Are AFL-CIO Foreign Policy Leaders Engaging in Dirty Tricks?

The AFL-CIO is having its quadrennial convention in Chicago next month (July 2005) in Chicago. The labor movement is hurting: only about one-eighth of eligible workers overall (12.5%) are in unions, and it drops below 8 percent when looking only at private sector workers, which used to comprise the heart of the movement.
Much of the attention on the convention is focused around the question of what is the future of the labor movement? And while there are substantive questions at hand, most of the attention seems placed on the personal dispute between AFL-CIO President John Sweeney and Service Employees International Union President Andrew Stern: Stern seems ready to pull his 1.8 million members out of the AFL-CIO if Sweeney is re-elected, and yet Sweeney appears to have the votes to get another four-year term. And yet, seasoned observers like Bill Fletcher, Jr. call the discussion to date “pitiful” (Fletcher, “Debate Over the Future of the AFL-CIO: More Heat than Light,” June 7, 2005 and posted on-line at www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?SectionID=19&ItemID=8022.)

However, there is another debate taking place that is substantive but which has garnered little attention: the struggle over the AFL-CIO foreign policy. Labor activists and their organizations have forced this issue before the upcoming convention, but AFL-CIO foreign policy leaders have initiated what appears to be a “dirty tricks” campaign to undercut the activists’ charges. By initiating a campaign to get a resolution passed supporting the Solidarity Center-one that specifically refuses to address any of the activists’ challenges, especially about Solidarity Center’s active involvement in events leading up to the April 2002 coup attempt against Hugo Chavez in Venezuela (ala Chile in the early 1970s)-foreign policy leaders are trying to again subvert democracy within the US labor movement. This belies any of their pious claims of wanting to support democracy around the world.

This has been a debate that has gone on for decades, and yet it reached a totally new level in the labor movement at the 2004 convention of the California State AFL-CIO. The California Federation passed a resolution UNANIMOUSLY, titled “Build Unity and Trust with Workers Worldwide,” that condemned AFL-CIO foreign policy leaders’ efforts overseas. Build Unity and Trust demanded that AFL-CIO foreign policy leaders “clear the air” on their foreign operations, both historically and currently, and “describe, country by country, exactly what activities it may still be engaged in abroad with funds paid by government agencies, and renounce any such ties that would compromise our authentic credibility and the trust of workers here and abroad and that would make us paid agents of government or of the forces of corporate economic globalization.” (For a report of passage of the resolution, see Kim Scipes, 2004, “California AFL-CIO Rebukes Labor’s National Level Foreign Policy Leaders,” posted on-line at www.uslaboragainstwar.org/article.php?id=6394; a copy of the “Build Unity and Trust With Workers Worldwide” resolution is posted on-line at www.uslaboragainstwar.org/article.php?id=5666; and for background on the passage of the resolution, as well as subsequent developments, see Kim Scipes, “Labor Imperialism Redux?: The AFL-CIO’s Foreign Policy Since 1995,” Monthly Review, May 2005, and located on-line with extensive references, many downloadable, at www.monthlyreview.org/0505scipes.htm.)

This California resolution was a major step forward, as elected representatives assembled in state-wide convention passed the resolution. This is important as one-sixth of the entire membership of the AFL-CIO is now on record for condemning the national level foreign policy leaders’ policies and operations. Following passage of similar resolutions by the Washington State AFL-CIO, the National Writers Union, and the Gay-Lesbian-Bisexual-Transgender “constituency group” Pride at Work, the California resolution further established the challenge to AFL-CIO foreign policy as being within affiliated labor organizations rather than being a few disgruntled labor activists (see also Tim Shorrock, “Labor’s Cold War,” The Nation, May 19, 2003, and posted on-line at www.thenation.com/doc.mhtml?i=20030519&s=shorrock).
Subsequently, developments have continued apace. Fred Hirsch, Vice President of Plumbers and Pipefitters Local 393 of San Jose, CA-and a key actor in getting “Build Unity and Trust” passed by the California State AFL-CIO-took the resolution to Caracas in August 2003 while he observed developments around the recall election of President Hugo Chavez that was resoundingly defeated. (His report on the five-day trip, “Venezuela: A People Firm Against Empire,” has been published in Social Policy, Fall 2004, and posted on-line at www.mltoday.com/Pages/NLiberation/Hirsch-Venezuela.html.) Further, the South Bay Labor Council (in and around San Jose, CA) sent out over 5,000 letters and copies of the “Build Unity and Trust” resolution during May 2005 to local, regional, state, national and international unions across the United States, asking them to support the resolution at the July AFL-CIO convention in Chicago. And Hirsch traveled to Geneva in June 2005, where he gave a speech to an international Labor Assembly-see his “AFL-CIO Foreign Policy in Venezuela,” June 12, 2005, posted on-line at www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?itemID=8107&sectionID=45–where he talked about struggles against the AFL-CIO foreign operations by labor activists in the United States, especially in regard to attacks on Chile and Venezuela.

