Celebrating, as so many workers and unionists in Egypt and across the world are, the fall of the Mubarak dictatorship, many are also apprehensive about how far this momentous process will go. Some, particularly those active in international trade union and labour movement solidarity activities, will be rejoicing the role they have played in this victory. And yet others may be asking what lessons must be learned, both within Egypt and internationally, for such solidarity activities in the future.
It is therefore well to reflect on the ambiguous role played in these events by the trade unions of the ‘world’s only superpower’, the AFL-CIO of the USA. The AFL-CIO, and US unions more generally, have long been heavily identified with Israel and its major union centre, the Zionist Histadrut. This is, however, not the only ambiguity that requires clarification and open discussion. There is another one.
Following online the Egyptian revolution and the role of labour protest during this unfolding process, I first became aware of the Egyptian Centre for Trade Union and Workers Services and its outstanding role in this struggle. One does not have to look far on its site to see that in 2010 the CTUWS received from the US AFL-CIO one of its annual human rights awards.
Good for the CTUWS and good for the AFL-CIO one might think. The CTUWS receives international recognition for its dangerous and difficult work under the Mubarak dictatorship. And the AFL-CIO demonstrates to the world its respect and support for those folks who don’t yet have the human and trade union rights enjoyed by workers and unions in the ‘home of the brave and the land of the free’ (actually the most restricted in any capitalist liberal democracy).
There are, however, two flies in this ointment. Or, perhaps, in this case, they should be called spiders or slugs? They are the two AFL-CIO leaders in whose names this award is given - George Meany and Lane Kirkland (see Appendices 1-3 below).
Giving a human rights award the names of these two is a breath-taking piece of hypocrisy and an act of disrespect to those organisations and activists in the Global South receiving it. These two men were two leading union partners of US capital and state; two leaders who presided over the dramatic decline of US unionism; two total and vocal supporters of the Vietnam War; two collaborators with the CIA in joint activities against unions and governments disapproved of by Washington.
It is as if, after all, the CTUWS were to - maybe next year? - give out a Hosni Barak Human Rights Award to the AFL-CIO for its contributions to international labour solidarity. And in recognition of Meany and Kirkland as the Hosni Mubaraks of the AFL-CIO (consider the length of their terms of office)?
If ‘another world of labour internationalism is necessary’ (to paraphrase the slogan of the World Social Forum) then maybe we will see first that those offered this poisoned gift will reject it, giving their reasons for so doing, and second that the AFL-CIO - or at least its similarly ‘reformed’ Solidarity Centre - will not only propose a new name for the award but make the award process public, transparent, and subject to decision by the ordinary workers the AFL-CIO claims to speak for.
And now read on...
(Note: these appendices are not sourced. The first two, however, do not come from sources necessarily hostile to either man. The third one clearly is)
Appendix 1. George Meany
George Meany was an American labor leader, who served as President of the American Federation of Labor from 1952 to 1955, and then, following its merger with the Congress of Industrial Organizations in the latter year, as president of the united AFL-CIO from 1955 to 1979.
Meany got his start in New York City’s Plumber’s Union and served as a business agent for Local 463. After that, he was elected president of the New York State Federation of Labor and served until 1939. He served on the National Labor Relations Board during World War II.
Meany was a great believer in the cooperation of labor and capital. Under his leadership, the AFL and then the AFL-CIO supported anti-communist and even McCarthyist policies. Unions deemed leftist, including the United Electrical Workers and the Retail Wholesale and Department Store Employees of America, were expelled from the CIO by the early 1950’s. AFL-CIO unions then cooperated with employers to raid and decertify leftist unions. He was a steadfast supporter of the Vietnam War.
Meany was close to Jay Lovestone, the former Communist Party USA leader turned anti-communist. Lovestone established the Free Trade Union Committee as the overseas organizing tool of the AFL. Throughout Meany’s tenure, Lovestone worked to establish non-communist and pro-American unions around the world. In the course of this work, the AFL collaborated with Latin American dictatorships against communist, radical or opposition trade unions.
