Workers Rights ARE Human Rights — Not Just in the USA, but Around the World

Standing in the middle of a blizzard in Chicago on December 8, 2005 along with about 250-300 union members and supporters, I stood at the Haymarket Memorial, chanting, “Workers’ Rights are Human Rights.” This was one of a number of rallies around the country that had been organized by the AFL-CIO, preceding International Human Rights Day on December 10, that were intended to help expand the concept of Human Rights to include American workers, and ultimately to help build support for a reform of American labor laws, so terribly needed.


Yet, just previously on November 18th (2005), Jeb Sprague reported that the AFL-CIO’s Solidarity Center had been providing money to a workers’ organization in Haiti, Batay Ouvriye. In this report, the amount provided was small — $3,500 — but it also reported that the Solidarity Center’s Jeff Hermanson had attended at least one meeting in Haiti, during March 2004, a meeting where only a few “leaders” were allowed to talk and where rank and file members who participated were not allowed to speak. Sprague, a graduate student at California State University at Long Beach, had certainly suggested that Batay Ouvriye had been involved in undermining the government of Jean-Bertrand Aristide — although whether “by mistake or by design” he did not know — but in any case, clearly established that the US “democracy promotion” process was clearly involved in Haiti and that the Solidarity Center was involved. (See “Supporting a Leftist Opposition to Lavalas: The AFL-CIO’s Solidarity Center and the Batay Ouvriye.”)


Sprague was challenged about his account, especially about his claims against Batay. Batay railed against his efforts. Most questionable of his account, detractors argued, was the $3,500, a piddling sum. (See a number of pieces on Batay’s web site.)


While $3,500 was a small sum — and which Batay argued was just given in response to a general call for “solidarity” — what jumped out at me was the presence of Hermanson in a meeting in Haiti. His presence suggested to me that something was going on — and being familiar with at least some of the Solidarity Center’s work, I became very interested.


Sprague followed up his earlier report with another article in the January 4-10, 2006 issue of Haiti Progres, called “Batay Ouvriye’s Smoking Gun: The $100,000 NED Grant.” In this article, Sprague reported that Batay Ouvriye “was the targeted beneficiary of a US $99,965 NED grant routed though the AFL-CIO’s American Center for International Solidarity (ACILS).” ACILS, however, generally goes by the less formal name of the Solidarity Center.


Batay Ouvriye angrily responded to Sprague’s report, which was, again, an attack on Batay. But in its response, Batay stated that one of its spokespersons, Paul, had stated “… yes, firmly armed with our line of working class independence, we are prepared to accept any amount, even if it were a million dollars(!) coming from wherever it may come.”


Now, to be honest, I have not come to any conclusions one way or the other about Batay Ouvriye — I simply do not have the knowledge to make an informed conclusion. I am, however, concerned about any group, no matter how well motivated and good intentioned, that knowledgeably thinks it can control a relationship with the Solidarity Center, the National Endowment for Democracy and/or the US State Department. Especially in a country that the US has long been actively interested in, in which it helped to depose a constitutionally-elected government (in 2004), and which it continues to be one of the dominant forces (along with Canada) in the country.


All that being said, however, I want to shift focus; I want to “talk” about the AFL-CIO’s Solidarity Center instead of Batay Ouvriye.


The Solidarity Center — unlike its predecessor organizations — has done some good work in a number of “developing” countries. In a few cases, it has benefited workers, especially in efforts to unionize in a few export processing zones. So, whether this is genuine help or “an effort to get critics off our backs” type of thing, we cannot paint the Solidarity Center as “all bad.”


The question that must be asked, however, is what is the process by which Solidarity Center works? IF it was a program that had been approved by a majority of workers in the various AFL-CIO affiliated unions after knowledgeable education; if it had provided honest and detailed accounts of what it had been doing and with whom and for what purposes — and which could be verified by independent observers, whether inside labor or not; if decisions were democratically made; and if union members had consciously decided that this work should be funded out of their dues monies, then it could be an important initiative for building international labor solidarity.


