The media is full of stories about how prominent members of the British Labour Party maintained contacts with agents of the Soviet Union and its satellites during the Cold War. This should not be surprising to anyone as intelligence agencies interacting with labour politicians and trades unionists has been a common phenomenon for decades. The activities of intelligence and security agencies and thee role of the international labour movement in national politics has been crucial to any understanding of the actual engines of change in many countries but this dimension has always been hidden by the invisibility of these processes to the public. It is not taught in schools, universities or the press.
The types of interactions have changed somewhat from the post war activities in support of conflicting Cold War objectives, where the international labour movements were the battlefields of many conflicts between East and West. Now there are subtler, but important, conflicts over the effects of globalisation, the impact of the Arab Spring, the rising self-determination of a Chinese working class, the resurgence of Arab unions and a host of domestic challenges in Africa and Latin America between competing labour movements and their outside sponsors.
Throughout the history of this movement, particularly during the Cold War, governments and political parties have used the international labour movement as one of their principal vehicles for their covert interactions with political parties and governments in foreign nations. The international trades union movement has been, and continues to be, a vital tool of governments in the shaping of the political destinies of foreign political parties and states and has been an important part of most nations' foreign policy system. [i]
At one time the U.S. had around sixty people in the CIA (working out of Cord Meyer’s shop) tasked with interacting and reporting on the international labour movements; now there are two and one is part-time. The AFL-CIO International Affairs Department, under the leadership of Jay Lovestone (former Secretary of the US Communist Party) and Irving Brown engaged in the subversion of labour movements around the world with the assistance of millions of dollars of US government cash. The Soviet Union had hundreds of people engaged within the international labour movements around the globe. It had an important International Institute of Workers’ Studies. The KGB had a special section of the First Directorate active in the labour movement. Alexander Nikolayevich Shelepin left the Chairmanship of the KGB to become head of the AUCCTU (the Soviet labour federation) while still a member of the Politburo and Chairman of the Council of Ministers. It was a serious business.
The British Government has funded major programmes of activities in the international labour movement with specialists in this field seconded to the TUC and paid for by the British Government. The overthrow of Cheddi Jagan in British Guyana was one of their most successful achievements. The British Occupation forces in post-war Germany brought in British trades unionists to reorganise the German labour movement. Indeed, the British were among the first to introduces Labour Attaches to colonial territories to monitor and guide local unionists. In 1929 the British passed the Colonial Development Act which, in addition to creating funds for overseas assistance, provided that colonies eligible for receiving these funds must insure that fair labour standards were created in the colony. The Colonial Secretary, Sidney Webb (Lord Passfield) sent a message to all the colonial governors in 1930 informing them that trade unionism was a policy favoured by the government and should be encouraged. The British TUC, whose Labour government was now in office, sent out experienced unionists throughout the colonies to assist local unions in their efforts. By 1938, these informal overseas missions were regularised and the post of labour advisor to the Colonial Office was formed. A social services department within the Colonial Office was created to handle labour questions. Labour officers were sent out under Colonial Office auspices to build colonial unions and the post of labour attaché was created in the High Commissions. The TUC loaned or seconded numerous unionists to serve in this capacity; they also sponsored indigenous unionists to come to Britain for labour training. By 1940 a new act, the Colonial Development Act, was passed. It went further than the 1929 Act by stating that to be eligible for development funds the territorial governments must provide for and maintain a local trades union movement. Trades union national centres sprang up across Asia, Africa and the Caribbean. These were under the close tutelage and control of the labour attaches sent out by the Colonial Office.
The West Germans have two labour-oriented foundations which the government have supported and funded to do its international work; the Friedrich Ebert Foundation when the Social Democrats are in power and the Konrad Adenauer Foundation when the Christian Democrats are in power. Most nations had similar, if smaller, scale projects. Even Argentina, under Peron, had a Pan-American Labour program. The use of the labour movements as agents of change was a theatre of interaction worldwide which received practically no publicity or international comment. In some countries, like Nigeria, there were three national labour centres, each supported by different international donors.
