Swans Commentary » swans.com September 12, 2011  



AFL-CIO: Solidarity Or Sabotage?
An Interview with Kim Scipes


by Michael Barker





[ed. Kim Scipes is the author of AFL-CIO's Secret War against Developing Country Workers: Solidarity or Sabotage? (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2010) Paper ISBN: 978-0-7391-3502-0 (2011). The book was reviewed by Paul Buhle on July 4, 2011. Read the review.]


(Swans - September 12, 2011)   Late last year, long-time rank-and-file union activist and assistant professor of sociology at Purdue University, Kim Scipes, published an important book that draws much needed attention to the regressive impact that US labor has had, and is continuing to have, on radical activism the world over -- a significant issue that to date has been overlooked with tragic consequences by most progressive labor commentators.

For most people, it is obvious that international solidarity should be the bounding principle of any labor movement, but in practice this has not always been the case. Much of this has to do with the capitalist-aided rise of (unaccountable) labor leaders who speak of solidarity while practicing sabotage; sabotage that has cost the lives of countless workers struggling against the oppressive machinery of global capital. The fact that labor leaders (not rank-and-file activists) have so regularly sold-out workers to capitalists is despicable, but nevertheless in a world awash in capital it is quite understandable -- which is why reading Scipes's detailed exposition on the history of this misleadership is so important, especially for workers seeking to rectify this situation. Scipes notes that his...

... book makes three major claims: (1) the foreign policy program of the AFL-CIO (and the AFL before it) tries to dominate foreign labor movements, especially in developing countries and, therefore, is an imperialist foreign policy; since it comes from within the labor movement, it should be understood as being labor imperialism; (2) that this labor imperialism began before the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia in 1917, so it was not a reaction to the Bolsheviks, but rather preceded their efforts; and (3) while being designed to advance the interests of the U.S. Empire, it comes at the expense of developing country workers and, increasingly, at the expense of American working people -- ultimately, U.S. labor imperialism also hurts American workers. (p.xxiv)

Scipes calls for activists to intensify the struggle within the AFL-CIO and work on the urgent task of transforming the crippling American version of trade unionism "at least into social justice union forms of economic trade unionism, and preferably into social movement unionism." This will be no easy task. However, armed with the historical insights developed in his invaluable book, rank-and-file trade unionists will now at least be in a more favorable position to organize their fight to reclaim the labor movement: working to collectively transform the sordid history of labor imperialism into a democratic member-driven alternative that will assert the demands of popular democracy in the face of capitalism; thereby working to produce democracy, not Empire.


This interview was conducted by e-mail in July 2011.

Michael Barker (MB): In your book you mention a number of excellent studies that have documented what you refer to as labor imperialism. What impact do you think these previous books have had on trade unionists in America and around the world?

Kim Scipes (KS): I think the impact of individual books has been minor, at best, in the U.S. on the unions and trade unionists. For several reasons: Americans in general are kept ignorant about the world, and our education and understanding of foreign events is minimal. Considering the impact the U.S. has had and continues to have on the rest of the world, this would appear to be insane; until you realize that the U.S. has an Empire, and the rulers don't want ordinary folks to put in their "two cents" about foreign policy, etc. -- they might mess things up -- and we just can't have that! (Most Americans know little to nothing about the rest of the world because the overwhelmingly large number of Americans have never traveled outside of the U.S., not even to Canada: most only get 2-3 weeks of holiday a year, so not much time for travel; we're generally not taught foreign languages; and many people think we have such a big, beautiful country that they want to see the U.S. first before going overseas.) So, Americans are kept dumb, and most don't even know enough to challenge these ideas.

Even among the American Left, the idea that the U.S. has an Empire is a far out, crazy, radical idea: most Leftists don't even accept that idea.

However, that being said, there is a serious "core" of Leftists who do understand things on a global scale -- and most of these folks are great. But the writings of these folks are confined to a very small number of publications -- I think ZNet is the best, but you can find good things in Z Magazine, MRZine and Monthly Review, but not a hell of a lot more than these sources, and especially on a regular basis.

All of this being said, however, over time (like 40 years!), these ideas have gotten down to labor activists in general. Almost everyone has heard of the AFL-CIO, and the fact that 400 representatives of the 2.6 million members of the California State AFL-CIO unanimously condemned AFL-CIO foreign policy in 2004 shows that SOMETHING is getting through. Likewise, the 8-year existence of US Labor Against the War -- which has mandated membership from over 1/4 of the entire AFL-CIO membership -- is another example.

