The List

The World's Most Powerful Labor Unions

From Tunisia to South Africa, where workers still rule.

This Labor Day, America's labor leaders find themselves in an unenviable position, with union membership plummeting to a 97-year low in 2012. Greater labor mobility, the flight of manufacturing jobs from the United States, and new state laws restricting the power of unions, among other factors, have combined to make the country's labor movement a shadow of its former self. While recent actions such as coordinated strikes by fast-food workers have some analysts talking about labor staging a comeback, the numbers tell a different story.

Elsewhere in the world, however, organized labor has managed to retain at least some of its clout. Here's a tour of some of the world's most powerful -- though often embattled and controversial -- labor unions.

All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU)

Until it encountered the All-China Federation of Trade Unions, Walmart had a nearly unbroken record of killing worker unionization efforts. By 2006, however, Walmart gave in and permitted unions at all of its Chinese branches, which totaled 66 outlets (the big-box behemoth now has approximately 390 outlets in the country). With over 200 million members, the ACFTU is the world's largest labor group, and its showdown with Walmart marked a watershed moment in the Chinese government's relationship with foreign investors.

But the power of the ACFTU is in large part derived from the might of the Chinese state; it is, after all, state-controlled. As a result, the union has been dogged by allegations that it is little more than a government tool for controlling the country's sizeable working class. Rather than advocating on behalf of its workers, ACFTU often strives for harmony between workers and their employers -- a philosophy that typically leads to the squashing of workers' demands in order to maintain the business-friendly labor rules that have helped propel Chinese economic growth over the last few decades. Indeed, signs of labor discontent in China are rife. In 2010, for example, 1,700 workers at a Honda factory launched a strike for higher wages and built a labor group outside the confines of the state-sanctioned ACFTU -- a move that was not looked upon kindly by China's leaders. "The trade union is not representing our views; we want our own union that will represent us," one striking worker told the New York Times. Other instances include a 700-strong strike at an electronics factory in Shenzhen in 2012 and a rash of strikes in 2011 that hit furniture, clothing, and electronics factories. It's a movement that, China Labor Watch's Han Dongfang observed, may force ACFTU "to re?examine its role and look for ways to become an organization that really does represent workers' interests."

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Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU)

When South Africa's leaders began dismantling apartheid in 1990, the Congress of South African Trade Unions emerged in a dominant position. A leading group in the anti-apartheid movement, COSATU entered into what is known as the Tripartite Alliance -- a grouping that included the African National Congress and the South African Communist Party, and long maintained a stranglehold on the country's politics. South Africa's current president, Jacob Zuma, was elected in large part based on his continuing alliance with COSATU, which had grown furious at the free-market policies of his predecessor, Thabo Mbeki.

But COSATU has struggled to keep Zuma in its pocket, and in 2010 tensions between the president and labor groups erupted in the form of a public sector strike. Zwelinzima Vavi -- the general secretary of COSATU, who is currently suspended from his role amid a sex scandal -- denounced the Zuma government for leading South Africa "rapidly in the direction of a full-blown predator state, in which a powerful, corrupt and demagogic elite of political hyenas increasingly controls the state as a vehicle for accumulation."

These tensions have endangered the Tripartite Alliance, but COSATU remains a force to be reckoned with in South African politics. South Africa's gold miners are going on strike this week -- an effort fully backed by COSATU that threatens a key sector of the South African economy. Mine workers are demanding a pay raise of up to 60 percent, and their decision to strike comes as many of the country's car, construction, and aviation workers have also put down their tools and joined the picket lines. In 2012, COSATU put tens of thousands of workers on the streets as part of a national strike.

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General Confederation of Labor (CGT)

Union membership in France has now dipped below 10 percent (union membership in the U.S. fell to 11.3 percent in 2012), yet French labor groups have somehow managed to retain an enormous amount of power. One reason why is the General Confederation of Labor, known by its French initials, CGT. With loose communist ties, the country's second-largest union is the radical specter on the far left of French politics that fans the flames of union discontent. Where other unions have moved to make compromises with the government, the CGT has refused, instead staging a series of spectacular, gutsy protests. Most recently, its members at the Eiffel Tower in Paris walked off the job because a malfunctioning elevator that had gone unfixed made working conditions unacceptable, according to the union.

In François Hollande, the CGT now has a Socialist president and labor ally in office. But that doesn't meant the group has been less aggressive. In October 2012 -- just five months after Hollande's election -- the CGT brought tens of thousands into the streets to protest the president's commitment to the European Union's deficit-slashing fiscal pact, an agreement that could threaten French social programs. "This is a government that was elected largely thanks to votes of workers," Pascal Debay, the head of the CGT, said in an interview at the time. "We're witnessing the destruction of jobs and the wrecking of French industry. That's why we're mobilizing. The choices the government makes in coming weeks will be followed very closely." In May, a group of French unions moved to strike deals with major companies that guaranteed plants would stay open in exchange for changes to France's famously sclerotic labor regulations, but the CGT largely refused to compromise. While reform to French labor markets may be inevitable -- just about everyone who isn't the CGT appears to be seeking changes -- the union's size and steadfast commitment to left-wing labor politics make it a powerful counterweight to both the government and other unions. Perhaps more importantly, in a country enamored with its revolutionary past, the CGT -- even amid dwindling unionization rates -- knows how to stage a protest that will win over French public opinion.

