many people in the United States, the AFL-CIO is a progressive organization,
joining unions across the country to fight for higher wages, better working
conditions and progressive social programs for workers and people in our
communities. However, to many workers in the so-called
"developing" countries, the AFL-CIO is a most reactionary force-in the
past, it has intervened against militant unions, subverted
democratically-elected governments, supported dictatorships and, in general,
worked to disembowel democracy.
AFL and then, after 1955, the AFL-CIO, have carried out a reactionary foreign
policy for a very long time. This foreign policy was a product of Samuel
Gompers and associates’ decisions to reduce their idea of trade unionism to
simply demanding "more" for their members, creating what we now know
as "business unionism." These practices began in the 19-teens,
when the AFL supported US Government intervention in World War I, and fought
groups-domestic and foreign-that sought to end the war. During the war and
after, the AFL intervened in Mexico and Latin America to undercut organizing
efforts against capitalist expansion into the region. These foreign
operations went into abeyance with the death of Gompers in 1924. They
resumed during World War II, first against the fascists but then against
World War II, labor leaders overwhelmingly supported the US Government’s
"Cold War" policies, targeting labor radicals at home and overseas for
removal. This ended much of the creativity and vibrancy of the domestic
labor movement, and led labor to support reaction and repression overseas.
Essentially, labor leaders (in both the AFL and the CIO) made a deal with
the devil because they believed that their organization and members would
benefit by being citizens of the dominant world power.
they extended their reactionary foreign labor operations not only throughout
Latin America, but expanded it to European countries such as France and Italy
(in the late 1940s-early ’50s). In the 1960s, labor leaders spread these
operations to both Africa and Asia. In any case, the most intense period
of these reactionary efforts was between 1962 and 1995 under the presidencies of
George Meany and Lane Kirkland, ending in 1995 when Kirkland was deposed and
replaced as President of the AFL-CIO by John Sweeney.
The hallmark of foreign policy under Meany and Kirkland was an acceptance of US
domination of other countries, especially in the "third world."
In the 1962-95 period, AFL-CIO’s Latin American "institute," AIFLD
(American Institute for Free Labor Development) helped overthrow
democratically-elected governments in Guyana in 1963, Brazil in 1964, the
Dominican Republic in 1965, and Chile in 1973. (Prior to the establishment
of AIFLD, the AFL helped overthrow the government of Guatemala in 1954.)
The institutes also collaborated with dictators against progressive unions in El
Salvador, Indonesia, the Philippines, South Africa and South Korea, as well as
in Brazil and Chile after the coups in those countries. The AFL-CIO has
also organized against progressive governments that have come to power after
overthrowing dictators, notably in Nicaragua and Father Aristide’s first
government in Haiti.
when Pinochet got arrested in London in 1998, I was elated. First, it
looked like there was a chance that the dictator would finally pay for what he
and his cronies had done. However, I was hoping that journalists would not
just focus on Pinochet, but also focus attention on AFL-CIO foreign operations
in Chile, since AIFLD had been up to its neck in efforts to bring down the
democratically-elected government of Salvador Allende.
sent out an e-mail celebrating the arrest of the tyrant, and Bruce Nissen,
knowing of my long-time interest in international labor, asked if I might be
interested in writing about AFL-CIO operations in Chile for the Labor Studies
Journal. I decided to give it a try.
a lot of help, I wrote an article for the journal. In it, I argued that
the arrest of Pinochet allowed AFL-CIO union members to consider the type of
foreign policy they want the AFL-CIO to have. I briefly overviewed the
history of the AFL and AFL-CIO’s foreign operations, and argued that while there
had been a qualitative improvement since the election of John Sweeney,
nonetheless that AFL-CIO members needed to enter and be included in the
discussion: the question I raised was do the members want to adopt
Sweeney’s approach and go farther, or did they want to return to the days of
Meany and Kirkland?
help clarify the discussion, I focused on one specific example: Chile.
I discussed how AIFLD helped economically destabilize the country prior to the
coup led by Pinochet and the Generals. I built on earlier work by Fred
Hirsch on AIFLD’s operations in Chile-Hirsch, a plumber and AFL-CIO member, had
exposed AIFLD operations and allies in 1974!–and added details developed since
then. I placed these activities within the context of Nixon/Kissinger’s
attack on Chile, in support of multinational capital, and showed how they hurt
workers. I then suggested that had Sweeney’s policy been operational at
the time, instead of Meany/Kirkland, the AFL-CIO would not have helped
destabilize Chile, which would probably have meant that no coup would have ever
taken place. The contrast could not be much more clear.
also noted that while there had been a qualitative improvement in AFL-CIO
foreign operations under John Sweeney, the Federation was still accepting US
Government money for foreign labor operations, and these operations were not
transparent or democratically decided upon by the AFL-CIO membership.
However, I limited my article, and did not discuss current efforts under
I argued that the AFL-CIO needed to "come clean" on its past
international labor operations and argued that this was absolutely essential in
its current efforts to build international labor solidarity. Further, to
demonstrate this position, I argued that the AFL-CIO should approach those
prosecuting Pinochet, and offer complete cooperation and access to all achieves
having anything to do with Chile, both before and after the coup. This, I
argued, "would announce for all to see that the AFL-CIO has unequivocally
joined the effort to build social justice around the world."
