Ep. 182: Hardhats vs. Hippies and the Cold War Curation of the Conservative Union Guy Trope

Citations Needed | May 17, 2023 | Transcript

Citations Needed
52 min readMay 17, 2023
Hard hat demonstration in support of Nixon and the police, New York City, May 20, 1970. (NYC Municipal Archives)

Nima: Hello there, Citations Needed listeners! Before we get to our new episode, we want to remind you that tonight, Wednesday, May 17, we’ll be hosting our second-ever Citations Needed Beg-a-thon, and by Beg-a-thon, we mean our podcast fundraiser with an amazing guest and fun prizes.

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Nima: Tens of thousands of you wonderful people listen to Citations Needed each week or so. But a very tiny fraction of listeners actually sign up to support the show. So we really do encourage you to join us tonight, for the Beg-a-thon, Wednesday, May 17th, 8:30 pm Eastern Time, the only real time, and please do support the show.

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Intro: This is Citations Needed with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson.

Nima Shirazi: Welcome to Citations Needed, a podcast on the media, power, PR and the history of bullshit. I am Nima Shirazi.

Adam Johnson: I’m Adam Johnson.

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Nima: “Thank God for the hard hats!” declared President Richard Nixon during his first term. “Why the construction workers holler, ‘U. S. A., all the way!,’” read a 1970 New York Times headline. “The Day the White Working Class Turned Republican,” read another New York Times headline, but this time 50 years later in 2020.

Adam: We’re now more than five decades since this narrative first arose: The hardhats love America, and the hippies hate it. Whether Nixon or Trump is in the White House, news media, film, and TV tell us that the working class — good, honest blue-collar folk — are people of God, family, and country, unlike those spoiled, rich, out-of-touch lefty elites.

Nima: This binary framework is presented as organic, the result of working people and unions feeling left out by the lofty exclusivism of the left. But, as history shows, this didn’t happen entirely naturally or spontaneously; the “hardhats vs. hippies” narrative was, in part, manufactured by right-wing political and union operatives, more concerned with a McCarthyist imperative to destroy any and all social movements in the global south than with any coherent form of worker justice and liberation.

Adam: On today’s show, we’ll explore this history, looking at the ways in which right-wing factions of organized labor bolstered dangerous US foreign policy throughout the Cold War, deliberately crafting the false yet persistent notion that union members, and the working class more broadly, are and should be patriotic hawks at odds with the anti-war Left.

Nima: Later on the show, we’ll speak with Jeff Schuhrke, labor historian, union activist, journalist and professor who teaches at the Harry Van Arsdale Jr. School of Labor Studies, SUNY Empire State University in New York City. His writing can be found, among other places, in Jacobin and In These Times magazine, where he is a contributing writer.

[Begin Clip]

Jeff Schuhrke: Unions abroad could pose a serious threat to US Imperial designs, but as allies they can be invaluable assets and to help stymie the spread of communism, to maintain and expand the capitalist order. So labor movements overseas became a crucial target of US Imperial intervention, rather than allow them to radicalize workers and fuel leftist political movements, unions could be, it was hoped, they would be turned into instruments for containing the global working class, and its disruptive potential.

[End Clip]

Adam: This episode is a spiritual successor™ to Episode 81: How US Media Pits Labor and Climate Activist Against Each Other, in which we detail the ways in which certain media, a certain currents of media, certain outlets, manufacture an inherent tension between climate justice and organized labor in a way that omits the ways in which they historically have worked together and can work together specifically through these kinds of shallow cultural differences. This is going to talk about a similar thread, but specifically when it comes to opposing US militarism and aggression overseas, and using similar superficial cultural mechanisms, but ways in which pro US militarism and conservative foreign policy positions of American labor are partly organic, but are partly very much not organic, and ways in which that was crafted and manipulated by US foreign policy organs in the 1950s and ’60s, and ’70s is something that we think is a overlooked history and worth discussing when we sort of talk about the ways in which organized labor has had a conservative fence.

Nima: Yeah, the idea that union leadership just follows the collective feeling of its members, and that you know, clearly then the hard hat, right-wing, you know, blue collar workforce is just so automatically nationalist and patriotic and militarist and nativist is not necessarily true, and as you were saying, Adam, this has been cultivated over time, and sometimes very deliberately, with union leaders being close to US government agencies and officials, and so it’s a fascinating history, and the real inspiration for this episode is taken from the work of our guest today, Jeff Schurhke, who has not only written about the history of organized labor and US imperialism, but also is writing a book that is going to come out next year, and so this episode is very much based on his work, and we’re so excited to have him on later in the show. But let’s start with some history.

This story really begins with the largest federation of unions in the US, the AFL-CIO. So let’s examine the historical right-wing politics of both the AFL and the CIO, which were in place long before they merged.

Now, the AFL, which stands for American Federation of Labor, was founded in 1886 as a collective of unions of craft workers. Its founder, Samuel Gompers, was what one might call a labor nationalist; his views on US foreign policy revolved around the impact on the white US worker. Gompers, for example, supported US intervention in Cuba during the Spanish American War to expand US control of the cigar industry. He also joined the US’s anti-Chinese crusade of the 1880s, warning that quote-unquote “Asiatic” workers threatened to degrade the jobs and wages of white men, and later lobbied to restrict immigration to the US from Mexico for the same reasons. And, while the AFL initially pledged not to exclude any worker based on race, by 1895, the AFL began to permit new affiliates to deny membership to Black workers.

Samuel Gompers (center) in 1900. (Library of Congress)

A separate labor collective, the CIO, formed in 1935 to focus on organizing industries like steel, auto, aircraft, electrical appliances, and meat packing — industries that had been excluded by the AFL. Originally known as the Committee for Industrial Organization, or CIO, it broke away from the AFL in 1938, changing its name to the one we know today: Congress of Industrial Organizations.

Adam: The AFL’s conservatism persisted through the decades. This manifested in aggressive cold war anticommunism, even before the end of WWII in 1945 and the attendant official start of the Cold War, that would lead to a reactionary partnership between the AFL-CIO and the US government.

In 1944, the AFL established the Free Trade Union Committee, the FTUC, which sought to undermine communist-led unions in Western Europe. Its leader was Jay Lovestone, a former Communist Party leader turned ardent anticommunist.

Lovestone’s FTUC waged a far-reaching campaign, and in 1949, the then-two-year-old CIA identified the FTUC as an important tool and ally. As our guest Jeff Schuhrke noted in a January 2020 Jacobin piece on the subject, quote, “the Agency agreed to finance the FTUC’s efforts to subvert Communist unions abroad in exchange for intelligence on foreign labor organizations.”

Meanwhile, though it had become a comparatively progressive rival of the conservative AFL, in fact many of its leaders were radicals and communists, the CIO eventually didn’t take long to adopt the AFL’s official anticommunist policy.

The 1947 Taft-Hartley Act — a piece of legislation so anti-worker that even Harry Truman called it a quote-unquote “slave-labor bill” — severely curtailed the power and militancy of labor unions. One of the law’s requirements was that union leaders take an oath and file an affidavit stating that they were not members of the Communist Party or affiliated with any party that believed in or advocated the overthrow of the US government.

Nima: Now, that same year, 1947, Phillip Murray, a staunch anticommunist, assumed the presidency of the CIO. In 1949, six years before its merger with the AFL, the CIO, under Murray’s leadership, decided to sever ties with all unions that did not comply with Taft-Hartley. The organization purged two member unions — the United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers of America and the Farm Equipment Workers — for a perceived embrace of communism and therefore lack of fealty to the CIO.

