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The February 2021 death of AFL-CIO President Emeritus John Sweeny has evoked a number of examinations of his political and personal history in an effort to evaluate his legacy. Several articles and e-mail messages have circulated around the left. The most sophisticated of those seen by this author is “John Sweeney Was Our Era’s Most Influential Labor Leader” by Bill Fletcher, Jr. and Fernando Gapasin, which was published in Jacobin and republished on Portside.
Much of what Fletcher and Gapasin wrote seems accurate and fair. (Both have much more experience in positions in the formal labor movement than do I, so unless others more knowledgeable than them criticize their account, I accept what they write.)
Yet there is one area that I challenge, and where I have extensive experience: their analysis of the AFL-CIO’s international work under Sweeney. They continue to pull their punches on this subject, just as they did in their excellent 2008 book, Solidarity Divided, which I reviewed later that year.
In their evaluation of Sweeney, Fletcher and Gapasin claimed, “In the international realm, there was a breaking with what was known as ‘AFL-CIA’ unionism,” noting that Sweeney founded the American Center for International Labor Solidarity (which later changed its name to The Solidarity Center). They noted a few positive changes They further noted, “Yet Sweeney’s AFL-CIO sometimes supported retrograde labor centers, as in the case of Venezuela, where the unions were operating against the Bolivarian Revolution.”
This is interesting, as well as frustrating: there is no mention of the AFL-CIO’s relationship with the Ronald Reagan-initiated National Endowment for Democracy (NED), which Sweeney long supported and which has carried out work formerly done by the CIA. [I discussed NED in depth in a 2005 article on Z Net, “An Unholy Alliance” (on-line at https://zcomm.org/znetarticle/an-unholy-alliance-by-kim-scipes/); also see William I. Robinson’s Promoting Polyarchy: Globalization, US Intervention, and Hegemony, Cambridge University Press. 1996.) NED is the foremost organization that is projecting the “soft power” of the US Empire, and is poison from its head to its toes. And the Solidarity Center is one of its four “core” institutes. It would seem to deserve some commentary (see G. Nelson Bass’ unpublished 2012 Ph.D. dissertation, cited in Scipes, 2020 and available for free on-line).
Now, let me clear: John Sweeney was no George Meany nor Lane Kirkland; I’ll concede that.
And he gets credit for disbanding the “Institutes,” AIFLD in Latin America, AALC in Africa, and AAFLI in Asia. And I’ll even grant that in some cases, the Solidarity Center has done some good work—it’s not totally evil like the Institutes.
But as I documented CLEARLY in my 2010 book, AFL-CIO’s Secret War against Developing Country Workers: Solidarity or Sabotage? (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2010 hardcover, 2011 paperback), the Solidarity Center is not all “clean,” either. (For an update covering the AFL-CIO’s foreign operations up to 2020, with a strong review of the literature on the subject, see my 2020 article, “The AFL-CIO’s Foreign Policy Program: Where Historians Now Stand,” on-line for free in the peer-reviewed journal Class, Race and Corporate Power at https://digitalcommons.fiu.edu/classracecorporatepower/vol8/iss2/5.). And the critique has been broader than from just me—especially important was the work of Fred Hirsch, but there are others as well as I describe (again) in this latest article.
