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Sherwood: The Crimes of Thatcher’s War

Is there life after coal, what future for the collier? The scab and the hardliner both, wear the blue scars of the miner Rising up now from the earth, we’re branded and we’re blinded The sunlight and the dole queue boast, the blue scars of the miner Is there anything but drink, drugs and last reminders A single tear drop rolling down, the blue scars of the miner

–Lyrics from the “Blue Scars of the Miner,” The Freakons, 2022.

  As the camera floats over a dense forest at the start of Sherwood, the new BBC crime drama, the voice of Arthur Scargill, president of Great Britain’s National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), breaks through the rustling of the treetops. Read more →

January 12th, 2023

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Michael Hillard on his book, Shredding Paper

by Emily E. LB. Twarog  on December 30th,2022
A Conversation between Emily E. LB. Twarog and Michael Hillard, author of Shredding Paper: The Rise and Fall of Maine’s Mighty Paper Industry (Cornell University Press, 2020) I grew up not far from the banks of the Androscoggin River,[1] a river that powered the textile and paper mills of central Maine, and, every summer, I return to Maine to visit family.  So, I was eager to dive into Michael Hillard’s Shredding Paper to learn more about the paper industry, a critical element of politically and economically divided state, and the workers. Shredding Paper did not disappoint. A melding of archival sources and oral histories, Hillard brings not only the industry to life but the communities that surrounded the mills. My interview with Hillard was a wild ride that took us through his thoughts on the political economy and corporate paternalism in the paper industry to networking with his students at the University of Southern Maine to find folks to interview, to his skill at transforming his academic work into popular narratives for the general public to access. It probably has a lot to do with the fact that Michael Hillard, a recently retired professor at the University of Southern Maine, is trained as a political economist and not a labor historian that makes Shredding Paper such as excellent opportunity to understand the history of capitalism as told through a history of the paper making industry. I met Hillard years ago at a LAWCHA conference and was impressed by his ability to move rather seamlessly between the two disciplines. This is not such an easy task for many despite our frequent claims of embracing interdisciplinarity. So when I asked him how he decided to write a history of the Maine paper industry and how he navigated as a scholar when crossing the line between economist and historian, he began with Leon Fink, of course. Michael Hillard (MH): I love Leon Fink’s quote that scholars of labor are placing a new emphasis on political economy that focuses on the “forces acting upon workers.”[2] It’s the most concise thing that I’ve ever read. It’s like, yes…that’s in one sentence that’s the best way to say it. I think the lesson of the left, whether it’s in history or political economy elsewhere for the last 50 years, is to dismiss the idea of false consciousness and figure out who people are and what they are. I thought there was a remarkable story about class formation and a particular kind of class conscious— class consciousness that was not radical, but it was class based. I tell the story in the book that the model of corporate governance that existed in the first 60 or 70 years of the industry, along with the high skill character, the particular labor process, the importance of like everybody’s involved in quality, it’s not a Taylorist kind of labor process. The way that story just kind of came together was like: they recognize that we have this corporate governance where because of our skill and because of these kind of noblesse oblige, you know, Protestant, paternalists that built the labor relations culture… Emily E. LB. Twarog (ELBT): While the book explores the role of the paper industry throughout the state of Maine, one company dominates the narrative. In 1854, Samuel Dennis (S.D.) Warren, a Boston paper merchant, opens a large three room mill in a village that would become Westbrook in the Southern coastal area of Maine. The mill grew exponentially and by the time of his death in 1888, S.D. Warren employed thousands and was “briefly the largest mill in the world.” (21) During the turn of the 20th century, three other companies entered the paper making market in Maine – Great Northern Paper (GNP), International Paper (IP), and Oxford Paper Company, just down the road from where I grew up in another company town, Poland Spring, Maine, home to Poland Spring Water. Hillard argues that it was S.D. Warren that is “a signal case of a company that evolved from a highly informal firm into a Chandlerian company that secured its long-run growth potential.[3] It had grown prodigiously…through engineering acumen, craft skill, and a knack for identifying growing product lines…” (39) Paper production was not a low-skilled job, it required a high level of intuition and experience: The work of producing paper that was satisfactory to the customer was highly complex. The characteristics of the ingredients water, pulp, filler, sizing, color and other materials were never exactly predictable or controllable… From the pulp mill through the paper mill, an infinite number of combinations of mechanical adjustments were possible in order to get a limited range of desired results…On the paper machines more than 100 of these adjustments were possible and less than half a dozen automatic devices had been found useful in controlling them.[4] In Chapter Two, you write, “The company fostered and the workers embraced a system with far more resemblance to a private Scandinavian social democracy than the US’s social Darwinism— Darwinian capitalism. It was SD Warren Company’s superior commitment to its workers and their families’ security and prosperity – though one with many caveats…and a recognition and deep pride in their role in their company’s success, profitability, and reputation that secured, where most needed, an extraordinary commitment of workers’ energies and skills.” (54) Was there something particular about Maine that allowed for this kind of welfare capitalism on steroids?  