By the 1950s, collusion between anticommunist labor and the US state would deepen. The FTUC and CIA funded anticommunist unions to counter communist ones throughout Western Europe, while the AFL and the State Department dispatched conservative US labor leaders to weaken communist unions there as well. The FTUC and CIA also targeted China after its 1949 revolution, conducting espionage and attempting to stoke anti-government sentiment through a front known as the Free China Labor League.

In 1955, weakened and deradicalized by McCarthyist legislation, the CIO finally rejoined the AFL, becoming the federation we now know today as the AFL-CIO.

Adam: The AFL-CIO’s anticommunist subversion on behalf of the US continued worldwide under the leadership of president George Meany. According to author Edmund C. Wehrle, Meany, along with Lovestone and their associate Irving Brown, deemed pro-capitalist unions, quote, “essential components of democracies — the sole defense of workers against a multitude of threatening interests and institutions,” in other words, against communism.

This position manifested in hawkishness by these organizations toward Vietnam, El Salvador, Chile, and other parts of the global south. We’ll dive into this much more deeply with our guest.

Nima: By the late 1960s and early 1970s, this anticommunist belligerence was entrenched within the AFL-CIO. The federation sought to convince the US public that it was in the interest of organized labor — and by extension, the working class — to oppose communism, support US-led war, and dismiss anyone who felt otherwise as a kook.

This became all too apparent on May 8, 1970, during a Vietnam War protest in New York City. That day, a group of at least several hundred protesters congregated across from the stock exchange on Wall Street, in response to the killings of four antiwar demonstrators at Kent State just four days prior and the imprisonment of Black Panther Party leaders, among other grievances. A smaller group of construction workers arrived later to confront the protesters, soon resulting in a horrific attack. On May 9, 1970, the New York Times reported the following of the melee, quote:

The construction workers, marching behind a cluster of American flags, swept the policemen aside and moved on the students. The youths scattered, seeking refuge in the lunch‐hour crowds.

The workers sought them out, some selecting those youths with the most hair and swatting them with their helmets.

There did not seem to be more than 200 construction workers, but they were reinforced by hundreds of persons who had been drawn into the march by chants of ‘All the way, U.S.A.’ and ‘Love it or leave it.’

End quote.

Adam: The counter demonstrators were vicious, using additional weapons like pliers and lead pipes to beat the antiwar protesters. A victim told the New York Times that the police, quote, “had stood by and made no attempt to slop the assault.” Some police followed the rioters’ orders.

At the time, there were indications that these attacks, which would become known as the “Hard Hat Riots,” were premeditated, possibly urged in part by union leadership.

An investment firm executive told the New York Times that two men in gray suits and hard hats, quote, “were directing the construction workers with hand motions.”

A Wall Street Journal article from May 11, 1970 reported the following, quote:

One construction worker, who said his life would be in danger if he was identified, claimed the attack was organized by shop stewards with the support of some contractors. He said one contractor offered his men cash bonuses to join the fray.

The May 8 counterprotest was indeed far from organic, orchestrated by right-leaning union leadership seeking to distance itself from progressive movements, especially those opposing the war in Vietnam and racial segregation in the US.

And it wasn’t the only demonstration of its kind. Over the following weeks, regular counter protests were staged throughout downtown New York, laying the groundwork for a “hardhats vs. hippies” media narrative. Construction workers, and really all members of the working class, the story went, were salt-of-the-earth folk, concerned with love of country and family, unlike those lofty, spoiled elitists of the anti-war movements on the left.

Hard hat demonstration in support of Nixon and the police, New York City, May 20, 1970. (NYC Municipal Archives)

Countermarches also spread to other cities and other states, continuing to cast construction workers as pro-Nixon patriots. In a 1970 segment from WBEN-TV in Buffalo, New York, reporter Lou Douglas interviewed construction workers outside Buffalo City Hall. Let’s listen to that clip now.

[Begin Clip]

Reporter: Are you a construction worker?

Man #1: I’m in a brass with the iron workers, Iron Workers Local 6.

Reporter: Apparently you don’t agree with the purpose of this demonstration.

Man #1: No, I don’t. I don’t support President Nixon and I don’t support the war.

Reporter: Do you anticipate any trouble here today?

Man #1: No, I don’t think so.

Reporter: Do you think American forces should be withdrawn from Vietnam?

Man #1: Yes, I do. I don’t think we should have ever been there in the first place. I’m against Nixon, I’m against just about everything he stands for. I think that I have two brothers —

Man #2: He’s not speaking for the construction workers. He’s all by himself.

Reporter: What do construction workers say?

Man #2: We say that we support our flag, we support our government, we support what they’re doing over there, we’re supporting our working men, and we’re not backing this guy at all when he’s one of them. But he has his way. He’s an individual. Let me tell you something. He’s down here with that sign, not here representing us construction people. We represent that flag. I stood down here in the last week’s demonstration, they were tearing it down and bringing it up back and forth on that poll, that flag didn’t know which way to go, and work for that flag and not what he stands for. He has nothing to do with this and I wish that the cameras wouldn’t be on this guy. He’s nothing. That thing shouldn’t even be here.

Reporter: Donald J. Blair, president of the Building Trades Council, what’s the purpose of the demonstration today?

Donald J. Blair: We are here today to show the nation that we are supporting the flag of our country, supporting our servicemen in Asia. Most of all to show the people of the city of Buffalo that we of the construction industry are proud that we’re Americans.

[End Clip]

Nima: Now a lot of the efficacy of this hardhat versus hippie narrative can be traced to prominent New York labor leader Peter Brennan, who operated in concert with the Nixon White House at the time. Brennan was elected president of the Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York, an umbrella organization of unions back in 1957. Brennan also became vice president of the state AFL-CIO and the New York City Central Labor Council. In 1973, he was appointed US Secretary of Labor under Richard Nixon.

Brennan was — you guessed it — extremely right-wing. He opposed affirmative action and racial integration, specifically seeking to keep non-white workers out of the construction trade. According to Smithsonian Magazine’s Angela Serratore, Brennan, quote, “positioned the labor movement as anti-anti-war as a way to cleave its members away from other racially progressive platforms.”

Serratore also notes that by the time of Brennan’s death in 1996, his obituaries stated as fact that he had personally helped plan the 1970 hardhat riots. There could be little doubt that this was true considering that his obits from the New York Times, Associated Press, Washington Post and elsewhere repeat the same claim.

And in his book The Arrogance of Power, author Anthony Summers notes that workers had been briefed by their shop stewards the previous day, May 7, to attack, in stewards’ words, quote, “the kids who were protesting the Nixon-Kent thing.”

Adam: The “hardhats vs. hippies” framework fit neatly within the Nixon administration’s “blue-collar strategy” of attracting white workers not through economic concessions, but through shallow, racist, and hawkish cultural appeals — and Nixon and his staffers were fully aware of this.

In fact, Nixon aide Richard Howard implied that the Nixon administration was involved in planning the initial protests. In 1997, Howard was asked by an interviewer if the violence was triggered by White House orders. Howard’s response was, quote, “There aren’t many spontaneous acts in politics. It’s all for the media.”

H.R. Haldeman, Nixon’s Chief of Staff, wrote in his diary on May 10, 1970, quote, “[Nixon] Thinks now the college demonstrators have overplayed their hands, evidence is the blue collar group rising against them, and [the president] can mobilize them.”

Meanwhile, Brennan, hoping to boost the riots’ credibility, denied that they were planned. A May, 12, 1970 New York Times article quoted Brennan, who insisted that, quote, “The unions had nothing to do with it. The men acted on their own. They did it because they were fed up with violence by antiwar demonstrators, by those who spat at the American flag and desecrated it.” Brennan added that subsequent demonstrations were quote-unquote “peaceful.”

The Times also quoted Brennan’s wife Dolores, who stated of the antiwar protesters from May 8, quote, “We wanted to tell off those kids. They have too much.”