Although Fletcher and Gapasin try to rationalize the work with the CTV in Venezuela, the reality was that the Solidarity Center was indirectly supporting (and then rationalizing afterward) a coup in April 2002 against a democratically-elected government headed by Hugo Chávez. (US propaganda has been bleating that Chávez was a dictator for years; I visited in June 2006 and it was clear he was NOT a dictator; I’d been in Manila in January 1986 under Marcos, so I knew the difference.). Whether the AFL-CIO should have been trying to “democratize” an old line corporatist union or not, it should have dropped it like a hot potato once it started lining up with (basically) the national Chamber of Commerce and national leaders of the Catholic Church to overthrow the government. It did not. In fact, the AFL-CIO argued that CTV President Carlos Ortega had opposed the coup—but extensive evidence shows that Ortega turned against the coup only AFTER the coup was launched and after his coup-colleagues turned against labor after removing Chávez from office. And staff in the AFL-CIO’s International Affairs Dept—specifically, Stan Gacek and Tim Beatty—had received first-hand, direct information from an experienced US journalist who had lived in Venezuela during his teen-aged years, Robert Collier; after conducting an investigation for the International Union of Journalists, Collier gave them accurate information about what had happened within four months of the coup but they kept repeating their own propaganda which he had directly contradicted. No, Sweeney doesn’t get a pass on this.
Second, the AFL-CIO under Sweeney collaborated with the George W. Bush’s administration’s Advisory Committee on Labor and Diplomacy. What were they doing collaborating with one of the most anti-labor administrations in modern US history?
Third—and most damaging to Sweeney—was what the National AFL-CIO leaders did at their 2005 national convention In Chicago. The preceding year, labor activists from all over California got over 400 delegates to the California State AFL-CIO Convention—representing approximately 2.5 million members, 1/6 of the entire AFL-CIO membership—to UNANIMOUSLY pass a resolution that condemned AFL-CIO foreign policy. That resolution was sent to national. At the national convention in Chicago, Sweeney’s henchman, Gerald McEntee, the President of AFSCME and Chair of the Resolutions Committee, changed the resolution from condemning AFL-CIO foreign policy to praising it—and then, without allowing any serious debate—passed the new resolution. This gutted labor democracy like a fish. This, too, falls on Sweeney.
In short, I argue that the AFL-CIO has been engaged in labor imperialism. See my article, “Why Labor Imperialism? AFL-CIO Leaders and the Developing World,” Working USA, Vol. 13, No. 4: 465-479 (not available on-line). And, again, see my 2010 book.
The other thing is that if all the Solidarity Center’s activities are so good, then why have we NEVER been given an honest report of their activities around the world: what are they doing in something like 60 countries? Why are they funded overwhelmingly (around 90%, plus or minus) by the US Government—what is the government getting from this? Why has there NEVER been an honest examination of the AFL-CIO activities that has been widely shared with the membership? In short, the rationale for the charge against “communist” labor activities was that workers in other countries were never told what their leaders were doing; that their activities were funded by their respective governments; and that their leaders were making decisions behind workers’ backs. This stuff isn’t new; it didn’t start under John Sweeney—it started under Samuel Gompers in the late 1800s-early 1900s, long before the Soviet Union; it continued against the Soviet Union; and it has continued after the Soviet Union fell. But the AFL and then the AFL-CIO has long done what they accused the communists of doing: using government funding, without informing the membership, but operating in US workers’ name to undercut workers’ struggles around the world. I think this needs to be included in the historical record as well.
And finally, another personal story that I’ve never reported. In 2004, along with a few others, I was working with Frank Emspak to build his “Workers’ Independent News” service, a daily news bulletin program designed to promote the labor movement across the country and to help build-out a communications network as labor movement infrastructure. It was an important project. This was being built on a wing and a prayer; Emspak trying desperately to get needed support from the labor movement so it could succeed and expand. He finally got a meeting with the Political Director of the AFL-CIO, and he took me with him to Washington, DC, for the meeting. We met with the Director, and later got our answer: while the AFL-CIO ended up spending $55 million dollars that year on the presidential campaign of John Kerry, they offered Emspak $5,000. WINS later collapsed from lack of labor support. That’s on Sweeney’s plate, too.
One can praise the good things someone like John Sweeney did, but I honestly think it’s important to also address the bad things he and his administration did, so we can have a more accurate understanding of their time and how they handled it. Puffery and rationalization should be rejected for what it’s trying to do—distort the historical record, and to distract people from addressing real issues that arguably still need to be addressed within the labor movement.