At a “Lean Workplace School” for union members, sponsored by the monthly magazine Labor Notes in 1996, the discussion centered around how to fight employers’ speed-up and worker-management cooperation schemes with real unionism. In the middle of it all, a mail handler from Colorado raised his hand and asked simply, “Why are all the internationals so awful?”

Everyone had a story to tell. The participants–from the Service Employees, AFSCME, Auto Workers, building trades–chimed in with a host of cases where the national or international levels of their unions had sided with management and screwed the members. Their answers to the mail handler’s question ranged from “individual evil” to “power corrupts” to “money corrupts” to “bigness is bad.”

Scholars have generated dozens of books–most of them laudatory–about the semi-unique phenomenon of the business-unionist US labor bureaucracy. Traditionally, they have seen the formation of a professional caste atop the labor movement as a natural and welcome consequence of maturation. As the passion of the early organizing days gives way to the administration of highly technical contracts, the “fervent idealist” and “democrat” give way to the “cold materialist” and “conscious autocrat,” in the words of German theorist Robert Michels (who later became a supporter of Mussolini).

Paul Buhle’s aptly named Taking Care of Business comes at the question of bureaucracy from the angle of the AFL-CIO’s relationship to race and to empire. He argues that early AFL leaders, and some of those to follow, began with the goal of universal emancipation. But sooner or later they settled on a different goal: more money for certain categories of white male workers, enabled by US economic and military power around the world. Buhle calls this approach “cynical expectations to win abroad what has been given away at home.” “No other modern empire,” he writes, “showed the same capacity to shape…its labor leaders to such uniform purpose…. The steady commitment to imperial aims has demanded…rules and practices against functioning labor democracy.”

A prolific writer of labor and left histories (a dozen-plus books in the nineties, including last year’s gorgeous coffee-table compendium, Images of American Radicalism), Buhle is well suited to such an overarching task. He chooses to focus on the apex of the officialdom: three of the four men who were president of the American Federation of Labor or the AFL-CIO through 1995. As he details the presidencies of Samuel Gompers (1883-1926), George Meany (1952-79) and Lane Kirkland (1979-95), the reader is struck by how faithfully the varieties of betrayal or bureaucratic maneuver are repeated over and over from the earliest years. For example, leaders of the United Auto Workers today argue against holding a direct membership vote for top officers on the grounds that white members would not vote for blacks. John L. Lewis used the same argument in 1919.

Because of Buhle’s focus–labor’s relation to US imperialism, top leaders of the federation–his book leaves out two parts of the bureaucratic elephant that American workers have felt more immediately. Those are union relations with employers and internal union democracy. The AFL-CIO itself does not bargain contracts with employers. When companies began demanding contract givebacks in the eighties, it was up to the AFL-CIO’s autonomous constituent unions to say yes or no (they said yes). Lane Kirkland was not officially in charge of deciding whether the labor movement would capitulate to employer demands (in hopes of saving jobs) or organize members to resist–although the presumed leader of the working class could have, in theory, tried to lead on the question. Breaking with tradition, John Sweeney, elected AFL-CIO president in 1995 in an unprecedented challenge to the incumbent, has tried to do just that on a different question: organizing the unorganized, using political persuasion and some financial incentives to get the affiliates off the dime.

Almost to a man (the word is used advisedly), international union leaders went along with concessions on wages, benefits and working conditions, agreeing to them in national contracts, pressuring locals to sign local agreements or providing no support when locals wanted to resist. Again with almost no dissenters at the top levels, they signed on to labor-management cooperation programs such as “team concept” and “Quality of Work Life” that, after an initial burst of enthusiasm, invariably left rank-and-filers disgusted and cynical about the next “flavor of the month.” It was as if they had rewritten the line in labor’s anthem, “Solidarity Forever”–“There is naught we have in common with the greedy parasite”–to say, “There’s a lot….” Buhle doesn’t address this central fact of unionism in the eighties and nineties, because AFL-CIO leaders didn’t. The federation made no detailed statement on labor-management cooperation (they’re for it) until 1994, long after the damage had been done.

