Confronted with economic stagnation in the 1970s and 1980s, many labor activists began to question not only the morality of the AFL-CIO's Cold War policies but also whether they protected the economic interests of American workers. Undergirding the AFL-CIO's international agenda during the early Cold War lay the assumptions that a freer international marketplace would enable American capitalism to flourish and that some of the profits would trickle down to U.S. workers. Yet as industrial products from other countries—such as Japanese cars—flooded U.S. markets, many American workers faced layoffs and concessions and began to question whether a freer marketplace was really in their best interest. Thus, activists from the United Auto Workers launched a "Buy American" campaign and staged demonstrations at which they bashed Japanese cars with sledgehammers to demonstrate their point. UAW leaders sought to discourage the racism that surfaced in these campaigns but nonetheless jumped on the bandwagon of economic nationalism by promoting domestic content legislation. Such legislation took into account the global assembly line, recognizing that even cars bearing an American logo were often partly or wholly produced abroad, while some foreign companies had plants in the United States. The solution, believed UAW leaders, was to legislatively mandate that most cars sold in the United States have a 25 percent U.S. domestic content. Faced with widespread discontent among constituent unions, even the national leadership of the AFLCIO began—in seeming contradiction to its earlier Cold War advocacy of a freer marketplace—to promote protectionist legislation.
Other labor activists, however, eschewed economic nationalism and believed that globalization instead called for a new kind of labor internationalism. The reform initiatives of these activists were given momentum by the fall of communism in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.
With no Cold War to give legitimacy to their policies, Lane Kirkland and his advisers within the AFL-CIO increasingly found it difficult to defend the organization's international strategies. The AFL-CIO hierarchy temporarily joined hands with reformers in 1992 and opposed the North American Free Trade Agreement. But as union membership continued to plummet and U.S. workers continued to feel themselves at the mercy of globalization, reformers gained ascendency within the AFL-CIO and in 1995 elected as president John Sweeney of the Service Employees International Union.
Sweeney revamped the AFL-CIO's foreign policy apparatus, shutting down many of its existing overseas operations—including the CIA-linked American Institute for Free Labor Development. In its place the new American Center for International Labor Solidarity was created. The AFL-CIO's International Affairs Department was placed under the direction of the reformer Barbara Shailor of the International Association of Machinists, an experienced transnational strategist in labor solidarity. Many credited the AFL-CIO's new foreign policy team with helping to defeat the Clinton administration's efforts to gain congressional ratification for special presidential authority to "fast-track" North American trade agreements in 1997.
Also propelling the U.S. labor movement along a new international track in the 1980s and 1990s were individual AFL-CIO unions that initiated negotiations and forged ties with Canadian and Latin American unions representing workers in comparable industries. The case of the United Mine Workers of America is one of the most striking. When the Exxon Corporation closed a coal mine in West Virginia in 1983 and instead invested in one in El Cerrejon, Colombia, the United Mine Workers eschewed economic nationalism and chose to help the Colombian miners union, SINTERCOR, in its fight for better wages for Colombia miners. Perhaps most notably, the United Mine Workers filed a protest in the early 1990s under the Generalized System of Preferences, a U.S. tariff system, which charged Exxon with violating internationally recognized workers' rights. It also joined the International Metalworkers Federation in publicizing the plight of Colombian miners throughout the world. Significantly, SINTERCOR won substantial wage increases for Colombian miners in 1992 and 1993 without resorting to a strike. The United Mine Workers president, Richard Trumka, defended his union's activities on behalf of Colombian miners by arguing that if the American labor movement did not help strengthen unions and improve working conditions in low-wage countries, then "the multinational corporations will attempt to lower our standards to the lowest international common denominator."
Trumka's arguments suggested that the American labor movement had come full circle in its approach to international affairs. During its earliest years, the AFL-CIO had tried to foster international labor cooperation in an effort to gain some influence for workers over global economic and political developments. Yet for most of the twentieth century, the AFL, and later the AFLCIO, seemed to place greater priority on promoting national economic expansion and U.S. foreign policy goals than on fostering international labor solidarity through international labor organizations. The dangers of the AFL-CIO's nationalist approach became particularly apparent during the Cold War, when AFL leaders engineered the destruction of the World Federation of Trade Unions and often joined government officials, U.S. businesspersons, and CIA operatives in undermining left-leaning and communist labor movements and governments abroad. Such activities often had the long-term effect of weakening foreign labor movements and helping create lowwage economies that invited capital flight and encouraged a loss of U.S. jobs. As the twenty-first century dawned, however, many labor activists seemed reawakened to the need to continue the task of building a strong international labor movement that European workers had begun early in the nineteenth century.