‘We Cannot Wait another Decade or More for the United Nations’: The AFL-CIO and the Problem of Scale in Regulating Multinational Firms

As international trade and multinational production expanded in the early 1970s, political leaders from the Global South and trade unionists from the US and Western Europe mobilized for the international regulation of multinational firms. These critics of multinational firms differed in their points of emphasis and often contradicted each other. Yet both contributed to increasing pressure within such forums as the UN Economic and Social Council, the International Labor Organization, and the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development for international action to rein in the abuses of multinational firms. However, the AFL-CIO, the leading trade union federation in the United States, looked warily upon these efforts and maintained a certain distance from them, opting instead to endorse national action to curb investment outflows and restrict imports. This paper considers the motivations and implications of the AFL-CIO’s decision to prioritize national action in response to the challenges that multinational firms posed to labor on a global scale. It argues that the AFL-CIO pursed a strategy to salvage US industrial power to maintain the economic underpinnings of the post-World War II domestic social and political order. Yet this strategy detracted resources and attention from simultaneous efforts by the United Auto Workers and Western European trade unions to regulate firms at the international level. At the same time, US and Western European business associations combined action at the national and international levels and appealed to both globalist and nationalist rhetoric to counter labor’s influence in international organizations. The paper therefore suggests the importance of studying fracture in organized labor during the 1970s for understanding the political economy of the last quarter of the twentieth century.