MH: I think a way of answering it is that the paternalism…was rooted in the labor process and the skills, the workers and all that stuff that I kind of try and try to put there at the center. It is definitely the case [that] the original Samuel Dennis Warren…he was sort of an esteemed Congregationalist Puritan…So I think the version of it that developed at [S.D.] Warren happened because it was a very Anglo-workforce. What I felt like I recognized in what I learned about the town and the workers was what Sandy Jacoby wrote in Modern Manners about Kodak… When they had the strike in 1916, there’s testimony that was reported in the [Portland]Press Herald of a worker who challenged the boss, who was the third generation of the Warrens, [arguing that it was the boss] who didn’t have their act together as leaders. [Workers] we’re like, “we’re fine Christian men and you took away our Sunday day off so we could go to church.” It was just kind of white WASP identity stuff. But the other mills in the state had very similar kinds of paternalisms. And I’m thinking particularly about a Great Northern Paper in Oxford in Rumford. And those mills were very ethnically mixed. They recruited new immigrants from the beginning Southern Eastern European immigrants. There were a lot of Franco’s [Franco-Americans Canadians], much more than S.D. Warren. And a lot of immigrants from the Maritime Provinces, you know? A lot of people from Prince Edwards Island. So they had people from all over and they had the same paternalism…. I think the way I explained it based on what I learned [from oral interviews], and I feel like I’m right on this, is that for them it was like they would have families of like ten or fifteen kids. And [they thought to themselves], “so myself and a bunch of my kids can get jobs here and we can feed everybody because the wages are high.” That was kind of a different bargain…But I think for us, places of paternalism emerged there. So, it was rooted in the labor process. I think it was rooted in a particular time, the late 19th and early 20th century; if a capitalist could afford to be a noblesse oblige paternalist they are. I think that a lot of the splits in capitalism say 1890 to 1920 is between the industries that can afford to do that and the industries that couldn’t. The only place that was really different and distinct was Madawaska, because there was such that like the Franco-English divide— Anglo divide was so strong.   Oral Histories: The gift that keeps on giving… One of the great gifts of oral histories is their flexibility and accessibility to everyone assuming you share them with the world. It took Hillard over fifteen years to research and write Shredding Paper and one of those reasons are the huge number of oral histories he collected and painstakingly transcribed by hand. Here are some excerpts from our interview on the gathering of the oral histories and how they have continued to be an important resource in telling the history of industry in Maine. ELBT: Why did you decide to use oral histories in Shredding Paper? MH: I went to graduate school for radical political economy. I studied the three volumes of Capital with really bright people. I studied contemporary Marxism and I studied a lot of economic history from a more or less Marxist perspective…But basically I like telling long stories about how capitalism as the system evolves. It is something that was just engrained in me in graduate school. Some of my professors wrote Segmented Work, Divided Workers; which was a big text at that time.[5] And I read broadly in it. So, I’ve always had an interest both through what I teach, what I studied in graduate school, and sort of long stories about capitalism and I do sit at the nexus of political economy and economics and history because I’m basically a seat of the pants labor historian. I studied with Bruce Laurie at graduate school and I think I’ve told you some of this stuff personally before; but over a long period of time, you know, what I really think I did in the last 25 years was I started to read the academic literature on labor history more closely so that I really understood the arguments and questions that people ask about working class stuff. ELBT: You interviewed over 160 people for this project. How did you find people interview? MH: I came here [to Maine] when the Jay Strike happened [1987-88]. I had many direct personable experiences; both as a commentator of the press and also as an activist supporting this. So, I was intrigued by that story. I didn’t know anything about the paper industry when I came up here. You know, I came to learn over—I started this sort of in the second part of my career. So the first part of my career, I learned a lot. I knew a lot of people who were in the labor movement and the Jay strike was such a big thing and I knew the direct participants really well; leadership and otherwise… I kind of recognized that I was here and I had an organic, intellectual connection to paper and paper workers in the labor movement; and that when I decided to dig into it, really there isn’t a comprehensive literature. There’s not a contemporary book that tells the story of the paper industry as an industry with labor as a focus. But when I started, I started very modestly with S.D. Warren; you can tell S.D. Warren served my central story. It’s four miles away and I had students in my classes in the 1990s who knew that they were going to get laid off soon. They knew where they were in seniority and they were 40 years old, sort of like— “I have three years, I’ve got to get a business degree at USM” and they were telling me stories. In the first ten interviews…I realized what an amazing story. And as soon as you start talking to people, this whole thing emerges. And, in many places in the book, people were just beating me over the head with these stories about Mother Warren. People used to get rescued by the company and the man [Warren] himself would come and give you the call. You know, it was a [Alessandro] Portelli type story. There’s this community memory and it has all these different moving parts and even had mistakes in it, which is one of Portelli’s themes, you know, mistakes that have insight kind of thing. So, I kind of started there. And then, I thought, if I could do enough kind of specific projects around the state, I could build up a story about the labor movement between 1960 and the 1990s….So I feel very happy that the oral history stuff created a vehicle