So, individual books have perhaps not had a significant impact, but the cumulative writings of books and articles has. And I think this will only continue to grow over time: most Americans have no desire to be sending our troops overseas and killing people, and as we keep pushing on this -- and especially as things stay bad or get worse for most Americans economically -- I think this resistance will intensify.

However, even at best, we haven't been able to force our views on the labor movement, to get the AFL-CIO to stop their shit. They know we're out here, that our analyses and writings are being taken seriously, but so far, they have been able to officially "ignore" us.

You also asked about the impact globally. My sense is, as people around the world know that there are people still fighting the Empire from within the belly of the beast, that works to help encourage them.

MB: What type of response have you had from trade unionists and the broader public since publishing your book?

KS: I know there have been over two hundred copies sold; I don't know how many have been read. However, a lot of people know the book is out there -- I've sent word to e-mail lists and Web sites around the world, and they've been sent out farther by people who have seen the messages. Also, if you put "Solidarity or Sabotage?" in Google, in quotes, you'll see that a lot of bookstores around the world are publicizing the book.

To date, I've had four reviews of it published. Two (by Nick Ignatz and Paul Street) are by friends of mine -- they both responded very well, but at least part of that might be because of our personal friendship. Readers will have to determine that. Paul Buhle, whom I have met and have worked with -- I have an article in a book he's editing about the upsurge in Wisconsin earlier this year -- also has reviewed my book, but he and I are acquaintances, not personal friends. However, I just got a very powerful review published in Labor/Le Travail, from Canada, by someone (Katherine Nostovsky) who I didn't know before the review, and whom I've never met. She really liked it. I'm putting citations and, when possible, links to each review on my Web page at http://faculty.pnc.edu/kscipes/Book.htm.)

Part of the problem has been the extremely high cost of the book: the hardcover lists at $65.00, and I've not been willing to ask people to pay that for a book. Getting it out in paperback, although at a price I'm still not happy with, should expand its readership, and especially if Amazon or others bring it out for less than $30.

The other thing hindering the book is that people on the left who disagree with it -- in general, or for Marxists, those 20 or so pages in Chapter 5 -- have not been willing to announce and encourage people to check it out. That, quite frankly, has been disappointing. I do not see this book is gospel: let's examine what I'm saying and debate it. But no one seems to be willing to do it so far.

MB: In the final chapter you draw attention to a number of limitations of Marxism for developing a suitable theoretical framework to understand the social reality of labor relations documented in your study. Could you please highlight your main concerns with existing Marxist theories?

KS: I see there being two Marxes (if you will!). Not the humanitarian or the mechanistic Marx, as others have suggested, but the "political economist" and the "sociologist," again, if you will.

The political economist Marx is brilliant. His analysis of capitalism, with his focus on production and what it shows, is as good, if not better, as any out there. This is still very relevant today.

However, I think he got the "sociological" part wrong. Let me explain. Marx took a structural approach to society, which is very rigid. Marx, as most people know, said there were two classes/two groups/two categories of people -- the bourgeoisie and the proletariat -- and that basically in a capitalist society, everyone could be placed into one of these two categories. (I'm talking at a very general level, so there may be individuals that this doesn't apply to, but in general.) Now, IF this structural model is viable, then EVERYONE in each of these two categories MUST see the world the same, must treat others in their category with respect, and must always act in solidarity with every other member of their category. And that just doesn't explain the world I know. An American capitalist in the 1880s, Jay Gould, once famously claimed he could pay half of the working class to kill the other half -- and outside of a few exceptional periods of history, this is probably much more correct than many of us would care to admit! The point is, that all workers DON'T think/act alike, and this can be said for any other group: women, blacks, gays and lesbians, etc.

At the point of sounding extremely arrogant, I think Marx is wrong on this -- position in the production process does NOT determine consciousness, and I think that sociology, especially American sociology, is wrong on accepting a structural model to describe dynamic social processes; that's why I'm advancing the idea of a processural model of society. In fact, I'm more than "advancing" the idea; I'm currently working on a formal article that I will submit to a peer-reviewed sociological journal in the not-too-distant future, where I develop these ideas in detail.

MB: Could you highlight some of the advantages and disadvantages of bringing a book out through an academic publisher like Lexington Books? Would you do it again?

