In 1997, the AFL-CIO established the American Center for International Labor Solidarity by merging its four regional institutions that had operated around the world. Solidarity Center stated its mission: “to help build a global labor movement by strengthening the economic and political power of workers around the world through effective, independent and democratic unions.”
Union members were not told that the Bush Administration had been financing the Solidarity Center for years through large grants from the U.S. State Department, the U.S. Agency for International Development and the U.S Labor Department, while the AFL-CIO contributed only a minimal amount to the Center.
In its 2008 annual report, the Center reveals that more than 95 percent ($27,373,151) of its budget comes from federal grants, while only 2.2 percent ($656,862) comes from the AFL-CIO. So why is the federal government investing so heavily in the Center? The Bush administration never showed an interest in promoting international labor solidarity. And equally important, what does Solidarity Center have to do for the federal government for providing the funds for its very existence?
Union members deserve frank answers to these legitimate questions, but AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, the Center’s top trustee, has refused to respond. Actually, part of the answer is obvious. Using the federal grant money, Solidarity has set up offices and hired staffs in 26 countries. They include Ethiopia, Rwanda and Swaziland in Africa; the Philippines, Sri Lanka and Thailand in Asia and Bahrain, Iran and Kuwait in the Middle East.
Why select these 26 countries, most, if not all, of whom have not had any relations with American unions? How is the cause of international labor solidarity served by the Center’s activity in Croatia, Namibia, Tunisia, Nepal and Qatar? How large is the Solidarity staff that it boasts of progress to help workers in countries involved in civil wars and under despotic leaders?
Ellie Larson, the Center’s executive director, reports that during the past 12 months, she visited 14 countries where the Solidarity Center maintains offices and another seven in which it has partners or conducts programs. She spoke about the “support we give, as representatives of the U.S. labor movement to promoting worker rights around the world.” When did she get the authority to speak in the name of the U.S. labor movement, and what has she been saying in our name in the countries she visited?
There is a simple, logical explanation for the existence of those Solidarity Center stations in 26 countries. While they have little value in promoting international labor solidarity, they do perform a useful function as the eyes and ears of the U.S. State Department. The Center appears to be operating as an arm of U.S. foreign policy, as it did in the failed coup against the duly elected government of Hugo Chavez in 2002. It is worth noting that Solidarity Center has not criticized, or even mentioned, President Bush and the war in Iraq, as though they didn’t exist.
Solidarity Center prints glossy, full-color publications with lots of attractive photos, which few American union members receive or even see. (Larson refuses to say how many copies are distributed and where),
Since there is no oversight of its activities, the Center can exaggerate its achievements and enjoy its self-importance. Its brochure says: “We’re promoting democracy and freedom and respect for workers’ rights in global trade, investment and development policies and in the lending practices of international financial institutions. Above all, we’re giving the world’s workers a chance for a voice in the global economy and in the future.” (There’s no stop to its high-class bragging.)
We must insist that Sweeney explain why the AFL-CIO’s Solidarity Center gets 95 percent of its budget from the federal government, and the price it must pay for that financial support. And we must demand that Larson justify the Center’s operation in 26 countries and how this promotes international labor solidarity. We cannot allow their continuing silence on this important issue.
Harry Kelber has spent his entire adult life in the service of the labor movement, as an organizer, union printer, labor pamphleteer, education director, professor of labor studies, international lecturer, and weekly labor commentator on the Internet. He is a long-standing, dues-paying member of the New York Typographical Union, No. 6, CWA. He is the author of Union Printers and Controlled Automation (Macmillan, Free Press, 1966), The Labor Leader (Picket Press, 1989), and My 60 Years as a Labor Activist (A.G. Publishing, 1996). Kelber is the founder and editor of a newsletter, The Labor Educator, which since 1990 has advocated a series of reforms to revitalize the labor movement. This article was published in The Labor Educator on 29 January 2009, and it is reproduced here for educational purposes.