to write a rich book and discover a lot of things and to write something that I could give back to the people of the state. ELBT: I grew up in Maine, but I am not a Mainer. I moved there when I was seven so I am considered by Mainers “from away.” Did you have problems getting people to open up to you? MH: I think there were two or three things I would say about this. One of the things that came out of this is I started to teach quantitative research; both oral history and…contemporary interviews in a bunch of my classes, because I realize it’s such a potent thing and you get students to do it. They just do two detailed interviews, and it changes them as it should… I had really good entrees. Somebody in the labor movement establishment would interview me [and] introduce me to the key local leader, who then had a bunch of people so… introduced by somebody who trusted me and they trusted the person. I think the other thing that really came out is that…if somebody wants to come, like a professor from the university wants to come and listen to you tell your story…, it’s an act of honoring a person’s life, you know? And to sit patiently and listen to them. And it didn’t happen a lot, but a couple of times I had students who said, “Oh, interview my step-grandfather.” And then I would talk to them afterwards and just say something general, like “Hey, it was a great interview. It was fascinating. Thanks a lot.” And [the student] would say, “Boy, grandpa really likes to talk, doesn’t he?” And they were kind of like with an eye roll…That was great, you know? I think that it’s just a sort of honoring somebody by being really interested in how they lived their lives. ELBT: Something that really excites me about your project is how you have used your research to give back to the people of the state. How did you do this beyond writing this book? MH: I produced a “This American Life”-type long-form historical podcast on the book. I used 70 or 80 interviews across those two things to produce. I worked with professional radio producers. It’s a great way to complement what you do with the book. I guess is— when you have oral history interviews, I think it’s like a great way to share it is to tell a story that you know— and I just started doing this before podcasts was really a thing, so it turned out to be a nice thing. In my S.D. Warren documentary, which is called Remembering Mother Warren, it’s 29 minutes. So it’s very efficient. I mean, we had a great 48 minute documentary and Maine Public Radio was only going to do 29 minutes. So, you’ll find it mind blowing because the accents— I mean, you know, Maine accents. I was interviewing, Bab and Oscar Feck who were born in 1910 or Harley Lord born in 1903 and “Well we used to call it the get up” and you hear it all over, this documentary is very cool. And let me just say one other thing; the vast majority of interviews were the kind of pay dirt ones. And one thing I would say that might be of interest to the audience you’re running for, which is that I learned pretty early on— I had somebody— I got like a faculty grant for $500 to pay transcriptionist for the first six interviews I did and I got the transcripts back because of Maine accents, because of the idiom of the mills, they weren’t very good and so for about ten years I hand transcribed. All of them. I have upstairs in my attic. I’ve got no idea what I’m going to do with it. I had like 2,000 pages of legal pads. This is what I write on and I have a favorite black pen. Most of them were 40 – 50 pages and it was because I felt like I discovered the insights that got into what I wrote and what it produced in [the] podcast when I was hand transcribing and then looking at the way they said it, in the cadence they said it… So yeah, it was the hand transcribing, the long labor doing that. But…once I started to do it, I loved it. I mean spending an afternoon transcribing a two-hour interview. It would take me four or five hours to write out 40 pages of a legal pad—a fourteen-inch legal pad and then go through it. And then…it was so easy to write after that… To the extent that anybody in the profession reads my book and thinks it’s valuable, I’m very honored by that. I know what it takes to read a long book like this. You know, it’s not it’s not a two-hour read at the beach sort of thing. But, you know, to write something that that again, a lot of laypeople— because the nature of Maine is that paper is really big and all of a sudden it just died over the last 20 years. And it’s a big topic in Maine culture especially if you get outside of Portland. Over the course of our interview, Michael referenced quite a few publications related to paper production and forestry. Here is a short list of some that have been out for a while and others that have come out since Shredding Paper was published in 2020:
  • Andrew Egan, Haywire: Discord in Maine’s Logging Woods and the Unraveling of an Industry (University of Massachusetts Press, 2022)
  • Kerri Arsenault, Mill Town: Reckoning with What Remains (St. Martin’s Press, 2020)
  • Jason Newton, “These French Canadian of the Woods are Half Wild Folk’: Wilderness, Whiteness, and Work in North America, 1840–1955,” Labour/Le Travail 77, no.1 (2016).
  • Monica Wood, When We Were the Kennedys: A Memoir from Mexico, Maine (Mariner Books, 2012)
  • Timothy Minchin, The Color of Work: The Struggle for Civil Rights in the Southern Paper Industry, 1945-1980 (University of North Carolina Press, 2001)
  • Julius Getman, The Betrayal of Local 14: Paperworkers, Politics, and Permanent Replacements (Cornell University Press, 1998)
  • Michael Hillard’s oral history collection from this project can be found at USM Digital Commons, Papermills.
Interview conducted by Emily E. LB. Twarog via Zoom. If you are interested in the full transcript, please email me at [email protected]. [1] “Androscoggin” — Eastern Abenaki term  /aləssíkɑntəkw/ or /alsíkɑntəkw/, meaning “river of cliff rock shelters” [2] See Leon Fink, “The Great Escape: How a Field Survived Hart Times,” Labor, 8(1): 109-115.  Quote appears on p. 112. Hillard, Shredding Paper, 11-12. [3] Alfred D. Chandler, Jr., The Visible Hand: The Managerial Revolution in American Business (Belknap Press, 1977). [4] Quoted in Shredding Paper, 56. [5] David M. Gordon et al, Segmented Work, Divided Workers: The Historical Transformation of Labor in the United States (Cambridge University Press, 1982). Read more →

