California AFL-CIO Rebukes Labor’s National Level Foreign Policy Leaders

The 25th Biennial California State AFL-CIO Convention in July handed a stunning rebuke to national-level foreign policy leaders of the AFL-CIO at their state convention in San Diego. By a unanimous decision, over 400 representatives of the state’s almost 2.5 million organized workers: approximately one-six of the AFL-CIO’s total membership: adopted a resolution called "Build Unity and Trust Among Workers Worldwide." They also passed resolutions against the war in Iraq and urged "an immediate end to the US occupation," and decided to explore affiliation with US Labor Against War (USLAW), but "Build Unity and Trust" was the big one.

"Build Unity and Trust" was submitted by Plumbers and Pipefitters #393 (San Jose), the South Bay Labor Council (San Jose), the Monterey Bay Central Labor Council (Castroville) and the San Francisco Labor Council. Resolutions submitted by AFT #1493 (San Mateo), by the California Teachers Federation, and the San Francisco Labor Council for transparency in NED (National Endowment for Democracy) funding were blended into "Build Unity and Trust" by the Resolutions Committee. It was a powerful indictment of AFL-CIO foreign policy.

The resolution condemned the AFL-CIO’s relationship with the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), pointing out that NED "has a dubious history, having been employed frequently to promote U.S. government foreign policy objectives, including assisting in overthrowing democratically elected governments and interfering in the internal affairs of the labor movements of other countries." The Cal Fed specifically warned the AFL-CIO about applying for $3-5 million from NED for operations in Iraq, noting "AFL-CIO acceptance of NED money for its solidarity work in Iraq may give the appearance, if not the effect, of making the AFL-CIO appear to be an agent of the US government and its foreign policies, which may taint the good reputation of the Federation in the eyes of labor movements in other countries and draw into question the motivation and true independence of the Federation in its international affairs"…. The latter was exactly the charge the AFL-CIO brought against Chinese unions just a few years ago.

The resolution was even more specific in its repudiation of the national level leadership. A 2002 Cal Fed resolution, "Clear the Air," was not visibly opposed by the national level leadership, but State leaders approached "Clear the Air" with caution and offered a meeting to labor activists with foreign policy leaders in exchange for a "watered-down" resolution, a deal ultimately accepted by California activists. The meeting took place over 15 months later, in October 2003, but there was "serious disagreement" by attendees as to whether the concerns raised in "Clear the Air" were substantively addressed. (See my article in the February 2004 issue of "Labor Notes.") This entire process was again revisited in "Build Unity and Trust."

The resolution also noted that information provided by AFL-CIO foreign policy leaders in the October 2003 meeting concerning ACILS’ (American Center for International Labor Solidarity) activities in Venezuela had been subsequently contradicted by ACILS data obtained from government archives through Freedom of Information Act requests. (See my article in the April 2004 issue of "Labor Notes.") Again, they pointed out that the AFL-CIO, through ACILS, had accepted money from NED.

The "resolves" of the resolution were quite emphatic. The California State Federation

  • Affirms "its support for the principles of autonomy, independent and self-determination embodied in the International Conventions of the International Labor Organization";
  • Urges "the National AFL-CIO and its Solidarity Center to exercise extreme caution in seeking or accepting funding from the US government, its agencies and any other institutions it funds such as the NED for its work in Iraq or elsewhere, and to accept these funds only to further the goals of honest international labor solidarity, not to pursue to policies of Corporate America and the United States government";
  • Calls upon "the National AFL-CIO [quoting from the original ‘Clear the Air" resolution] ‘to fully account for what was done in Chile (and Venezuela) and other countries where similar roles may have been played in our name, and to 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 could 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’";
  • Urges the National AFL-CIO "to establish a working group to propose and review programs to strengthen international labor solidarity around the world";
  • Urges the National AFL-CIO "to fund its international programs and activities, whenever possible, from funds generated directly from its affiliates and their members," a suggestion powerfully made by Ed Asner when he participated in the October 14, 2003 meeting in Oakland (see Steve Early’s article in the July "Labor Notes" on CWA support for Colombian trade unionists for one example of this being done); and
  • "that the California Labor Federation, AFL-CIO send this resolution to the National AFL-CIO for immediate attention to move forward together in creating trust and unity among workers worldwide."

It would be harder to imagine a much stronger rebuke. It grows out of years of work, as activists detailed AFL-CIO operations in Chile as far back as 1974, and worked to overcome the appellation, "AFL-CIA," because of these and other activities exposed over the years. The California Federation of Teachers just this last Spring passed a resolution condemning AFL-CIO connections with the NED, and that resolution was blended into the final unanimously approved "Build Unity and Trust" resolution. This victory was truly a collective effort of labor activists across the state.

The big question now is how will the National AFL-CIO’s Executive Council respond to these developments. The California State Fed delegates, while strongly condemnatory, also left their hand open to work with the AFL-CIO should it decide to consciously act to "Build Unity and Trust." The question thus posed to the National Level AFL-CIO leadership, and especially those involved in foreign policy and operations, is "Which Side Are You On?"

Kim Scipes, a long-time labor activist and former member of three unions, teaches sociology at Purdue University North Central in Westville, IN.

Three key articles discussed above, with extensive references within each, can be accessed via the Internet:

Kim Scipes, "It’s Time to Come Clean: Open the AFL-CIO Archives on International Labor Relations" (Labor Studies Journal, Summer 2000) has been posted in English by LabourNet Germany at www.labournet.de/diskussion/ gewerkschaft/scipes2.html.

Kim Scipes, "AFL-CIO Refuses to ‘Clear the Air’ on Foreign Policy, Operations" (Labor Notes, February 2004) is at www.labornotes.org/archives/2004/02/articles/b.html.

Kim Scipes, "AFL-CIO in Venezuela: Déjà vu All Over Again" (Labor Notes, April 2004) is at www.labornotes.org/archives/2004/04/articles/e.html.

Steve Early, "How Communications Workers Are Building Cross-Border Union Solidarity From the Bottom-up." Labor Notes, July 2004. (Not linked on the Labor Notes web site.)

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