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Labor Unions During the Cold War

The end of World War II brought about the beginning of the Cold War, whose influence played a significant role in U.S. policy, and consequently the handling of labor union movements and how they were perceived. The fear of communism and the dominating presence of Cold War politics only added to the obstacles confronting labor unions that advocated for work and human rights.

Jack Sheinkman at the Americans for Democratic Action 50th anniversary convention, delivering the keynote address (1997). C-SPAN Network
Jack Sheinkman at the Americans for Democratic Action 50th anniversary convention, delivering the keynote address (1997). C-SPAN Network

Jack Sheinkman was a New Yorker from the Bronx who, thanks to his service in the Navy and the help of the G.I. Bill, attended the Labor Relations School at Cornell. His interest in trade unions had already begun as a student in the Workmen Circle Schools and socialist youth groups such as the Red Falcons. He has been a dedicated leader and advocate for labor unions, strongly believing that “labor rights…are part of democratic rights.” Throughout his lifetime, he’s been involved in striking, collective bargaining, and legal and organizing aspects of labor rights and unions.

While policies suppressing labor unions in places like Latin America have often been presented as part of the anti-communist war, this fails to acknowledge the important role social uprisings and unions play in maintaining democracy and achieving peace. To labor union leader Sheinkman, it seemed the Cold War pushed everything else to the backseat, including undercutting America’s own economic and national interests, stating that in some instances, the United States even made deals with undemocratic countries simply because they were anti-communist.

However, particularly in the labor world, Sheinkman felt it was important to recognize the distinction between communism and socialism, and differences within the varying left-leaning groups as well. Once a strong believer in the Domino Effect, over time he found this theory to be invalid, and saw that even if some groups leaned a little more to the left than others, this didn’t mean they were communists or communist allies. Regardless of whether or not groups did not fit perfectly in line with U.S. policy, what mattered to Sheinkman was that they were legitimate unions, concerned about worker’s rights and wellbeing.

Different labor unions of varying sizes throughout the U.S. would work closely together on stances they took, but they didn’t stop there. When Sheinkman became an international officer and co-president of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America (ACWA) he took this collaboration of unions further into the international level. He was the first ACWA president not from Chicago, nor was he a factory worker; he had been a lawyer. International solidarity grew as labor unions around the world stepped in to aid developing countries, providing support for those unions attempting to organize. It was not only about jobs, but also international human rights—from exposing child labor to stepping in when laborers and union leaders were being put under pressure, arrested, or murdered, which was unfortunately a common occurrence in developing countries, such as in the Dominican Republic. This international network of labor unions mobilized support and facilitated international pressure by raising the issues with their respective governments and other organizations.

Often in disagreement with certain American policies, including those of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organization (AFL-CIO), Sheinkman lobbied in Congress. He worked with members of Congress, and met with rebels, governments, and the military, as well as foreign presidents and the business community.

In this “moment” in U.S. diplomatic history, we see that Sheinkman wanted to make clear that labor unions wanted both a different policy approach and to bring democracy to the workplace while not being characterized as “anti-trade.”

Jack Sheinkman’s interview was conducted by Morris Weisz on April 23, 1995.

Read the full history of Jack Sheinkman and more about labor unions during the Cold War HERE.

Drafted by Janine Knauerhase

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“We’re now developing—we now, in the United States, have the greatest disparity between rich and poor. And if that goes on, you get all sorts of things—not necessarily left wing, you get right wing problems. And this creates social unrest”

The International Textile, garment and Leather Workers’ Federation (ITGLWF) logo.
The International Textile, garment and Leather Workers’ Federation (ITGLWF) logo.

Making assumptions: And, the first appointee was Rogers, the first Republican appointee. And they transferred me over without asking me, which incensed me. Because they assumed because I knew Mike Burnstein, who was a very active—at that time—Republican—because even though we’d get together and discuss things, they assumed that automatically I accepted his ideology.

Supporting Human Rights: Well, see, our support, mainly, was in terms of where they were operating. Were they operating as legitimate unions in the sense of trying to represent workers? We would be involved where we knew they got arrested. We knew, in many cases, that when they got arrested, if we had not raised an international protest—we raised it not only through our organization, but through the ICFTU—these people would have been killed. We’ve seen many of them captured by the police, by the military, and they were just killed, without a trial, without anything else. And, by highlighting this, we put pressure on them. And that was the reason we did it. And not all of them had communist elements. They may have had left wing elements, but they were not necessarily—you’ve got to remember that in the war on El Salvador, historically, the communists were the last to join . . .

A Workforce of Immigrants and Minorities: Well, you’ve got to remember that, first of all, textile and power was the largest manufacturing industry, still is. Employs about some two million people. It did employ some two million people. It’s down. Mostly women, minorities, people with little education. In effect, as you know, within my own union, it was the stairway for whereby immigrants came in, earned a livelihood, and their children had an opportunity for education—some of them teachers, now, professional people, so on and so forth. So, really employees are third-world people, just like employed immigrants who came here at the turn of the century from Europe. It is now employing a lot of Latin Americans and Asians that have come to this country.

One, what’s been the great strength of our nation? Even Henry Ford knew this, back in the ’17s when he provided the five dollar a day, because he wanted his people to have the wherewithal.

Changing Economic Policy: . . . .then, of course, as I told you earlier on, because of the question of the Cold War, which dominated even our economic policy, international economic policy, we sometimes would make deals with countries that were far from democratic because they were anti-communist, as part of our Cold War approach. And economic policy took a second seat. The kind of things I’m talking to you about, you were asking me about, to international political and policy, in terms of the Cold War. We sometimes pursued economic policy that undercut our own country and our own policies at home, to pursue a Cold War policy. And that dominated.

Of course, now, the economic policy is free trade diverallis without the kind of things I was talking to you about which is worker rights and other aspects. You’re protecting international policy and not worker rights policy. You know, everybody’s looking for a free market. And contrary to popular belief, which we talked about earlier, we’re not protectionist diverallis, the Americans. You know, we’re not ostriches. We don’t live in the past, even though Clinton intimated that during the NAFTA debate that we were living in the past. We are living not in the past. Not that we’re opposed to international trade_____ We are living in the future. We want to do a different policy.

Labor Rights and Democracy: See, people look upon labor rights as distinctly democracy and human rights. I look upon labor rights and we have not put that into the public mind enough.

Q: Distinguishing them, yeah

Labor rights, as far as we’re concerned, are part of democratic rights. We have not left that in the public mind. So, you know, for example, now, we’re pushing for labor legislation in the United States. If you call labor legislation special interest, we’ve not changed our approach. We want to bring democracy into the workplace, which has a different approach in the public mind. So, that’s the point I’m trying to make.


The City College of New York 1943-1944
Industrial and Labor Relations School, Cornell University
Cornell Law School
Joined The Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America in 1953
Presidium of the International Textile and Garment and Leather Workers Federation 1953 Project in the Dominican Republic Free Trade Zone Opposition to AFL-CIO and the U.S. Government Labor Unions and Communism