School reform is a hotbed of corporate neoliberal ideology driven to bust unions and indoctrinate poor communities against their own best interests.

No one advances that argument more than the legion of teacher unionists who communicate broadly across multiple social media platforms. It’s a message that gets extra mileage in staged events where labor grantees carry signs, wear red t-shirts, and host anti-reform mini-conferences where cliches are shared widely.

The story these activists tell about public school teachers and their unions is simple. They talk of themselves as historic allies in the many fights for civil rights and American democracy. Many examples of their organizing for progressive causes like integration, voting rights, and gender and racial equality support their reputation as allies to oppressed people – you can’t take that from them.

Yet, there are details missing. Their story is too simple. An adult reading of history is a little more complicated.

For instance, what if I told you teachers’ unions have been indispensable partners in the administration of imperialist programs that seek to extend American control in foreign nations, programs which include busting democratically elected unions in other countries and retraining their workers?

Certainly that sounds incredible, but that’s real history. You’re shaking your head now. You saying “no,” can’t be. I can hear the look on your face.

It’s funny what schools don’t teach these days.

Want documentation of my preposterous statement? It’s below. You’ll see the claim of labor imperialism made by Mayssoun Sukarieh and Stuart Tannock – at least about the AFL-CIO and American Federation of Teachers – documented in a 2008 article published in the Journal of Labor studies.

Sukarieh and Tannock say “Contrary to the AFT’s high-minded rhetoric of global labor solidarity, philanthropic goodwill, and democracy promotion…the AFT’s Middle East programs serve U.S. government foreign policy interests in maintaining and extending American control and influence over the region.”

That’s startling given the noble talk about democratically governed schools that is so common as to be boilerplate in speeches by teachers’ union leaders Randi Weingarten and Lily Eskelsen Garcia.

In her 2015 Labor Day message, Weingarten said “it should go without saying that a robust American labor movement remains essential to our nation’s democracy and economy…We are a union that believes in creating a better future for ourselves, our families and our communities, which is why we champion fairness, democracy and economic opportunity.”

Last spring, Eskelsen Garcia agreed, saying “Public education has been the engine of our economy, the cradle of our democracy, and a model for the world.”

Does democracy include undermining progressive labor movements in other countries? According to Sukarieh and Tannock labor’s professed love of democracy is challenged by facts of history.

In the name of protecting “free” trade unions from the global threats of communism and “totalitarianism,” the AFL-CIO worked “throughout much of its history . . .to overthrow democratically-elected governments, collaborated with dictators against progressive labor movements, and supported reactionary labor movements against progressive governments” all across the world, in Africa, Asia, Europe, and Latin America.

Far from being friends of self-organizing working people, American unionists assisted efforts to control workers in other nations.

In addition to shaping the “hearts and minds”of foreign unionists, training programs served as important sites for intelligence gathering and the construction of patronage ties, through offering resources, opportunities, and favors not otherwise readily available to foreign union leaders and members.

Here’s the real kicker: for all Big Labor’s talk about the horrors of corporate education reform, Sukarieh and Tannock say the motivation for their participation in global imperialism is because they see their interests as linked to the success of corporate America.

What Frank (2004) labels as “organized labor’s embrace of the American Century” was motivated, at least in part, by self-interest. Labor leaders “believed that domination of the world economy by U.S. corporations was good for American workers, and so they allied themselves with those forces that supported U.S. corporate expansion, and especially investment in developing countries.” Loyalty and allegiance were to secure for the U.S. working class a “share of the great American pie,” as expanding markets overseas and the growth of a massive defense sector at home were seen through the prism of winning jobs and wages for American workers .

While the relationship between labor, business, and government at home are strained, it’s not so elsewhere in the world.

Sukarieh and Tannock say:

American political leaders, for their part, though often opposing organized labor domestically, saw the AFL-CIO as providing a helpful legitimizing presence in pursuing foreign policy objectives abroad, as well as an institutional vehicle for skirting around legal restrictions on direct government involvement in funding political, labor, and civil society organizations in other countries.

And, what is more neoliberal than this….

Despite what it tells those with whom it works in the Middle East, the AFT continues to be an avowedly pro-war, pro-U.S. military intervention, pro-occupation organization. It passed a resolution in 2001 supporting an attack on Afghanistan. In 2003, it passed a resolution supporting the right of the United States to undertake unilateral military action against Iraq, on the grounds that the regime of Saddam Hussein “poses a unique threat to the peace and stability of the Middle East, to the peaceful world order promoted by the ideals of the United Nations and, therefore, to the national security interests of the United States.”

Listen, in the end I don’t care where your politics land. Maybe you support the global expansion of American domination. Maybe you believe it affords us all a good life. Reasonable people can see the foreign activities of our government differently.

That aside, I’m inclined to be less generous about hypocrisy. Every five seconds a presumptuous internet liberal claims school reform is a plutocratic sport, rife with neoliberalism. So, in the end, if we want to be the critical thinkers so many activist teachers say they want us to be, then we are left with a few important questions after learning about the complicity of labor with a global anti-democratic project.

If the AFT and Big Labor have been an indispensable partner in imperialist, neoconservative programs globally, what makes us believe their aim of political, economic, and social control aren’t the same in the urban ghettos of the United States?

What if the resources and training are deployed for the same reasons domestically as they are globally – to destabilize independent communities and expand their control?

What if their support of a network of community-based groups are really nothing more than a localized version of their global attempts to put down real grassroots aspirations for freedom, self-governance, and self-determination?

Critical thinkers might want to know.

For more information, read The AFL-CIOs Secret War Against Developing Country Workers


American Federations and Imperialism by Citizen Stewart

Chris Stewart is the Chief Executive Officer of Education Post, a media project of the Results in Education Foundation. He is a lifelong activist and 20-year supporter of nonprofit and education-related causes. Stewart has served as the director of outreach and external affairs for Education Post, the executive director of the African American Leadership Forum (AALF), and an elected member of the Minneapolis Public Schools Board of Education.


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