He is famous for having said toward the end of his tenure that he had "never walked a picket line in his life." He was succeded by Lane Kirkland.
Appendix 2. Lane Kirkland
Joseph Lane Kirkland (March 12, 1922 - August 14, 1999) was a US labor union leader who served as President of the AFL-CIO for over sixteen years.
Kirkland was born in Camden, South Carolina and rose over his career to head the 16 million-member American labor movement.
In 1941, Kirkland entered the United States Merchant Marine Academy, graduated 1942, and became an officer on U.S. merchant ships during World War II. After the war, he worked in the Research Department of the AFL. He received a B.S. degree from the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University.
Kirkland married Edith Draper Hollyday in June 1944, with whom he had five daughters. A year after their divorce in 1972, he married the Czech-born Irena Neumann (1925 - 2007).
From 1979 to 1995 Kirkland was president of the American Federation of Labor - Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO). During his tenure, union membership in the United States declined precipitously. The unions suffered some of their most serious defeats, including the 1981 air traffic controllers’s strike and the 1985 Hormel meat packers’ strike. On the international front, Kirkland’s support of the Solidarity movement in Poland contributed to the decline of communism (he was awarded posthumously with the highest Polish award, the Order of the White Eagle).
The AFL-CIO continued to be highly supportive of U.S. foreign policy during the 1970s and 1980s. The Free Trade Union Committee, which had supported the Vietnam War under Kirkland’s predecessor George Meany, was reconstituted as the Free Trade Union Institute (FTUI). The FTUI cooperated with the National Endowment for Democracy, which received CIA funding, to support pro-government unions and subvert anti-government unions in Latin America and Europe.
Organized Labour Portal
• Lane Kirkland (1922 - 1999) AFL-CIO history page.
• Free Trade Union Institute the foreign arm of the AFL-CIO from 1977.
• Lane Kirkland: The AFL-CIO’s last cold warrior by Jim Smith
• Freedom’s Labors: Lane Kirkland worked for more than his union by Fred Siegel. Wall Street Journal. OpinionJournal.com. Tuesday, March 8, 2005 12:01 a.m. EST. Accessed April 3, 2005.
• Kim Scipes, 2000, "It’s Time to Come Clean: Open the AFL-CIO Archives on International Labor Operations." Labor Studies Journal, Vol. 25, No. 2, Summer: 4-25. [Posted on-line in English by LabourNet Germany.]
• Puddington, Arch. Lane Kirkland: Champion of American Labor. Hoboken, N.J.: John Wiley and Sons, 2005. ISBN 0-471-41694-0
• Buhle, Paul. Taking Care of Business: Samuel Gompers, George Meany, Lane Kirkland, and the Tragedy of American Labor. New York City: Monthly Review Press, 1999. ISBN 1-58367-003-3
Appendix 3. The Paul Buhle book on Gompers, Meany, Kirkland and the AFL-CIO
Buhle, Paul. Taking Care of Business: Samuel Gompers, George Meany, Lane Kirkland, and the Tragedy of American Labor
In this original, colorful history of "business unionism," Paul Buhle explains how trade union leaders in the United States became remote from the workers they claimed to represent as they allied with the very corporate executives and government officials who persistently opposed labor’s interests.
At the center of the tale are three of the most powerful labor leaders of the past century: Samuel Gompers, George Meany, and Lane Kirkland, successive presidents of the American Federation of Labor and its descendent, the AFL-CIO. Many other labor leaders, from John L. Lewis to Walter Reuther, receive in-depth treatment.
Taking Care of Business demonstrates how a union hierarchy heavily populated by former radicals thwarted women and people of color from joining unions, suppressed shop floor militance, and colluded with business and government at home and abroad. Buhle shows how these leaders defeated generations of radical union members who sought a more democratic, class-based approach for the movement.