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date: 11 April 2021

Labor and US Foreign Relationslocked

  • Elizabeth McKillenElizabeth McKillenDepartment of History, University of Maine

Summary

American workers have often been characterized by the press, scholars, and policy-makers as apathetic and ill-informed about foreign policy issues. To highlight this point, scholars have frequently used an anecdote about a blue-collar worker who responded to an interviewer’s questions regarding international issues in the 1940s by exclaiming “Foreign Affairs! That’s for people who don’t have to work for a living.” Yet missing from many such appraisals is a consideration of the long history of efforts by both informal groups of workers and labor unions to articulate and defend the perceived international interests of American workers. During the early years of the American Republic, groups of workers used crowd actions, boycotts, and protests to make their views on important foreign policy issues known. In the late 19th century, emerging national labor unions experimented with interest group lobbying as well as forms of collective action championed by the international labor movement to promote working-class foreign policy interests. Many 20th- and 21st-century US labor groups shared in common a belief that government leaders failed to adequately understand the international concerns and perspectives of workers. Yet such groups often pursued different types of foreign policy influence. Some dominant labor organizations, such as the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), participated in federal bureaucracies, advisory councils, and diplomatic missions and programs designed to encourage collaboration among business, state, and labor leaders in formulating and promoting US foreign policy. Yet other labor groups, as well as dissidents within the AFL and CIO, argued that these power-sharing arrangements compromised labor’s independence and led some trade union leaders to support policies that actually hurt both American and foreign workers. Particularly important in fueling internal opposition to AFL-CIO foreign policies were immigrant workers and those with specific ethno-racial concerns. Some dissenting groups and activists participated in traditional forms of interest group lobbying in order to promote an independent international agenda for labor; others committed themselves to the foreign policy programs of socialist, labor, or communist parties. Still others, such as the Industrial Workers of the World, advocated strike and international economic actions by workers to influence US foreign policy or to oppose US business activities abroad.

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