Bryan D. Palmer on his new book, James P. Cannon and the Emergence of Trotskyism

by Chad Pearson  on December 21st,2022
Chad Pearson recently interviewed Bryan Palmer about this new book,  James P. Cannon and the Emergence of Trotskyism in the United States, 1928-1938 (Leiden and Boston: Brill 2020; Chicago: Haymarket, 2021). Why did you write this book? There are many levels on which one could answer such a question. At the most basic, somewhat apolitical, level, it is a question of curiosity about an intriguing life. Cannon, who has not really been studied in depth for reasons we will likely get into in later questions, is a fascinating figure on the left. Born in the heartland of the United States, in an industrial suburb of Kansas City, Kansas, Jim Cannon was the son of Irish immigrants, the mother a devout Catholic, the father an Irish Republican with an attachment to the cause of labor reform and Debsian socialism. How did someone raised as an altar boy end up as a hobo agitator for the Industrial Workers of the World, a leading figure in the Communist Party, USA, and founder of American Trotskyism? Read more →

The Worlds of American Communism: An Interview with Author Joshua Morris

by Randi Storch  on December 13th,2022
Joshua Morris has published The Many Worlds of American Communism in September. Morris completed his Ph.D. at Wayne State University and teaches at Grand Valley State University in Michigan. Randi Storch asked him some questions about his purpose and findings. Read more →

“Lions Led by Asses”

by Chris Townsend  on November 30th,2022
While labor historians have organized a letter signing campaign to the Biden administration asking them to grant some concession to rail workers, others have pointed out the continuing tepid response of labor leadership as the cause of this crisis. Is the Democratic Party in charge of the labor movement? It would seem so. One worthy contribution on this note is from Chris Townsend, who points out that it took years of counter-organizing by the rank-and-file leadership of Railroad Workers United to even get this far. Now the barren marriage of labor leadership  and the Democratic Party (oh, how Mike Davis is missed) displays its ugly mutual abusiveness. Only outside of academia are the calls for nationalization to save the industry from the most certain future crisis being expressed.–editor For centuries there have been observers and commentators that periodically point out when our leaders are failures, sometimes disastrously so. That the “leaders” are not up to the task at hand. Early 4th century Greek general Chabrias concluded that, “an army of deer commanded by a lion is more to be feared than an army of lions commanded by a deer”. “An army of sheep led by a lion would defeat an army of lions led by a sheep” was attributed to early Arab military leaders. During the British-Russian Crimean War in the 1850’s a Russian soldier penned a letter home and observed that the British soldiers were “lions led by donkeys.” Marx and Engels echoed that sentiment regarding British leadership in the Crimean War, noting that, “The English army is an army of lions led by asses.” Read more →

Rails, Jails and Trolleys

by Dr. Satwinder Kaur Bains and Sargun Kaur  on November 28th,2022
Rails, Jails, & Trolleys is a feature-length documentary, directed by Henna Mann and produced by the South Asian Studies Institute (SASI) at the University of the Fraser Valley in British Columbia. The documentary highlights the timeline of the historic Farmers’ Movement in India and the Canadian diaspora’s response to it. The film features insights from nineteen activists, journalists and academics who provide their research and knowledge on India’s history of agriculture, the ongoing economic decline in the workforce, human rights violations, and the way in which all these factors led to the largest farmers’ protest in history in 2020-2021. Read more →

