Reinserting ‘Details’

Tim Shorrock recently published an article titled “Labor’s Foreign Policy Heads in a New Direction.”  This piece seems to have gotten considerable distribution, especially as so many folks seem to desperately want to hear good news about Labor’s foreign policy.  Unfortunately, Shorrock only got his account partially right and, in my opinion, his analysis suggests much more than the evidence supports.  I think we owe it to ourselves, even if no one else, to be more accurate than this. 

I argue that Shorrock got it partly right, and partly wrong, but that the part of the account that he got wrong leads to a distorted understanding.  Let’s start with the good stuff.

Shorrock was on the money about the efforts by labor activists, led by US Labor Against the War, that forced the AFL-CIO to take a position to withdraw the troops “rapidly” from Iraq.  Quoting Joanne Wypijewski who wrote in Counterpunch-“From the floor, no one spoke against the resolution:  not the building trades; not Tom Buffenbarger of the Machinists, who after 9/11 called for ‘vengeance’, not justice; not the American Federation of Teachers, which has typically held high the flame of intervention”-Shorrock clearly conveys the importance and magnitude of victory achieved by passage of the anti-war resolution.  He is correct:  this is the first time “that the AFL-CIO has ever taken a public stance against an ongoing US war.”  (For a more nuanced analysis, see David Bacon, “Unions at War” at www.sfbg.com/39/45/cover_unions.html.)

However, Shorrock claims that passage of this resolution “sent the unmistakable message that labor is single-minded in its opposition to an illegal war that has now cost 1,800 and countless Iraqi lives.”  Perhaps I’m just jaded, but I don’t think the labor movement is single-minded in its opposition to the war-I am glad the resolution passed, but what is going to happen?  Is the AFL-CIO going to mobilize its members around a “rapid withdrawal,” or is it going to mobilize on September 24th, or it going to strike and disrupt production of goods and services?  I don’t see any evidence that, as a whole, Labor is going to do any of that-and I think it’s a mistake to suggest that it will.

Passage of the resolution really means little in a real sense-right now, it’s just words on a piece of paper.  But why it is important is that it gives support and encouragement to labor activists to act, organize and mobilize within labor organizations to further make real a program of building labor opposition to the war.  And that, should activists take advantage of it, is what makes passage of this resolution important.  This obviously is very different than to suggest that Labor will now enter full-bore the anti-war movement.  Important, but very different.

However, as improperly suggestive as I feel his first point was, the second was even more problematic.  Although starting strongly, Shorrock ultimately reported the second issue inaccurately.  This was regarding the “Build Unity and Trust Among Workers Worldwide” Resolution that came out of the California State AFL-CIO. 

Partly he got it wrong because he didn’t utilize the reporting and analysis that this author and others have produced in the time since his 2003 article.  Many of these items have been collected under “Key Recent Articles on AFL-CIO Foreign Policy” at http://chicago.indymedia.org/newswire/display_any/60035.,  (Some of my work, as well as that by Fred Hirsch, and the Latin American Solidarity Coalition-led demonstration on July 24, 2005 in Chicago demanding passage of “Build Unity and Trust” is now on “The AFL-CIO’S Foreign Policy and NED Money” video in both DVD and VHS for $15 from Chicago’s labor TV program Labor Beat at www.laborbeat.org.  See also Lee Sustar’s “Revolution and Counter-revolution in Venezuela:  Assessing the Role of the AFL-CIO” at www.selvesandothers.org/article10406.html.)

But partly Shorrock got it wrong because he tried to tell a story with a happy ending-and to date, there just ain’t no happy ending to this story.  Let me recount.

Shorrock was basically correct in this article up until his footnote #2.  He noted that unions and labor councils in California had tried to open a dialogue with AFL-CIO President John Sweeney and his International Affairs Department about labor’s past “misdeeds,” and tried to get them to “clear the air.”  While very truncated, basically this is accurate.

