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Wisconsin, power, unions, and oligarchy

February 21, 2011

I agree with Paul Krugman that what’s going on in Wisconsin is about power.  I don’t agree, though, with his positive comments on unions.

So it’s not about the budget; it’s about the power.

On paper, we’re a one-person-one-vote nation; in reality, we’re more than a bit of an oligarchy, in which a handful of wealthy people dominate.

Given this reality, it’s important to have institutions that can act as counterweights to the power of big money.  And unions are among the most important of these institutions.

And now the political right is trying to exploit (the) crisis, using it to remove one of the few remaining checks on oligarchic influence.

Unions were a great threat to business power in the early 20th century but the sad fact is they’ve been co-opted.  Since the end of World War II, unions have consistently acted to put down worker militancy and thereby assure the smooth operation of a capitalist system which puts near complete power in the hands of business.  It’s a serious mistake to think of unions as an institutional counterweight to oligarchy.

The AFL-CIO worked closely with the CIA during the Cold War to put down worker radicalism and aligned itself with business interests.  In 1962, the AFL-CIO established an international labor organization entitled the American Institute of Free Labor Development (AIFLD).  Here’s labor historian Harry Kelber:

The new organization invited some of the most powerful American businessmen with heavy investments in Latin America to sit on its board, including representatives of Exxon and Shell oil corporations, IBM, Koppers and Gillette. It even made J. Peter Grace, head of the United Fruit Company, the biggest foreign landowner in Latin America, as its chairman.

AIFLD was now obviously committed to making the hemisphere’s impoverished countries safe for U.S. investors, with whatever means, not excluding support for military coups. It selected William C. Doherty, Jr., as its executive director, whose father had been a long-time president of the National Association of Letter Carriers and who was said to have been a CIA conduit for passing agency funds to foreign labor leaders. In his book, “CIA Diary,” Philip Agee describes the younger Doherty as a “CIA agent in labor operations.”

In 1963, only a year after it was founded, AIFLD sponsored and funded a strike in the tiny country of British Guiana, spending over a million dollars to disrupt the local labor movement, laying the groundwork for the overthrow of the elected Cheddi Jagan government by a British military invasion.

In that same year, AIFLD supplied substantial funding, strategic planning and publicity to the opponents of Juan Bosch, the legally elected president of the Dominican Republic. Two years later, 20,000 Marines landed on the island and restored power to conservative generals, with the full approval of the AIFLD.

The 1964 military coup in Brazil was backed by the CIA and supported by Brazilian unions trained by the AIFLD. Shortly after, the AFL-CIO encouraged Brazilian workers to accept a wage freeze “to bring about stability.”

Appearing before Congress, Doherty explained AIFLD’s mission to the lawmakers: “Our collaboration [with business] takes the form of trying to make the investment climate more attractive and inviting.” Peter Grace, head of the W.R. Grace conglomerate and then chairman of AIFLD’s board of trustees, explained bluntly that the institute “teaches workers to increase their company’s business.”

AIFLD had a variety of programs to build loyalty among workers in foreign countries, which could later be exploited in the interests of American multinational corporations. With the help of CIA funding, it was able to build housing projects for workers in Uruguay that cost several million dollars and provide other AIFLD enticements to get workers to oppose the mainstream labor federation. In Ecuador, it “trained’ thousands of workers in the principles of labor-management relations and the free market economy, offering money for attending classes.

In the course of its career, AIFLD is said to have “trained” 243,668 actual and potential trade union officers in virtually every Latin American and Caribbean country. Of those, more than 1,600 received special training and pay at installations in the United States.

One of AIFLD’s dirtiest covert operations was conducted in Chile in 1973, where it played a supporting role to a military junta and the Central Intelligence Agency to overthrow the elected government of Salvator Allende, who had earned the enmity of American business by threatening to nationalize Chile’s copper industry and institute a series of radical reforms. The Allende government was accused of showing sympathy for the Soviet Union.

Two years earlier, AIFLD had channeled millions of dollars to Chile’s right-wing union leaders and political parties opposed to Allende. It focused especially on developing operatives in the communications and transportation industries so that on the day the coup occurred (it happened to be Sept. 11), communication lines were left open and free for the military junta to move swiftly into action.

Have things changed?  I’ve written previous posts (here and here) on our current crop of labor leaders.  Here’s UAW President Bob King speaking to auto industry leaders:

“The UAW’s attitude towards business is one of respect for the challenges they face.  We respect not only the employers with whom we have relationships, but we also have enormous respect for the transnational companies who have built factories in the United States. We welcome you as partners and colleagues in the industry. We appreciate the fact that you are providing good jobs here. We admire many of your good policies and practices, including the focus on continuous improvement, quality and productivity.”

And here’s Andy Stern, former president of the Service Employees International Union:

America needs a plan. And its plan has to deal with, how do employers in this country, through trade, through how we structure benefits, how we do taxes, how do employers succeed?”

And true to form, labor leaders in Wisconsin are now asking the protesters to go back to work and have conceded to the wage and benefit cuts demanded by the governor.

Workers are up against forces more powerful than Krugman intimates and they in fact have no institutional defender.  The oligarchy, aptly named the Iron Heel by Jack London over a hundred years ago, control the unions and the democratic party.  They control the media, the political system, the military, the intelligence apparatus, and the very means by which workers can eat and live.  Leaders of institutions nominally attached to worker interests are routinely enticed with money and status to support the system while truly honest leaders are dealt with by the many harsh methods available to great power.  I’m 100% behind the protesters in Wisconsin but a goal limited to maintaining union representation is equivalent to no goal at all.  Krugman rightly questions our level of democracy and points to the reality of oligarchy – he should be commended for doing so.  Our sights, though, must be raised much higher than near meaningless union representation; we must instead seek to eliminate oligarchic power in the United States.

From → Dynamics, Suppression

  1. Andrew Bell permalink

    You’re right, but it’s going to have to get worse before it gets better. It’s starting to get interesting, though.

    When more people go through their own savings supporting their children who can’t get jobs, get laid off themselves, take pay cuts, can’t pay to put gas in their cars, can’t pay their health insurance bills, things may change. Perhaps, in some twisted way, this is all good, as the austerity measures are sure to accelerate the economy downward, which may bring things to a head more quickly.

  2. The end of co-opting of unions begins in the last large pools of non-unionized labour (e.g. – India). So yes, things well get worse in the developed world for a while. Until enough of us realize we have more in common with labour in Inida than with trillionaires who control the state in which we reside.

  3. Andrew, it certainly is getting interesting. How much will the population accept? I think your second paragraph sums it up exactly.

    Roy, that’s the key – we have more in common with Indians than the oligarchs. It’s very discouraging, though, when you read how some workers are critical of public employee benefits and seek to bring them down rather than ask why they don’t have benefits themselves. It’s historically been so easy to divide the working class.

    I read somewhere that workers just want a seat at the table. I’m thinking that workers represent 80%+ of the population. Why are they merely asking for a seat at the table? Shouldn’t the corporations be the ones begging for that seat?


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