From Solidarity to Shock Therapy: The AFL-CIO and the Fall of Soviet Communism

by Jeff Schuhrke  on November 22nd,2022
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the death of Mikhail Gorbachev this year have sparked renewed interest in the USSR’s 1991 disintegration, a moment that officially brought an end to the Cold War. Historians have been prominent in the many recent discussions and debates about how the demise of the Soviet Union thirty years ago set the stage for Vladimir Putin’s rise to power, the controversial expansion of NATO, and the current war in Ukraine.  A US-dominated, unipolar world order, however, now appears to have run its course. Absent from these discussions has been the small but important role played by the US labor movement—namely the leadership of the AFL-CIO—in weakening and ultimately toppling Soviet communism, inadvertently helping to usher in the era of neoliberal globalization and “free market” supremacy. Solidarność and the AFL-CIO The USSR’s implosion was in large part precipitated by the fall of communism in Central and Eastern Europe, which began with a dissident workers’ movement in Poland. In August 1980, after years of turmoil in the Polish economy, approximately 17,000 workers at the Lenin Shipyard in Gdańsk went on strike. The work stoppage served as a rebuke to Poland’s communist government, with the workers demanding an autonomous trade union and more civil liberties. Within two weeks, the strikers won many of their demands, including the right to establish an independent union they named Solidarność (Solidarity). From the beginning, Solidarność’s greatest international ally was the AFL-CIO. The Federation’s top officials, including President Lane Kirkland, were ardent anticommunists and zealous cold warriors. For decades, the AFL-CIO and many of its affiliated unions had worked closely with the US foreign policy establishment—including the CIA—to undermine leftist political movements and unions (whether communist or not) in Western Europe, Latin America, Africa, and Asia. With the birth of Solidarność, Kirkland and his associates saw an opportunity to take their foreign crusade directly into the communist world itself. Immediately after the Gdańsk strike, the AFL-CIO Executive Council created the Polish Workers’ Aid Fund, raising $100,000 from its affiliated unions over the next year to supply Solidarność with office equipment. Tom Kahn, a key official in the AFL-CIO’s international affairs department who ran the aid fund, openly advocated for “the dismantling, by non-nuclear means, of the Communist system.” On December 13, 1981, recognizing the potential threat posed by Solidarność and its stridently anticommunist foreign patrons, Poland’s head of state declared martial law, banning the union and arresting its leader, Lech Wałęsa. Five days later, Kirkland met with President Ronald Reagan at the White House to discuss the situation in Poland. The meeting was only months after Reagan had effectively declared war on organized labor by firing over 11,000 striking air-traffic controllers. “Well, at least we have something we can agree on,” Reagan joked upon greeting Kirkland, a reference to their shared anticommunism. Kirkland urged the US president to impose crippling sanctions on Poland and the Soviet Union, including calling in all $25 billion of Polish debt to Western banks. But following the advice of Secretary of State Alexander Haig, who favored a softer approach, Reagan announced relatively mild sanctions. The US government even paid off $71 million that Poland owed to American banks, concerned that allowing default would have negative ramifications on world financial markets. An irate Kirkland described the administration’s response as “unacceptably weak,” complaining that “bankers and businessmen” were running US foreign policy instead of genuinely committed cold warriors. “In effect, President Reagan told the Soviets to disregard his tough talk,” Kirkland said. Haig’s approach ultimately yielded results, however, with the Polish government releasing Wałęsa in November 1982 and ending martial law in July 1983—but Solidarność remained officially banned. The CIA and the National Endowment for Democracy Though Kirkland and Reagan had differed on how best to respond to martial law in Poland, they agreed that the United States needed step up assistance to Solidarność. Partnering with the New York-based Committee in Support of Solidarity, the AFL-CIO’s Polish Workers’ Aid Fund continued sending hundreds of thousands of dollars to the union in the early 1980s via an office in Brussels. The CIA also got in on the action, spinning a byzantine web of financial channels to secretly transmit money to Solidarność—secret because public awareness of such a link would undermine the union’s legitimacy as the authentic voice of Polish workers. The operation was so covert that, at least according to CIA sources, the union’s leaders were largely unaware they were being supported by the spy agency at all. Over the course of five years, Solidarność received an estimated total of $10 million in funds that originated with the CIA, according to historian Gregory Domber. An odd assortment of US neoconservatives and anticommunist social democrats—many of whom ran in the same circles as Kirkland and Kahn—came to believe that it would be far more efficient if Washington could bankroll Solidarność out in the open, and free from any association with the CIA and its bad reputation. To this end, in 1983, the Reagan administration and AFL-CIO teamed up to convince Congress to establish a new, quasi-private foundation to provide US government funds to anticommunist civil society organizations abroad, including unions. AFL-CIO officials lobbied Congress to pass the bill creating what came to be called the National Endowment for Democracy (NED). Their strongest support came from anti-union Republicans like Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah. Only a few years earlier, Hatch had helped defeat legislation that would have made it easier for US workers to unionize. But he advocated more federal funding for labor’s international activities. “The AFL-CIO in general has foreign policy positions to the right of Ronald Reagan,” an aide to Hatch told the Washington Post. Though the senator had to do “considerable soul-searching before he decided to deal with the devil,” he was impressed by the Federation’s “tremendous leverage for political activity compared to, say, CIA covert operations, which often fail,” the aide said. The NED went into operation in 1984, with the AFL-CIO’s international arm—then called the Free Trade Union