Labor Imperialism Redux?:
The AFL-CIO's Foreign Policy Since 1995
by Kim Scipes
Throughout much of its history, the AFL-CIO
has carried out a reactionary labor program around the world.
It has been unequivocally established that the AFL-CIO has worked
to overthrow democratically-elected governments, collaborated
with dictators against progressive labor movements, and supported
reactionary labor movements against progressive governments.1
In short, the AFL-CIO has practiced what we can accurately call
"labor imperialism." The appellation "AFL-CIA"
has accurately represented reality and has not been left-wing
"Labor imperialism" did not
begin with the merger of the AFL-CIO in 1955. It actually began
under the American Federation of Labor (AFL) in the early twentieth
century, before the First World War, under federation president
Samuel Gompers. The AFL engaged in counteracting revolutionary
forces in Mexico during that country's revolution, actively worked
to support and defend U.S. government participation in the First
World War, and then led the charge within U.S. foreign policy
circles against the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. Although ultimately
unsuccessful, the AFL led an effort to establish a Pan-American
Federation of Labor (PAFL) after the First World War to control
labor movements throughout the Western Hemisphere, and most importantly,
in Mexico. As shown by Sinclair Snow in his 1964 study of the
PAFL, the effort to establish the PAFL was underwritten by a $50,000
grant to the AFL from the Wilson administration.
Although most foreign efforts ended with
the death of Gompers in 1924, they were revived during the Second
World War. The AFL was particularly active in Europe, initially
against the Nazis but then against the Communists, who had been
leading forces in the various resistance movements against the
fascists. After the Second World War, during the "Cold War,"
AFL operatives engaged in extensive efforts to undermine Communist
efforts in Italy and France in the late 1940s, and then in long-term
efforts to advance U.S. interests against the Soviet Union on
the continent. These efforts were funded through the U.S. government's
Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and they involved participation
in the drug trade, including the notorious "French Connection,"
when the CIA cut off funding.
AFL operations in Latin America were also
revived after the Second World War. Initially, they worked through
ORIT-the Latin American regional organization of the anticommunist
International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU)-and helped
to overthrow the government of Guatemala in 1954. After the successful
Cuban Revolution, however, the successor AFL-CIO established its
own Latin American operation in 1962, the American Institute for
Free Labor Development or AIFLD, to better respond to "challenges"
within the region. Among other activities, AIFLD helped lay the
groundwork for the military coups against democratically-elected
governments in Brazil in 1964 and Chile in 1973, while also interfering
in the Dominican Republic and British Guinea.
These efforts in Latin America were paralleled
in Africa and Asia. The African-American Labor Center (AALC) was
established in 1964 and was later involved in actions against
the anti-apartheid forces in South Africa. In 1982, the AFL-CIO
gave its George Meany Human Rights Award to apartheid collaborator
Gatsha Buthelezi, who had created a labor center (United Workers
of South Africa) specifically to undercut the Congress of South
African Trade Unions (COSATU) and the rest of the liberation movement.
In 1967, the Asian-American Free Labor
Institute (AAFLI) was established. AAFLI was particularly active
in South Korea, and then provided massive funding in the Philippines
to help the government of Ferdinand Marcos in his battle against
the forces challenging his dictatorship. Between 1983 and 1989,
the AFL-CIO provided more money to the Marcos-created Trade Union
Congress of the Philippines (TUCP) to use against the progressive
labor organization Kilusang Mayo Uno (KMU) than it gave
to any other labor movement in the world, including Poland's Solidarnosc.
These efforts against progressive labor in the Philippines included
supporting the largest affiliate of the TUCP in its efforts against
a KMU affiliate at Atlas Mines, including active collaboration
with a death squad. These operations continued at least through
the 1980s. AAFLI also provided money to a TUCP leader serving
in the Philippine Senate to get him to vote for retention of U.S.
bases when that issue was before their Congress. AAFLI was active
in Indonesia as well.
In short, reactionary labor operations
were carried out by the AFL-CIO throughout the Cold War tenures
of presidents George Meany and Lane Kirkland. Considerable opposition
to these operations did develop within the labor movement by the
mid-1980s, and this opposition was at least one factor in developments
that led to the election of John Sweeney to the presidency of
the AFL-CIO in 1995.