A principal reason behind the importance of the trades union movement in the political process has been the weakness of political parties. For most nations, political parties are not strong. They frequently lack funds, manpower and organisation. They can generate interest and support from their constituencies during the electoral campaigns but soon after, their continuity and direction is left in the hands of their parliamentary parties. The maintenance of their continued interaction with their membership is most often left to the activities of the voluntary organisations with whom they are associated. These voluntary organisations (trades unions, corporate groups, civic associations or religious groups) maintain the continuity of contact at national level between the members and the parties between elections.
Most often the trades unions have been linked with Labour, Socialist, Social Democratic, Communist or Christian Democratic parties. Indeed, for many years, membership in most of the parties of the left was based on affiliation to the party through the trades union or co-operative movement. These parties only rarely permitted direct personal affiliation. The trades union movement acted as a surrogate for a national party structure between elections.
Because of this close relationship between the political parties and the trades union movement, the work of the national centres (that is a labour organisation whose membership consists of national unions, not individuals - AFL-CIO, TUC, DGB, etc.) has been almost exclusively political. Trades union leadership at the national level has been deeply involved in sustained interaction with the processes and offices of government. There has been a flow of trades union leaders away from the national centres into high political posts, especially when their party has assumed the responsibility of office. This centralisation of political power in the hands of the national centres has not precluded a strong political role played by lower-level union `barons', but the day-to-day liaison with the political forces of the state has been conducted largely through the medium of the national centres.
In the Third World the route to national power was often through the trades union movement. As national economic and political developments broadened the opportunities for employment, these trained and experienced union officials were often tempted to leave the labour movements for better opportunities elsewhere. Throughout Asia and especially Africa the trades union movement has served as the training ground and starting-point for innumerable prominent politicians. Among these were Tom Mboya, Sekou Toure, Siaka Stevens, Rashidi Kawawa, Cyrille Adoula, Joshua Nkomo and many others. Right now, the new President of South Africa is the former head of the Mineworkers Union and the late Morgan Tsvangarai of Zimbabwe moved to be Prime Minister from the Zimbabwean labour movement. Others, like Gandhi or Nehru in India or a succession of PhD economists in Sri Lanka, held important union posts. These men, often coming from the highest social castes or classes in their respective societies, found many doors open to them. With a few exceptions, these leaders left the labour movement for other careers. This turnover in leadership has posed long-term problems for the development of effective unionism. In many colonial societies local political parties were banned. Trades unions acted as their surrogates and often became the vehicle for national political dissent and the struggle for liberation.
It is precisely because the trades unionism practised by the national centres was so intimately involved with the political forces of the state that there has been such an interest in the growth of international trades unionism. The strategic role of the trades union movement within the political and economic life of the nation has proved to be a tempting target for outside interests seeking to intervene in or influence the party.
Trade union internationalism should not be confused with collective bargaining, grievance procedures, strikes or productivity. That is the job of national unions. The politics of international labour is separate and different and deals with the politics of the nation.
The intelligence interest in the trades union movements is not only a function of their activity in national politics, although this is of vital concern. Their interest lies as well in the role of the trades unions, and key trades unionists, within the economy. Trades unionists act as agents of influence within national union bodies, political parties and social groups. They are frequently used as agents of access to key political figures in whom the intelligence service maintain an interest, and are most frequently used as utility agents or agents of access providing information to one or more principal agents with access to intelligence officers. Throughout industry trade union utility agents serve to provide a whole range of data on their corporations (sources of supply, markets, financial status, etc.). In many cases these utility agents are unaware of the fact that they are being used to gather information for a foreign intelligence service. They think they are promoting a cause or acting to strengthen their union or political caucus. They are never told that, their information is being provided as well to foreign intelligence services. In fact, in some notable cases, even when they do know that the material is being provided to a foreign intelligence service they are never told to which foreign government the information is actually being transmitted. The history of several cases of intelligence penetration indicates that they have been conducted as 'false flag' operations. In these the collector of data does so thinking that he or she is assisting one government whose operatives pose as agents of that government although they are actually working for another.