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IG Metall

Germany is often looked to as a potential model for how to restructure France's byzantine labor laws. In 2003, the country embarked on a labor reform known as Agenda 2010 that moved its labor laws in the direction of America's. The new system made it easier for employers to hire and fire employees, increased temporary jobs, and drastically cut what at the time were extremely generous unemployment benefits. These are all overhauls that France's unions would sneer at, but they haven't sidelined organized labor in Germany.

IG Metall is Germany's largest union, and the influence it wields is breathtaking. In February, with the European economy still stagnating, the metalworkers' union requested a 5.5-percent annual pay increase for its members, settling for a staggered deal that amounted to a 5.6-percent raise over 20 months. The previous year, the union asked for a 6.5-percent hike and ended up reaching a deal for just under 4 percent. But the measure of IG Metall's influence lies not so much in its ability to guarantee pay increases for its members in the midst of an economic crisis -- though that is certainly impressive. By virtue of its leading role in the constellation of German labor groups, agreements reached by IG Metall often serve as a benchmark for other industries. As a result, when IG Metall sits down at the negotiating table, it speaks not just for its own members but also for a large swath of the German workforce.

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Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT)

With Tunisia embroiled in a political crisis over the future of its Islamist-controlled government, the Tunisian General Labor Union has emerged as a key power broker in the country's post-Arab Spring era. A string of assassinations of secular Tunisian politicians has provoked a public outcry against the ruling Ennahda party, which, from its seat in Tunis, has struggled to implement economic and political reforms. As the crisis has come to a head, the UGTT has mediated talks between the opposition and the government, backing a demand to dissolve the government (in mobilizing protests, the union was a key player in precipitating the crisis in the first place). The situation bears some resemblance to the conflict in Egypt between Islamist and secular groups, but in Tunisia, the UGTT -- and not the military -- serves as the critical go-between for the warring factions. Still, that's a comparison the UGTT is loathe to embrace. "Our situation is different from Egypt's and I'm not another al-Sisi," Hussein Abassi, the union's secretary general, told Reuters last month.

So far, the UGTT's plan seems to be coming up roses. Ennahda has now embraced the negotiations, though it is attempting to settle plans for the constitution and an electoral law before giving up power. That decision represents a major win for the UGTT's leaders -- after all, they were the ones who proposed the plan.

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The List

Mapped: The 7 Governments the U.S. Has Overthrown

Yes, we now have confirmation that the CIA was behind Iran's 1953 coup. But the agency hardly stopped there.



The era of CIA-supported coups dawned in dramatic fashion: An American general flies to Iran and meets with "old friends"; days later, the Shah orders Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh to step down. When the Iranian military hesitates, millions of dollars are funneled into Tehran to buy off Mossadegh's supporters and finance street protests. The military, recognizing that the balance of power has shifted, seizes the prime minister, who will live the rest of his life under house arrest. It was, as one CIA history puts it, "an American operation from beginning to end," and one of many U.S.-backed coups to take place around the world during the second half of the 20th century.

Several national leaders, both dictators and democratically elected figures, were caught in the middle of the U.S.-Soviet Cold War -- a position that ultimately cost them their office (and, for some, their life) as the CIA tried to install "their man" as head of state. The U.S. government has since publicly acknowledged some of these covert actions; in fact, the CIA's role in the 1953 coup was just declassified this week. In other cases, the CIA's involvement is still only suspected.

The legacy of covert U.S. involvement in the seven successful coups below (not to mention a number of U.S. military interventions against hostile regimes and U.S.-supported insurgencies and failed assassination attempts, including a plan to kill Fidel Castro with an exploding cigar), has made the secret hand of the United States a convenient bogeyman in today's political tensions. Even now, despite waning U.S. influence in Cairo, conspiracy theories suggesting that both the Muslim Brotherhood and the military-backed government are in cahoots with the United States abound in Egypt.

Here's a brief history of the confirmed cases of the CIA's globe-spanning campaign of coups.

Iran, 1953: Despite continued speculation about the CIA's role in a 1949 coup to install a military government in Syria, the ouster of Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh is the earliest coup of the Cold War that the U.S. government has acknowledged. In 1953, after nearly two years of Mossadegh's premiership, during which time he challenged the authority of the Shah and nationalized an Iranian oil industry previously operated by British companies, he was forced from office and arrested, spending the rest of his life under house arrest. According to the just-declassified CIA-authored history of the operation, "It was the potential ... to leave Iran open to Soviet aggression -- at a time when the Cold War was at its height and when the United Sates was involved in an undeclared war in Korea against forces supported by the U.S.S.R. and China -- that compelled the United States [REDACTED] in planning and executing TPAJAX [the code name of the coup operation]."

