried to make amends for this history. Instead, they continue to take money from the NED and endorse imperialist politicians. While undermining true solidarity, the imperialists actively attempt to create their own “solidarity” movements by creating fake workers movements, strikes, protests, etc. which support the U.S. imperialist line while convincing populations in the Global North they are legitimate. Once legitimized, “solidarity” movements arise to support these labor struggles that are actually working in the interest of the rich imperialist nations.

This history of labor imperialism is fundamental to understanding the division between the North and South. There cannot be international class solidarity so far as the labor in one nation is actively working against the labor of another. It has created a class of labor aristocrats in the rich countries who are willing to fight for reforms insofar as they do not impede the interests of their nations’ corporations. This labor aristocracy in the imperialist core has invested in the empire. Their material being is premised on imperialist transnational corporations exploiting the Third World and bringing back to the First World huge sums of profit which can be distributed to the workers of the imperialist nations through concessions to First World labor unions. Hence why there was minimal resistance in the US to their unions’ attacks on sovereign countries, both before and after the Cold War, as even when the 2002 coup against Hugo Chavez was underway the US labor movement did little to combat it or acknowledge its own role in the coup. 

The labor aristocracy is a detriment to internationalism and anti-imperialism. They actively work against the interests of the masses of the developing world. First World labor leaders like Serafino Romualdi  intentionally confuse the workers and campesinos in order to weaken socialist and communist movements that pose a threat to the profits of imperialists.. We must learn from the past and be quick to criticize fake, imperialist sponsored movements and their solidarity before they sow discontent and cause chaos within developing nations.  

Al Weinrub and William Bollinger, The AFL-CIO in Central America: A Look at the American Institute for Free Labor Development (Oakland, CA: Labor Network on Central America, 1987)

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