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In the middle of a blizzard in Chicago on December 8, 2005, I stood with about 250-300 union members and supporters at the Haymarket Memorial, chanting, “Workers’ Rights Are Human Rights.” This was one of a number of rallies around the country that the AFL-CIO organized, preceding International Human Rights Day on December 10, to help expand the concept of human rights to include American workers’ rights and ultimately to help build support for a reform of American labor laws, so terribly needed.
Yet, shortly before the AFL-CIO’s human rights rallies, Jeb Sprague reported on November 18 that the AFL-CIO’s Solidarity Center had been providing money to a workers’ organization in Haiti: Batay Ouvriye. The report says that the amount provided was small — $3,500 — but also that the Solidarity Center’s Jeff Hermanson attended at least one meeting in Haiti, during March 2004, a meeting where only a few “leaders” were allowed to talk and where rank-and-file members who participated were not allowed to speak. Sprague, a graduate student at California State University at Long Beach, suggests that Batay Ouvriye may have been involved in undermining the government of Jean-Bertrand Aristide — although whether “by mistake or by design” he did not know; in any case, he has established that the US “democracy promotion” process was clearly at work in Haiti and that the Solidarity Center was involved. (See “Supporting a Leftist Opposition to Lavalas: The AFL-CIO’s Solidarity Center and the Batay Ouvriye,” The NarcoSphere.)
Sprague was challenged about his account, especially about his claims against Batay. Batay railed against his efforts. (See a number of pieces on Batay’s web site at www.batayouvriye.org). Most questionable of his account, detractors argued, was that it made much of $3,500 — a piddling sum.
While $3,500 was a small sum — which Batay argued was just given in response to a general call for “solidarity” — what jumped out at me was the presence of Hermanson in a meeting in Haiti. His presence suggested to me that something was going on, and, being familiar with at least some of the Solidarity Center’s work, I became very interested.
Sprague followed up his earlier report with another article in the January 4-10, 2006 issue of Haiti Progres, called “Batay Ouvriye’s Smoking Gun: The $100,000 NED Grant.” In this article, Sprague reported that Batay Ouvriye “was the targeted beneficiary of a US $99,965 NED grant routed though the AFL-CIO’s American Center for International Solidarity (ACILS),” i.e., the Solidarity Center.
Batay Ouvriye angrily responded to Sprague’s report, which was, again, an attack on Batay. But in its response, Batay reveals that one of its spokespersons, Paul, declared: “yes, firmly armed with our line of working class independence, we are prepared to accept any amount, even if it were a million dollars (!) coming from wherever it may come” (“On Sprague’s Alleged Smoking Gun,” ZNet 10 January 2006.)
Now, to be honest, I have not come to any conclusion one way or another about Batay Ouvriye — I simply do not have the knowledge to arrive at an informed conclusion. I am, however, concerned about any group, no matter how well intentioned, who thinks it can control a relationship with the Solidarity Center, the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), and/or the US State Department. Especially in a country in which the US had long been actively interested, helped to depose a constitutionally-elected government (in 2004), and continues to be one of the dominant forces (along with Canada).
That said, I want to shift focus; I want to talk about the AFL-CIO’s Solidarity Center instead of Batay Ouvriye.
The Solidarity Center — unlike its predecessor organizations — has done some good work in a number of “developing” countries. In a few cases, it has benefited workers, especially in efforts to unionize in a few export processing zones. So, whether this is genuine help or an effort to “get critics off its backs,” we cannot paint the Solidarity Center as “all bad.”
The question that must be asked, however, is what process through which the Solidarity Center works. IF it were a program that had been approved by a majority of workers in the various AFL-CIO affiliated unions after substantial education; if it had provided honest and detailed accounts of what it had been doing and with whom and for what purposes — which could be verified by independent observers, whether inside labor or not; if decisions were democratically made; and if union members had consciously decided that this work should be funded out of their dues monies, then it could be an important initiative for building international labor solidarity.