Studies Journal then asked Judy Ancel and Sam Lanfranco to respond to my
article. Both were supportive, but Ancel went beyond my article, and
discussed efforts to build international labor solidarity during the Sweeney
a labor educator in Kansas City, is a member of the Board of Directors of The
Coalition for Justice in the Maquiladoras, a tri-national (US, Mexico, Canada)
organization based in San Antonio, Texas. She focused on how US labor
still carries the baggage of the Cold War years and has not examined old habits
of manipulating foreign workers and defining international solidarity only in
terms of US labor’s needs. While some progress has been made, she calls on
the AFL-CIO to thoroughly break with economic nationalism and America [n worker]
Firstism. She notes that the AFL-CIO still accepts money for their foreign
operations from the US Government, both through USAID and through the
supposedly-independent National Endowment for Democracy. She also
supports my claims of lack of transparency and internal AFL-CIO democracy.
In short, she argues that "International solidarity must become a
grass-roots, people-to-people effort so that the isolation of American workers
is replaced by a real understanding of common interests."
articles, as well as Sam Lanfranco’s response, were published in the Summer 2000
issue (Vol. 25, No. 2) of Labor Studies Journal.
last night (September 25), the phone rang. It was my old friend Fred
Hirsch. He told me that the South Bay (in and around San Jose, CA) Central
Labor Council, AFL-CIO, had just passed a resolution supporting the articles in
the need of the AFL-CIO to help build international labor solidarity to fight
against economic globalization in the US and around the world, they argued that
to build this solidarity, that the AFL-CIO had to "come clean" about
its work in Chile and elsewhere. Following the lead article, they called
upon the AFL-CIO "to fully account for what was done in Chile and other
countries where similar roles may have been played in our name, to forever
renounce such policies and practices, and to openly invite concerned union
members and researchers to review and discuss all AFL-CIO archives on
international labor affairs." Further, the resolution called on the
AFL-CIO to describe "country by country" its activities in which it is
still engaged where they are paid by with government funds, and to renounce any
ties that could threaten the trust that foreign workers may have in the AFL-CIO.
calls were made in an effort "to clear the air in affirmation of an AFL-CIO
policy of genuine labor solidarity in pursuit of economic and social justice
with attention to domestic and international labor standards that include the
right to organize and strike, an adequate social safety net, living wages, the
right to health care and education, elimination of mandatory overtime,
protections of the rights of immigrant workers, prohibitions on strikebreaking,
and the pursuit of peace among nations and peoples." They further
resolved that this resolution would be sent to the AFL-CIO and circulated among
labor councils and local unions in their area and elsewhere.
resolution was passed without any dissenting votes. And it is being
circulated along with a background paper that provides even more details on the
affects of AIFLD’s work in Chile.
what does this mean? Does this portend a change in AFL-CIO foreign
operations or even the process by which they originate? I don’t know as it
is too soon to tell at this time, but there are some things to think about.
this is not the first time that the South Bay CLC has publicly condemned AIFLD.
They did it in 1974, and the AFL-CIO reacted by sending AIFLD head William
Doherty to the Bay Area to try to get the Council to rescind its resolution
demanding AFL-CIO "come clean" on Chile, but the Council refused to
cave in to the pressure. Thus, there is probably no other Labor Council in
the country that has the credibility of this one on international labor affairs.
And by passing this resolution, it is again taking the lead in building
international labor solidarity.
the awareness of economic globalization and how it is hurting workers and
communities in this country and around the world is greater than ever before.
To add a Central Labor Council’s input into the debate on globalization and its
effects on workers around the world gives the discussion a legitimacy beyond
that provided by academics or non-governmental organizations such as activist
groups, and opens up AFL-CIO foreign policy making to internal democratic
and perhaps most importantly for the long-run, the South Bay Central Labor
Council has recognized that there remains a dagger at the heart of the newly
emerging alliances between "Teamsters and Turtles," which unite union
members with environmentalists, women’s groups, people of color and other groups
that are challenging corporate domination, social destruction and ecological
devastation. As long as the AFL-CIO continues to collaborate with the US
Government against workers anywhere, they are betraying other workers in their
efforts to improve their lives and to fight multinational capital, and
international labor solidarity cannot be built. As progressives around the
world become aware of this, any support they might give the AFL-CIO will be
since labor cannot win on its own-it must have allies in the US and around the
world if it is to have even a chance to win-then it depends on these alliances.
choice, argues the South Bay CLC, is simple: either we act in solidarity
with workers around the world against the Empire, or we accept the reduced
numbers of crumbs that the Master offers, stab our brothers and sisters in the
back, and then die in agony when the Empire turns against us. They have
made the choice: international solidarity forever, domination never!
Scipes is a former printer and member of the Graphic Communications
International Union, AFL-CIO. A long-time labor activist, he is now a
PhD Candidate in Sociology at the University of Illinois at Chicago.