Additionally, the Latin American Solidarity Coalition (LASC), a combination of solidarity organizations and a few labor activists from around the country, is trying to push this issue even farther (see www.lasolidarity.org/call.shtml). In a demonstration scheduled in Chicago for 4 pm on July 24th, the day before the convention begins, LASC is presenting three demands: (1) End AFL-CIO Leaders’ Support for Bush’s Foreign Policy: “Build Unity and Trust With Workers Worldwide” (supporting the California resolution); (2) End US Intervention in Venezuela; and (3) No NED (National Endowment for Democracy) $ for the AFL-CIO.

At very least, this is the broadest, most sustained challenge to AFL-CIO foreign policy in approximately 20 years. During the mid-1980s, unions joined in the National Labor Committee played a key role in keeping the Federation from endorsing President Reagan’s apparent plans to invade Nicaragua and/or Central America in general.

But the current challenge is not being accepted passively by the AFL-CIO leadership. A “Draft State Federation and CLC Resolution on the Solidarity Center” (hereafter, draft resolution), arrived on June 15th as an e-mail from the Southern Region of the AFL-CIO (which includes Washington, DC). This is clearly an effort to undermine “Build Unity and Trust,” and does this not through an honest accounting and debating the issues raised by critics such as Fred Hirsch, Tim Shorrock, myself and others-a good reference listing is the on-line version of my 2005 Monthly Review piece-but is an exercise in propaganda dissemination. (Subsequently, the Georgia State AFL-CIO has passed this resolution, as has the North Carolina AFL-CIO, and while not confirmed, it appears to have been passed only by executive boards and not in convention ala California.)
Noting that “global cooperation and cross-border solidarity is critical to holding corporations accountable, building collective power and protecting the lives and writes of workers and trade unionists globally,” the draft resolution generally mentions work done by the Solidarity Center in Columbia, Cambodia, and South Africa. (And while the work may not be all that the Solidarity Center claims, every critic I know of recognizes that they have done some good work in a limited number of countries around the world.)

Yet, rather than being satisfied with this, the draft resolution continues, claiming that the Solidarity Center “promotes global cooperation, democracy, accountability and solidarity by working openly and transparently…”; that its “programs on trade union rights, women’s equality, racial justice, migrant labor, economic literacy and HIV/AIDS develop the capacities of workers and trade unions to promote a more democratic and just workplace and society’; and that the AFL-CIO lobbies for continued government funds … to strengthen trade unions and protect the right to freedom of association. It does sound good, almost to the level of “mom, apple pie, the American flag,” etc.
Yet as shown, AFL-CIO foreign policy has reverted to its previous approach of Labor Imperialism (Scipes, Monthly Review, May 2005). The AFL-CIO and the Solidarity Center have NEVER worked openly and transparently in foreign affairs; in fact, they have done all they can to hide their foreign operations, and either ignored questioning or have continuously lied about these foreign operations when challenged. Without operating openly and transparently, they have subverted democracy in the US labor movement itself, and thus have done everything they could to deny accountability for their actions to the affiliated unions and/or their members. How this promotes global cooperation is not explained.
Their programs sound positive, and perhaps they are to a certain extent. Yet the problems of labor movements in developing countries around the world are much greater than the Solidarity Center suggests-these problems stem overwhelmingly from the violence instituted by the State and local elites as they try to maintain the various neo-colonial political-economic relationships with certain developed countries in light of challenge from progressive unions and workers’ organizations. Yet in a limited number of places, progressive movements have attained state power, and have-to various degrees, often dependent on their particular situation-begun to challenge these neo-colonial relationships.
However, the history of AFL-CIO foreign operations has shown that the AFL-CIO has worked against a considerable number of governments and/or labor movements that have challenged these neo-colonial relationships. The AFL-CIO has helped overthrow democratically-elected governments in Guatemala (1953), Brazil (1964), Chile (1973); has interfered with progressive movements in countries such as Guyana (1963), Dominican Republic (1965), El Salvador (1980s) and South Africa (prior to 1986); has worked against progressive governments (Nicaragua, 1980s & early ’90s); and has supported labor movements that support dictatorships, including the Trade Union Congress of the Philippines (TUCP), which supported Ferdinand Marcos and opposed progressive movements ever since (early-mid 1980s to date), as well as the Federation of Korean Trade Unions (FKTU), which supported several dictators in South Korea (prior to 1987), as well as the Suharto-supporting labor center in Indonesia (at least until 1997). And, in fact, the AFL-CIO has refused to “clear the air” with an honest accounting of any one of these situations, much less all of them, despite requests from affiliated labor organizations.

