COLOMBIA, THE SOUTH BAY AFL-CIO LABOR COUNCIL, AND AFL-CIO FOREIGN POLICY
(By Fred Hirsch, long term trade unionist, proud member of Plumbers and Fitters Local 393, delegate to the South Bay AFL-CIO Labor Council)
Ben Field recently attacked an article in Counterpunch, "Colombia and the AFL-CIO" by Alberto C. Ruiz. (www.Counterpunch.org) Field, writing under the title Staff Director of the South Bay Labor Council, says "Cannibalism on the Left" is causing the labor movement to be "eating its own" and getting in the way of action against economic inequality and union busting. His drift is that any criticism of AFL-CIO foreign policy and the Solidarity Center is "cannibalism." Constructive criticism is essential in our unions – essential to democracy. Our history shows critical "cannibalism" coming from the right, not the left. Cold War McCarthyism decimated the ranks of militant leaders and diverted progressive action in the AFL-CIO for generations by targeting progressives and progressive unions with red-baiting and expulsion. Its poison lingers on to often single out and isolate leftists.
In a conversation soon after Ben field came on at the South Bay Labor Council he off-handedly disparaged a May Day immigration reform march as celebrating "a lefty holiday." May Day, born in the U.S.A, came out of the struggle for an eight hour day. It came to signify real international labor solidarity, and stepped us into the modern labor movement. This disparaged “lefty holiday” commemorates the militant history of our trade union movement.
Let's dispel the notion that the Solidarity Center (SC) is what Ben Field calls our “own.” Though touted as the "international arm" of the AFL-CIO, we can’t overlook that it is financed almost entirely by taxpayer money through the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), USAID, and the State Department. The international operations of the AFL-CIO have been thusly financed by every administration, Republican and Democratic for generations. If common experience tells us to follow the money and that colloquially, "he who pays the piper calls the tune," then the SC is decidedly not our own.
The SC operates in 60 countries and reports to the NED. Allen Weinstein, who worked on the legislation that created NED, once said "A lot of what we do today was done covertly by the CIA." I see SC as playing a vital role in the "good cop – bad cop" scenario of U.S. militarized foreign policy. Overall, it serves the 1% oh so well. We may think of the SC as doing some important and good work, but one might also think of it as a velvet glove on Corporate America's global iron fist.
How dare Ben Field deprecate Alberto C. Ruiz with cynical quotation marks to shed doubt on Ruiz’s claim to be, a "long term unionist." Ruiz most certainly has years of experience representing union workers here at home and also working in active solidarity with workers in Colombia toward ending the anti-union paramilitary violence they face on a daily basis. Ben Field’s experience as either a trade unionist or as an international solidarity activist pales to insignificance compared to that of Alberto Ruiz. When Ruiz goes to Colombia he automatically becomes what Colombian unionists call "a military target." Ruiz uses a pen name on this article to protect himself and the workers he represents so he can continue to do his work and speak out in a hostile political climate. Nothing new about that, inside or outside of the labor movement.
Field says Ruiz "repeatedly names Solidarity Center staff" and "lacks sensitivity to the real risks they face." The only person on Solidarity Center staff in Colombia mentioned by Ruiz is the Country Program Director, Rhett Doumitt, a public person. Anyone interested can find his name near the top of the page by Googling "Spokesman for the Solidarity Center in Colombia." Some recklessness! As for Ruiz's sensitivity, he has repeatedly been where most of us would fear to tread in Colombia. He knows and lives the dangers far more deeply than any of his critics. Ruiz probably has shown and built as much, or more, palpable solidarity with the workers of Colombia than any other North American trade unionist.
A friend sent me the Ruiz article for comment before it was published. This, before editing, is what I wrote back:
"I think this is an excellent article.
