Policy from the People, Part 2

By Caleb Weaver

This is the second of a two-part series on foreign policy development in social movements. Part One lays out the case for social movements as the natural home for left foreign policymaking, and Part Two traces the history of foreign policy development in the American labor movement since the end of the Cold War.

After decades of the AFL-CIO pursuing a corporation-friendly foreign policy of “business unionism,” John Sweeney’s election as federation president in 1995 marked a radical change in the way the US labor movement thought about its relationship to the outside world. Richard Trumka, Sweeney’s running mate, announced shortly after their election that “for too many years, ideology has been the chief export of the AFL-CIO…now the chief export and import will be a far more precious and relevant commodity, one called international solidarity.” The move toward international solidarity had a rocky start, but it eventually became the basis of a solidly progressive foreign policy at the AFL-CIO. The federation’s development of the infrastructure for international solidarity points the way for other social movements as they build their own foreign policy apparatuses.

Sweeney saw international solidarity as both a moral necessity and part of a larger strategy to address the crisis of declining union density. Labor’s new foreign policy emerged from the diagnosis that capital’s ability to relocate across borders had pitted countries against each other in the so-called “race to the bottom,” decimating US union density by allowing capital to flee to locales with abysmal wages and no union rights. A common refrain at the time was that corporations had beaten labor to the punch by extending their operations across borders, and that unions needed to respond by “going overseas” themselves. As a result, unions directed their efforts mostly at transnational corporations, aiming to organize workforces in other countries and to launch strikes, boycotts, and litigation both at home and abroad in a coordinated manner.

In its crudest form, the new internationalism assumed that strengthening union rights overseas would protect American workers from offshoring by removing capital’s incentive to chase lower labor costs. Whereas the old business unionists had at times used the AFL-CIO to repress labor overseas, the new guard began to use the movement’s resources and democracy-promotion grants from the US government to train union organizers and support grassroots campaigns for pro-labor policies. This approach was premised on a desire to maintain privileged living standards in the US and treated the concerns of foreign workers as secondary. Although support for unions overseas was a step forward for the federation, the emphasis on “fighting offshoring” smacked of earlier xenophobic “Buy American” campaigns. Furthermore, it ultimately accepted and accommodated the dynamics of global capitalism, taking capital’s autonomy as a given and designing strategies in response.

As international solidarity began to develop its own momentum, however, its goals began to change. Sweeney implemented his solidarity policy by re-organizing the AFL-CIO’s “labor centers”–semi-independent organizations headquartered overseas that supported “free unionism” but had at times joined in reactionary efforts against social change–into a new entity known as the Solidarity Center. As the Solidarity Center and other internationalist structures like the International Labor Rights Forum matured and evolved, they confronted the reality that it is difficult to practice solidarity while privileging the concerns of American workers over those of workers abroad. As they began to incorporate foreign worker voices into their analysis and to place foreign and domestic worker interests on a more equal footing, the single-minded pursuit of protecting American jobs fell by the wayside and a new set of policy priorities emerged.

The federation’s new analysis sees labor unions as having the most potential power to mitigate the harms caused by business operations and to address the pressing challenges of climate change, mass migration, and gender inequality. To put this assumption into practice, the AFL-CIO broadened its goal from supporting its international union counterparts to supporting movements, just as it reoriented its domestic efforts from “bread-and-butter unionism” to “movement work” such as fighting for immigration reform and voting rights. This new emphasis preserves efforts to train union organizers in other countries, but it also looks beyond union structures and has resulted in programs to educate rank-and-file workers on their rights, support ally organizations outside of unions, provide legal services to make labor laws effective, and apply a gender lens to both unions’ organizing work and political efforts.  

International solidarity has also begun to permeate the labor movement beyond the top leadership, with unions and locals organize educational exchanges and advocacy campaigns with counterparts overseas. Two particularly strong partnerships exist between the United Steelworkers and the National Union of Mine & Metal Workers of Mexico, who coordinate efforts against their common employers in the coal and copper industries, and between the United Electrical, Radio & Machine Workers of America and Mexico’s Authentic Labor Front, who share a dedication to radicalism and independence from the national labor movement. These tactics do not pretend to “bring jobs back” to the US; indeed, the Bangladesh Fire Safety Accord that these organizations promoted in the wake of the Rana Plaza disaster required garment companies to keep their operations in Bangladesh, albeit with higher wages and safer workplaces. Rather, it argues that achieving decent jobs and strong union movements in other countries will, in the long run, generate both the economic and political conditions that will check capital’s destructive tendencies.