When John Sweeney was elected to the presidency
of the AFL-CIO in October 1995, there was hope among labor activists
that he would radically reform the AFL-CIO's foreign policy. Sweeney's
initial efforts were encouraging. By 1997, he had disbanded labor's
semi-autonomous regional "institutes"-AAFLI, AALC, AIFLD,
and the Free Trade Union Institute (FTUI) operating in Europe-and
replaced them with a centralized organization, headed by a long-time
progressive, with an encouraging name: American Center for International
Labor Solidarity (ACILS), better known today as the "Solidarity
Center." Sweeney also removed many of the long-time cold
warriors from the International Affairs Department. And these
changes, along with some positive efforts to support workers'
struggles in several developing countries, were a qualitative
improvement over the preceding regimes of George Meany and Lane
However, certain events in recent years
have called into question the depth of the AFL-CIO's foreign policy
reforms. Three such events stand out: the AFL-CIO's refusal to
open the books and clear the air with respect to its past operations;
ACILS's involvement in Venezuela concerning attempts to overthrow
the government of the radical Hugo Chávez; and the federation's
support of and participation in a new Cold War-like labor agency
of the federal government. Let us look at each of these in turn,
with the caveat that it is important to understand their multiple
Labor activists have fought the reactionary
foreign policy of the AFL-CIO and some member unions (which have
had their own foreign policy operations) from the beginning. These
challenges have ebbed and flowed over time. Of particular importance
were the publication of analyses of labor's foreign policy in
the 1960s, and then forcefully within the labor movement itself
in the 1980s, as labor activists successfully kept labor from
backing a possible Reagan-initiated invasion of Nicaragua.
These early analyses tended to argue that
AFL-CIO activities had been formulated outside the labor movement,
by the CIA, the White House, and/or the State Department. In other
words, they explained labor's foreign policy efforts as a consequence
of factors external to the labor movement.
However, beginning with an article published
in 1989 by this author in the Newsletter of International Labour
Studies, researchers-working independently and buttressed
by solid evidence-began to contend that foreign policy was developed
within the labor movement, on the basis of internal
factors. While not arguing against considerable evidence that
AFL-CIO foreign operations have worked hand in hand with the CIA,
or that AFL-CIO foreign operations have benefited U.S. foreign
policy as a whole or supported initiatives by the White House
or the State Department, this new approach has established that
labor's foreign policy and its resulting foreign operations, while
funded overwhelmingly by the government, have been developed within
and are controlled by officials at top levels of the AFL-CIO.
These foreign operations have not been
reported to rank and file members for ratification but, instead,
have been consciously hidden-either by not reporting these operations
or, when they have been reported, reporting them in a manner that
distorts them. Thus, labor leaders have been operating internationally
in the name of American workers, their members, while consciously
keeping these members in the dark. Most AFL-CIO union members
to this day have no idea of what the AFL-CIO has done and continues
to do overseas, nor that its actions have been funded overwhelmingly
by the U.S. government.
Efforts by labor activists, then, have
been both to propagate academic findings about AFL-CIO operations
to rank-and-file union members while carrying out their own research
and investigation, and disseminating their findings to rank-and-file
members. Ultimately, the efforts have been designed to educate
the membership and to encourage them to reclaim their good name
in international labor, while hindering or stopping efforts by
AFL-CIO leaders to continue their antilabor efforts.
These oppositional efforts within the
labor movement have intensified since 1998. Fred Hirsch, one of
the first persons to expose labor's foreign operations, and colleagues
tried to pass a "Clear the Air" resolution through the
South Bay Labor Council (in and around San Jose, California) to
memorialize the twenty-fifth anniversary of the U.S.- and AIFLD-backed
coup in Chile of September 11, 1973, and to celebrate the formal
passage of a resolution by the Labor Council in 1974 (over the
opposition of then AIFLD head, William Doherty), based on Hirsch's
work, which exposed and condemned AIFLD activities in Chile. However,
local events sidetracked the "Clear the Air" effort
at the time, and it did not get formally presented.
