In March, at the virtual Summit for Democracy hosted by U.S. President Joe Biden, the United States announced its largest-ever commitment of funding to support foreign labor unions and the right to organize around the world. The grant of $122 million will go to the Multilateral Partnership for Organizing Worker Empowerment, or M-POWER, an initiative aiming to equip foreign unions with the tools to fight for better working conditions.
M-POWER is part of a raft of new democracy promotion programs linked to the summit, whose stated purpose is “to renew democracy at home and confront autocracies abroad.” Echoing Biden’s statement at the 2021 summit that workers organizing a union is “democracy in action,” Uzra Zeya, the State Department’s undersecretary for civilian security, democracy and human rights, argued at an M-POWER gathering during this year’s summit that “unions are indispensable for democracy.”
The Biden administration’s announcement of increased funding for foreign unions attracted little media coverage in the United States. But what little mention the initiative did get framed the alliance between government and labor unions as a new approach to U.S. diplomacy. In fact, the U.S. government has funded domestic labor unions in the past, having leaned on them as a means of achieving its national security goals since the late 1940s.
In those previous efforts, U.S. trade unions provided financial and technical assistance to foreign workers, but that support sometimes weakened foreign unions and helped to bring right-wing dictatorships to power. In order to learn crucial lessons from the past, this history must be reckoned with as Washington rolls out a comprehensive workers-right agenda to bolster the U.S.-led battle of “democracy versus autocracy.”
After World War II, Washington partnered with domestic labor unions to fund, train and organize unions in Western Europe, as well as in the Soviet bloc and the Global South. These efforts to influence foreign labor unions—covertly funded by the CIA through the American Federation of Labor, or AFL—began in Western Europe, where U.S. government officials and labor leaders became increasingly worried that communist parties would take advantage of the economic devastation created by the war to win elections across the continent. As the Cold War expanded, this “AFL-CIA” alliance extended to other parts of the world, like China, India and Indonesia, despite an interruption in the relationship during the 1950s due to disagreements between U.S. labor leaders and intelligence officials. During that same period, the AFL merged with the Congress of Industrial Organizations to form the AFL-CIO.
As decolonization accelerated in the 1960s, the creation of newly independent states in Africa and Asia, coupled with the initial popularity of the Cuban Revolution as a non-capitalist development model in Latin America, opened up more parts of the world to Cold War competition. That geopolitical contest led to a new convergence between the U.S. government and organized labor, as Washington boosted support for non-communist unions in the Global South and opposed those perceived as communist or radical.
By the early 1980s, opportunities to support labor unions in the Soviet bloc increased due to the formation of Solidarity, an independent union that opposed the communist government in Poland. Even after the end of the Cold War, the AFL-CIO continued to mount labor operations on a global scale during the 1990s and into the new millennium.
It might be easy to characterize U.S. labor unions as Washington’s “puppets” in these international campaigns, but the reality is more complex. The U.S. government and the AFL-CIO were brought together by a convergence of shared ideology and mutual interests. The AFL-CIO embraced “free trade unionism,” which held that only unions free from the domination of totalitarian governments could defend the economic interests of workers, and it believed that U.S.-style capitalism had raised living standards in the U.S. and should be spread to other countries. That dovetailed with Washington’s objectives during the Cold War of containing the spread of communism and promoting the capitalist model of economic development as the superior choice.
Part of Washington’s response to the threat to democracy posed by authoritarian populist movements, M-POWER is the international equivalent of Biden’s “Foreign Policy for the Middle Class.”
To that end, U.S. officials saw foreign unions as key targets for influence operations. Unions were often the largest mass movements in developing countries, and their prominence in key economic activities like transport and heavy industry also made them central to national modernization and development plans. In addition, the Soviet Union made a concerted effort to influence union leaders in the developing world. However, U.S. officials believed that foreign workers were more likely to accept aid from the U.S. if it came from a fellow unionist rather than the government. And the U.S. union movement lacked the funds to finance global influence operations and needed financial support that only the U.S. government could provide.