KS: You have to understand: I made a very conscious decision to bring this out as an academic book. The biggest reason is because previous books on the subject have largely been ignored or marginalized, especially by those writing on US foreign policy, and I wanted to throw this into that "debate," to whatever extent possible. And that meant that I couldn't go to South End or Monthly Review or other progressive publishers, who are invariably dismissed as being "biased" and thus not worthy of consideration; I had to go with an academic publisher. Another thing is that an academic book must be reviewed by knowledgeable people in the field, so that means when published, it would have even more credibility. So, while the academic world of "foreign policy studies" wasn't my target audience -- that was labor activists and progressive officials -- I did not want to preclude my book from serious consideration by these folks.

Also, I am working in an academic institution, and I wanted this book to help me gain tenure -- which it did! I felt as someone who is as identified as I am as being "critical," I wanted the "straightest," least suspect, verification of the quality of my academic work.

Lexington was the only publishing company that was willing to give serious consideration to my book: I went to 9-10 other academic presses beforehand, but it didn't fit any of their discipline-focused catalogs: it is too multidisciplinary. Plus, and this is a strength of Lexington, they have a strong, critical catalog of books they publish, so I feel okay being associated with them.

Now, that being said, Lexington has a marketing plan that they don't want to deviate from, and that's selling books to academic libraries. That means the list price is quite high -- $65! It also means they were reluctant to bring it out in paperback. And it means they are unwilling to try new things. I have been pressuring them from the start to bring out a paperback version at the same time as the hard cover, and no-go on that. They did give me discount coupons that I could hand out at speaking engagements, but even with the discount, Amazon was selling it cheaper. Now, they are finally bringing it out in August, and since it came out in late September of last year, that's about an 11-month wait. They still are not advancing copies to sell at speaking gigs. And it's still pretty pricey. So, they've been of limited help in getting it out to the people I really want to get it out to: labor activists.

Would I do it again? It depends. It depends on what I would want the book to do. For example, my next effort will be to get my Ph.D. dissertation published: I delayed trying to get it published because it's a historical study, and the AFL-CIO foreign policy material is contemporary. But my dissertation is a historical comparative study of unionizing of steel and meatpacking in the Chicago area between 1933-55, and how the two unions addressed racial oppression in the workplace, the union, and the community. I think it will be of considerable interest, not only to labor historians, but for those interested in "race," in Chicago, and how these differences led to affect current-day Chicago. Accordingly, I think it will have a broader immediate appeal.

That being said, I also think this would be better received if it came from an academic press. It fits the catalogs at University of Illinois Press (which has probably the strongest labor history catalog in the country, plus I'm an alumni of University of Illinois), the University of Chicago Press (Chicago), and Cornell University's Industrial and Labor Relations Press (contemporary labor). So, I will try to pitch it to these publishers. But I will do everything I can to get it brought out immediately in paper -- and University of Illinois Press is especially good at that. I think this will get out, be less controversial, and will get a broader audience more quickly.

So, to summarize, you've got to try to think out what you want to do with a book, who you want to see it, etc., etc., and then try to go with the best opportunity -- as you see it -- that you get. Not all books are the same, nor are all publishers -- either in how they treat the author, and how much they are willing to do to get it out. I think that academic presses will give more legitimacy than non-academic ones, but it comes with costs -- and which is more important to you, at the time?

MB: What are your plans for forthcoming academic work and activism?

KS: These two overlap, but are different.

After I get my dissertation published, I want to go back to a long-time interest of mine, the changing global environment, and how that's going to affect American (as well as all other) workers. My 1991 MA paper was actually a forward policy proposal on how to rebuild the US labor movement in the struggle for an ecologically and environmentally sustainable society. I don't know if I'll be that specific, but will be something serious on labor and the environment. And regarding your earlier question regarding academic presses, this will be at a "straight" trade press if possible, mainly because of distribution, but I could see it with South End or something other among the progressive publishers.

I also continue to be interested in the changing global economy.

As far as activism, I'd say that I will expand my work with the National Writers Union here in the U.S. I was recently elected to be the Chapter Chair in Chicago, and I can see developing this.


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Michael Barker is an independent researcher who currently resides in the UK. In addition to his work for Swans, which can be found in the 2008, 2009, and 2010 archives, his other articles can be accessed at michaeljamesbarker.wordpress.com. Please help fund his work.   (back)


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Published September 12, 2011