One reason why the trades union movement has been such a fertile field for intelligence operations is that it has within it numerous trades unionists who are motivated by ideologies and a commitment to abstractions. They are not only unionists, they are also committed to “peace”, “nuclear disarmament” and “anti-colonialism” around the world. The question of motivation is crucial for mounting a successful intelligence operation. The art of building a successful intelligence operation does not lie in coercing or blackmailing into service unwilling agents: it consists of finding agents already committed to a goal shared by the intelligence operatives and providing them with the resources in order for them to achieve this goal. If, for example, there exists a trades union or political party faction opposed to a key policy or programme of the targeted national party or government, intelligence operatives would be very foolish to try and start their own opposition movement against this policy. It is wiser and more useful to offer to the dissident faction their covert assistance by providing funds, printing presses, media access and subsidised travel so that they can achieve their goals.
This has been a traditional method of operation. No intelligence organisation or government ever had to coerce European social democrats to build anti-communist factions in post-war France or Italy. No intelligence body ever had to force Eastern European trades unionists to resist being placed under the control of Soviet-trained political commissars intent upon eradicating collective bargaining in Hungary, Czechoslovakia or Poland.
During the Cold War, no Eastern European intelligence service had to put undue pressure on a Latin American urban guerrilla to continue his opposition to the government hunting him. What is serendipitous about this type of operation is its long-term utility. Once an intelligence service has provided the needed assistance to a key unionist or political group it is then capable of using that fact to ensure a longer-term loyalty through the threat of exposure. Another useful aspect of utilising allies in the trades union movements is the access it gives intelligence agents to parallel organisations which they seek to penetrate. Through its strength within sections of the trades union movements in Britain, Sweden, West Germany and Holland the intelligence services of the East were able to build contacts and influence in the variety of 'peace movements' which have grown to such prominence; first in the anti-Vietnam campaign and in the renewal of the unilateral disarmament movements.
In Britain, access by foreign intelligence agencies to influence in national policies was facilitated by the introduction of The National Economic Development Council (NEDC) set up in 1962 in the United Kingdom to bring together management, trades unions and government to address Britain's relative economic decline through programs of economic planning. It was supported by the National Economic Development Office (NEDO). Both were known as Neddy. Economic Development Committees (EDCs, known as “Little Neddies”) were set up for particular industries. Many of the leading unionists sat on a Neddy or a Little Neddy. By gaining access to the unionists who sat on these Neddies foreign intelligence agencies could both monitor British economic plans and influence their outcomes.
This is why one of the most vital jobs for an intelligence operative was that of a 'spotter'; one who could pick out those individuals or groups in a position to ease access to friendly approaches. One of the best posts for a spotter to operate from was in the personnel section of an international agency. In June 1978, just after Vladimir Bukrayev was asked leave the publications department of the ILO in Geneva because of British revelations of his KGB connections, his colleague Grigory Miagkov was similarly expelled from his key job in the training department of the ILO where he handled the personnel files of all the ILO specialists. After Arkady Shevchenko, the highest-ranking Soviet UN defector, left the UN in 1979 he pointed out several high-ranking KGB officers operating inside the UN, including the personnel chief of the UN Secretariat. The former Soviet labour attaché, Berdennikov, who was expelled from Britain with 104 of his colleagues, was noted for his ability to spot suitable subjects within the British trades union movement. Once spotted, other officers could move in to make contact with the subjects; often from Soviet satellite states rather then from the Soviet Union itself.