This created a scenario in which U.S.-based unions became a key channel for reaching and influencing foreign workers, with substantial autonomy to use government-provided funds as they saw fit. But their financial dependence on Washington also gave the U.S. government veto power over operations, allowing it to subordinate labor operations to wider strategic priorities when necessary.
The main activity of U.S.-funded overseas union programs was the training of foreign unionists, either in their home country through an AFL-CIO foundation or in Washington. Many graduates of these programs went on to be elected to key union positions in their countries. AFL-CIO training also promoted forms of trade unionism that deemphasized a militant approach in favor of cooperation with employers. Foreign unionists were urged to focus on raising productivity through cooperative agreements and cordial relations with management to fuel economic growth, which would in turn raise living standards. They were strongly discouraged from pursuing redistributive measures, especially through class struggle and strikes.
At the same time, the funding that the AFL-CIO provided to support its preferred foreign union confederations sometimes made them less democratic, creating union bureaucracies that became insulated from the concerns of grass-roots members. The AFL-CIO also sometimes sacrificed democracy on the altar of anti-communism, by supporting U.S.-backed regime change against elected leftist leaders. Thus, the AFL-CIO’s overseas programs produced unions that were sometimes less committed to defending workers’ rights, more suspicious of other unionists, less democratic internally and supportive of anti-democratic tendencies.
M-POWER marks a new convergence between the U.S. government and U.S. unions, as part of Washington’s response to the threat to democracy posed by authoritarian populist movements all over the world—including in the United States. The Biden administration believes that “persistent inequity and unequal opportunity” drives support for these movements. M-POWER aims to stem their rise by helping foreign workers fight for improved earnings and better working conditions, thereby preventing them from turning toward authoritarians who pledge to improve their material conditions. In other words, M-POWER is the international equivalent of Biden’s “Foreign Policy for the Middle Class,” which aims to safeguard the interests of U.S. workers by fostering economic redistribution to blunt the appeal of Trumpism and other forms of right-wing populism.
M-POWER’s structure contrasts with the previous government-centric approach to channel funding through AFL-CIO foundations. M-POWER’s Steering Committee consists of a broader range of partners that includes foreign governments like Canada, Spain, Argentina, Germany and South Africa; foundations from the U.S. and the Global South; the American Center for International Labor Solidarity, or ACILS, a union foundation attached to the AFL-CIO; and foreign unions, like South Africa’s Congress of South African Trade Unions, or COSATU. This multilateral approach may give M-POWER more global credibility, as it will be more difficult to paint it as a tool of U.S. or Western imperialism. It may also restrain Washington from taking actions or supporting forces that are inconsistent with M-POWER’s democratic credentials. However, the respective influence of the U.S. compared with the wider Steering Committee will become clearer over time as the program progresses.
In addition to the global battle of “democracy versus autocracy,” M-POWER could also play a role in the U.S. great-power competition with China, in particular. Recent comments by Thea Lee, the deputy undersecretary for international labor affairs at the U.S. Department of Labor, drew a sharp contrast between development projects under China’s Belt and Road Initiative and those funded by Western governments and institutions like the World Bank. That may point to an effort by Washington to project a more favorable image of its development model to attract allies and reduce Chinese influence in the Global South, much like Cold War-era initiatives by the United States sought to do.
However, there are several missteps that M-POWER must avoid. A program that provides too much funding for foreign unions could recreate Cold War dynamics, in which foreign union bureaucrats flush with cash from Washington create hollowed-out organizations. U.S.-led training that focuses on transmitting a consensual form of unionism as the standard instead of a more confrontational approach may not provide foreign workers with the tools they need to defend their rights. Just as importantly, it is unclear how Washington will react when support for unions in a specific country clashes with the United States’ strategic interest in maintaining a partnership with that country’s government.
Despite having been portrayed as a novelty, M-POWER is in fact the latest in a series of partnerships between Washington and domestic unions to achieve U.S. national security objectives. This alliance has been strongest when the U.S. government and domestic unions had a cooperative relationship at home, but it has had negative outcomes that include forms of unionism that downplayed redistributive measures and supported anti-democratic forces abroad. It remains to be seen how effectively M-POWER’s more inclusive structure may safeguard against some of these tendencies, but Biden administration officials would do well to bear them in mind as the program develops.