Brennan was swiftly rewarded and embraced within the halls of US power. Quote, “Pete Brennan’s people,” Nixon reportedly stated, “were with us when some of the elitist crowd were running away from us. Thank God for the hard hats!”

Peter Brennan (center) addresses the addressing the May 20 New York City rally. (Patrick A. Burns / The New York Times)

Nima: According to Rick Perlstein, author of the 2008 book Nixonland, quote:

Peter Brennan, and Thomas Gleason of the International Longshoremen’s Association, vice president of the AFL-CIO executive committee, were summoned to the White House on May 26 [1970] — the day the Dow reached a new yearly low, nine days after the Cooper-Church amendment [restricting war funding and presidential authority to wage war] passed a Senate committee. Brennan presented the president with an honorary hard hat reading commander in chief and left a four-star hard hat to present to General Creighton Abrams, the American commander in Vietnam, and promised continued patriotic marches: ‘The hard hat will stand as a symbol along with our great flag, for freedom and patriotism and our beloved country.’ Nixon eventually made Brennan secretary of labor.

End quote.

We should also note that the Cooper-Church amendment, which is referenced in that quote, though passed by a Senate committee, was ultimately rejected by the House and therefore was not brought into law.

Adam: The New York Times seized on the apparent, though manufactured, burgeoning tension between construction workers and antiwar protesters on June 28, 1970, with a piece headlined, “Why the construction workers holler, ‘U. S. A., all the way!’” The piece revolved around, and was highly sympathetic to, a right-wing elevator mechanic named Joe Kelly, one of the violent counter protesters at the Hard Hat Riots and a member of the International Union of Elevator Constructors, which was an affiliate of the AFL-CIO.

It pitted Kelly, cast as a noble ambassador of the working class, against a snobbish, even dangerous, antiwar left.

Nima: Yes, before there was Joe the Plumber there was Joe the Elevator Constructor. Here’s an excerpt from that New York Times piece, quote:

JOE KELLY is proud, confident and outspoken in the old American style. He is almost mystically proud of his flag, his country, the establishment, and eager to end the Indochina war by striking more aggressively, though the deaths of young soldiers and innocent civilians sadden him. He is determined to be on guard against Communism and to crush it wherever it threatens his nation. Joe is convinced that a subversive conspiracy of teachers, influenced by foreign powers, is brainwashing the students to Communist beliefs. Distressed by the hippie life‐style of so many youths, he is also furious at student radicals who burn and shut down schools which his taxes pay for and which most of his fellow workers cherish because they never had a chance to go to them. He is a stalwart charter member of Richard Nixon’s silent majority, a devout Roman Catholic and fiercely loyal to his President, whose office he regards with almost holy respect.

End quote.

Indeed, the New York Times took the notion of the quote-unquote “silent majority” at face value, despite widespread opposition at the time to the Vietnam War. The New York Times quote Joe Kelly as saying, quote:

‘We have no control over what they want to call us,’ says Joe Kelly. ‘But I think that the large majority of people, going as high as 85 or 90 per cent, are more than happy. Not so much for the violence but for the stand that we took. And now they’re standing up. The construction worker is only an image that’s being used. The hardhat is being used to represent all of the silent majority.

End quote.

Adam: The New York Times didn’t challenge this, even though it had access to data that could do just that. The same day, June 28, 1970, the paper published a piece noting that a majority of adults — 56 percent — believed the United States, quote, “made a mistake in sending troops to fight in Vietnam.” It added, quote, “The proportion of citizens who think the United States was wrong to commit forces to Vietnam has more than doubled over the last five years.”

Nima: Yeah, it’s kind of amazing that the very same day that they published this Joe Kelly article claiming that 90 percent of Americans are happy with the US continuing to decimate Southeast Asia, The Times had the data that showed that that was so wildly incorrect, and yet in this piece, you know, ‘Hey, it’s just a quote, we’re just stenographers here.’

Adam: Yeah. Nor did The Times see it fit to dispel the false notion that the antiwar movement was largely dominated by white academics. At the time of the Kelly profile, the Black Panther Party was explicitly and vehemently opposed to the war, as were the Mexican-American movement of anti-war activists known as the Chicano Moratorium and multiple draft resistance and veteran groups throughout the country. And, as professor Penny Lewis, author of Hardhats, Hippies, and Hawks: The Vietnam Anti-War Movement as Myth and Memory, notes, quote:

The majority of union workers, in opposition to the leadership of the AFL-CIO, thought the war was a mistake and wanted out. A national poll found that 53 percent of unionists surveyed right after the May 8 attacks condemned the hardhats.

So the majority of unionists opposed the hard hat writers, but this was omitted or downplayed by contemporaneous media reports therefore codifying this image which then translated into pop culture.

One notable example is the commercially successful but somewhat forgotten 1970 film Joe. The film tells the story of an overtly racist, right-wing pipefitter, played by Peter Boyle, and an advertising executive, Bill Compton, played by Dennis Patrick, whose daughter Melissa, Susan Sarandon, in her first film, has fallen prey to a drug-laden hippie lifestyle. Joe and Compton bond over their shared violent resentment of hippies, culminating in a massacre in an upstate New York hippie farmhouse. Joe received an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay. Its screenwriter Norman Wexler went on to write Serpico, Saturday Night Fever and of course the sequel to Saturday Night Fever, Staying Alive directed by none other than Sylvester Stallone.

Wexler wrote the script for Joe over the course of eight days in 1969, before the Hard Hat Riots, in response to then-vice president Spiro Agnew’s quote-unquote “silent majority” rhetoric. The film was released not long after the riots, in July 1970. According to writer Chris Vognar, Joe was originally titled The Gap, and, as the title suggests, was intended to focus on the political and emotional distance between Bill and Melissa Compton. After the riots, Vognar writes, quote, “Wexler and [director John G. Avildsen] rushed to revamp their film to sync with current events,” promoting hardhat Joe, originally a supporting character, to the lead.

Nima: Now, by some accounts, Joe inspired at least one far more famous version of the working-class, hippie-hating union man. In January of 1971, Norman Lear’s All in the Family premiered on TV, introducing the viewing public to Archie Bunker, the iconic blue-collar bigot whose clashes with his liberal son-in-law, played by the ever-liberal Rob Reiner, became the stuff of sitcom legend. Film critic J. Hoberman in 2000 called the character of Archie Bunker, a union longshore foreman who moonlit as a cabbie, a quote-unquote “domesticated Joe.” And yes, Archie Bunker was meant to be satirical — of course Norman Lear was not endorsing Bunker’s politics by any means, quite the contrary — but that doesn’t change the fact that this representation of working-class union member, as opposed to the ungrateful long hair, was not thereby solidified in our pop culture, and continues to this day to be a dominant us versus them character trope, the working class right-winger versus the liberal or progressive or leftist activist.

Adam: While some speculate that All in the Family took cues from Joe, it’s more definitively documented that the show was based on the British sitcom Till Death Us Do Part. The series, which ran on BBC1 from 1965 to 1975, depicted the Garnett family, whose patriarch Alf was a crass, racist dock worker who resented and frequently fought with his socialist son-in-law, played by Tony Blair’s father-in-law Tony Booth.

Nima: Little-known fact, there’s a little Citations Needed trivia for you.