One of those who was active in the field of labour penetration in Britain was Josef Frolik. Frolik, who subsequently defected from Czech intelligence, spent his years in Britain 'running' a number of trades unionists and high-level union officials along with colleagues from Poland and the Soviet Union. In 1975, Czechoslovakian intelligence officer Josef Frolík defected to the United States and published The Frolik Defection: The Memoirs of an Intelligence Agent. Among several revelations in the book was an alleged plot by the ŠtB, Czechoslovakia’s Cold-War-era secret intelligence service, to sexually blackmail British Conservative politician Edward “Ted” Heath; Frolik mentions prominent British unionists and Labour politicians that he, and his colleagues, “ran” in Britain. Frolik defected in 1968. His book relates details of particular operations run in the West with which he was familiar, including recruitment or attempted recruitment of British members of Parliament and labour leaders. He didn’t publish all the names but Richard Deacon in The British Connection gives the name of one of those fingered by Frolik and Chapman Pincher’s Inside Story also reveals certain names. Pincher gives background information on how the names of British Labour leaders who were targets of Czech intelligence were raised in Parliament and later in the British press.
This type of activity occurred elsewhere as well; particularly in West Germany where officers of the East German intelligence organisation (Stasi), like Hans Faltermayer, Gunter Guillaume and others, have been discovered in high posts in the SPD and the DGB. Other unionists have acted as agents for East Germany and numerous quiet enquiries were undertaken in Pullach into the extent of Mischa Wolf's penetration of the West German labour movement. The Scandinavian countries were full of intelligence operatives from the East, usually in their early stages of training, who were targeted on middle-level trades union penetration operations.
Perhaps the most active in support of trade union efforts in the Cold War was the U.S.; initially the AFL, but later including the CIO. In 1940, the head of the International Ladies Garment Workers' Union (ILGWU), David Dubinsky, joined with the head of the Photo Engravers' Union, Matthew Woll, to form a committee to support war relief and trades unionists world-wide: the Labour League for Human Rights. Their first task was to aid European trades unionists attempting to escape the clutches of the Gestapo. The League sent out observers into Europe and lobbied in Washington for visas for the endangered unionists. They were able to save a number of important trades unionists. When Citrine visited the US in 1942 the League set up another committee, the American Labour Committee to Aid British Labour, which raised funds and bought supplies for British unions. In March 1941, the ILGWU locals in New York raised over $300000 to rescue unionists under threat in German-occupied Europe. A Jewish Labour Committee, joining together many New York AFL unions and organisations, like the Workmen's Circle, were responsible for handling these sums. The CIO, although active in pursuing an international policy, especially in Spain, was unwilling or unable to co-operate fully in the international relief work of the AFL until the invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941. A study group set up to explore co-operation among the US unions, the American Labour Conference, started the dialogue in but it was soon supplanted by a far more activist group formed in the Free Trade Union Committee (FTUC).
Lovestone and Brown were assigned to work with the ILGWU and Dubinsky turned over to Lovestone, as head of the FTUC, control of his agents abroad who had been working with the Labour League for Human Rights and the British Committee. The FTUC was recognised as labour's official liaison organisation with the Office of Strategic Services (OSS). The OSS, started under the guidance of the British, was largely the product of 'Wild Bill' Donovan. It brought together specialists from all areas of the political spectrum in an organisation dedicated to fighting the Axis powers. An OSS colonel, Herbert Blankenhorn, suggested that a vital area of activity should be the labour movements around the world. He won the support of Donovan and began recruiting for the OSS Labour Division, based at 72 Grosvenor Street in London. In the early days of 1942, Blankenhorn enlisted the talents of George Bowden who brought with him, as his assistant, the CIO's chief counsel, Arthur Goldberg (later a Supreme Court Justice). By March, Goldberg was operating as OSS labour chief out of Allen Dulles' office in New York. Goldberg began to hire hundreds of trades unionists and labour attorneys to work with the labour branch. The FTUC began to work overseas in sending aid and advice to unions attempting to rebuild. where he set up penetration and political intelligence networks among the exiled European socialists who had fled the continent.