Nor has the AFL-CIO ever given an honest accounting of the Solidarity Center’s work in Venezuela. In one account, Stan Gacek, Assistant Director of the International Affairs Center, reported that the AFL-CIO spent approximately $20,000 in Venezuela, helping to democratize its long-time ally, the CTV (in Spanish) (see Stan Gacek, “Lula and Chavez: Differing Responses to the Washington Consensus,” New Labor Forum, Spring 2004, and posted on-line at http://forin.qc.edu/newlaborforum/html/13_1article3.html.) Yet, I discovered that the National Endowment for Democracy had provided the Solidarity Center with over $700,000 for its work with the CTV between 1997-2002. (Kim Scipes, “AFL-CIO in Venezuela: Deja Vu All Over Again,” Labor Notes, April 2004, and posted on-line at www.labornotes.org/archives/2004/04/articles/e.html.) No explanation for this discrepancy has ever been provided. Oops!

Nor has there been any explanation of the Solidarity Center’s work in Venezuela in bringing together the CTV with the business coalition, FEDECAMARAS, which is very similar to AIFLD’s previous work in Chile in the early 1970s. Documents from the Solidarity Center, exposed through Freedom of Information Act requests by members of the Venezuelan Solidarity Committee, report to the National Endowment for Democracy that:

“The CTV and Fedecamaras, with the support of the Catholic Church, held a national conference on March 5 to discuss their concerns, perspectives and priorities and priorities regarding national development and to identify common objectives as well as areas of cooperation.” The conference was the culminating event of some two months of meetings and planning between these two organizations. “The joint action [producing a “National Accord” to avoid a supposedly “deeper political and economic crisis”] further established the CTV and Fedecamaras as the flagship organizations leading the growing opposition to the Chavez government.”

“The Solidarity Center helped support the event in the planning stages, organizing the initial meetings with the governor of Miranda State and the business organization, FEDECAMARAS, to discuss and establish an agenda for such cooperation in mid-January.” The report continued to detail more of their efforts, concluding with the comment that, “The March 5 national conference itself was financed primarily by counterpart funds.” (Solidarity Center-Venezuela Quarterly Report, 2001-045, January-March 2002 to National Endowment for Democracy, and posted on-line at www.venezuelafoia.info/ctva1.html).

And as I wrote, “Less than thirty days after the March 5 conference, the CTV and FEDECAMARAS launched a national general strike to protest the firing of oil company management, and the coup attempt [against the democratically-elected government of Hugh Chavez during April 2002]-in which CTV and business leaders played central roles-took place.” In fact, once in power, the head of FEDCAMARAS, Pedro Carmona abolished the Supreme Court and the National Assembly, and sidelined the CTV’s head, Carlos Ortega, but until this took place, Ortega helped lead the coup attempt. (For perhaps the best account of what actually happened during the coup attempt, see Steve Ellner and Fred Rosen, “Crisis in Venezuela: The Remarkable Fall and Rise of Hugo Chavez,” NACLA “Report on the Americas,” July/August 2002, and posted on-line at www.nacla.org/art_display.php?art=2092.) But for some reason, an accounting of these activities in Venezuela was not mentioned in the draft resolution.

Nor is there any real discussion of the monies that the Solidarity Center has received from the National Endowment for Democracy (NED). Despite claiming to be a non-governmental organization, the NED was founded by and continues to be overwhelmingly funded by the US Congress. NED has funded somewhere around 90% of all AFL-CIO foreign activities since NED was founded in 1983.

However, the Solidarity Center is not just a recipient of NED funds. Along with the International Republican Institute, the National Democratic Institute and the Center for International Private Enterprise-international operations of the Republican and Democratic parties and the Chamber of Commerce-it is one of the four core “institutes” of NED. At very least, the Solidarity Center is responsible for overseeing all labor operations carried out and/or funded by NED. Its Board of Directors includes some of the people who have served at the highest levels in US foreign policy positions. It is an operation that claims to be independent, but its “independence” simply means that its is run by its Board of Directors: it cannot be directly controlled by any US Presidential Administration-it is entirely an operation intended to further US foreign policy. The AFL-CIO has refused to say what it is doing involved in a major operation of the US government.
Yet despite their direct lies concerning democracy and transparency, and their indirect lies by ignoring their challengers’ extremely well substantiated charges, the draft resolution “resolves” to “advance the global fight to protect workers’ rights and global solidarity,” and “to build power and home and globally.”
AFL-CIO foreign policy leaders have long acted against workers around the world, as well as against workers in the US: their attacks on union democracy have been unconscienceable; their lack of transparency and accountability to their own members belie any positive rhetoric they may project. If their work is so good, why don’t they reveal it in its entirety, while addressing specific concerns raised by opponents? Perhaps it’s not as good as they’d like us to believe-and that’s why they are trying so hard to undermine any specific examination and knowledgeable discussion of their efforts. But like Chile in the early 1970s, they cannot hide their work in Venezuela in the early 2000s.

* Kim Scipes, a member of the National Writers Union/UAW and long-time labor activist, has been a rank and file member of three other unions. A Vietnam-era veteran, he teaches sociology at Purdue University North Central in Westville, Indiana. He can be reached at kscipes@pnc.edu.


Leave a comment