Guatemala, 1954: Though the United States was initially supportive of Guatemalan President Jacobo Árbenz -- the State Department felt his rise through the U.S.-trained and armed military would be an asset -- the relationship soured as Árbenz attempted a series of land reforms that threatened the holdings of the U.S.-owned United Fruit Company. A coup in 1954 forced Árbenz from power, allowing a succession of juntas in his place. Classified details of the CIA's involvement in the ouster of the Guatemalan leader, which included equipping rebels and paramilitary troops while the U.S. Navy blockaded the Guatemalan coast, came to light in 1999.

Congo, 1960: Patrice Lumumba, the first prime minister of the Congo (later the Democratic Republic of the Congo), was pushed out of office by Congolese President Joseph Kasavubu amid the U.S.-supported Belgian military intervention in the country, a violent effort to maintain Belgian business interests after the country's decolonization. But Lumumba maintained an armed opposition to the Belgian military and, after approaching the Soviet Union for supplies, was targeted by the CIA once the agency determined he was a threat to the newly installed government of Joseph Mobutu. The Church Committee, an 11-senator commission established in 1975 to provide oversight of the clandestine actions of the U.S. intelligence community, found that the CIA "continued to maintain close contact with Congolese who expressed a desire to assassinate Lumumba," and that "CIA officers encouraged and offered to aid these Congolese in their efforts against Lumumba." After an aborted assassination attempt against Lumumba involving a poisoned handkerchief, the CIA alerted Congolese troops to Lumumba's location and noted roads to be blocked and potential escape routes. Lumumba was captured in late 1960 and killed in January of the following year.

Dominican Republic, 1961: The brutal dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo, which included the ethnic cleansing of thousands of Haitians in the Dominican Republic and the attempted assassination of the president of Venezuela, ended when he was ambushed and killed by armed political dissidents. Though the gunman who shot Trujillo maintained that "Nobody told me to go and kill Trujillo," he did in fact have the support of the CIA. The Church Committee found that "Material support, consisting of three pistols and three carbines, was supplied to various dissidents.... United States' officials knew that the dissidents intended to overthrow Trujillo, probably by assassination..."

South Vietnam, 1963: The United States was already deeply involved in South Vietnam in 1963, and its relationship with the country's leader, Ngo Dinh Diem, was growing increasingly strained amid Diem's crackdown on Buddhist dissidents. According to the Pentagon Papers, on Aug. 23, 1963, South Vietnamese generals plotting a coup contacted U.S. officials about their plan. After some fits and starts plus a period of U.S. indecision, the generals seized and killed Diem on Nov. 1, 1963 with U.S. support, which by some accounts partially came in the form of $40,000 in CIA funds.

"For the military coup d'etat against Ngo Dinh Diem, the U.S. must accept its full share of responsibility," the Pentagon Papers state. "Beginning in August of 1963 we variously authorized, sanctioned and encouraged the coup efforts of the Vietnamese generals and offered full support for a successor government.... We maintained clandestine contact with them throughout the planning and execution of the coup and sought to review their operational plans and proposed new government."

Brazil, 1964: Fearing that the government of Brazilian President Joao Goulart would, in the words of U.S. Ambassador Lincoln Gordon, "make Brazil the China of the 1960s," the United States backed a 1964 coup led by Humberto Castello Branco, then chief of staff of the Brazilian army. In the days leading up to the coup, the CIA encouraged street rallies against the government and provided fuel and "arms of non-US origin" to those backing the military. "I think we ought to take every step that we can, be prepared to do everything that we need to do," President Lyndon Johnson told his advisors planning the coup, according to declassified government records obtained by the National Security Archive. The Brazilian military went on to govern the country until 1985.

Chile, 1973: The United States never wanted Salvador Allende, the socialist candidate elected president of Chile in 1970, to assume office. President Richard Nixon told the CIA to "make the [Chilean] economy scream," and the agency worked with three Chilean groups, each plotting a coup against Allende in 1970. The agency went so far as to provide weapons, but the plans fell apart after the CIA lost confidence in its proxies. U.S. attempts to disrupt the Chilean economy continued until Gen. Augusto Pinochet led a military coup against Allende in 1973. The CIA's official account of the seizure of power on Sept. 11, 1973, notes that the agency "was aware of coup-plotting by the military, had ongoing intelligence collection relationships with some plotters, and -- because CIA did not discourage the takeover and had sought to instigate a coup in 1970 -- probably appeared to condone it." The CIA also conducted a propaganda campaign in support of Pinochet's new regime after he took office in 1973, despite knowledge of severe human rights abuses, including the murder of political dissidents.