Institute, but today known as the Solidarity Center—becoming one of its core grantees. Each year between 1984 and 1988, the AFL-CIO gave an average of $300,000 in NED grants to Solidarność’s Brussels office, accounting for two-thirds of the office’s budget. In total, the NED provided slightly less than $10 million to Polish opposition groups in the mid- to late 1980s, with around $4 million moving from the AFL-CIO to Solidarność. The New York Times noted in 1986 how the NED “resembles the aid given by the Central Intelligence Agency in the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s to bolster pro-American political groups,” with the main difference being that the NED operated out in the open. “It would be terrible for democratic groups around the world to be seen as subsidized by the CIA,” NED President Carl Gershman—an ally of Kirkland and Kahn’s—explained, arguing that overt funding to anticommunists abroad was smarter politics. “We saw that [covert funding] in the 60’s, and that’s why it has been discontinued. We have not had the capability of doing this, and that’s why the endowment was created.” The Fall of Soviet Communism In the summer of 1988, with Poland’s state-run economy in ongoing crisis, Solidarność led a wave of mass strikes to channel worker discontent. The work stoppages were financially sustained with help from the NED and AFL-CIO. Forced to the negotiating table, the Polish government agreed the following year to unban the union, create a new bicameral legislature, and hold a semi-free election. Solidarność established a political wing to run candidates for every seat in the legislature. In the run-up to the 1989 election, the union continued receiving funds from the NED/AFL-CIO to support its campaign. When the election was held on June 4, Solidarność shocked the world by winning all but one of the seats its candidates were competing for, thus taking control of the Polish government. It was Eastern Europe’s first noncommunist government since the end of World War II. Within months of Solidarność’s electoral victory, the Berlin Wall would come down, the communist governments in Czechoslovakia and Romania would be toppled, and Bulgaria and Hungary each announced free elections for the following year that would see the communists defeated. Past efforts by Eastern Bloc countries to break away from the USSR’s orbit had been forcibly stopped by Soviet leaders sending in the Red Army. But in 1989, the Soviet Union’s reformist leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, refused to intervene. By October 1990, East and West Germany were reunified through a treaty. Suddenly, the countries of Central and Eastern Europe were no longer satellites of the USSR. It was widely recognized that all of this began in Poland with the steadfast opposition of Solidarność. Because they had strongly supported the underground Polish union throughout the 1980s, AFL-CIO leaders received some of the credit for bringing down communism in the Eastern Bloc. Taking a victory lap in December 1989, Kirkland called the situation “a vindication of our central belief in free and democratic trade unionism and our shunning of any contacts with unions created by state power.” Meanwhile, change was also brewing within the Soviet Union itself. In 1989, hundreds of thousands of coal miners in parts of Ukraine, Siberia, and Komi went on strike, demanding the limited market reforms promised by Gorbachev (“perestroika”) be fully implemented—what some observers called “perestroika from below.” A group of striking miners in the far-northern town of Vorkuta telegrammed the AFL-CIO asking for help, noting the Federation’s “world fame in the struggle for the rights of workers.” Kirkland sprang into action, assembling a delegation that would include himself, American Federation of Teachers president Al Shanker, and United Mine Workers president Richard Trumka to go visit the Soviet strikers. Not surprisingly, the Soviet embassy in Washington denied their visa applications, and the visit never materialized. But in the spirit of openness (“glasnost”), Gorbachev allowed a delegation of nine Soviet miners who were involved in the strikes and had formed their own independent union to travel to the United States for a month-long visit in early 1990. Hosted by the AFL-CIO, the delegates toured multiple states and met with various US unionists and officials, making sure to state that they were not seeking to overthrow the Soviet government, only to reform it. Whatever the intentions of the coal miners, their strikes were part of a larger rebellion inside the USSR. The collapse of communism in the Eastern Bloc only gave encouragement to nationalist movements in several Soviet republics, including Ukraine and Russia itself, to demand independence from the communist government in Moscow. Not surprisingly, the NED championed these nationalist opposition movements, channeling funds to separatist groups in the Baltics, Armenia, Ukraine, and Russia in the years prior to the breakup of the USSR. In 1991, Washington Post columnist David Ignatius attributed “the great democratic revolution that has swept the globe” to “a network of overt operatives who during the last 10 years have quietly been changing the rules of international politics. They have been doing in public what the CIA used to do in private—providing money and moral support to pro-democracy groups, training resistance fighters, working to subvert communist rule.” The AFL-CIO, Ignatiuis wrote, was especially deserving of high praise for expertly channeling NED funds to Solidarność throughout the 1980s. “The CIA old boys spent a generation fantasizing about this sort of global anti-communist putsch. But when it finally happened, it was in the open,” Ignatius explained. NED cofounder and dedicated “democracy-promoter” Allen Weinstein agreed, telling Ignatius that “A lot of what we do today was done covertly 25 years ago by the CIA.” By late 1991, with multiple republics seceding from the USSR and after having barely survived an attempted coup, Gorbachev threw in the towel. On Christmas Day, he announced his resignation and the dissolution of the USSR. Shock Therapy The collapse of Soviet communism opened the door to drastic global economic change. A week after the Berlin Wall fell, Solidarność leader Lech Wałęsa was in Washington, where he was the guest of honor at the AFL-CIO’s biennial convention. There, he thanked the delegates for being “our most steadfast allies in the trade union struggle for human freedom.” Despite high hopes, the electoral victory of Wałęsa’s Solidarność in 1989 led to further economic deprivation for