Organized Labor

Elizabeth McKillen

An oft-quoted blue collar worker, questioned about international issues by pollsters in the 1940s, quipped: "Foreign Affairs! That's for people who don't have to work for a living." Given the complexity of the world order that emerged in the aftermath of World War II and the long hours that most working people labored, such sentiments are easy to understand. Yet since the mid-nineteenth century, when national labor unions emerged in the United States, many workers, grassroots labor activists, and trade union leaders have believed that political relations among nation states, transnational economic developments, and international labor migrations should be of vital concern to the American working class. U.S. labor groups and trade unions have sometimes sought to exercise international influence through international labor organizations or by encouraging transnational forms of collective action among workers. At other times, they have focused primarily on influencing U.S. foreign policy and economic expansion. In an effort to wield power in Washington, D.C., labor groups have typically engaged either in traditional forms of interest group lobbying or have participated in evolving corporatist power-sharing arrangements among business, trade union, and government leaders within the executive branch of government. Dominant trade union groups such as the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations that pursued international influence both by participating in international labor organizations and by trying to forge a corporatist partnership with business and state representatives in promoting U.S. foreign policy goals often discovered that these two avenues to power led in different directions.


Andrews, Gregg. Shoulder to Shoulder? The American Federation of Labor, the United States, and the Mexican Revolution, 1910–1924. Berkeley, Calif., 1991. The best account of U.S.–Mexican labor relations in the early twentieth century.

Babcock, Robert H. Gompers in Canada: A Study in American Continentalism Before the First World War. Toronto and Buffalo, N.Y., 1974.

Barrett, James R. Work and Community in the Jungle: Chicago's Packinghouse Workers, 1894–1922. Urbana, Ill., 1987.

Berger, Henry W. "Union Diplomacy: American Labor's Foreign Policy in Latin America, 1932–1955." Ph.D. diss. University of Wisconsin, Madison, Wis., 1966.

Brundage, David. "Denver's New Departure: Irish Nationalism and the Labor Movement in the Gilded Age." Southwest Economy and Society 5 (winter 1981): 10–23.

β€”β€”. "Knights of Labor." In Mari Jo Buhle, Paul Buhle, and Dan Georgakas, eds. Encyclopedia of the American Left. 2d ed. New York, 1998.

Buhle, Paul. From the Knights of Labor to the New World Order: Essays on Labor and Culture. New York, 1997.

Busch, Gary K. The Political Role of International Trades Unions. New York and London, 1983.

DeConde, Alexander. Ethnicity, Race, and American Foreign Policy: A History. Boston, 1992.

Eisenberg, Carolyn. "Working-Class Politics and the Cold War: American Intervention in the German Labor Movement, 1945–1949." Diplomatic History 7 (fall 1983): 283–306.

Filippelli, Ronald L. American Labor and Postwar Italy, 1943–1953: A Study of Cold War Politics. Stanford, Calif., 1989.

Fink, Leon. Workingmen's Democracy: The Knights of Labor and American Politics. Urbana, Ill., 1983.

Frank, Dana. Buy American: The Untold Story of Economic Nationalism. Boston, 1999. A fascinating study of impulses toward economic nationalism within American society from the Revolution to the present.

Foner, Eric. "Class, Ethnicity, and Radicalism in the Gilded Age: The Land League and Irish-America." Marxist Perspectives 1 (summer 1978): 6–55. A pathbreaking article on the linkages between ethnicity, class, and international attitudes.

Foner, Philip S. U.S. Labor and the Vietnam War. New York, 1989.

Godfried, Nathan. "Spreading American Corporatism: Trade Union Education for Third World Labour." Review of African Political Economy 39 (September 1987): 51–63. An insightful article exploring the activities of the African-American Labor Center.

Gompers, Samuel. Seventy Years of Life and Labor: An Autobiography. New York, 1925.

Gordon, Jerry. Cleveland Labor and the Vietnam War. Cleveland, Ohio, 1990.

Grubbs, Frank L., Jr. The Struggle for Labor Loyalty: Gompers, the A.F. of L., and the Pacifists, 1917–1920. Durham, N.C., 1968.

Larson, Simeon. Labor and Foreign Policy: Gompers, the AFL, and the First World War, 1914–1918. London and Rutherford, N.J., 1975.

Levenstein, Harvey. Labor Organizations in the United States and Mexico: A History of Their Relations. Westport, Conn., 1971.

Lichtenstein, Nelson. Labor's War at Home: The CIO in World War II. New York, 1982.

Lorwin, Lewis Levitski. The International Labor Movement: History, Politics, Outlook. New York, 1953. One of the few books that covers U.S. labor groups and their involvement in early international labor activities.

McKee, Delber Lee. "The American Federation of Labor and American Foreign Policy, 1886–1912." Ph.D. diss. Stanford University. Stanford, Calif., 1952.

McKillen, Elizabeth. Chicago Labor and the Quest for a Democratic Diplomacy, 1914–1924. Ithaca, N.Y., 1995.

β€”β€”. "Ethnicity, Class, and Wilsonian Internationalism Reconsidered: The Mexican-American and Irish-American Immigrant Left and U.S. Foreign Relations, 1914–1922." Diplomatic History 25 (fall 2001): 553–587.

McShane, Denis. International Labour and the Origins of the Cold War. New York, 1992.

Moody, Kim. Workers in a Lean World: Unions in the International Economy. London and New York, 1997.

Nelson, Bruce. Workers on the Waterfront: Seamen, Longshoremen, and Unionism in the 1930s. Urbana, Ill., 1988. Examines the international orientation of maritime workers in addition to domestic issues.

Radosh, Ronald. American Labor and United States Foreign Policy. New York, 1969.

Roberts, John W. Putting Foreign Policy to Work: The Role of Organized Labor in American Foreign Relations, 1932–1941. New York, 1995.

Romero, Frederico. The United States and the European Trade Union Movement, 1944–1951. 2d ed. Translated by Harvey Fergusson. Chapel Hill, N.C., 1992.

Schonberger, Howard B. Aftermath of War: Americans and the Remaking of Japan, 1945–1952. Kent, Ohio, 1989. Includes an excellent chapter on U.S. labor's participation in the occupation of Japan.

Silverman, Victor. Imagining Internationalism in American and British Labor, 1939–1949. Urbana, Ill., 2000. A fresh approach to the history of labor internationalism in the post-war era that includes much fascinating material on working-class attitudes toward international issues in Britain and the United States.

Sims, Beth. Workers of the World Undermined: American Labor's Role in U.S. Foreign Policy. Boston, 1992.

Snow, Sinclair. The Pan-American Federation of Labor. Durham, N.C., 1964.

Voss, Kim. The Making of American Exceptionalism: The Knights of Labor and Class Formation in the Nineteenth Century. Ithaca, N.Y., 1993.

Weiler, Peter. "The United States, International Labor, and the Cold War: The Breakup of the World Federation of Trade Unions." Diplomatic History 5 (winter 1981): 1–22.

Weinrub, Al, and William Bollinger. The AFL-CIO in Central America. Oakland, Calif., 1987.

See also Economic Policy and Theory ; Internationalism ; Multinational Corporations ; Race and Ethnicity ; Tariff Policy ; Wilsonianism .

User Contributions:

Comment about this article, ask questions, or add new information about this topic: