November 22, 2004

AFL-CIO’s Dark Past (3)

U.S. Labor Secretly Intervened in Europe,
Funded to Fight Pro-Communist Unions

By Harry Kelber

The third in a series of six articles

Shortly after the end of World War II, the AFL began conducting clandestine operations to disrupt existing pro-communist unions and institutions in France, Italy, Germany and Greece.

The Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, recent allies in the war against Hitler Germany, was beginning to heat up. It was also to be fought between the labor movements of both superpowers, acting as surrogates of their respective countries.

The Free Trade Union Committee (FTUC) was established at the AFL’s 1944 convention with a mandate to assist unions abroad. It was tightly controlled by four prominent labor leaders: George Meany, then the federation’s secretary-treasurer; David Dubinsky, president of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union; Matthew Woll, president of the Photoengravers Union, and George Harrison, president of the Railway Clerks.

Their long-term mission was to build a world-wide organization of “free” trade unions under the domination of American labor. As they worked toward this goal, they knew they could count on the support of the U.S. government and the nation’s business community, normally hostile toward unions.

The FTUC was an “off budget, off contribution” agency, whose financial operations were kept secret, even from union leaders in the AFL’s upper echelons. Two of its first actions were to appoint Jay Lovestone as executive secretary and name Irving Brown as the AFL’s sole representative in Europe.

Brown, born in Bronx, N.Y. in 1911, was a stocky, five feet nine, undistinguished in appearance and unpretentious in public. He received a Bachelor’s Degree in Economics from New York University and spent several years as a union organizer in tough campaigns, including the Ford plant in South Chicago and the coal mines of Harlan County, Kentucky.

What made Brown an outstanding choice for the job was his sharp mind, inexhaustible energy, photographic memory for names of places and people, and his talent for making friends with important U.S. and foreign labor and government officials. His wife, Lillie, who spoke five European languages, served as his secretary and adviser.

Irving had a close, if not warm, relationship with Jay Lovestone, a former leading Communist, whom George Meany had handpicked to run the AFL’s International Affairs Committee. They made a perfect team, with Jay plotting the anti-communist labor strategy for Europe and Irving carrying it out, a partnership that lasted for more than two decades.

Brown Used Bribery to Split French Labor

Arriving in Paris in October 1945, Brown said of his duties as the AFL representative: “I want to build up the non-communist unions in France and Italy and weaken the CGT in France and the CGIL in Italy.” He was to report regularly to Lovestone and Meany.

Irving preferred to make private deals with European labor leaders, where, as the AFL’s sole representative, he had a distinct advantage. But he could play hard ball, when necessary. In 1947-48, he hired squads of goons, many of them criminals, to wrest control of the docks at Marseilles and other southern ports from the communist port unions, thus enabling allied ships to deliver food, machinery and other items in short supply to France and Italy.

But Irving, as talented as he was, could not have cleared the docks for allied shipping or effectively challenged the communist-led unions without the huge sums of money which he continuously received to bribe foreign union leaders, organize demonstrations, call or break strikes, influence union elections and disrupt communist meetings.

Between 1945 and 1948, Brown was getting funds from the AFL treasury, the U.S. State Department and major corporations like Exxon, General Electric, Singer Sewing Machines and others that had commercial interests in Europe. Then, in 1948, the U.S. launched the Marshall Plan (European Recovery Plan), which allotted $13 billion to Western Europe, but nothing to countries in the Soviet orbit.

The Marshall Plan stipulated that 5% of the funds should be used for administrative purposes and rebuilding Western European unions. But since Irving had developed a cozy relationship with Averill Harriman, the Marshall Plan director, he was able to get a good slice of the $800 million available in the “sugar fund” to finance his expanding activities.

When the Marshall Plan folded in 1950, the Central Intelligence Agency, established in 1947, was there to continue funding Brown’s secret operations on an even grander scale. The CIA turned over tens of millions to the FTUC, because the spy agency found Brown’s covert operations useful. Neither the CIA nor the FTUC were obliged to report these undercover financial transactions.

How AFL Undermined a New World Labor Federation

In September 1945, delegates from the labor federations of 56 counties met in Paris to form the World Federation of Trade Unions. Among its affiliates were the CIO, the United Mine Workers, the U.S. railroad unions, the British Trade Union Congress and most of the functioning unions in Europe, Asia and Africa.

The one glaring exception was the American Federation of Labor. Meany, refusing to join the WFTU, said its affiliates lacked “the basic freedoms of speech, press, assembly and religion.” The WFTU, he said, was “primarily part of a struggle to secure world political power for the Communists in the postwar world.”

The AFL began a strong campaign to undermine the WFTU and establish a rival world labor federation under its influence, if not direct control. Brown used his anti-communist contacts within the WFTU to sharpen divisions over the Marshall Plan and NATO, with the pro-Soviet unions refusing to endorse both. The crisis over the Berlin Blockade and Russian expansionist moves in Czechoslovakia also helped Brown to cause defections within the WFTU.

By December 1949, delegates from organized labor in 53 countries, including the British Trades Union Congress and the CIO, met in London to form the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU). Meany had achieved his dream, but not without the CIA lurking in the background and providing the funds and covert assistance.