Adam: Yeah, little bar trivia there. So yeah, you have this sort of idea that this thing began to become, it was a Nixon talking point that there was this white working class that they were going to target, and of course, they had some success doing so, and of course, there were organic cultural resentments. We don’t want to sort of downplay that too much. But in many ways, the binary narrative of the hardhats versus hippies, as if the real salt of the earth working class supports Nixon and supports the war in Vietnam, was not really true. It wasn’t really backed up by polling, it wasn’t backed up by the rank and file of these unions to say nothing of the population, the working class population, especially the non white working class population writ large, and it very much was a campaign effort to create an image that was not really backed up by empirical data, and this was pushed along by these large media spectacles like the hard hat riots, which left several dozen people injured, this wasn’t just a PR spectacle by the way, over 100 people largely the quote-unquote “hippies” were injured by this, just days after the Kent State killings killed four quote-unquote “hippies,” and so this was a psychological operation that was orchestrated by conservative members of the union, potentially, in league with the White House to create an image that the working class in this country, the kind of backbone of the country, the salt of the earth was not only pro Vietnam War, but pro Nixon and pro Nixon’s policy of Vietnam War, even though that the, again, time and time again the polls show that just simply wasn’t true.

Nima: Well, and also by having a narrative where you center this idea of workers versus others, whether they be students or academics, right, professors who don’t count as workers in this narrative, or retirees, right, those who actually have time to protest, who have seen enough in their lives to actually be out in the street and oppose militarism, oppose war, all of those people don’t get counted as labor, right, don’t get counted as workers, don’t get counted as the most important kind of worker, as we’re told through this narrative, the hard hat wearing, blue collar, manual labor construction worker or electrical worker, elevator constructor, right? And so you really do see that even the word “worker” becomes defined by a certain kind of laborer, to the deliberate omission of others. Now, we’ve been talking a lot about the domestic focus of this hard hat versus hippie dichotomy. But what we’re really excited to also do is to speak with our guest about how these labor unions in concert with the CIA and US State Department supported US imperialism and militarism during the Cold War.

So we’re now going to speak with our guest today, Jeff Schuhrke, labor historian, union activist, journalist and professor who teaches at the Harry Van Arsdale Jr. School of Labor Studies, SUNY Empire State University in New York City. Jeff’s writing can be found, among other places, in Jacobin and In These Times magazine, where he is a contributing writer. Jeff is going to join us in just a moment. Stay with us.


Nima: We are joined now by Jeff Schuhrke. Jeff, thank you so much for joining us today on Citations Needed.

Jeff Schuhrke: Thanks for having me here. My pleasure.

Adam: I want to begin by sort of talking about how you would summarize mainstream labor’s relationship with US intelligence and military establishment during the Cold War. You wrote in your essay on Jacobin on the subject, soon to be a book to be found at bookstores everywhere, quote:

From aiding US-backed military coups in Brazil and Chile to cheerleading ruthless counterinsurgency wars in Vietnam and El Salvador, AFL-CIO’s foreign policy during the Cold War was fundamentally geared towards the interest of US Empire.

I want to sort of start there, can you kind of give us the broad outlines of that relationship beginning in the ’40s and then sort of where it kind of went from there?

Jeff Schuhrke

Jeff Schuhrke: Yeah. So unions and labor movements around the world have the potential to be very powerful. They can shut down entire industries, they can bring economies to a standstill, they can greatly influence elections, and they can undermine governments and even help overthrow governments. So the US foreign policy establishment, the White House, State Department, CIA, etcetera, recognized this right at the beginning of the Cold War in the 1940s and throughout the Cold War, and the problem, as the US saw it, was that a lot of unions, a lot of labor movements around the world, were led by or at least heavily influenced by communists or other kinds of anti-capitalists, anti-imperialist leftists. So unions abroad could pose a serious threat to US Imperial designs, but as allies, they can be invaluable assets and to help stymie the spread of communism, to maintain and expand the capitalist order. So labor movements overseas became a crucial target of US Imperial intervention, rather than allow them to radicalize workers, fuel leftist political movements, unions could be, it was hoped, they would be turned into instruments for containing the global working class, and its disruptive potential, and so trying to subvert overseas unions for their own Imperial ends, Washington officials had a really enthusiastic partner in the form of the AFL-CIO, the American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations, the major labor federation, in the US, and the AFL-CIO, their leaders, were strongly anti-communist, they had battled communists within their own affiliated unions for decades, especially the AFL. So, you know, when the Cold War started in the 1940s, the AFL and CIO were still separate entities, they didn’t merge until 1955. So in the early years of the Cold War, it was really the AFL kind of leading the charge immediately when the war ended 1945, the AFL started sending foreign representatives to other countries, especially Western Europe, where labor movements were led by communists, especially France and Italy, to try to split those unions, to try to bolster the non communist minorities within those unions federations tried to have them split and form their own rival labor federations, and they were doing this on their own initially, and then the CIA, after it was created in 1947/1948, took note of what the AFL was doing overseas and formed a relationship, a partnership with the AFL, particularly the AFL’s international arm at the time, which was something called the Free Trade Union Committee. The CIA started giving hundreds of thousands of dollars, which today’s money is millions of dollars, to basically sort of bribe union officials in Europe to break away from their communist-led labor federations and form their own rival unions, and then also expanding into Asia, AFL started sending representatives to places like Japan and India and Indonesia to do the same thing basically, to divide labor. It’s along Cold War battle lines to have unions that would be more pro US or politically moderate or conservative, and so on. And then in the 1960s, after the AFL-CIO merged, this direct relationship with the CIA kind of changed a little bit. Some of it was more like affiliated unions within the AFL-CIO were being funded by the CIA. But a new kind of, I would argue, maybe even more significant relationship emerged between the AFL-CIO and the US Agency for International Development, which was created under John F. Kennedy to start influencing unions more and more in the Global South, especially in Latin America after the Cuban Revolution, and so a new international arm was created for the AFL-CIO called the AIFLD, American Institute for Free Labor Development, which was set up as like a training institute, at least was on the surface that’s what it was.

Adam: I want to meet the guy who was in charge of naming the euphemistic CIA carve outs. They always have the funniest names. Like the Center for New Democracy, and it’s like, well, wait a second?

Nima: For worker freedom, but not that kind.

Adam: Yeah, we’re hanging out with the Paris Review.

Jeff Schuhrke: And actually just along those lines, you know that this whole idea of, I mentioned the Free Trade Union Committee, and that phrase “free trade unionism” was really prominent throughout the Cold War. It’s basically a euphemism for just anti-communist but they just would say “free,” and the irony there is that a lot of what the so-called free trade unionists were doing, and working with the CIA, with the US State Department, was imposing a lot of undemocratic or using undemocratic tactics and methods to make sure that communists or other leftists wouldn’t have any voice or influence within labor movements.

Adam: Well, because you mentioned Brazil, there are certain cases when there was reaction or fascism that many of these same organizations would team up with the actual right-wing, so they kind of dropped the pretense of being anti-communist left because, you know, again, the US not going to hand you bags of cash if you’re some principle to the Trotskyist, ant-Soviet leftists. When push comes to shove, you’re going to back the other guy too.

Nima: But then there’s also the kind of propaganda value of saying, ‘Oh, well, unions are backing the right-wing government,’ you know what I mean? You get to say, ‘Oh, even local unions are now backing this government that the US backs, so clearly, it can’t be all that bad.’ But obviously, it’s because the CIA has been funding those executives.