In mid-1942, Goldberg and Bowden met with Omar Becu, the general secretary of the International Transport Workers' Federation (ITF). The ITF had moved its entire operations to London into Transport House where, in co-operation with the former ITF president, Ernest Bevin (now British Foreign Secretary), it collaborated with British intelligence in providing information on transport movements and labour conditions in occupied Europe. The creation of the Marshall Plan provided many ex-OSS labour staff with important roles in post-war Europe where the Cold War battles were beginning in nations like Greece, Czechoslovakia, Finland and Poland. The FTUC and the US government gradually came to adopt a similar position on the restructuring of Germany into a divided state, one-half communist one-half democratic. In Asia the US Occupation Forces were augmented by labour specialists in places like Japan, Korea and China where they worked with the authorities to build anti-communist unionism.
The ideological component of the struggle in international labour and the concentration of the intelligence activity on the national labour movements reached a peak with the formation of the World Federation of Trades Unions (WFTU) in 1945 funded and directed by the Soviet Union. As the nations of Eastern Europe were enfolded into the broader Soviet Union in the immediate post-war Europe the U.S. and British intelligence agencies combined to build a rival organisation to the WFTU, the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) which split the WFTU into a communist-led federation, based in Prague, and a non-communist federation based in Brussels. Competition between the two was intense. The communist unions of France and Italy were very strong and commanded a majority of their national union structures. Germany was split in two and each side had its own, ideologically competitive structures. The Spanish and Portuguese unions were still led by Fascists and there was a civil war in Greece led by the Greek communists. The Scandinavians were primarily in the social-democratic camp but with a number of far-left unions like the VPK in Sweden. Eastern European unions and the Baltics were under Soviet control.
The biggest problem for the U.S. and British governments was the strong presence of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB). The CPGB was dominated by the London party, although there were pockets of communist solidarity in the Red Clyde, Cwm Rhondda and Liverpool. Britain’s industrial relations system was somewhat inchoate. First, the representation of working people, although notionally in national unions and national union officers, was actually dominated by the Shop Stewards Movement, a body controlled by the CPGB. The number of workplace shop stewards or worker representatives has declined from a height of 350,000 in the 1970s to around 85,000 today. At the same time the number of full-time union officials was steady at about 636. There are generations of the British working class who have never seen a full-time union official. Those the did see were usually at the Neddys or at the Labour Party Conference.
Those union officials who attended the Labour Party Conference were blessed with the ability to cast their block votes. Until 1993 the unions were able to control 90% of the votes. This was reformed into one-man one-vote in candidate selection. Although there was a regular political outcry against the union block vote it served as an important brake on the Far Left taking control of the party when elected union leaders were able to keep from power many like Derek Hatton’s Militants from controlling the party or assisting Frank Chapple in taking back control of the Electrician Union from the CPGB. This battle within the British labour movement between the CPGB, the Far Left and the Labour Party has a long history. The WFTU, from which the TUC had disaffiliated, had many British communists in positions of power. Brian Price was the Head of the WFTU’s European Department. He was also head of its Dublin Committee, the peace and disarmament group. The other major figure was Ken Gill, who later became General Secretary of the TUC. He participated in many of the WFTU activities and in 1984 became chairman of the People's Press Printing Society, the cooperative which publishes The Morning Star (the CPGB newspaper). He was purged from the CPGB the next year when he refused to follow the new “Eurocommunist” line.
The international effects of this battle were not solely in Britain. These battles were found throughout areas of British rule. One of the most amusing of these was the CPGB in India. In 1935 the Comintern (the Soviet international political agency) order all communists to give up fighting the socialists and nationalists and form a Popular Front. The Communist Party of India (CPI) made its peace with the Indian nationalists of the Congress Party and took control over Kerala, Andhara Pradesh and the Tamilnad. When Britain declared war in 1939, it announced that India was also a belligerent; an announcement made without consulting the Indian Legislature. . The nationalists demanded that the price of Indian belligerency be a commitment to Indian independence after the war. When the Soviet Union joined with Hitler the militancy of the CPI against Britain was strident and more belligerent than the Congress.
