Inside the AFL-CIO
Issued Every Tuesday
Column #9 May 15, 2001

Solidarity Center Still Relies on Federal Funds
and Secrecy to Conduct Labor’s Global Struggle

By Harry Kelber

California’s South Bay Central Labor Council has taken the unusual step of circulating a resolution it passed unanimously last December, in which it asks the AFL-CIO to acknowledge its shameful role as “a willing tool of U.S. foreign policy” during the Cold War years.

The council wants the federation to publicly disclose its records from 1963 to the end of the Cold War. Former AFL-CIO Presidents George Meany and Lane Kirkland directed labor’s global policies during that period.

The AFL-CIO must “shed the negative policies of the past and renounce the ties that identified it with government and corporation policies that have brought misery to so many,” the resolution concludes.

There is well-documented evidence, never refuted, that the AFL-CIO’s American Institute for Free Labor Development (AIFLD) collaborated with the CIA as its labor “front” and helped overthrow democratically-elected governments in Guyana, the Dominican Republic and Chile.

Heavily financed by the U.S. government, the four global “institutes” that made up AIFLD employed about 100 full-time professionals and support staff in 85 countries on four continents. Their mission was to promote foreign unions’ cooperation with U.S. government policies and business interests. Where they encountered resistance, such as in Nicaragua, Honduras and Russia, AFL-CIO operatives set up dual unions to compete with (or replace) existing ones.

Today’s AFL-CIO leadership refuses to express regret for the federation’s past sins or even admit to them. International Affairs Director Barbara Shailor says it’s time to forget what the federation did during the Cold War and “move on” to the new problems posed by globalization.

In 1997, the AFL-CIO’s four regional institutes were combined and renamed the American Center for International Labor Solidarity whose stated mission is “to advance and strengthen the rights of workers around the world and to foster the development of free, independent unions.”

Like its predecessor, Solidarity Center gets most of its funds from government agencies. There’s a $45 million, 5-year grant from the Agency for International Development (AID); $4 million a year from the National Endowment for Democracy (NED); $1 million over two years from the U.S. State Dept., and $300,000 from the Labor Dept. The AFL-CIO itself contributes about $1 million a year. Additional funding comes from private foundations and international organzations.

Can anyone believe that these government agencies want to promote worker rights or international labor solidarity? They are obliged to support U.S. trade policies and to serve the interests of U.S. corporations in countries that suppress worker rights and pollute the environment. As long as the Solidarity Center is beholden to such benefactors, it will never take an independent stand.

The Center occupies virtually the same global network of offices that existed on Kirkland’s watch. It lists field offices in 26 countries, most of which have governments that either repress or barely tolerate worker rights: Bangladesh, Croatia, Guatemala, Sri Lanka, the Philippines and Zimbabwe, among others. Each office hires local people to facilitate contacts with the working population.

It’s hard to imagine how the Center’s personnel can conduct educational programs on worker rights, union organizing and leadership training without incurring the wrath of business groups and host governments. How long could they remain in a country after denouncing abusive practices or supporting a workers’ strike?

The Center prints attractive brochures in which it proclaims its accomplishments, but their slickness only invites skepticism. In China, for example, we are told that a staff of maybe half a dozen people “support(s) the work of activists investigating and exposing labor repression, poor working conditions, injuries and fatalities.” It boasts about “helping workers unite in Warsaw, aiding hurricane victims in Central America, supporting free trade unions in Sierra Leone, promoting education for young women in Bangladesh.”

One must wonder what kind of worker education the Center can carry on in Colombia, where 120 union leaders were murdered last year and the killings are continuing?

Even if one accepts the Center’s claims about promoting international labor solidarity, American workers are told almost nothing about workers’struggles around the world. The AFL-CIO Web site ignores most international labor news. The International Affairs Dept. does not publish a newsletter or issue press releases. It reports to the AFL-CIO Executive Council, but local union leaders and members have no access to the information.

Labor solidarity is an empty phrase if American union members are kept in the dark about what happens to workers around the world. The Solidarity Center and the International Affairs Dept. should take steps to keep union members informed about labor developments abroad, especially about situations where solidarity is urgently needed.

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