Jeff Schuhrke: And I mean, the sort of irony there is that, again, Brazil or Chile, yeah, the unions might have played a strong role in the coup that led to the, you know, right-wing, fascist government taking over, and then those unions would be decimated anyway, and the AFL-CIO would sort of be like, ‘Oh, we didn’t know that this would happen,’ and the AFL-CIO was always pushing, like in Brazil, for example, in the ’60s under President João Goulart, a leftist leader of the Brazilian Labour Party, Washington wanted him gone as soon as he came into office, because they thought he was too tolerant and permissive towards communists, and US Embassy was working with the Brazilian right and the military to plan on how they were going to take them out or overthrow him, and the AFL-CIO, and I mentioned AIFLD, the American Institute for Free Labor Development, was a big part of that, bringing a special class of all Brazilian trade unionists to Washington in 1963, a year before the coup, and spending over 50 hours training them specifically on issues related to how to stop communist subversion. Not training them so much on collective bargaining or organizing or things like that. But when the coup happened in 1964, communists and Goulart sympathizers in Brazil were trying to protest the coup and calling for a general strike, especially in the communications sector to try to disrupt the actual military communications, the coordination of the coup, and some of the same trade unionists who had been trained in the US through AIFLD were kind of proudly saying, ‘No, we’re not going to be part of this general strike, we’re going to clear the path for the military to take over and take out Goulart,’ and then once the military regime took over, they wanted to purge the Brazilian labor movement of all leftists and Goulart sympathizers so they sent in government appointed intervenors, they called them, to take over the unions, and, you know, make a list of who are the leftists, the troublemakers, and kick them out. And some of these intervenors were also people who had graduated from the AIFLD school from the AFL-CIO’s training institute in Washington the year before.

So that’s one example, and there were many other similar ones in Chile in 1972 to ’73. There were famously, you know, these huge trucking strikes that were backed up and supported by the CIA, as well as by the AFL-CIO, that ultimately helped create chaos in the Chilean economy and gave the Chilean military the pretext to overthrow Salvador Allende. But yeah, in a lot of these cases, the AFL-CIO, when Goulart was in power, when Allende was in power, the AFL-CIO’s message was kind of this no holds barred, ‘We have to get rid of them, they are total threat to everything that’s decent, and all freedom,’ etcetera, etcetera. They were just really hysterically trying to vilify these leftist leaders, and then once these extreme right-wing, military, fascist regimes took over, the criticism became much more mild like, ‘Oh, we don’t approve of what they’re doing exactly but someday they’re going to loosen up their restrictions and then we’ll be around to help make sure that they can have a free labor movement but we’re not going to do anything to hasten when that day comes, it’ll just have to come naturally on its own.’ So in a really different kind of —

Nima: Yeah.

Jeff Schuhrke: Yeah. And then AIFLD was then kind of spun off into Africa and Asia with similar kinds of suits that were also funded by USAID to the tune of millions of dollars. AFL-CIO’s Asian Institute was especially active in Vietnam, or South Vietnam, during the war, supporting the Vietnamese Confederation of Labor, which was the anti-communist, pro-US labor federation, and of course, famously, the AFL-CIO leaders like George Meany were staunchly supporting the war, even as US public opinion turned against the war, and many union leaders, mid level union officials and some affiliated unions of the AFL-CIO, were against the war.

Nima: So Jeff, you know, you kind of landed us right in the, you know, mid to late ’60s, early ’70s, and this really kind of picks up on this narrative that we were talking about earlier in this episode, this idea of the hardhats versus the hippies, right? This kind of trope that really took hold in the ’60s, and so much to do with Vietnam with the civil rights movement. So, you know, we’ve discussed the kind of origins of this trope earlier in the show, but I would really love to hear your thoughts on why it was used, why it was weaponized, why it was effective, and in what ways have you found maybe this idea was maybe a little organic or was it totally manufactured? How does this idea of the working class reactionary, blue collar worker, versus the trust fund, far left winger, how did it work then, and why does it persist to this day?

Jeff Schuhrke: Yeah, I mean, the working class in the United States has always been very large, very diverse or stratified, depending on what particular skill levels or what sector or industry you’re in, so on and so forth. So there is something organic, a little bit that, you know, it is true that in the ’60s and early ’70s, that there were a lot of some of the, you know, old school, blue collar, especially in the building trades, and some of the manufacturing unions were put off by the new left, and by all the social movements of the time period, and especially by the anti-war movement, which they saw, as you know, they weren’t necessarily like pro war, but they thought the anti-war movement was disrespectful.

Adam: Yeah, a lot of World War II veterans. Right.

Jeff Schuhrke: Exactly. Yeah. Disrespectful of the government, of the flag, we should trust our President, you know, yeah, it’s important. This generation of working class people came up during the New Deal and World War II and where the government was actually, you know, doing things to help workers, to help trade unionists in particular. So they had a sort of trust in what the President says, that kind of patriotism. But at the same time, and what often doesn’t get remembered, is that probably more working class people were against the war than professional, upper middle class, college educated folks, and that’s because working class people were the ones who were being drafted or, you know, their sons or brothers and friends and husbands were the ones going off and actually fighting and dying in the war coming back with PTSD or wounded, and several unions, including, for example, Local 1199, which was Black and Puerto Rican hospital workers in New York. Today, it’s part of SEIU, were very much against the war from very early on, from as early as 1965 they were protesting it, and pretty consistently opposed some important high ranking union officials within the UAW like Emil Macy, who is the secretary treasurer of the UAW. Victor Reuther, the UAW’s international affairs director, were outspoken critics and opponents of the war, again from pretty early on, and you know, with the hard hat riot in 1970, a few weeks after it happened, there was a poll done of US union members and 53 percent of them said that they disapproved of what the hard hats did, and only 33 percent approved. Why that happened, it was really in a lot of ways cultivated by Richard Nixon as part of his blue collar strategy to try to divide or take advantage of the fractures that had emerged within the New Deal Democratic coalition because of Vietnam, and to peel away especially white, blue collar, working class voters as part of his re election strategy. Particularly it was Chuck Colson, one of his advisors, hatchet man, later went to prison for Watergate for obstructing justice, but Chuck Colson was just a few days before the hard hat riot, I think it was May 8, 1970, a few days before that Colson was meeting with the AFL-CIO’s International Affairs Director Jay Lovestone was a CIA operative but they were already talking about how do we take advantage of some of this working class disenchantment with the anti-war movement, and then the hard hat riot happened, and Lovestone got Colson in touch with Peter Brennan, Brennan was the leader of the building trades unions in New York City, and got Brennan to hold this big rally of building trades workers in New York City on May 20, 1970, a couple of weeks after the hard hat riot, where they were carrying flags like, ‘We support President Nixon,’ and, ‘We love the establishment,’ and, ‘We love the police,’ and all kinds of things like that, and then just a few days after that meeting in the White House, where Brennan and some of the other hard hats met with Nixon in this big photo op, where they gave Nixon, you know, his own hard hat that said commander in chief, they put a flag pin, this is when presidents started and politicians started wearing flag pins all the time, Brennan pinned a little flag pin on Nixon’s lapel, and then Nixon made Brennan his Secretary of Labor. And Brennan, as the leader of the building trades unions in New York City, had organized the hard hat riot as well as that rally that happened later on. So a lot of this was kind of very deliberate, cultivated, and then, of course, the media picked up on it and became this trope that continues the present day, and in the meantime, though, the actual working class and in opposition to the war has been largely forgotten.

Nixon wearing a flag lapel pin.

Adam: Yeah, I want to talk a bit about the Global South, specifically allied countries we talked about, because I want to be clear, it’s not like, of course, you’re saying that you can’t be not only anti-communist, but to say, anti-Soviet labor union leader, it’s just that’s not really who all the money from the CIA went to, right? So it’s like, it’s not as if everyone by definition who was so-called anti-communist was some stooge of the CIA, but generally speaking, given that it’s a Cold War, and you know, hundreds of millions of dollars are kind of being thrown around, that that’s ultimately who would sort of rise to the top. Is that a fair summation?

Jeff Schuhrke: Yeah.

