Labor, Conservatives Share Values in Human Rights Fight

Article excerpt


From the devastating factory fire in Bangladesh to substandard wages to a lack of worker freedom, the news in recent months has been replete with controversies about the overseas production practices of large corporations such as Wal-MartStores Inc. and Apple Inc.

These accounts brought me back nearly a quarter-century, to February 1989, when the AFL-CIO Executive Council was holding its winter meeting in Florida. New on the labor beat and interested in labor's global activities, I approached Al Shanker, the fabled leader of the American Federation of Teachers, who also headed the AFL-CIO's international-affairs committee.

In short order, I was raptly listening as he told me of U.S. labor's hush-hush activities in Eastern Europe, including assistance the AFL-CIO and AFT were quietly providing to little-known incipient independent labor movements such as the Liga in Hungary and Podkrepa in Bulgaria.

At that point, the events that would unfold later that year, culminating in the fall of the Berlin Wall, were unimaginable. But on that February day, Shanker told me of the potential significance of these labor stirrings behind the Iron Curtain, and how they posed a greater threat to communist authority than the typical protests by students, artists or intellectuals. If the very workers in whose name these regimes allegedly ruled were rebelling, how would communist leaders justify their control over all aspects of state and society?

Given the delicate nature of what U.S. labor was doing, and the attendant risks to the upstart labor leaders being assisted, there was much I wasn't at liberty to report at the time. But I wrote enough to prompt my editors to note that they had hired me to cover labor in St. Louis, and that I should kindly refrain from trying to cover Eastern Europe from Florida for Midwestern readers.

I dutifully obeyed. But later that year, while I was in Western Europe reporting on other matters, the same editor who had issued the cease-and-desist order urgently dispatched me to Hungary to cover what suddenly seemed like the impending dissolution of the Warsaw Pact. …