However, for some reason, Shorrock skips some important details that are relevant to the story.  The most important is that leaders of the California AFL-CIO watered down a resolution on AFL-CIO foreign policy at their 2002 Biannual Convention so as to facilitate a promised meeting afterwards between AFL-CIO foreign policy leaders and California labor activists.  Despite this initiative, the AFL-CIO foreign policy leaders delayed the promised meeting for 15 months.  When they finally agreed to and showed up for the meeting, they did not produce the specifically requested accounts of what the AFL-CIO had done historically and what it is doing currently through a “country-by-country” report of activities in the approximately 40 countries around the world it is operating in today.  Instead, AFL-CIO representatives presented a “dog and pony show” instead of an in-depth and respectful account to the California Federation.  In other words, AFL-CIO foreign policy leaders-Bill Lucy and Stan Gacek were the chosen henchmen, although we’ll probably never find out who specifically was involved in making the decision-chose to disrespect not only the involved labor activists, but the entire California AFL-CIO and its then-2.4 million members.

It was in response to the AFL-CIO foreign policy leaders’ dismissal of their efforts to dialogue in a respectful manner that a number of California unions, central labor councils and even the state-wide California Federation of Teachers submitted condemnatory resolutions to the 2004 State Convention.  These were assembled and then joined into one resolution, the “Build Unity and Trust Among Workers Worldwide” resolution, that then went on the floor of the Convention and was passed unanimously.  (See my “California AFL-CIO Rebukes Labor’s National Level Foreign Policy Leaders” at http://uslaboragainstwar.org/article.php?id=6394.) This resolution was then sent to the 2005 AFL-CIO convention in Chicago.

Subsequently, and another part of the story left unmentioned, activists obtained access to Solidarity Center reports to the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) about Solidarity Center efforts in Venezuela.  The Solidarity Center reported that they had facilitated a series of meetings, joining the leadership of the CTV (Confederation of Venezuelan Workers-in Spanish) with the leaders of FEDECAMARAS, the business association, and that these meetings culminated in a national meeting on March 5, 2002 in which the CTV and FEDECAMARAS were recognized as the “flagship organizations leading the growing opposition” against President Hugo Chavez.  And 36 days later, the coup attempt of April 11, 2002 was launched, in which the CTV and FEDECAMARAS leaders were key actors, in a manner reminiscent of the September 11, 1973 coup in Chile against the democratically-elected Salvador Allende government. 

According to Steve Ellner, who lives in Venezuela and is one of the most knowledgeable English-speaking observers of Venezuelan labor, CTV head Carlos Ortega publicly called for the immediate dissolution of the National Assembly during the coup attempt prior to the actions doing so by Pedro Carmona of FEDECAMARAS.  After being betrayed by his “buddy” Carmona, Ortega later “condemned” the coup attempt, but that was after he was denied any power in the new, coup-originated government.  (See Steve Ellner and Fred Rosen, “Crisis in Venezuela:  The Remarkable Fall and Rise of Hugo Chavez” at www.nacla.org/art_display.php?art=2092.)  The Solidarity Center still denies that Ortega had any involvement in the coup attempt.

And researchers also found-in addition to accounts of the Solidarity Center’s activities-that the Solidarity Center had gotten money from the NED for its work with the CTV.  The AFL-CIO’s Stan Gacek reported in a 2004 New Labor Forum article that the AFL-CIO had spent less than $20,000 on the CTV.  However, he apparently has been unable to explain the $703,927 that the Solidarity Center had been granted between 1997-2002 for its work with the CTV by the NED, nor of that, the $157,377 in 2001 alone nor even of the $116,001 in 2002.  [This was only one part of the NED offensive against Hugo Chavez and his government:  the anti-democratic NED provided $4,039,331 to US and Venezuelan organizations working in Venezuela between 1992 and 2001; over $2.4 million of that (60.4%) was granted between 1997-2001.]  (See my article “AFL-CIO in Venezuela:  Déjà vu All Over Again” at www.labornotes.org/archives/2004/04/articles/e.html.  For more information about US involvement in the coup attempt, particularly through NED funding efforts, see documents posted on www.venezuelafoia.info.)