Adam: Okay, because I want to be clear, it’s not like we’re saying everyone per se who was anti communist was, you know, was was having lunch with the Dulles brothers, just to be clear, but like, ultimately, in the middle of a Cold War, that’s typically how a lot of these things kind of shake out, just by the nature of like how these things are funded, because I did want to sort of talk about some of the pre CIA conservatism within the AFL specifically. Having read a lot of Peter Cole’s work on the IWW in even some contemporaneous sources of the time, you see the AFL is pretty much the punching bag of every kind of radical union organizer from Big Bill Haywood to Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, the AFL is just considered a racist, highly sort of divided, very sectarian conservative union that is comfortable, more comfortable that let’s say, a Washington, you know, cigar room than the other unions for obvious reasons. Can we talk about those origins, how it sort of even predates the Cold War, unions like the AFL, I know there were other conservative unions as well, and specifically how their insistence on racial hierarchies, which obviously put them in huge conflict with organizations like the IWW, which were sort of axiomatically non racial, non gender hierarchies, and how to kind of racial hierarchies and focus on, for want of a better term, white supremacy, kind of made them the perfect vehicle for this Cold War positioning later on?

Jeff Schuhrke: Yeah, so the AFL emerged in the 1880s, which was literally right after the Haymarket Affair, you know, it’s just the origin of May Day in 1886, but you know, in this time period, the US labor movement was populated by all kinds of radicals, revolutionaries, anarchists, socialists, radical reformers, people who wanted to go back to a pre industrial way of life, etcetera, and they faced intense repression from employers and from the government. It was very common for the National Guard, the Army, or police or the Pinkertons, private security firms like that, to come out and crush strikes with violence, and a lot of the especially highly skilled workers like carpenters, cigar makers, typographers, among others, they didn’t like this kind of, they thought this sort of radicalism or revolutionary ideologies were not practical, they thought it was too utopian, and that the only way forward for the labor movement in a country like the United States was to basically just sort of accept the established order the way it was, except capitalism as it was, and understand that it was never going to change, there was never going to be a revolution, and instead just try to get the best deal for workers, and particularly, the most privileged strata of workers tend to be, you know, white males, US born or Northern European origin.

Adam: Yeah, because to be clear, like white didn’t even include Italians at this point.

Jeff Schuhrke: Exactly.

Adam: It didn’t include Latinos, it didn’t include Arabs, it was a very specific kind of white.

Jeff Schuhrke: Right.

Nima: Even the Irish were like newly white.

Adam: Yeah, because even, I think some of the segregated bunkhouses in the south, and I know the Timber Workers Union, the breakdown was white, Black and Italian, that there was like a third category. So I just wanted to clarify that.

Jeff Schuhrke: Yeah. So the AFL was immediately very exclusive, racially exclusive, and also exclusive based on what kind of trade skill level and national origin etcetera, and it was also exclusively male. They did find a measure of success for what they were in terms of not facing repression by the government because they weren’t really seen as a threat to the government, and a co founder and main leader of the AFL, for his first 30 or so years of existence, was Samuel Gompers, a cigar maker, who was constantly trying to signal to both employers and the government that the AFL was kind of the non radical alternative to anarchist, socialists, the IWW, and really forged an important relationship with President Woodrow Wilson during World War I where a lot of the socialists, trade unionists and the IWW were opposed to US entry into the war, and once the US did enter the war in 1917, these more radical unions posed a threat to the war effort because they could shut down industrial production, there was a need for rapid buildup for the military to build ships and for food rations for the soldiers and all the equipment and uniforms and ammunition and everything, and unions were well situated to disrupt and hamper all of that. Gompers and the AFL kind of stepped in and said, ‘We will get behind the war effort and we will promise there will be no strikes or disruption,’ and in exchange for that, the AFL, Gompers, were granted a certain measure of legitimacy by Wilson, and so they won certain gains like the eight hour day in several industries and raises and higher union membership, and so the kind of lesson learned by people in the AFL was if you support US foreign policy, and if you demonstrate that you are patriotic, and you will oppose foreign enemies, that you can actually win material gains. The problem was that as soon as the war ended, all that went away, and the corporation’s waged an anti-union campaign throughout the 1920s and union membership shrank. Another aspect of the AFL, yes, they allowed their affiliated unions to be segregated. They practiced Jim Crow unionism throughout the early 1900s, really until the mid 1900s, and they were also highly xenophobic. The AFL supported anti-immigrant laws, the Chinese Exclusion Act was supported by some of the unions that eventually founded the AFL, and, interestingly, when the Spanish American War happened in 1898, and the US took control over Cuba, and basically turned Puerto Rico and Guam and the Philippines into US colonies, there was the anti-imperialist league, and Gompers, president of the AFL, was a member of that, and opposing these kinds of territorial acquisitions. But part of the reason for Gompers’ opposition to US colonialism was based in racism and xenophobia, that these, you know, as he called them, “a barbarian people” in Latin America and Asia would be competing with whites for jobs. If they were part of the US.

Adam: Talk about being right for the wrong reasons. It’s like, ‘I’m opposed to these colonial acquisitions.’ Oh, yeah. Really? That’s great. ‘Yeah because they’re less than us,’ and you’re like, oh, man. That’s the Pat Buchanan anti Iraq War argument.

Jeff Schuhrke: Yes, yes. But by the 1910s, the AFL kind of quieted its criticisms of US Empire and kind of accepted it as kind of the reality and in fact, the AFL organized workers in Puerto Rico had a Puerto Rico affiliate. After World War I ended a lot of the gains that the AFL had achieved, because of its support for the war, kind of went away with this right-wing corporate attack on the labor movement. But in the 1920s is when the Communist Party USA first started to grow. You know, it was founded right after the Bolshevik Revolution, and communists wanted to work within the AFL and its affiliated unions, and central labor councils, state federations to try to transform the AFL into a more class conscious leftist militant kind of labor movement, and this was something that AFL leaders, they really were hostile and angry about this because it was, you know, the IWW was sort of on the outside criticizing the AFL as a separate organization. But the communists in the 1920s, at least, were trying to, as they called it “boring from within,” they were trying to dig within the AFL and change it from the inside, and actually compete with some of the more conservative union leaders for their leadership positions, and so there were a lot of internal struggles within the AFL in the 1920s to keep communists out, and some of the anti-communist AFL officials who were part of this, were still around by the ’40s and ’50s when the Cold War started, and they saw themselves as experts in fighting communists and keeping communists out of the labor, that they had the experience, they saw themselves as even more, as greater experts on this than the US government, and often criticized the US government for not being anti-communist enough, for not being strategic enough in their fights against communists. So the AFL was kind of, you know, had a long tradition of conservatism and racism and xenophobia and anti-communism long before the Cold War, like you said, all of that I think really mattered once the Cold War started.

Nima: Well, that also brings us to the creation of the CIO in the ’30s as almost, not an alternative to the AFL, but able to represent workers that weren’t able to be affiliated, and can you talk to us about the origins of the CIO and maybe how that was slightly more radical to a certain extent, but then the merging of the two into the AFL-CIO kind of also coincided with this kind of Cold War funding push and USAID push, as you were saying, that maybe, I guess, dulled maybe the initial ideology or leanings, proclivities of the CIO. Does that make sense?

Jeff Schuhrke: Yeah. The CIO was something different, it was started in 1935 as a kind of breakaway group from within the AFL, because this was in the ’30s in the middle of the Great Depression and the New Deal, there was a lot of organic labor upsurge in the mass industries, and some union presidents within the AFL wanted to take advantage of that and rapidly organize, you know, the auto industry in the steel industry and other hugely important central industries in the US economy that had been nonunion up till then, and AFL leaders were kind of dragging their feed and that really interested in in this industrial unionism.

Pennsylvania members of the Steel Workers Organizing Committee.

Nima: Which was also much more racially and ethnically diverse.

