On March 6, over 50 union members from several unions and activist allies picketed the headquarters of the AFL-CIO in Washington, DC., to demand that the AFL-CIO’s Solidarity Center immediately break off all ties with the misnamed National Endowment for Democracy (NED).
The NED is a leading component of the US Government’s efforts to maintain the US Empire, and the Solidarity Center is one of the NED’s four “core institutes,” along with the international wings of the Republican Party, the Democratic Party, and the US Chamber of Commerce. Through its involvement with the NED (among other things), the AFL-CIO national leaders use the name of American workers to undercut other workers’ efforts around the world, never informing rank-and-file members (and many of the leaders) of US unions about what they are doing.
This demonstration was the latest development in a series of actions that had put increasing pressure on the national AFL-CIO’s foreign policy leadership. Labor activists have been working for years to transform the AFL-CIO’s foreign policy program from “labor imperialism” to becoming a force for genuine international labor solidarity. To date, the AFL-CIO foreign policy leadership has refused to make such a change.
The hope that John Sweeney’s assumption of the Presidency in October 1995 would lead to a break with the AFL-CIO’s past foreign policy was soon dashed (for a detailed examination of the AFL-CIO foreign policy program under Sweeney, see “Labor Imperialism Redux?: The AFL-CIO’s Foreign Policy Since 1995,” Monthly Review 57.1, May 2005). To take the most glaring example, well-documented Solidarity Center activities in Venezuela established conclusively that the Center was involved in bringing together its long-time right-wing ally, the CTV (Workers Confederation of Venezuela), with FEDECAMARAS (Venezuelan Federation of Chambers of Commerce), just prior to the attempted coup against democratically-elected President Hugo Chavez in April 2002, in which CTV and FEDECAMARAS leaders played prominent roles. The Solidarity Center’s role in Venezuela was very similar to that of the AIFLD (American Institute for Free Labor Development — the AFL-CIO’s then-Latin American affiliate) in Chile in 1972-73, just before the coup against democratically-elected President Salvador Allende that led to the deaths of thousands and the establishment of the Pinochet Dictatorship. The NED provided the Solidarity Center with over $700,000 between 1997 and 2002 for its work in Venezuela (see “AFL-CIO in Venezuela: Déjà Vu All Over Again,” Labor Notes, April 2004; and “An Unholy Alliance: The AFL-CIO and the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) in Venezuela,” ZNet, 10 July 2005).
Jeb Sprague’s reports demonstrate that the Solidarity Center was also operating in Haiti: the Center passed on almost $100,000 to Batay Ouvriye, a labor organization that refused to oppose the overthrow of the democratically-elected government of Jean-Bertrand Aristide (though Sprague does not go so far as to claim that Batay was involved in the coup against Aristide that was led by the United States, France, and Canada — see “Workers’ Rights ARE Human Rights — Not Just in the USA, but around the World,” MRZine 25 January 2006).
The case of Haiti has yet to gain wide exposure, but exposés of the Venezuela case motivated many to question the national AFL-CIO’s direction. A resolution was passed unanimously by the 2.4 million-member California AFL-CIO in July 2004 at its State Convention that condemned the AFL-CIO foreign policy program. Its “Build Unity and Trust with Workers Worldwide” resolution was forwarded to the AFL-CIO for the 2005 National Convention in Chicago (see “California AFL-CIO Rebukes Labor’s National Level Foreign Policy Leaders,” US Labor against the War, 3 September 2004).
However, national AFL-CIO leadership worked to ensure that the California AFL-CIO’s “Build Unity and Trust” resolution would not reach the convention floor unimpeded (see “Are AFL-CIO Foreign Policy Leaders Engaging in Dirty Tricks? Foreign Policy Efforts Being Challenged,” ZNet 23 June 2005). Over 100 union members and our allies — a joint project of the Latin American Solidarity Committee and its Chicago affiliate, Organizing Group to Say No to the NED — demonstrated at Chicago’s Navy Pier on the hottest day of the year, urging support for “Build Unity and Trust,” and then marched over to the Sheraton Hotel, where the Convention was held. Needless to say, the demonstration was ignored by AFL-CIO leaders. And then, on the Convention floor, Sweeney ally Gerald McEntee of AFSCME refused to let speakers support the California resolution (“AFL-CIO Foreign Policy: Final Report from the Convention,” ZNet 2 August 2005).
The squashing of the resolution at the Convention did not stop the movement to change labor’s foreign policy. Out of the National Solidarity Conference with Venezuela that took place in DC on March 4-5 emerged the Worker-to-Worker Solidarity Committee, in order to mobilize opposition within AFL-CIO-affiliated unions to any AFL-CIO tie with the reactionary NED.
The Worker-to-Worker Solidarity Committee initiated the aforementioned demonstration on March 6. The demonstration began in front of the NED offices on 15th Street. Interestingly, despite several contacts, the Washington Post refused to cover the demonstration, even though the NED offices are literally just across the street. A very spirited rally lasted for over an hour.
Then, a suggestion was made that we should go to “another end of the funding pipeline.” The demonstration moved about four blocks to the AFL-CIO headquarters. Marchers, armed with a bullhorn, conveyed their demand that the AFL-CIO cut all ties with the NED. Needless to say, no AFL-CIO or Solidarity Center leader spoke to the protestors; all they did was to have a building guard threaten a protestor carrying a Venezuelan flag who had stepped close to the building. Protestors took down their picket line after about 40 minutes of loud chanting and speeches. AFL-CIO leaders were said to be “outraged” and apparently tried to get one participant fired from his union staffer job in an affiliated union, although to no avail.
There will be a special meeting — under the title of “International Labor Solidarity or Labor Imperialism?” — sponsored by the Worker-to-Worker Solidarity Committee on Saturday evening at this year’s Labor Notes convention (May 5-7), in Dearborn, MI (visit LaborNotes.org for more information). Committee members will briefly share developments with others and seek to expand participation in the Committee, as the next step in developing the campaign to end all AFL-CIO connections with the NED. For more information, contact the Worker-to-Worker Solidarity Committee at <firstname.lastname@example.org>. A Web site for the Committee is under construction, and hopefully, its launch will be announced at the meeting.
(Although most of the references above are to my own work, many of them contain references to a wide range of materials developed by a growing number of authors.)
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>.