Unfortunately, this new internationalism has not yet generated socialist policy proposals. Although it intervenes on behalf of workers in the class struggle, it does not articulate a vision for the endgame of that struggle, when the working class will emerge victorious and “bring to birth a new world from the ashes of the old.”

Despite falling short of socialist aims, the tactics of the new internationalism have reshaped the American labor movement to a remarkable degree: the AFL-CIO’s decision to denounce Lula da Silva’s imprisonment and demand that he be allowed to participate in the Brazilian elections, for example, represents a huge departure from its past, pro-business foreign policy. The federation has also accomplished a great deal in the struggle for labor justice overseas, supporting workers in their successful struggles to form unions, win better pay and benefits, defend their rights at work, and pursue justice in their communities. How can these tactics be utilized in other social movements, and how can they be deepened so as to produce a socialist foreign policy vision?

First, we must recognize that international solidarity between labor movements is a means to an end, rather than an end in itself. This is a descriptive argument, not a normative one: all forms of the international labor relationship are utilized to achieve certain political-economic ends. Business unionism used racism and anti-Communism to make American workers hostile to their foreign counterparts, which in turn generated political support for the American business class’ international agenda. When the AFL-CIO turned to a solidarity-based approach in the 1990s, it did so to change the incentives that were leading corporations to abandon their relationship with workers, unions, and communities. Today, the federation and its allies work to generate relationships of international labor solidarity for the purposes of rights promotion, poverty alleviation, and mutual economic benefit.

The relationships that will generate and advance socialist ideas are also based in solidarity, but a deeper conception of solidarity than the labor movement currently utilizes. I agree with the scholar Kim Scipes, who distinguishes between “international solidarity” between unions that see each other as economic units with common interests, and “global solidarity” that does not distinguish between economic, political, and social concerns. Promoting international communication (and ideally in-person visits) between social movements will reveal that their members not only share interests along one specific axis of struggle, but are members of the same global class that suffers oppression and dispossession on all fronts.

Second, social movements must be unafraid to name capital as the source of their suffering and collective ownership of capital as the solution. The US labor movement is unlikely to lead the way in this effort, but the gains made under Sweeney point the way forward: a revitalized commitment to a movement’s working-class base sensitizes leaders to the ways that capitalism itself lies at the root of the base’s concerns. This is why indigenous movements, groups addressing housing and homelessness, and other organizations who have promoted diversity and responsiveness in their upper ranks are making these explicit claims, while labor remains relatively timid.

This point has everything to do with the “inputs” that left-wing organizations use in developing their foreign policy, as I discussed in Part One. The slow but steady improvement of US labor’s foreign policy tracks the shifts in that policy’s inputs. When the old business unionists shaped their foreign policies, their main input was their own analysis of the relationship between themselves and US corporations. Unconcerned with the needs of foreign workers and often unaccountable to union members, they devised strategies to strengthen their hand in their relationship to domestic businesses. During the initial push for international solidarity in the 1990s, union leaders observed the crisis of offshoring among their own members while disregarding the crises that foreign workers were suffering and devised their foreign policy approach accordingly. The resulting efforts to help organize foreign workers, however, gave the AFL-CIO access to a crucial new input: feedback from these workers and their communities. The valuation and integration of this feedback led to the abandonment of crude internationalism and gave rise to today’s more progressive approach.

The decision to use grassroots feedback and people power as the inputs for foreign policy (as well as the decision not to rely upon corporate donations, the preferred input of today’s think tanks) requires social movement bodies to prepare themselves to gather these inputs and turn them into detailed strategies and proposals. Scipes’ relationships of “global solidarity” will allow organizations in the Global South to provide this feedback, particularly when organizations in the West take a non-paternalistic approach to these relationships, providing not just funding and statements of support on official letterhead, but active support such as sympathy strikes at home. Representative and responsive leadership within left-wing organizations will ensure that the grassroots’ input falls upon receptive ears. For labor, this representation will itself be the result of struggle within the movement.

Only when organizations are accountable to their grassroots base can foreign policy thinkers and implementers be directed to devise solutions to the problems the base identifies. For the moment, only labor is sufficiently endowed to both devise and implement major foreign initiatives, but that does not mean that other social movements should avoid building the structures necessary to identify their own foreign policy priorities. When the left finally gains control of the state, social movements will need to know what their memberships believe should form the basis of a socialist foreign policy. Socialist leaders can implement those priorities with confidence that they reflect the self-articulated demands of the working class and carry a built-in base of political support.


Caleb Weaver is a Master’s candidate at the Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy (Tufts University), with previous experience in labor-community partnerships and housing justice organizing.

One thought on “Policy from the People, Part 2

  1. Pingback: Policy from the People, Part 1 – Fellow Travelers

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