Poland’s working class. The country still owed $40 billion in debt, and inflation climbed as much as 600 percent. Now in power, Solidarność leaders begged the West for a sorely needed bailout, but the US government, International Monetary Fund, and World Bank would only agree to provide substantial assistance if the new government took dramatic steps to rapidly privatize Poland’s state-managed economy. Speaking at the AFL-CIO convention that November, Wałęsa explained that Poland was “swimming chained hand and foot, trying to summon all of our energy just to make it safely ashore. And on the shore, there is a cheering crowd of people who offer us their admiration instead of simply throwing a life belt.” Taking advice from Harvard economist Jeffrey Sachs, the Solidarność-led government implemented “shock therapy”—transitioning from a socialist economy to a capitalist one practically overnight. State-run industries like mines, factories, and shipyards were quickly sold off to private firms, resulting in mass layoffs. In exchange for embracing the “free market,” the International Monetary Fund provided Poland with some debt relief and the White House promised $1 billion in aid. Sachs predicted the rapid privatizations would lead to temporary pain in the Polish economy, followed by a robust recovery. But such a recovery did not happen. In the years after shock therapy was introduced, unemployment in Poland soared to 20 percent (higher for younger workers), poverty increased, and industrial output declined. The standard of living for many working-class Poles became worse than it had been under communism. The same pattern played out in post-Soviet Russia under Boris Yeltsin, but with an even more extreme version of shock therapy. Virtually in an instant, price controls and trade restrictions were lifted, and hundreds of thousands of state-owned companies were devoured by corrupt businessmen and venture capitalists. In only a year, the Russian middle class was decimated, with millions losing their life savings and a third of the population being pushed into poverty. As many observers have noted, these severe social and economic disruptions helped pave the way for Vladimir Putin’s rise to power. Kirkland called on Washington to carry out a “Marshall Plan” for Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union by providing generous amounts of aid to the former communist countries in order to transform them into prosperous capitalist democracies with social welfare policies, robust business regulations, and strong unions. His argument fell on deaf ears. The foreign policy apparatus, Treasury Department, and international financial institutions were controlled by neoliberal ideologues who contended that the implosion of world communism signaled nothing less than the total victory of unfettered capitalism. According to the neoliberal vision, all that organized labor traditionally championed—social welfare, corporate regulations, a strong public sector, and collective bargaining itself—were nothing more than pesky economic “inefficiencies” that would need to be done away with at the earliest opportunity. Aftermath For decades, the US foreign policy establishment had been all too eager to partner with labor leaders like Kirkland when they were preaching anticommunism. But now that the Soviets were out of the picture and the time had come to shape a post-Cold War global economy, the AFL-CIO’s advice on international affairs was suddenly being ignored. While AFL-CIO leaders had been busily waging the Cold War abroad, back at home, the US labor movement was in a steady decline in the face of unchecked union busting, corporate restructuring, and the increased mobility of capital. The 1980s were especially bad, with union density falling from 21 percent to 16 percent while real wages stagnated and income inequality skyrocketed. In the latter years of the 1980s, the AFL-CIO tried to counteract falling union density with a series of TV commercials where Hollywood actors expressed their support for the labor movement through the slogan, “Union Yes.” During the week of Thanksgiving in 1989, Wałęsa—who had just spoken at the AFL-CIO convention—appeared before tens of millions of US television viewers for a 30-second ad paid for the by the AFL-CIO. Sporting a “Union Yes” lapel pin, the Solidarność leader looked into the camera, speaking in Polish with English subtitles. “Please continue your support for us in Poland and support unions in the United States,” he said. Then, switching to English, Wałęsa concluded his message by urging Americans to “say ‘union yes!’” But obviously an ad campaign could not stop the anti-worker trends of deregulation, trade liberalization, and offshoring that only intensified upon the end of the Cold War. Kirkland and the AFL-CIO leadership struggled to adapt to these changing global economic realities. This was especially evident than in the Federation’s failure to stop passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which created the largest “free trade” bloc in the world. In the wake of NAFTA, in 1995, a group of frustrated US union presidents took the unprecedented step of forming an opposition slate to challenge Kirkland and the existing AFL-CIO leadership for control of the Federation. Facing this challenge, an embittered Kirkland resigned that August. A few months later, the “New Voice” slate, led by John Sweeney of the Service Employees International Union, won leadership of the AFL-CIO on a promise to focus on organizing workers at home. Four years later, Kirkland died of lung cancer. Buried at Arlington National Cemetery, he was remembered and celebrated more for his anticommunist internationalism than for any particular labor advocacy at home. Among those who eulogized the former AFL-CIO president was his old friend Henry Kissinger. “The cause of freedom was his mission,” Kissinger said, “opposition to totalitarianism his vocation.” President Bill Clinton, who had offered to make Kirkland ambassador to Poland, called him a “catalyst for international democracy.” Neoconservative commentator Ben Wattenberg referred to Kirkland as a “five-star general of the Cold War” and opined that “during the decades of the Cold War it was the AFL-CIO that was the most stalwart institutional bastion of anti-communism in America.” A small cohort of labor officials like Kirkland had been important promoters of US Cold War foreign policy, but their relentless pursuit of an international anticommunist crusade ultimately left the labor movement unprepared for the shock and awe of capitalist reorganization after the Soviet Union’s demise. Read more →