The second way union members experience the workings of their international unions is the response they get when they try to make changes beyond the level of the local. It is here that, too often, they run into the “autocrat” with a staff paid to contain dissent through co-optation or threats. A single example: At the United Auto Workers convention in 1992, a reform caucus called New Directions put up a presidential candidate, Jerry Tucker. It was clear that Tucker would receive only a tiny percentage of the delegates’ votes (5, as it turned out), yet president Owen Bieber found the challenge so insulting that he instructed international representatives to work the floor to intimidate voters. One delegate from a GM parts plant in Wisconsin was surrounded by these staffers. She had intended to vote for Tucker, but the reps warned that GM might decide to close her plant. Could she live with ruining her members’ lives? You may scoff, correctly, at the notion that GM would base its investment decisions on the symbolic action of one union delegate far off in San Diego. But the reps–some of them former militants themselves, now placated with staff jobs–earned big brownie points with their “boss” for delivering the vote.

This determination to hold on to power by any means necessary–the 1969 murder of Mine Workers reformer Jock Yablonski is the extreme case–has been a central fact of the union bureaucracy since Gompers’s day. Buhle touches on democracy when he mentions Kirkland’s attempts to keep city-level AFL-CIOs in line on El Salvador and Nicaragua–no solidarity with the “wrong” unions in Central America was allowed. But to discuss the barriers to democracy within the unions themselves is outside his task. The book’s jacket claim to be “the first comprehensive history of American labor leadership” is thus overreaching.

Buhle does accomplish the more limited job he sets himself with a wealth of detail and a clear politics. His argument is that AFL and AFL-CIO leaders cast their fate with those whom they perceived to be society’s winners–the bosses. They sacrificed members’ larger interests to the hope for “a share of the promised imperial benefits and to the shared psychological satisfactions of personal superiority…over all the lowly, whether ‘foreign,’ female, or non-white.” In doing so, labor leaders measured themselves by the business class they opposed but also admired.

That the AFL’s racist, exclusionary policies weakened the labor movement immeasurably is not a novel point. But Buhle rolls out the effects, decade by decade, of Gompers’s early strategic choice between an all-inclusive movement and an effort to preserve skilled jobs for those who already had them. Gompers co-wrote a 1906 pamphlet that posed the choice as he saw it: Meat vs Rice: American Manhood Against Asiatic Coolies, Which Shall Survive? Skill per se was often only a blind; Gompers notes in his autobiography that immigrant Chinese had already become skilled cigar-makers–which was precisely why they must be barred from the trade (and the country), preserving “white men’s work done under white men’s standards.” Gompers’s stand prefigured George Meany’s seven decades later, when he told a reporter that the AFL-CIO wasn’t necessarily interested in a larger membership. “I stopped worrying because…the organized fellow is the fellow that counts,” he said. Meany was likewise clear on affirmative action; the best jobs belonged to his brothers by right: It was “nuts…to say that we’ve got to sacrifice our kids and our rights to take care of people who merely say that we’ve got to be employed because our skin is black.”

When the Wagner Act went to Congress, the AFL argued, successfully, against a clause forbidding unions to discriminate. Labor should rule its own house, it contended, rather than be subject to government regulation. But when the AFL and CIO merged in 1955, the new federation adopted no enforceable antidiscrimination mechanism. This time, Meany argued autonomy: that the federation could not force a union to clean up its internal problems. He claimed with a straight face that “there are very, very few small and minute spots [of discrimination] that have to be cleaned up.” Buhle notes that the autonomy principle was conveniently set aside when the CIO and the AFL-CIO expelled unions for communist and mob influence, respectively. Those who protested the federation’s tolerance of racism were dealt with harshly. Meany himself moved to censure A. Philip Randolph for denouncing union segregation.

Buhle notes that even labor leaders who put on a better public face about race than Meany were shy of change within their own industries and unions. Walter Reuther is the prime example: He marched with Martin Luther King Jr. but squelched more than one movement of black auto workers. Buhle writes, “Actual black unionists, who demanded better jobs and higher union offices, proved less attractive to Meany and Reuther alike than did distant causes involving dignified black ministers and other prominent leaders.”

When Lane Kirkland died in August, the New York Times obit noted his close friendship with Henry Kissinger. That nearly says it all. The involvement of the AFL-CIO with the CIA has long been known (“AFL-CIA” is its opponents’ epithet of choice). Buhle details the Marshall Plan’s $800 million spent by AFL operatives on attempts to wreck Communist-led unions in Europe and set up pro-US unions there. Their best successes were in Greece and Germany, where they heavily funded a break in the German federation. But in general, despite the top priority placed on such efforts by the Meany and Kirkland administrations, from Central America to Asia to Eastern Europe the federation’s spymasters have failed in their attempts to set up lasting unions that follow the US pro-corporate line–that is, to spread unionism in their own image around the globe. This is, Buhle contends, partly because making the world safe for American investment was the AFL-CIO’s real goal, with the health of US-friendly unions an afterthought. Even the CIA’s own labor creations were valued only when they were needed to support a regime against left-wing opponents.