"In 2002 I interviewed, on camera, one of the top officers of the Central Unitaria de Trabajadores (CUT), Colombia’s largest labor federation,, Domingo Rafael Tovar Arrieta. He told me that the Solidarity Center had been working within the CUT to divide it and steer it in a rightward direction. We met and did a brief interview on the street during a major human rights march in Bogota. We were introduced during a few calm moments after we were both out of range of police tear gas and water cannons. He and I talked after the march at a get together in the headquarters of SINALTRAINAL, the food workers' union that had lost eight leaders to paramilitary assassinations linked to Coca Cola and Nestle corporations. During that confab several union leaders criticized Plan Colombia for pouring funds into their military with U.S. taxpayer billions. Much of such military "aid" sifts into the pockets of paramilitary killers, enabling them to murder thousands of trade unionists and other human rights workers.
"This military-paramilitary relationship was well known and even acknowledged to our Witness for Peace delegation by a spokesman in the U.S. Embassy. The members of our Local Union, Plumbers and Fitters 393, voted to send Mary Gaddis (RIP) and me to Colombia on that investigatory and solidarity delegation.
"In 2002, Colombian union leaders with whom we met were deeply concerned that 'Plan Colombia' was the prelude to establishing U.S. military bases in their country in an effort to control the whole Andean region. Today we see exactly that in the works, with the pot sweetened for Corporate America and Colombia's oligarchy by the U.S.- Colombia Free Trade Agreement.l
"I’ve been urging folks who do research in this area to get into those Wikileaks Dispatches searching the words “Solidarity Center.”
"'Alberto C. Ruiz' is right on the money. I’m certain that he has only skimmed the surface of a massive pile of excrement.
"Please let me know when I can send Alberto's article to some friends.
"Solidarity, thank you, and Happy New Year.
"Flores y besos a companero 'Alberto'"
On that 2002 delegation we spent several days in Barrancabermeja in Medio Magdalena. That city, then under the total domination of paramilitaries, was known as the most dangerous city in Colombia. We were shown a fenced area near the Rio Magdalena where paramilitary victims were known to be routinely tortured, assassinated, cut into pieces with chainsaws and fed to the fishes. We met with food workers, refinery workers, and people whose loved ones had been recently assassinated. We slept on cots and ate with rank-and-filers in their halls and cafes. I'm sure that Ben Field's accomodations in his federally funded junket to Colombia outclassed our own in comforts.
When we arrived in Barrancabermeja the Popular Women's Organization (OFP) brought us to their headquarters for a party. Dancing with a young woman, I learned that she had been kidnapped along with her mother a few days previously. A "lefty" outcry and demand rescued them and saved their lives just the day before we got there. The next morning a photograph of our group was displayed on the front page of the local newspaper. We were followed everywhere. When offered police escorts, we voted to refuse them for our own safety and to avoid their violence.
One woman with whom we met led us from her small sandal shop to a soccer field not two hundred yards away. She described how, in that very place, the paramilitaries had lined up a group of people who they accused of being "lefties" (izquierdistas), tied them together and mowed them down. She watched as her husband and son-in-law fell to the earth drenching it with their blood. As we returned to the shop an African American woman in our delegation started an old slave song, "We walk with you. You do not walk alone." Every face was wet with tears. Mary Gaddis, my Local 393 partner on the trip, as tough a person as I've ever met, broke down, crying uncontrollably. Among the trade unionists we spoke to, none trusted the AFL-CIO's government funded organization in Colombia. They were grateful, though, for what support they could get.
Before we left "Barranca" we did a media conference in which we denounced Plan Colombia and its transfer of our taxpayer billions to Colombia's military and, through them, to the paramilitary assassins. We declared our solidarity and that of our brothers and sisters the U.S. That news story was seen nationwide and beyond in the region. It did not help us to win friends and influence people the next day in Bogota when our group confronted the staff at the U.S. Embassy.