After the Venezuelan effort was exposed, it also turned out that the AFL-CIO foreign policy leaders had been actively participating in meetings of the US State Department’s Advisory Committee on Labor and Diplomacy (ACLD).  This was an effort that, at least in part, was considering the reinvigoration of the Labor Attaché program in US embassies around the world.  It has been Labor Attaches that have played such a key role in interfering with labor movements around the world for the US Government.  Although the ACLD was initiated by the Clinton Administration’s Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, it continued under the administration of George W. Bush.  And of the six meetings under Bush that we know of, AFL-CIO President John Sweeney had a 100% perfect attendance-as did Harry Kamberis, head of the Solidarity Center.  Bill Lucy, head of the AFL-CIO Executive Committee’s International Affairs Committee, attended 67% of the meetings as did Barbara Shailor, head of the International Affairs Department, who made 50% of them.  (See my “AFL-CIO Foreign Policy Leaders Help Develop Bush’s Foreign Policy, Target Foreign Unions for Political Control” at www.labornotes.org/archives/2005/03/articles/e.html.)

But again, this was another part of the story that Shorrock conveniently left out for some reason.  Returning these developments to the story does seem to require a slightly different retelling.

Shorrock then tells us about how Sweeney had eliminated the International Affairs Department, and that Barbara Shailor had been transferred to run the Solidarity Center.  This is something to crow about?  Shailor appears to be as complicit as any of the other top-level AFL-CIO foreign policy leaders in these activities.

And then Shorrock goes on about how, with the demise of the International Affairs Department, “AFL-CIO unions would no longer be represented overseas by an independent arm of the federation, but by a government-funded organization that aligns its policies with the US government.”  Did I miss something?  Hasn’t the AFL-CIO throughout most of its history-like for most of the history of the AFL before it-had its own imperialist foreign policy program?  And hasn’t this imperialist foreign policy program been largely aligned with the US government throughout most of its history?  And when it has diverged from that of the US government, hasn’t it often-especially before Sweeney’s administration-been to the RIGHT of the US government?  (See my “Labor Imperialism Redux?  The AFL-CIO’s Foreign Policy Since 1995” at www.monthlyreview.org/0505scipes.htm.)  Then why would Shorrock say something like this?  I’m befuddled.

Then, he returns closer to reality.  Shorrock reports that the AFL-CIO has been under attack over the past three years for its foreign policy program.  The AFL-CIO has not accounted for its institutes and operations around the world, nor for its “bungled attempts (using NED money) to fund the anti-government union federation in Venezuela that sought through illegal means to bring down the government of Hugo Chavez in 2002.”

Shorrock then reports on how the Sweeney forces developed their own resolution in support of the Solidarity Center, and began getting it passed in Georgia and North Carolina and elsewhere.  This was to undercut “Build Unity and Trust.” 

This pro-Solidarity Center resolution then went to the Resolutions Committee of the 2005 AFL-CIO Convention where it was passed, sent to the AFL-CIO Executive Council, strengthened by the Council (made worse from my perspective), and brought to the floor of the convention.  Shorrock correctly noted the bureaucratic technique of AFSCME President Gerald McEntee, but despite what Shorrock reports, that “cursory debate” was held on the subject, I was told by a trusted observer who was present on the floor that McEntee allowed several speakers to speak in favor of the pro-Solidarity Center resolution and then, from the Chair, McEntee asked, “Did I hear someone call the question?”  Someone jumped up, said he called it, and McEntee’s gavel fell, cutting off any discussion and proceeding to the floor vote, where the pro-Solidarity Center vote passed by voice.  There was no discussion allowed on the floor of the AFL-CIO Convention against the pro-Solidarity Center resolution.  (For the final version of Resolution 54, “Support for the Work of the Solidarity Center,” go to www.afl-cio.org/aboutus/thisistheaflcio/convention/2005/resolutions.cfm, and click on Resolution 54.  Compare with “Build Unity and Trust” at www.labournet.net/world/0407/hirsch.html.  For my account of these developments, see “AFL-CIO Foreign Policy: Final Report from the Convention” at www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?sectionID=19&itemID=8421.)