The British refused to promise independence in exchange for Indian co-operation with the war effort and the Congress leaders resigned their offices in the national and state bodies. They refused to support the British war effort and called satyagrahas and hartals in support of the 'Quit India' campaign. Subhas Chandra Bose went even further. He helped to form the Indian National Army which co-operated with the advancing Japanese forces to attack the British in India. The Congress leaders were eclipsed by the strident leadership of the communists. By mid-1940, the communists had taken control of many of the trades union posts in India and had won important seats in the Indian students' movement. By 1940 the communists were riding high on a heady mixture of leftist militancy and strident nationalism in their campaign against the British.
Suddenly, all was changed. The Nazi forces had invaded the 'Soviet motherland' and the imperialist war now became a 'people's war'. All communist parties and unions were directed to co-operate with the allied powers in pursuing the war effort. Harry Pollitt of the CPGB sent a letter to the central committee of the CPI, most of whose members were languishing at His Majesty's pleasure at the Deoli Detention Camp, ordering the CPI to abandon all efforts at opposition to the British and to turn their efforts to controlling the trades unions to maximise war production. In a humiliating move, the letter from the CPGB to the CPI was hand-delivered by Sir Reginald Maxwell, then British Home Secretary in the Government of India.
The British government in India made a pact with the CPI and released the communists from detention. It made the communist party legal and encouraged the communists to take over control of the trade unions from the militant Congress unionists. The British made money and supplies available to the CPI to start papers and journals in India; the largest was the English-language People's War. Britain's only allies in India were the communists. P. C. Joshi and Sir Reginald Maxwell formed an alliance with the CPI Politburo which placed at the disposal of the Government of India the services of the CPI and its unions. The British Army Intelligence Department set up a separate section to liaise with the Indian Communists and the CID to provide information on planned strikes by the nationalists and to provide blacklists of nationalist agitators. The communists even offered to provide troupes to entertain conscripted soldiers fighting in Burma. After the war the nationalists turned on the CPI for their interference with Indian independence.
The tasks of the intelligence services dealing with foreign unions include providing material assistance to their clients. In most countries of the world it is considered illegal or, at least, poor form for one government to send money to a foreign labour, student or protest group in another country. However, there is no impediment for the mineworkers of Russia to send fraternal greetings and funds to the mineworkers in Britain as they become locked in deadly embrace with the Coal Board or Mrs. Thatcher. In many cases they can send funds without actually having to transfer them. Ken Gill, who became the head of ASTMS with Clive Jenkins, was a pioneer in this field. The unions ran numerous travel programs for their members to sun themselves on the Golden Sands of Bulgaria or Rumania, for example. They would pay the union the money for their inclusive travel and go off for a splendid vacation. The travel agencies of the Soviet Union, Bulgaria, Rumania and the others are state-run organisations. They did what they were told. If the ASTMS notionally transferred to travel money to Intourist they didn’t actually have to send the funds. Those sums, in cash, could be used inside Britain for a variety of purposes agreed between the CPGB and the union. It was one of several ways in which fraternal assistance could be given, unvouchered and untraceably.
It was largely these funds, or access to them, which would be paid to agents of influence and access by U.K. based intelligence officers to unionists, politicians, and activists to find out the information they needed and to assist those who would need or want assistance. Most of the interaction was with the members of the Labour Party. This was not because the Labour Party was very different or more susceptible than the Tories or the Liberals. Those bases were covered by Philby, Burgess, Blunt. Maclean and many others.
The history of foreign intelligence intervening with cash, travel and support of UK politicians in not new; nor is the practice not widely used by the British Government itself in various parts of the world. It should come as no surprise to anyone that the STB, Stasi, KGB, CIA, BND and others have files on those with whom they have worked over the years; particularly those of extremist persuasions. Whether these activities had any tangible or long-term effect has yet to be proven. It may just have encouraged the fringe to move further out on the fringe.