Ben Field might have benefited from knowing the history of this issue in the South Bay Labor Council which pays his salary. In 1974, following Richard Nixon's successful effort to bring about a coup in Chile (over 3000 dead) our Labor Council passed a resolution, identifying and questioning the role of the AFL-CIO in that murderous action. In response, AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland sent his two top men in Latin America, William C. Doherty Jr. and Jesse Freedman to our next meeting. The two flew in from Geneva. They wanted us to rescind the resolution. A hot debate ensued at the meeting. It was going badly for us. We had only second hand information and research. Doherty and Freedman had "boots on the ground" experience and, in the common parlance, knew where all the bodies were buried. The tables turned when a new delegate from AFSCME got up, pointed his finger at Doherty and said "I know who you guys are. I was in the Peace Corps in Pernambuco (Brazil). Your guys were the ones who came around all the time, pumping us for names. You're the CIA!" The resolution stood and we sent it around the country. Doherty and Freedman left with their tails between their legs.
In 2002, my Union, Plumbers & Fitters Local 393, and the South Bay Labor Council passed a resolution to "Clear the Air About AFL-CIO Policy Abroad!" The resolution could have been a sidebar to Alberto Ruiz's present article. Amy Dean,who led the SBLC at the time, a top AFL-CIO staff person (who will not be named), and I went over it in Dean's office. We ironed out the rough spots before putting it before the delegates who passed it unanimously, moving it on to the California Federation of Labor.
We ran into trouble on the floor of the CalFed Convention. Executive Secretary, Art Pulaski and some others said they didn't want the Convention to "hang out the AFL-CIO's dirty Laundry" in public. Phaedra Ellis-Lamkins of the SBLC, Loyd Williams of Local 393, Dennis Kimber of UFCW 428, and I huddled with Pulaski later. We agreed to withdraw the resolution pending a meeting with AFL-CIO officials. If the meeting failed to satisfy us, the resolution would come back at the next Convention. We waited fourteen months to get that meeting. Sixty or so unionists attended, including Ed Asner, former President of the Screen Actors Guild. Our consensus was that the meeting was unsuccessful, despite the efforts of the two officials from D.C. to convince us.
Changed somewhat, the resolution, now named "BUILD UNITY AND TRUST AMONG WORKERS WORLDWIDE," was propelled to the CalFed Convention floor by Local 393, our SBLC, three other Labor Councils, and finally the Resolutions Committee of the CalFed Convention. It was discussed and passed unanimously and sent on to the national 2005 AFL-CIO Convention by the delegates representing 2.4 million California workers, 1/6th the entire membership of the AFL-CIO.
Prior to that 2005 AFL-CIO national Convention the Solidarity Center sent a government financed group to Colombia. Charlie Key, head of the Georgia State AFL-CIO was a leader in the delegation. The group fulfilled the SC expectations, by writing a resolution counter to ours, promoting the SC. Their resolution apparently was not exactly what the top leaders wanted. At the Convention the Executive Council put both the California and Georgia resolutions to one side. They presented their own document praising and pledging support to the Solidarity Center. When it came to the floor AFSCME’s Gerald McEntee was wielding the gavel. He prevented any and all critical discussion. I remember that only one person spoke in favor of the Executive Council's resolution. McEntee then solicited and immediately got a “call for the question.” With this obviously rigged procedure, McEntee hit the sound block with his gavel and shut down discussion while three delegates were lined up at the microphone. He quickly called for a voice vote and, with another bang of the gavel the issue was decided without a single word spoken in favor of the issues raised in California’s “Unity and Trust” resolution.
This issue is not an academic one. Hundreds of thousands of lives have been lost in nations where the AFL-CIO has used government money to back up right wing unions to fight the "lefties." This work has put the look of overalls on the striped pants diplomats and a cover of authenticity to U.S.“intelligence” operations. The “international arms” of the AFL-CIO helped bring bloody dictators to power in such places as Chile, Guatemala, Brazil, and too many other places. Blowback from the foreign policy and operations of the AFL-CIO and their inherent hypocrisy have weakened the punch of organized labor in our own country infinitely more than any criticism could possibly do.