Staughton Lynd, 1929-2022

by Rosemary Feurer  on November 19th,2022
Staughton Lynd, one of labor history’s icons, died on November 17. He was an academic and activist when those combinations were reviled as unbecoming of a professional, and he was blacklisted from the profession for his bold anti-war stance. He became a labor attorney, moved to Niles, Ohio and was a strategic player in the fight against steel-mill shutdowns and the destruction of steel communities in Youngstown, Ohio. Read more →

Standing Up: Tales of Struggle A Novel Resource for Labor Leaders

by Ellen Bravo & Larry Miller  on October 10th,2022
Over five decades of organizing, we’ve seen the power of story to move people. We wanted to write about the workers Imbole Mbue calls “the deliberately unheard” – those who clean bloody hospital sheets, forge parts for sewer pipes, arrange flights or process checks, all while caring for kids, holding relationships together and wrestling with multiple forms of oppression. Above all, we wanted to capture the moments when people realize that exploitation is not inevitable and that we can change it if we act together. We decided to write a novel in stories and call it Standing Up: Tales of Struggle. Read more →

The Role of Independent Working-class Political Action

by Tom Alter  on September 26th,2022
This is the fourth and final contribution to our symposium on Tom Alter’s new book, Toward a Cooperative Commonwealth: The Transplanted Roots of Farmer-Labor Radicalism in Texas, published recently by University of Illinois Press. We started with Kyle Wilkison’s analysis of the book’s contribution and survey of previous literature. Theresa Case weighed in with a tour of the book and some questions. Chad Pearson suggested that Alter’s book countered or helped to re-frame old arguments. Now we welcome a response by Tom Alter. Thanks to Chad Pearson for organizing this symposium. These are peer-reviewed. Read more →

A Refreshing Return to Agrarian Class Struggle Scholarship

by Chad Pearson  on September 24th,2022
This essay is the third contribution to our symposium on Tom Alter’s new book, Toward a Cooperative Commonwealth: The Transplanted Roots of Farmer-Labor Radicalism in Texas, published recently by University of Illinois Press. We started with Kyle Wilkison’s analysis of the book’s contribution and survey of previous literature. Then Theresa Case weighed in with a tour of the book and some questions. Now Chad Pearson suggest that Alter’s book counters helps to re-frame old arguments. Next we will welcome a response by Tom Alter. Thanks to Chad Pearson for organizing this symposium. These are peer-reviewed. Read more →

Peterloo and Pedagogy

Richard Wells (October 13th, 2022)


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Working 9 to 5

Ellen Cassedy, August 2nd, 2022