Jeff Schuhrke: Exactly. So the CIO did not have the same kind of exclusive or hierarchical kind of policies the AFL did, they welcomed in workers of all different races, they welcomed women, they also welcomed in communists and other leftists, and so, during the late 1930s, and into World War II, the CIO grew pretty rapidly, successfully unionized the auto industry and steel industry, and several CIO affiliated unions were led by communists, including the UE, United electrical workers, the ILWU, International Longshore Warehouse, and the Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers, among others, and the United Auto Workers, the largest CIO affiliate, had a large and influential communist faction as well. Once World War II ended, as I said, the AFL was already ready to wage the Cold War before the Cold War really even began.

Nima: Right. They were doing it. Yeah.

Jeff Schuhrke: They were already doing it before the CIA was founded, before the National Security Act, before Churchill’s, you know, Iron Curtain speech.

Adam: They actually approached the CIA, they knocked on their door like, ‘Hey, buddy, what’s going on? Let’s kill some communists.’ All right.

Jeff Schuhrke: Yeah, pretty much. But the CIO was a little different. And then, once World War II ended, they still welcomed in communists, still had communist led unions, within the CIO, and they were still partnering, they still saw the Soviet Union as allies, as Soviets had been allies of the US in the war, obviously. So it was during that period when the Cold War was kind of coming to fruition between 1945 and 1947, that CIO leaders, kind of, you know, as the political winds were changing, started to see communists within their ranks as a liability that they eventually by 1949–50 were expelling the communist sled unions, and in the process, losing millions of members. An important part of the context of this was the 1947 Taft Hartley Act, which imposed all kinds of new restrictions, legal restrictions on unions, including this requirement that union officials would have to sign affidavits saying that they were not members of the Communist Party, and the problem was that a lot of union leaders within the CIO were members of the Communist Party, and if they signed those, they would be perjuring themselves. So a lot of them didn’t want to sign them, not just out of the perjury thing, but they just didn’t want to sign them out of the principle of it. So, yeah, this is the CIO kind of slowly got into the Cold War and became anti-communist in the late 1940s, and then kind of by the early ’50s, the CIO and AFL were almost ideologically the same, indistinguishable, that’s part of why they merged.

Nima: So it’s this kind of dulling of that, I don’t even want to say radicalism, but just more representation, right? I mean, a more representative workers union, that yeah, emerged out of the AFL, turns into the Congress of Industrial Organizations, and then with Taft Hartley, another, you know, Cold War, McCarthyism, I mean, winds up just folding itself back in, and you lose that alternative.

Adam: Yeah, because we don’t want to oversell this sort of innate radicalism of Americans, but I do think there’s a bit of a survivor bias with the anti-communism of the ’10s and ’20s or the anti-socialism and anarchism, I suppose in the 1910s, and ’20s, ’30s, ’40s, etcetera, where the least offensive most conservative unions and union leaders are going to just emerge because of the nature of how these things work, which I mean, it’s, you know, the Palmer Raids pretty much destroyed the entire leadership of the IWW. UE was very marginalized, as you mentioned, for their stances on certain things like, for example, the Vietnam War, as well as the ILWU, and so at the end, you do get a more sort of pro Nixon, for what pf a better —

Nima: Well, unions are, yeah, super pro war. Yeah, it’s right-wing. It’s like, well, because you got rid of all the unions that weren’t.

Adam: Right. And it’s not to say that there aren’t cultural issues, right? Like you mentioned, we talked about World War II, you know, sort of imagining the dad from Born on the Fourth of July. It’s like, well, ‘I don’t get these goddamn hippies, back in my day,’ because, you know, they fought with the Soviets, right? It was sort of, of course hippies, you know, were doing kind of kooky shit, drugs, whatever. I sort of appreciate that there are organic cultural distinctions but it does seem like it is a bit of a survivor bias, in terms of what the kind of innate American worker is like.

Jeff Schuhrke: You could see that just with the AFL early on in the late 19th century, like I was saying, a lot of the more radical labor movements of the time were facing outright repression, you know, anarchist labor Unionists in Chicago were aimed, and at the same, just a few months before the AFL was created. So this is partly why the AFL became the sort of leading labor organization in the US right from the beginning.

Adam: So we do want to talk about the unions that did kind of resist the AFL, and then later, as you mentioned, the AFL-CIO’s partnership with the CIA, and that had a more principled opposition to US imperialism, and US wars in Vietnam, to be frank, and even before that in Korea. Can we talk about those unions we had mentioned, UE and the ILWU and others, can we talk about them and sort of how they distinguish themselves and what the impact was on their political power in Washington?

Jeff Schuhrke: Yeah, I mean, the unions like the UE and ILWU, were part of why they got expelled from the CIO, in 1949–1950 because they didn’t want to go along with the Cold War, they realized that it was ultimately kind of a a way for corporations, for the right to attack the working class in the United States, to divide labor movements around the world to the benefit of capital. So yeah, like I mentioned, Local 1199 and some officials within the UAW were opposed to the Vietnam War. UE and ILWU as independent non AFL-CIO unions were also very vocal in their opposition to the Vietnam War. But you know, they were because they were outside the AFL-CIO, because, like the UE, for example, their members were raided by the other unions after they had been expelled by the CIO. So they were kind of smaller and marginal, but they were part of this kind of coalition that was formed by some of the dissenting unions, both within and outside the AFL-CIO, to speak out against the war. But the ILWU, I’ll say, has a really great history of, you know, these are the West Coast dockworkers, using their really strategic point in the global economy to protest imperialism, and to protests US foreign policy in the ’80s. The ILWU in Oakland famously refused to handle goods from a Dutch cargo ship that was carrying South African goods as part of the free South Africa, and that inspired a lot of other people to boycott South Africa, Apartheid South Africa, and then more recently, in 2008, the ILWU had a major strike on May Day 2008 all across the West Coast, to call on the US to end the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, and just recently, a couple of years ago, the ILWU in the Port of Oakland refused to unload cargo from an Israeli ship, and so respecting the BDS. And the UE also has tried to put forward a kind of alternative labor foreign policy, where instead of working with the US government and receiving millions of dollars from the CIA or the Agency for International Development, they have a more independent foreign policy where they, especially over the last 30 years, have worked directly with Mexican unions. The Independent Authentic Workers Front, or FAT in Mexico, to fight NAFTA and to have workers across the border, on both sides of the border, organizing and showing solidarity with each other. I also want to point out that in the ’80s, during Reagan’s support for counterinsurgency wars in Central America, a lot of union presidents within the AFL-CIO, were opposed to Reagan’s foreign policy while the AFL-CIO’s top leaders, its president at the time, Lane Kirkland, were basically supporting Reagan’s policy, they were supporting the US propped up counterinsurgency government in El Salvador, they were more or less supporting the Contras in Nicaragua, and several US presidents from within the AFL-CIO created their own committee called the National Labor Committee. Its whole purpose was to oppose Reagan’s foreign policy in Central America and go against the leadership of the AFL-CIO, and they would have delegations down to El Salvador to kind of see how trade unionists there, leftist trade unionists were being targeted by death squads, how they were disappearing, being tortured, and they were not receiving any support or solidarity from the AFL-CIO. In fact the AFL-CIO was kind of supporting the same government that in El Salvador that was basically arming or allowing the death squads to do this stuff. So they ended up having actual open debates in AFL-CIO conventions in the ’80s over foreign policy and the national labor committee, not exactly a breakaway group, but just a group charting a different path for US labor’s foreign policy, wound up convincing Congress to cut off all aid to the Contras and kind of superseded the AFL-CIO’s leadership in terms of being organized labor’s voice at foreign policy. Included the presidents of some of the largest AFL-CIO affiliates, the presidents of the UAW, Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union, Communications Workers of America, AFSCME, SEIU, and others, the whole point of this national labor committee was just to basically have its own foreign policy that was separate from what the AFL-CIO was promoting.