Many trade unionists have been trying to make sense out of AFL-CIO policy and actions abroad for generations, in print, on union floors and in demonstrations. Alberto C. Ruiz, with his excellent article, "The AFL-CIO and Colombia," is by no means alone in this effort. I highly recommend a recent book by a long term trade unionist, Kim Scipes, "The AFL-CIO Secret War Against Developing Country Workers: Solidarity or Sabotage?" (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books).
May Day, characterized by Ben Field as a "lefty holiday" entered labor's militant heritage in 1887 when four men were hanged in Chicago for organizing workers for the eight hour day. Half the city of Chicago turned out for their funeral. One of those hanged, August Spies, spoke these words “If you think that by hanging us you can stamp out the labor movement…then hang us! Here you will tread upon a spark, but here, and there, and behind you, and in front of you, and everywhere, flames will blaze up. It is a subterranean fire. You cannot put it out….”
The same may be said about the sparks of dissension from the government subsidized operations of the AFL-CIO. It is high time to air out the “dirty laundry” of the past and present foreign operations of the AFL-CIO. If we are to be trusted by workers abroad and build unity to confront corporate globalization, our labor movement must become independent from government policies that represent the wealth and power of the 1 %.
Alberto C. Ruiz and Kim Scipes are two of many who analyze AFL-CIO present and past policies and operations abroad and speak out with constructive criticism for change. That is the spirit with which we need to face the hypocrisy that has, in the past and hopefully not into the future, dominated the foreign policy of the AFL-CIO. The actions of its international apparatus abroad, bought and paid for with federal funds in every administration since, at least, World War II, must be revealed, changed, and severed from the federal payroll. International solidarity is our own responsibility as a labor movement. The forces of Corporate America (the 1%)which run our government will never pick up the tab for the effective international labor solidarity that we need build a better future for working people. We have to stoke the subterranean fire of a global labor movement with our solidarity. Nobody will ever pay us to do it. We have to do it ourselves!
Cannibalism on the Left
Posted on January 16, 2012 by SBLC
By Ben Field
Chief of Staff
At a time when economic inequality has reached record levels and unions face existential threats, you would think the Labor movement would refrain from eating its own, but no.
In a recent article in the online newsletter Counterpunch, “long time unionist” Alberto Ruiz attacks the AFL-CIO sponsored Solidarity Center, whose mission is to strengthen unions in countries like Colombia, as an “imperialist organization.” Pointing to a half dozen WikiLeaks cables that document meetings at the U.S. Embassy in Bogota, Ruiz claims that Solidarity Center staff are working to undermine the very unions they are supposed to support.
After reading the WikiLeaks cables, a very different picture emerges. The reality is that Solidarity Center staff meet with Embassy officials in order to draw U.S. government attention to the dangers facing unionists in Colombia. There have been 2,837 murders of union members since 1986. The murderers are paramilitary assassins, who avoid prosecution 96% of the time. Colombia is the most dangerous country to be a unionist. That is exactly why the Solidarity Center is active there.
Two summers ago I attended meetings at the U.S. Embassy in Bogota and the Colombian government’s Office on Human Rights after a fact finding trip to the Magdalena Medio region of Colombia. The primary purpose of those meetings, which were organized by the Solidarity Center, was to report our observations of the risks to union organizers and to advocate for improved security for them. We had seen firsthand the threats they faced. We heard their stories and saw the pictures of the “fallen ones” on the walls of their union halls.
The dangers extend to Solidarity Center workers as well. One member of our delegation was followed by a known paramilitary operative, and we had a run-in with the secret police, who were trying to secretly photograph us. Ruiz’s article, which repeatedly names Solidarity Center staff, lacks sensitivity to the real risks they face. The article’s inaccuracy is bad enough, but even worse is its recklessness.