A Specter Is Haunting the AFL-CIO’s Foreign Policy Program: The Worker to Worker Solidarity Committee

The room had been arranged, the speakers ready — with a last minute, unannounced substitution of Wilfredo Berrios of El Salvador’s SUTTEL (telecom) union replacing Miguel Gonzalez Vargas from the Oil Workers Union of Venezuela who had not been able to come due to problems back home — and the only remaining question was, “Would they come?”

The meeting was being held at this year’s Labor Notes Conference, held May 5-7 in Dearborn, a suburb of Detroit.  The meeting had a lot of competition from other meetings, such as ones on “Katrina Solidarity,” “Labor and Independent Politics,” “Youth Activists,” “Teacher Union Reformers,” “SEIU,” and even “Building Solidarity with Iranian Labor.”  Would they come?

Slowly, singly and in small groups, they came into the room.  Workers from a number of unions, such as SEIU, AFSCME, IBEW, AFT, IAM, UE, OPEIU, UAW, and CWA.  There were unionists from some of Canada’s unions, too, such as the Telecom Workers, CUPE, and the Canadian Union of Postal Workers.  There were labor educators from both sides of the border.  And there was a representative from one of the workers’ centers that have sprung up around the country.  The room was packed — it was standing room only!

There were several speakers.  I (National Writers Union/UAW) facilitated the session and introduced the program.  This session was on the AFL-CIO foreign policy, and I spoke about long-term efforts to change the AFL-CIO foreign policy, from collaboration with the US Empire against other workers into genuine international labor solidarity.  I talked about the California AFL-CIO’s unanimously passed resolution at their 2004 State Convention that condemned the AFL-CIO foreign policy program, the efforts at the 2005 National Convention in Chicago to get it discussed on the floor, and how the AFL-CIO leadership anti-democratically prevented that discussion.

Lee Sustar, also of the NWU, talked about his efforts to understand what was happening in Venezuela and his trip to Venezuela last year.  Sustar specifically had wanted to see if the new UNT labor center was established by the workers or if it was, as AFL-CIO propaganda had claimed, a creation of the government of President Hugo Chavez.  Fortunately for the Venezuelan workers, the UNT was created and has been run by them, and not by their government.  But again, the AFL-CIO’s campaign against the workers and government of Venezuela continues.

Wilfredo Berrios spoke next.  He had firsthand information from the 1980s, when the AFL-CIO’s AIFLD (American Institute for Free Labor Development) had been extremely active in El Salvador, where the Salvadorean government had used death squads along with US-trained soldiers, American “advisors,” and billions of US dollars to counter a revolutionary challenge to the dominance of the 14-Family “Oligarchy” who ruled the country.  During this time, AIFLD — the Latin American regional predecessor to today’s Solidarity Center (officially, the American Center for International Labor Solidarity, or ACILS) — had been actively establishing parallel unions to undercut labor solidarity.  Where Salvadoran unions had tried to stand up for their worker-members and refused to collaborate with the Salvadoran government, AIFLD had been “Johnny-on–the-spot” to try to undermine solidarity and create dissention in the labor movement.  AIFLD’s work, unfortunately, was successful enough to immobilize much of the labor movement.

After Berrios, Joe Iosbaker of SEIU Local 73 in Chicago spoke.  Iosbaker had been actively involved in building the demonstration that took place outside of the Chicago Convention last summer.  The demonstration, held on the hottest day of the year (in a video available from Labor Beat titled “The AFL-CIO’s Foreign Policy and NED Money”, you could see the 103 degree temperature at Navy Pier), was quite spirited, and featured over 100 people marching to a plaza in front of the Sheraton Hotel, where delegates stayed.  They spoke the same languages in one voice: cut the tie of the AFL-CIO to the anti-human National Endowment for Democracy (NED).  And to make that real, they were supporting efforts by delegates inside the convention to get the California AFL-CIO’s “Build Unity and Trust with Workers Worldwide” resolution extensively discussed on the floor of the convention.  Although bureaucratic procedure overcame union democracy — once again! — Iosbaker continued his efforts in his local union after the convention.  He talked how activists in Local 73 had been able to pass a resolution in favor of “Build Unity and Trust” through their local union and, while not seeing it as a panacea, talked about using the effort as an organizing tool to educate members around these larger issues.

I followed.  I talked briefly about how labor delegates to the National Conference in Solidarity with People of Venezuela — which took place in Washington, DC in March — had joined together to create a new organization called the Worker-to-Worker Solidarity Committee.  I discussed how the WWSC members and allies had thrown a picket line up in front of the NED offices — despite literally being across 15th Street from the Washington Post and after notifying the Post beforehand, the Post sent no one to cover the very spirited demonstration — and then decided to march to “another end of the funding pipeline.”  The demonstrators threw a picket line in front the AFL-CIO National Headquarters, and eloquent speakers armed with a bullhorn raised issues loudly that the foreign policy leaders have sought so long to keep quiet.

Along with all speakers, I encouraged people to get involved in the WWSC.  The WWSC has placed a downloadable “Open Letter to the AFL-CIO” on its Web site www.workertoworker.net, seeking signatures on a petition demanding that the AFL-CIO cut all ties to the NED, linked to important articles on the AFL-CIO foreign policy — including materials on their activities in Venezuela and Haiti (with more to come from Jeb Sprague on the latter in the June 2006 issue of Labor Notes) — and providing a means to contact the Committee.  I emphasized the seriousness of this effort and said that the Committee believed that we must work in each National/International Union to get them to change the AFL-CIO foreign policy: state AFL-CIO resolutions are helpful and important, but state AFL-CIOs aren’t where the power to change lies.  I argued that this was a campaign we all should take on: we cannot talk “international labor solidarity” if our labor center is acting against it each and every day.

The responses to the four speakers varied.   Some were shocked, never having heard about the AFL-CIO’s foreign policy.  Others were glad to hear the firsthand account of Berrios.  Still others recognized the importance of this effort and stated they wanted to get involved.  But all said it was a very powerful and well-presented meeting:  by the end of the meeting, the need to change the AFL-CIO foreign policy program seemed obvious to each person in the room.

To get more information and/or to get involved, please go to the web site of the Worker-to-Worker Solidarity Committee at www.workertoworker.net.  The Committee can be reached via e-mail at info@workertoworker.net.  For the most complete listing of materials on AFL-CIO foreign policy, much downloadable from the Internet, go to http://faculty.pnc.edu/kscipes/LaborBib.htm#AFL-CIO_Foreign_Operations.

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 <kscipes@pnc.edu>.