Nima: Right. Before we let you go, there’s this really kind of great part of the piece that you wrote in Jacobin about the imperial history of the AFL-CIO where you kind of point out that it’s not like the CIA and the AFL had the coziest relationship all the time. Clearly one was a tool to kind of do the anti-communist labor work, but I’d love to just hear a little bit about this fraught relationship, especially, as you note, that the, you know, CIA leadership was largely very waspy, and their contacts at the AFL were very much, you know, mostly either were immigrants or had immigrant parents, they were working class upbringings, of course, I mean, you know, as workers, they were Jewish or Irish Catholics, this then presented almost this tension between the CIA and the AFL. I’d love to just hear a little bit more about that. I think it’s fascinating.

Jeff Schuhrke: Yeah, and that was especially kind of an issue in the 1950s, before the AFL and CIO merged. I mentioned before that a lot of these AFL officials saw themselves as the experts in battling communism, because they had the experience of doing it since the 1920s, and they saw a lot of these CIA guys, who were fresh out of college, or people who didn’t really understand anything about the labor movement, so they kind of saw them as amateurs. And in particular, I mentioned before, the AFL-CIO’s Director of International Affairs, Jay Lovestone, who was a really fascinating character that I probably should have talked more about, but Lovestone had been a leader of the Communist Party USA in the 1920s, and then was kicked out of the party and then over time became this arch anti-communist, and he was already leading these anti-communist kinds of, sending AFL agents to Europe to disrupt communist-led labor federations and he saw himself as being better at this than the CIA, and really, like I said, seeing the CIA as amateurs, seeing them as not knowing how to keep secrets as well as he knew how to keep secrets, and there was this tension, like you said, the fact that Lovestone was an immigrant, Jewish, and George Meany, plumber, Irish Catholic. They came from these working class backgrounds, they understood the labor movement, and they saw the CIA as people who didn’t get it, and there were occasionally these fights and confrontations that broke out and arguments that broke out. Lovestone would privately referred to the CIA guys as “fizz kids,” “fizz land.” So yeah, there was a lot of tension there.

Nima: That’s such an old time-y barb. I love it. You fizz kids. Yeah, no, I love that idea of even within the Cold War, anti-communist funding, it’s not like everyone was getting along, everyone just thought everyone was jerks. But Jeff, this has been so great. Before we let you go tell us about the book that you’re writing, which I don’t know, might be on this topic.

Jay Lovestone speaks at a union rally in the 1930s.

Jeff Schuhrke: Yeah, I have a book coming out hopefully next year from Verso. It’s called Blue Collar Empire: The AFL-CIO in the Cold War, and it kind of covers this whole history from roughly the mid-1940s to the mid-1990s, about how the AFL-CIO wound up working with the CIA and with the US foreign policy establishment, and it kind of covers some of these different Imperial interventions that the AFL-CIO and its affiliates were involved i in Latin America and Asia and Africa and Europe, and what kind of impacts that had on movements globally, but also the labor movement here in the US.

Nima: Well, that is awesome, really looking forward to that. Of course, we’d love to have you back on when the book comes out. But we have been talking to Jeff Schuhrke, labor historian, union activist, journalist and professor who teaches at the Harry Van Arsdale Jr. School of Labor Studies, SUNY Empire State University in New York City. His writing can be found, among other places, in Jacobin and In These Times, where he is a contributing writer. Jeff, thank you so much for joining us today on Citations Needed.

Jeff Schuhrke: Thank you.


Adam: Yeah, I can’t wait to read that book. If you work at Versa, or, you know anyone who does, let me know when it comes out. We’ll have Jeff back on the show.

Nima: Yeah.

Adam: Because I think it’s an interesting history, because obviously, we you know, we, we publish a lot of pro union, I guess messaging, I don’t want to say propaganda — because obviously, we don’t do that — pro union —

Nima: That sounds devious and dubious.

Adam: Content. Content is value neutral. Content on the show. But it’s also, you know, again, we don’t want to be too naive about the more conservative unions in this country and their relationship with US foreign policy establishment. It’s a fascinating history, it is a history of complex, interconnected motives, people who sort of genuinely fall out of favor with their communist pedigree and those who were just handed large bags of cash and some combination thereof, right? And it’s a fascinating history, and it really does show you that these positions on the war, especially in the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s, when there were all these different front groups and secret funding, I guess, was more common, but all these ways that this was partly, if not largely astroturfed, really puts into a very clear picture that much of how we sort of make these general kind of glib cultural battle differences are not quite that simple. Again, I do think there are a lot of organic currents. I mean, I think it’s true, the trades are generally more conservative, right? That’s just sort of been true for a very long time and continues to be true today. I do think that there were general culturally off putting or different things that happened in the ’60s that were not like the, for example, the working class in the 1930s, right? In terms of whatever free love, you name it. But I do think that a lot of that is overblown, and has been misrepresented to the sort of average media consumer who picks up on these tropes and internalizes them as kind of both entirely organic and steady state. That’s always been the case and always will be the case. But the more you read about labor history, even kind of prior to that, ’10s, ’20s, ’30s, ’40s, you realize that that is just not the case historically, and that certain forces help to kind of nudge that formulation along.

Nima: And also the idea that many unions emerge with, you know, different political ideologies, and what we kind of see now is this flattening of that, that even the CIO was created as really a communist labor collective that then got folded into the AFL, which had long been much more conservative, which had long been restrictivist in terms of immigration, the CIO opposed national quotas in immigration and actually moved the AFL to oppose those as well. But largely it went the other way, of the dulling of communist and socialist currents, the dulling of any kind of labor radicalism, and then you find that there are these partnerships between these huge unions, namely, through their leadership, and things like the CIA and the US State Department pushing really Cold War policy, but also Cold War narratives, these binaries of the free American versus the unfree Soviet, and actually working through these unions, as Jeff laid out, to undermine labor solidarity around the world, right? It wasn’t just sort of like hippies versus hard hats, but there were actual foreign policy implications that wind up being ideological implications, that wind up being superpower implications.

Adam: Yeah. And of course, it wasn’t just anti-communism. I mean, Allende wasn’t a communist, he had no relationship with the Soviet Union, but these forces worked to undermine his administration because they weren’t pro US and anybody who wasn’t pro US, any of the non aligned movement was considered to be per se pro Soviet. So, I mean, it wasn’t some, you know, principled opposition to the Soviet Union. It was really just are you on board with the CIA’s agenda or not? You’re either with us or against us.

Nima: Exactly. USA all the way Adam. Love it or leave it. But we will leave it there for this episode of Citations Needed. Of course, you can follow the show on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook Citations Needed, and become a supporter of the show through Patreon.com/CitationsNeededPodcast. All your support through Patreon is so incredibly appreciated as we are 100 percent listener funded. Our team and our work is made possible by the generosity of our listeners, so if you do like the show, please do consider supporting us through Patreon. And as always a very special shout out goes to our critic level supporters through Patreon. I am Nima Shirazi.

Adam: I’m Adam Johnson.

Nima: Our senior producer is Florence Barrau-Adams. Producer is Julianne Tveten. Production assistant is Trendel Lightburn. Newsletter by Marco Cartolano. Transcriptions are by Morgan McAslan. The music is by Grandaddy. Thanks again, everyone. We’ll catch you next time.


This Citations Needed episode was released on Wednesday, May 17, 2023.

Transcription by Morgan McAslan.



Citations Needed

A podcast on media, power, PR, and the history of bullshit. Hosted by @WideAsleepNima and @adamjohnsonnyc.