Shorrock then goes on to talk about how neither side of the recent AFL-CIO split “can claim the progressive mantle in international affairs.”  That seems clear from his account alone.

But-in a plot that has more twists and turns than a mountain road-Shorrock decides “there are signs that unions on both sides of the split have abandoned old-style labor diplomacy….”  While I haven’t discussed the “Change to Win Coalition’s foreign policy-as far as I can tell, for them, international labor solidarity extends only to other workers in the same multinational corporations, which is necessary but so far from being sufficient-Shorrock has certainly not demonstrated this by the Sweeney folks. 

In fact, at a day-long labor mini-conference that I attended on August 12, preceding the week’s American Sociological Association meeting in Philadelphia, a Solidarity Center staffer one again publicly repeated the lie that the CTV had not been involved in the coup-attempt against Venezuela’s President Chavez.  Additionally, the Solidarity Center brought to the meeting a representative from COSATU’s International Affairs Department (apparently flying her in from South Africa for the mini-conference) as well as a representative of the Workers Rights Consortium, both to tell academics of the good work of the Solidarity Center. 

This was even more curious since Solidarity Center challengers, including myself, have long recognized publicly that the Solidarity Center has done some good work. 

It’s just their bad work that we don’t like, such as we saw in Venezuela. Nor their involvement as one of the four core institutes of the National Endowment for Democracy, that semi-autonomous, Reagan-created and overwhelmingly funded by the US Congress, front group for the US government.  (See my “An Unholy Alliance:  The AFL-CIO and the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) in Venezuela” at www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?sectionID=19&itemID=8268.)  Plus the fact that they are dependent on the US government for over 90% of their funding.  (See Harry Kelber, “90% of Solidarity Center’s Annual Budget Comes from Payoffs by the US Government” at www.laboreducator.org/solcenter.htm).  Plus that top-level foreign policy leaders activity participate in Bush’s State Department activities.  Plus that their leaders have never honestly reported to AFL-CIO union members on what they have done and are doing around the world in the name of American workers.  Plus the fact that they have no accountability to the labor movement beyond the very top-level foreign policy leaders. 

These are the issues we want addressed.  Not that they can get testimonials from people and organizations that are beneficiaries of Solidarity Center financial largesse. 

We want real, grassroots, popular democracy in the US labor movement at all levels, and especially around the foreign policy program.  Not this sham bullshit that our “leaders” force-feed us when they can no longer avoid doing “something.”

And we want labor movement journalists to tell the truth themselves, no give us some “pie in the sky” accounts that share little with reality.  We can’t fix something until we get to the bottom of things after an accurate accounting.  This kind of reporting is far below Tim Shorrock’s usual high standards and I’m hoping he’ll soon return to them.

Yet, there is something more important than a progressive journalist making a mistake.  We each have to be as accurate and as self-critical as possible, so that we come to understandings on the basis of what we really know, and not on what we’d like to see.  We need to dream, to create an expansive yet inclusive vision that sees everyone who wants to join us inside the tent of humanity-yet our analysis, strategy and tactics must be based on the most solid work possible.


Kim Scipes, a former member of three unions and currently a member of the National Writers Union, teaches sociology at Purdue University North Central in Westville, Indiana.

He maintains an on-line “Contemporary Labor Bibliography,” featuring writings by labor activists and engaged academics, at http://faculty.pnc.edu/kscipes/LaborBib.htm, and can be reached at kscipes@pnc.edu.

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