AFL-CIO Is Spanish for Union Busting; How the U.S. and Big Labor Fight Communism by Opposing Popular Unions and Setting Up Unpopular Ones

By Smyth, Frank | The Washington Monthly, September 1987 | Go to article overview

AFL-CIO Is Spanish for Union Busting; How the U.S. and Big Labor Fight Communism by Opposing Popular Unions and Setting Up Unpopular Ones


Smyth, Frank, The Washington Monthly


AFL-CIO IS SPANISH FOR UNION BUSTING

It seemed the Reagan administration had finally gotten smart. Faced with increasing opposition to the centrist administration of Jose Napoleon Duarte in El Salvador, it decided that instead of peddling exploding cigars or helping right-wing death squads it would use covert action to compete for the hearts of the people. In 1986, with left-wing influence in trade unions on the rise, the Reagan administration, working with an international arm of the AFL-CIO, helped set up a parallel trade union movement that would represent workers while shunning communist influence.

One problem: the new unions haven't quite gotten the hang of appealing to the masses. For example, at Confiteria Americana, a candy factory in downtown San Salvador, management runs the new union. Private security guards armed with shotguns and high-caliber pistols stand at the entrance. "All the private employers have them,' said the company's manager, a member of the new trade union. "They're necessary for security.' He's half right. Most companies hire guards to keep burglars away at night, but the candy factory guards patrol only during the day. Their job is to keep the workers from striking. Workers who stay active in the old union have been told they might be fired, no small threat in a country with 40 percent unemployment. Around El Salvador the story is the same: a number of new unions have been formed to replace or compete with existing unions. They exist not to respond to worker demands, but to provide the government with a vehicle to control worker demands. Although most gains by Duarte's parallel unions have been modest, in a few key areas the parallel unions have taken over completely. And while both parties deny it, CIA and other classified documents show that both the AFL-CIO and the U.S. government have helped create and implement a policy that is anti-democratic--and backfiring.

The State Department has had good reason to be concerned. A centrist politician caught between two violent extremes, Duarte has been worthy of U.S. support, but deteriorating economic conditions, government austerity measures, and continuing civil war have eaten away at his most important political base--the labor movement. And it is clear that the communist insurgents have increased their influence in the labor movement. What they have lost to Salvadoran troops in military skirmishes, leftists have apparently made up in factory organizing.

Communist infiltration? Unhappy workers? Sounds like a job for the AFL-CIO. The AFL-CIO's Latin-American branch, the American Institute for Free Labor Development (AIFLD), was formed in the wake of the Cuban Revolution to battle communism by building centrist, pro-U.S. labor movements. Since 1962, AIFLD has trained more than 500,000 Latin American unionists in democratic values. The organization gets more than 90 percent of its budget from the U.S. Agency for International Development (AID) and the U.S. Information Agency (USIA), roughly $20 million, or half the AFL-CIO domestic budget.

The organization is not without its critics. Liberal groups have charged that it helped destabilize left-wing democratic governments in the Dominican Republic and Chile and that it works too closely with the CIA. But AIFLD has often played a positive role. In El Salvador in the late sixties, it helped peasants buy land and organized community development projects. In fact, it did this so well that in 1973 the military junta kicked it out of the country.

When a reformist military junta took over the presidential palace in 1979, it invited AIFLD back to counter the left-led organized labor movement allied with revolutionary groups. While AIFLD opposed the left-leaning labor groups, it also pushed for positive change, helping write the government's agrarian reform laws and organizing a coalition of Salvadoran unionists. The Popular Democratic Union became the largest labor coalition in the country by 1982, in large part because it was one of the only labor coalitions allowed. …

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