The Long Goodbye to a Union

The Long Goodbye to a Union

As leftists, most want to be believers. We want to believe that through our work we’re helping others and all boats will rise in terms of social and economic gains. Once again, this time during the war in Ukraine, I’m wrong again and wrong in a way that hurts both emotionally and intellectually. Unions were traditionally the way the lives of many people were improved, but that refrain was lost long ago in the chilly winds of globalization and supply side economics. Each worker had to fend for himself/herself in the global economy and take on the elite and bosses individually rather than collectively.

The American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), of which I’m a retired member of its affiliate, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), recently hosted a fundraiser by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC). The aim of the fundraiser was to help support Ukrainian families in the war now being fought there. Not a bad idea on its face. One organization in the ITUC is the Free Trade Unions of Ukraine, an AFL-CIO partner. Sounds good, but as Shakespeare observed, “ay, there’s the rub.” The CIA and the State Department are in on the support of this labor organization that includes the neo-Nazi Ihor Kniazhansky of the neo-Nazi Battalion (“The AFL-CIO’s Nazi Friendly Union in Ukraine,” Covert Action Magazine, March 10, 2022). All the reader needs to do is go back to the political landscape of 2013-2014 to today and a host of fascist organizations are present in the Ukraine. Many countries of Eastern Europe are populated with far-right elements both in and out of governments there. Hungry and Poland are two nations that come to mind.

Stick around long enough, readers, and the old Cold War straddles the War on Terror and becomes the new Cold War. Now it all hits home, as the president of the union I now belong to, the American Federation of Teachers, Randi Weingarten, traveled to Ukraine during the Maidan coupand met with Ukrainian trade unionists and claimed there were “reports of fascists in the protests (was) ‘Russian propaganda.’”

In 2014, the democratically elected government of President Viktor Yanukovych was ousted in the so-called Revolution of Dignity, also called the Maidan Revolution-coup that is cited above in relation to the AFT. A government with far-right support and anti-Russia interests and intentions was installed. Try to cite the history behind the wrong-headed current Ukraine war and the tar and feathers are called in. Compare the Russian war in Ukraine with the US-supported Saudi war in Yemen and the shouts of propaganda will be clearly heard. A person trying to parse what’s going on during the horror of this war will be outed as a “Putinist” and the algorithms of the Internet will bring silence. Being antiwar now will get a person ostracized.

All of this is quite startling, even in the shadow of war in the Ukraine. Go back to the middle of the 1980s and the AFT, of which I was then also an active member, supported the Contras against the bona fide government then in power in Nicaragua. I left the AFT for one year and became a member of the National Education Association in protest. The president of my local AFT affiliate flipped at my action and there was suspicion among some fellow teachers. Sadly, I think in hindsight, many of my fellows didn’t understand what my protest was about.

Fast forward to 2011 and the head of security at the community college where I worked told me about the debacle that had taken place in Rhode Island with the eradication of most of the retirees cost-of-living adjustment that was destroyed by the then-general treasurer, Gina Raimondo, with the help of the state’s governor, legislature, and courts. Is it any surprise that Raimondo is now secretary of the Commerce Department?

Evelyn Waugh in Brideshead Revisited (1945) writes “only connect.” Even a casual observer can see the connections here. I recall the cries to destroy retirees’ cost-of-living adjustment in 2011. “You can’t get water from a stone” was the common thread, with most buying into the power elite’s move across the US to further destroy unions and the hard-fought benefits won that they bring to workers. It’s all so fucking depressing!

When unions and union members served elite capitalist interests, they were tolerated and workers’ rights and benefits expanded to some extent. But just as intelligence agencies in the US help destroy and compromise unions across the globe, so did the anti-communist witch hunts of the 1950s begin the march toward union destruction here. How fitting it was that the then-president of the Screen Actors Guild, Ronald Reagan, used his position to cooperate with Congress pursuing the Guilds’ members who were the least bit liberal or radical. As the system of economic globalization turned China into a capitalist system with authoritarian control from the top, additional reasons had to be cooked up here to garner support for the new anti-China juggernaut that is a great solace to the weapons manufacturers and investors. Try to find left criticism of the latter, or criticism of NATO’s expansion in Eastern Europe following the collapse of the former Soviet Union and the algorithms of the Internet will do the rest in terms of free speech and political speech.

Early material union support for Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) was pulled and SDS was merely an expression of student liberalism in the early 1960s. Construction workers would riot and beat antiwar students in lower Manhattan only days after the Kent State massacre of May 4, 1970.

Where will the rumors of war lead to in this global debacle? A no-fly zone brings the US, its allies, and Russia closer to World War III. Putin seems ready to expand the war and diplomacy has failed. The rules of war mean almost nothing. Putin has not unleashed many of the more lethal weapons from the Russian arsenal, but the latter is no guarantee that he will not unleash these weapons. History informs much of this war, as the Russian leadership will not allow Russia to be cornered a fourth time, this time by an expanding NATO. We now stand near the dangerous territory marked out by the Cuban Missile Crisis, yet there are few adults in the room with cool heads and a perspective on human history and misery.

Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer. He is the author of Against the Wall: Memoir of a Vietnam-Era War Resister (2017).