Magazine article The American Prospect

The CIO without the CIA

Magazine article The American Prospect

The CIO without the CIA

Article excerpt

Inside the AFL-CIO's Solidarity Center

FOR FOUR DECADES, THE AFI-CIO'S INTERNATIONAL presence was notable less for its promotion of labor rights than for its Cold War ferocity. At global conventions, for instance, the labor federation's protocol required AFL-CIO representatives to stand up and leave the room whenever members of insufficiently anti-Communist unions like Italy's CGIL entered. The labor federation's Latin American arm, the American Institute for Free Labor Development (AIFLD), was especially notorious for its CIA connections and for siding with repressive governments, often against progressive unions. In the 1980s, during the reign of the death squads in El Salvador, "AIFLD threw money at the most conservative and most pro-government union factions," says the Reverend David Dyson, a longtime union activist. When the Reagan administration was supporting terror throughout Latin America, Dyson says, "we'd find AIFLD people sitting around the embassy drinking coffee like they were part of the team."

In short, while the international operations of the Reaganera AFL-CIO, funded in part by the federal government in the form of grants from the National Endowment for Democracy, did perform admirable international work--particularly their support for Lech Walesa's Solidarity movement in Poland--they were better known throughout much of the third world for undermining active unionism than for supporting it.

THE U.S. GOVERNMENT STILL FUNDS AN AFL-CIO SUBSIDIARY, to the tune of approximately ,15 million per year--but the international activism it supports is no longer what Ronald Reagan envisioned: The 28 overseas offices of the American Center for International Labor Solidarity--the so-called Solidarity Center--promote worldwide labor freedoms and help third-world workers and American unions to organize jointly against multinational corporations. What produced such a transformation of the AFL-CIO's international role? And what will be its future under the Bush administration?

The seeds of the Solidarity Center were originally planted during the Cold War, when John Sweeney, then the president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), joined the National Labor Committee in Support of Democracy and Human Rights in El Salvador, a group of union presidents opposed to the AFL-CIO's international policies. The end of the Cold War and the 1995 election of John Sweeney's reform slate to lead the AFL-CIO meant an opportunity to overhaul the federation's international activities. And if American unions were in fact to have international cooperation, an overhaul was necessary--because to that point the focus of the institutes had been not labor organizing but anticommunism. "In 1996, the AFL-CIO asked me to go to Argentina to talk about globalization," recalls Jerome Levinson, a distinguished international labor lawyer. A union leader there sat him down at lunch. "If there's one thing you do," said the Argentine, "change the name of AIFLD. The intervention against the progressive unions created such a bitter lack of confidence that they will never rehabilitate themselves otherwise."

After he took over the AFL-CIO in 1995, Sweeney brought in the International Association of Machinists' Barbara Shailor to run the federation's International Affairs Department. As a young staffer, Shailor had helped set up the National Labor Committee. In turn, she hired younger unionists with organizing experience. "Without creating an internal crisis in the place," says Levinson, "she has gradually weeded out those people who were associated with the old crowd and their Cold War line. They have changed the face of the AFL-CIO."

By 1997, Sweeney had consolidated the AFL-CIO's old international institutes into the Solidarity Center. Harry Kamberis, who runs the center, is the link between the old guard and the new: He worked from 1986 to 1997 in the Asian-American Free Labor Institute, one of the Cold War precursors to the Solidarity Center. …

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