On the other hand, if it has not been approved by the majority of union members; if it had not provided honest and detailed accounts of its activities; if decisions were not democratically made by a representative body but confined to a small group, appointed by the leadership without even ratification, much less approval of the membership; and if its funding came from overwhelmingly outside of the labor movement — and especially presidential administrations such as this one that are enemies of workers and their rights — then its continued existence should be an issue for discussion across the entire labor movement.
The fact is that we know that there has been a long history of AFL and then AFL-CIO foreign operations. These operations have been secret and have worked overwhelmingly against the interests of many workers around the world. Additionally, they have been carried out behind the backs of American workers, in whose name the foreign operations have been done: most American trade unionists have no idea of the extensive range of US labor operations that have been initiated around the world over the past 90 years. And this foreign labor program has been funded overwhelmingly by the US government, under both Democrats and Republicans. (See my note at the end of the article for references.)
Several questions arise: if this work is so good, why has the AFL-CIO foreign policy leadership hidden it and lied about it when challenged? And why did the AFL-CIO leadership keep any discussion of this issue off the floor of the 2005 National Convention in Chicago, even though its largest state affiliate — the California AFL-CIO — had properly submitted a resolution that condemned the National AFL-CIO’s foreign policy program? Must American workers give up what little democracy they have in their own organizations at the national level, just so the leadership can run its secret programs that cannot stand the light of exposure?
And why would the US government fund such operations — at least 90% of their funding comes from the US Congress through the NED, according to Harry Kelber — if it did not expect a big payback? Why are “our” labor leaders collaborating with arguably the most anti-labor administration since before the New Deal and against workers?
Collaborate they have — and continue to do. Anthony Fenton, a Canadian journalist, recently forwarded me a listing of the ACILS (i.e., Solidarity Center) grants for Latin America that he had obtained from the NED for Fiscal Year 2005:
Central America Region
Central America (supplement)
Andean Region (specifically including workshops to be held in Bolivia, Columbia, Ecuador, Peru and Venezuela)
Southern Cone Region (specifically to work with trade union organizations from Paraguay, Argentina, Uruguay, Chile, and in some cases Brazil to conduct workshops)
Southern Cone Region (supplement)
Latin American Region
Why has the AFL-CIO’s Solidarity Center been budgeted to receive over $1.5 million dollars from the NED in Fiscal Year 2005 to work in Latin America? And why hasn’t the AFL-CIO informed its members of this series of grants? And why hasn’t the AFL-CIO informed its members that the Solidarity Center is one of the four core “institutes” of the NED?
To me, it is clear that, in some cases, the Solidarity Center provides real help. But it is also clear that its relationship with the NED is toxic, and this is a cancer that is growing on the American labor movement. American workers must organize within their unions, demanding that the AFL-CIO immediately break any and all connections with the NED.
American workers cannot have it both ways: if we want workers’ rights in the US to be recognized as human rights, then we have to ensure that our organizations do not undercut workers’ rights elsewhere; if we accept the Solidarity Center’s collaboration with the NED, then we cannot expect our own rights to be recognized. The choice is ours: do we organize and fight this toxic relationship — and try to build true international solidarity with workers around the world — or do we collaborate with ongoing oppression? I argue that “An Injury to One is An Injury to All.”
I have written extensively on the AFL-CIO’s foreign policy program, so I have not repeated material from previous writings in such a short piece as this one. If you are interested in seeing key articles, I suggest the following (the first two of which have a wide listing of further references):
- “AFL-CIO in Venezuela: Déjà vu All Over Again,” Labor Notes, April 2004.
- “Labor Imperialism Redux? The AFL-CIO’s Foreign Policy Since 1995,” Monthly Review, May 2005.
- “An Unholy Alliance: The AFL-CIO and the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) in Venezuela,” Znet, July 10, 2005.
Kim Scipes is a member of the National Writers Union and a long-time global labor activist in the US. He currently teaches sociology at Purdue University North Central in Westville, Indiana. His on-line bibliography on “Contemporary Labor Issues” can be accessed at http://faculty.pnc.edu/kscipes/LaborBib.htm. He can be contacted at <email@example.com>.