But the fledgling ICFTU wasn’t the compliant vehicle that Meany had expected to promote his ambitions. Many of its members came from countries that were hostile to each other: Arabs and Israelis, Greeks and Turks, Indians and Pakistanis. There were tensions between unions representing the industrially-developed countries and those from Third World countries. Others had developed ties with communist unions in Eastern Europe that American labor leaders frowned upon. And most began to resent the domineering attitude of the U.S. labor delegation.

Frustrated by what he called the “stodgy bureaucracy” of the ICFTU staff in Brussels, Brown, with Meany’s approval, began moving aggressively on projects involving union development in Asia, Africa and Latin America. This further infuriated the ICFTU leadership who, depending on consensus, rarely acted decisively.

For nearly two decades, the uneasy, fragile relationship between the AFL and the ICFTU held on until 1969, when Meany, over the objections of Lovestone and Brown, pulled out of the world labor organization, saying he felt “completely frustrated with the operations of the ICFTU and no longer saw amy justification to remain within it.”

What also angered Meany was the growing trend within ICFTU affiliates to establish working relations with unions in Eastern Europe, especially the Soviet Union, through exchanges of worker delegations, joint meetings and actions of international solidarity.

The ICFTU received ample funding from the Central Intelligence Agency, channeled to it via both the AFL and CIO in 1950 and thereafter, according to John Ranelagh, a top authority about the CIA. Ranelagh says the CIA’s “support in the early 1950s also was given to West German trade unions through Walter Reuther, the head of the CIO United Auto Workers and his brother, Victor.”

Philip Agee, a former CIA agent, says in his whistle-blowing book, “Inside the Company, CIA Diary”: “At the highest level, labor operations congenial to the Agency are supported through George Meany, President of the AFL; Jay Lovestone Foreign Affairs Chief of the AFL and Irving Brown, AFL representative — all of whom were described to us as effective spokesmen for positions in accordance with the Agency’s needs.”

In March 1947, President Truman, addressing a joint session of Congress, said that action had to be taken to thwart the communist guerrillas who were on the verge of taking over the Greek government. He asked for $300 million for Greece and $100 million for Turkey, declaring: ”It must be the policy of the United States to support free people who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressure.”

In this crisis, Brown felt he could be of special value to the United States by organizing and unifying the Greek non-communist unions. It was a difficult assignment, because the principal force among the workers were the Greek communist guerrillas, who had fought the Nazi-Italian occupation, as well as their homegrown fascists.

Also, the leaders of the non-communist unions were woefully inexperienced in the basic principles of unionism, as Brown discovered. Moreover, the communists were capitalizing on the widespread poverty, where average wages did not cover more than one fourth of the necessities of life. (After April 1947, considerable U.S. economic assistance began to flow into Greece, somewhat relieving the plight of the population.)

Brown helped to unite the non-communist unions on a program “to organize a national trade union movement free of government control and political party domination.”

He also got them to agree to “seek the assistance and supervision of the AFL and the British Trade Union Congress in order to guarantee to the free trade union forces their democratic rights in the election of officers and the rebuilding of their trade union organizations.”

Congress voted the money — eventually close to $700 million — and American power moved into the vacuum created by Britain in the Near East. After prolonged fighting, the Greek guerrillas were beaten, the Greek government and economy were reformed and the situation in the Mediterranean was stabilized. Brown was proud of his role in securing this victory over communism.

It is worth noting that Brown, despite his strong commitment to “free” unions, rarely criticized either the government or anti-union employers in their denial of basic rights for workers in the United States. He advocated collective bargaining between labor and management as an essential condition for a free union, but ignored the lack of it for most workers here at home. He spent a lifetime fighting the communist system, but accepted the flaws in the capitalist system that his boss, George Meany, so ardently defended.

Differing Views About Brown¹s Legacy

Irving Brown, who died in Paris in 1989, evoked strong opinions from both his critics and defenders. Seth Lipsky, a Wall Street Journal reporter, wrote of Brown: “He was American labor’s leading organizer, philosopher and strategist in the vast contest waged after World War II, in which free working men vied with the communists for control of European labor.”

Irving received numerous tributes from labor leaders, including AFL CIO President Lane Kirkland, who said: “We have lost a giant. No other individual did more than Irving to protect and advance worker rights in every nation and around the world.”

Yet, there were critics who asserted Brown’s anti-communism served not the cause of freedom for workers but the corporate profits of international capital and the imperialist designs of Washington. He was also accused of being a CIA agent (a charge he denied), bent on destroying legitimate, independent-minded, indigenous labor unions.

A year before he died, Brown was awarded the presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, by President Ronald Reagan. In 1989, he received the AFL-CIO’s highest honor, the George Meany Human Rights Award, posthumously.

Perhaps the worst charge against Brown is not even that he accepted CIA money to try to defeat communist unions worldwide, but that all of his clandestine operations were kept secret from union members for decades, as though it was none of their business.

Article 4: U.S. Labor¹s Role in Overthrowing Elected Governments in Latin America. (November 29, 2004)

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