Buhle assiduously traces the influence of members of Social Democrats USA, a left-wing group turned right, on AFL-CIO foreign policy and every other policy. Sometimes, however, the link between SDUSA operatives, other unsavory types and the AFL-CIO itself is not clear. It’s not enough to say that the American Friends of Vietnam, an early CIA front, was “run by Cold War liberals close to the labor leadership.” Similarly, to write that the Anti-Defamation League sent spies into King’s inner circle and that the ADL was “close to AFL-CIO leading lights” is not on the face of it evidence of AFL-CIO perfidy.

Buhle could also be more careful about what he assumes the reader knows. If you’re familiar with New Leader and New America and the New York City teachers’ strike of 1968, fine; if you aren’t, you may be left scratching your head. Buhle’s end-of-book inventory of hopeful signs of rank-and-file motion in the unions is also idiosyncratic and will prove hard to follow for those not already well versed in the subject.

Buhle’s bottom line is that union leaders go wrong when they embrace capitalism, as Gompers, Meany and Kirkland did zealously. Once they accept the right of capital to exploit labor, the game is set. His trio went much further, of course, equating American capitalism with democracy and posing it as the only alternative to “authoritarianism.”

Buhle points instead to the examples of the Knights of Labor and the Wobblies, which “proclaimed the universality of their emancipatory cause”–that is, they eschewed racism (mostly)–and “rebutted the claim of capital and government to set the standards for civilization.” He notes, sadly, that even the best of today’s union reformers have only begun to point in that direction.

Using that measure, Buhle is not optimistic that Meany’s and Kirkland’s successor, John Sweeney, will mobilize workers to challenge capital’s prerogatives. Although Buhle does not remark on it, Sweeney has been quite clear that he sees business, once workers have won bargaining rights, as a partner. In October 1996 he told members of Business for Social Responsibility, “We want to help American business compete in the world and create new wealth for your shareholders and your employees. We want to work with you to bake a larger pie which all Americans can share, and not just argue with you about how to divide the existing pie.” Last year Sweeney pursued a formal “dialogue” between corporate execs and union officials, with himself and Jack Welch of General Electric proposed as co-chairmen. “Neutron Jack” presides over a company that in 1998 alone made five major plant closings or transfers of work to nonunion or Mexican plants, and from 1991 to 1998 shrank the union share of its US employment from 39 to 25 percent. But, said Ed Fire, president of GE’s largest union, citing reasons for Sweeney and Welch’s “mutual respect”: “Let’s face it: GE made $8.2 billion a year profit. He’s got to be doing something right.”

Just as important a limit on Sweeney’s potential as his respect for capital and capitalists is the top-down nature of his reforms. Buhle notes that Sweeney’s 1995 upset was initiated at the top. “The new leaders did not stand at the head of–or invite…antibureaucratic unrest or Wobbly manners…. It remained to be seen…how leadership could rebuild the labor movement without tapping vast unreleased energies and hidden talents from below.” And the AFL-CIO still displays “obeisance to almost anything that the Democrats have to offer.” With Democrats pushing free-trade legislation, gutting welfare and looking to privatize Social Security, Sweeney’s boast that his phone banks are turning out a larger union-member vote becomes hollow. Nor has the distance between the bureaucracy and ordinary members lessened.

Although the initial euphoria among many left unionists has faded some since 1995, the Sweeney victory has been positive for the labor movement in one respect. It opened up the chance to talk about what the labor movement needs–not an option under the old regime. In the book publishing boom that has followed, it’s been instructive to see which topics supporters of labor have felt free to debate. Race and sex discrimination have come under fire, and labor-management cooperation and organizing strategies. But most writers have sidestepped the question of democracy–member control of unions. Students of today’s labor movement, then, will be well served by Buhle’s historical view, which is crystal clear about the consequences of a monopoly of power from above. Today as ever, salvation for the working stiff will not be handed down from on high.