Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the death of Mikhail Gorbachev this year have sparked renewed interest in the USSR’s 1991 disintegration, a moment that officially brought an end to the Cold War.
Historians have been prominent in the many recent discussions and debates about how the demise of the Soviet Union thirty years ago set the stage for Vladimir Putin’s rise to power, the controversial expansion of NATO, and the current war in Ukraine. A US-dominated, unipolar world order, however, now appears to have run its course.
Absent from these discussions has been the small but important role played by the US labor movement—namely the leadership of the AFL-CIO—in weakening and ultimately toppling Soviet communism, inadvertently helping to usher in the era of neoliberal globalization and “free market” supremacy.
The USSR’s implosion was in large part precipitated by the fall of communism in Central and Eastern Europe, which began with a dissident workers’ movement in Poland.
In August 1980, after years of turmoil in the Polish economy, approximately 17,000 workers at the Lenin Shipyard in Gdańsk went on strike. The work stoppage served as a rebuke to Poland’s communist government, with the workers demanding an autonomous trade union and more civil liberties. Within two weeks, the strikers won many of their demands, including the right to establish an independent union they named Solidarność (Solidarity).
From the beginning, Solidarność’s greatest international ally was the AFL-CIO. The Federation’s top officials, including President Lane Kirkland, were ardent anticommunists and zealous cold warriors. For decades, the AFL-CIO and many of its affiliated unions had worked closely with the US foreign policy establishment—including the CIA—to undermine leftist political movements and unions (whether communist or not) in Western Europe, Latin America, Africa, and Asia.
With the birth of Solidarność, Kirkland and his associates saw an opportunity to take their foreign crusade directly into the communist world itself.