Labor's Cold War: Freshly Unearthed Documents May Force the AFL-CIO to Face Up to Past Betrayals. (Articles)

By Shorrock, Tim | The Nation, May 19, 2003 | Go to article overview

Labor's Cold War: Freshly Unearthed Documents May Force the AFL-CIO to Face Up to Past Betrayals. (Articles)


Shorrock, Tim, The Nation


In the months before President Bush invaded Iraq, thousands of trade unionists joined the massive protests that filled the nation's streets. Their ranks swelled when the AFL-CIO, for the first time in its history, openly challenged a US decision to go to war and charged that Bush's unilateralist policies had "squandered" the global solidarity that America enjoyed after September 11, 2001. Once the invasion began, AFL-CIO president John Sweeney did shift his antiwar stance, declaring that the federation would "support fully" Bush's war goals. But he also acknowledged the right of "people of good conscience and good faith" to express opposition. Those events, and Sweeney's respectful recognition of the splits in his ranks, marked a major watershed in US labor history--and could serve as a long overdue coda to the events of another September 11, thirty years ago, that still inspire raging debates about labor's role in US foreign policy.

That September 11, in 1973, was the day Chilean President Salvador Allende was overthrown in a bloody military coup that ended a brief experiment in democratic socialism and took the lives of Allende and thousands of Chilean workers, students and political activists. Today, many trade unionists remain haunted by the knowledge that their own federation, the AFL-CIO, played a key role in the US campaign, led by the Nixon Administration and the Central Intelligence Agency, to destabilize Chile in the years before the coup. From 1971 to 1973, the AFL-CIO's American Institute for Free Labor Development (AIFLD), one of four US-government-funded labor institutes created during the cold war, channeled millions of dollars to right-wing unions and political parties opposed to Allende's socialist agenda. That aid helped finance the revolt by Chile's professional class and fanned the flames of social unrest that provided the pretext for Gen. Augusto Pinochet's violent crackdown and the justification for his seventeen-year dictatorship.

According to documents I've unearthed in the AFL-CIO's archives, AIFLD's program in Chile was closely coordinated with the US Embassy and dovetailed with one of the CIA's key aims in Chile: to split the Chilean labor movement and create a trade union base of opposition to Allende, who was viewed as dangerously anti-American and a pawn of the Soviet Union. The campaign's political agenda was summarized in a 1972 cable in the archives from Robert O'Neill, AIFLD's representative in Chile, to AFL-CIO headquarters in Washington. Chile, O'Neill proudly told his superiors, had become the site of "the first large-scale middle class movement against government attempts to impose, slowly but surely, a Marxist-Leninist system."

Over the past two years, a coalition of grassroots West Coast labor activists has been seeking to use those archives to spark a discussion about the AFL-CIO's cold war past, when AIFLD and its sister institutes in Asia, Africa and Eastern Europe served as labor's spearhead in the US wars against Communism and left-wing liberation struggles. AIFLD's actions in Chile, Brazil and other countries, activists say, blackened the name of the AFL-CIO among the very people to whom American unions have been reaching out in recent years to build a movement for peace and economic justice.

Questions about the past have mingled with concerns about the AFL-CIO's current activities abroad, such as its financial support for the Confederation of Venezuelan Workers (CTV), which is allied with Venezuela's business elite in a bitter campaign to topple the leftist government of President Hugo Chavez. Initially, the AFL-CIO's program in Venezuela was financed with a $150,000 grant from the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), which was created by Congress to support pro-US democratic movements abroad, and came to light last spring, shortly after Chavez was briefly overthrown in a military coup initially backed by the Bush Administration. To a few critics, the incident resembled the interventionist days of old--a comparison hotly denied by the AFL-CIO. …

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