On the other hand, if it has not been approved by the majority of union members; if it had not provided honest and detailed accounts of its activities; if decisions were not democratically made by a representative body but confined to a small group, appointed by the leadership without even ratification needed much less approval of the membership; and if its funding came overwhelmingly outside of the labor movement — and especially by presidential administrations such as this one that are such enemies of workers and their rights — then its continued existence should be an issue for discussion across the entire labor movement.


The fact is that we know that here has been a long history of AFL and then AFL-CIO foreign operations. These operations have been secret and have worked overwhelmingly against the interests of many workers around the world. Additionally, they have been carried out behind the backs of American workers, in whose name the foreign operations have been done: most American trade unionists have no idea of the extensive range of US labor operations that have been initiated around the world over the past 90 years. And this foreign labor program has been funded overwhelmingly by the US Government, under both Democrats and Republicans. (See my note at the end of the article for references.)


Several questions arise: if this work is so good, why has the AFL-CIO foreign policy leadership hidden it, and lied about it when challenged? And why did the AFL-CIO leadership keep any discussion of this issue off the floor of the 2005 National Convention in Chicago, even though its largest state affiliate — the California AFL-CIO — had properly submitted a resolution that condemned the National AFL-CIO’s foreign policy program? Must American workers give up what little democracy they have in their own organizations at the national level just so the leadership can run its secret programs that cannot stand the light of exposure?


And why would the US Government fund such operations — at least 90% of the funding comes from the US Congress through the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) according to Harry Kelber — if they did not expect a big payback? Why are “our” labor leaders collaborating with arguably the most anti-labor administration since before the New Deal, and against workers?


Collaborate they have — and continue to do. Anthony Fenton, a Canadian journalist, recently forwarded me a listing of the ACILS (i.e., Solidarity Center) grants for Latin America that he had obtained from the National Endowment for Democracy for Fiscal Year 2005:


Mexico:                                             $183,315

Central America Region:                         $92,100

Central America (supplement):                $92,100

Andean Region:                                  $617,327         

(specifically including workshops to be held in Bolivia, Columbia, Ecuador, Peru and Venezuela)

Southern Cone Region:                         $112,670

(specifically to work with trade union organizations from Paraguay, Argentina, Uruguay, Chile, and in some cases Brazil to conduct workshops)

Southern Cone Region (supplement):      $156,624

Latin American Region:                         $282,918


TOTAL:                                                   $1,557,054


Why has the AFL-CIO’s Solidarity Center been budgeted to receive over $1.5 million dollars from the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) in Fiscal Year 2005 to work in Latin America? And why hasn’t the AFL-CIO informed its members of this series of grants? And why hasn’t the AFL-CIO informed its members that the Solidarity Center is one of the four core “institutes” of the NED?


To me, it is clear that in some cases, the Solidarity Center provides real help. But it is also clear that its relationship with the NED is toxic, and this is a cancer that is growing on the American labor movement. American workers must organize within their unions, demanding that the AFL-CIO immediately break any and all connections with the so-called National Endowment for Democracy.


American workers cannot have it both ways: if we want workers’ rights in the US to be recognized as human rights, then we have to ensure that our organizations do not undercut workers’ rights elsewhere; if we accept the Solidarity Center’s collaboration with the NED, then we cannot expect our own rights to be recognized. The choice is ours: do we organize and fight this toxic relationship — and try to build true international solidarity with workers around the world — or do we collaborate with such on-going oppression? I argue that “An Injury to One is An Injury to All.”


Note: Because I have written so extensively on the AFL-CIO’s foreign policy program, I have not repeated material from previous writings in such a short piece. If you are interested in seeing key articles, I suggest the following (with the first two articles having a wide listing of further references):


1)                             AFL-CIO in Venezuela: Déjà vu All Over Again,” Labor Notes, April 2004.

2)                             Labor Imperialism Redux? The AFL-CIO’s Foreign Policy Since 1995,” Monthly Review, May 2005.

3)                             An Unholy Alliance: The AFL-CIO and the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) in Venezuela,” Znet, July 10, 2005.


Leave a comment