In 2000, the British government's arrest
and deportation of former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet to
Chile provided a chance for U.S. trade unionists to reflect on
the future direction of AFL-CIO foreign policy.7 The AFL-CIO did
not take the opportunity to do so, but as activists once again
criticized the federation's role in the Chilean coup, Fred Hirsch
and his colleagues renewed their efforts to advance the "Clear
the Air" resolution. They were able to get the resolution
passed by the South Bay Labor Council, and it was forwarded to
the California Federation of Labor, the statewide AFL-CIO organization,
for consideration at its 2002 biannual convention.
The resolution presented was about to
be passed when what looked like a "deal" was offered
to the California federation's Executive Committee: a meeting
of California labor activists would be arranged with AFL-CIO foreign
policy leaders to discuss these issues in a more deliberative
fashion if the resolution under consideration was "watered
down." The arrangement was accepted and the watered-down
resolution was passed by the convention. However, it was understood
at the time that should the meeting prove unsatisfactory, activists
would reinstate their efforts.
It took more than fifteen months before
the promised meeting took place, in October 2003. When it occurred,
AFL-CIO foreign policy leaders basically put on a dog and pony
show rather than interact on substantive issues, greatly displeasing
rank-and-file participants. They failed to honor the request of
the California activists to gather information and report on any
and all labor operations currently taking place around the world
on a country-by-country basis.
As efforts to get the AFL-CIO to own up
to its past continued to meet with resistance, disturbing rumors
began to circulate implicating the AFL-CIO in attempts to overthrow
the left-wing government of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela. One
of Chávez's antagonists was the conservative and often
pro-employer Confederation of Venezuelan Workers (CTV). The CTV
played a key role in the April 2002 coup attempt against Chávez.
As I pointed out in an April 2004 article on the situation in
According to a report...by Robert Collier of The Newspaper Guild/Communications
Workers of America (CWA) in May 2004, the CTV has worked with
FEDECAMERAS, the nation's business association, to carry out general
strikes/lockouts in December 2001, March-April 2002, and December
2002-February 2003. Collier reports that according to many published
reports and interviews that he has conducted in the country, "...the
CTV was directly involved in the [April 2002] coup's planning
Professor Hector Lucena, another labor
observer, reports that these April actions were led by the CTV
and joined by FEDECAMERAS. Christopher Marquis of The New York
Times reported on April 25, 2002, "...the Confederation
of Venezuelan Workers led the work stoppages that galvanized the
opposition to Mr. Chávez. The union's leader, Carlos Ortega,
worked closely with Pedro Carmona Estanga, the businessman who
briefly took over from Mr. Chávez, in challenging the government."
Further, Collier reports, "For months before, CTV Secretary-General
Carlos Ortega created a tight political alliance with FEDECAMARAS
leader Pedro Carmona, and they repeatedly called for the overthrow
of Chávez. "In short," Collier concludes "...in
Venezuela, the AFL-CIO has...supported a reactionary union establishment
as it tried repeatedly to overthrow President Hugo Chávez
and in the process, wrecked the country's economy."
Upon examination, labor and solidarity
activists found numerous ties between the AFL-CIO, particularly
the federation's Solidarity Center (ACILS), and the CTV. AFL-CIO
leaders had shepherded officials of the CTV around Washington,
D.C. just before the coup. Activists associated with the Venezuelan
Solidarity Center, using the Freedom of Information Act, unearthed
documents and reports to the National Endowment for Democracy
(NED)-a U.S. State Department-funded operation that is ostensibly
independent although headed by a number of people with long-term
involvement in U.S. foreign policy efforts-that detailed ACILS's
efforts in Venezuela between 1997-2002.
Some of the documents specifically included
reports by U.S. labor operatives detailing their specific involvement
in uniting the business community (under FEDECAMARAS) with the
Catholic Church and the CTV, and helping them develop their common
program against the democratically-elected regime of President
Hugo Chávez. For example, in ACILS's January-March 2002
quarterly report to NED, we find:
"The CTV and Fedecamaras, with the support of the Catholic
Church, held a national conference on March 5 to discuss their
concerns, perspectives and priorities regarding national development
and to identify common objectives as well as areas of cooperation."
The conference was the culminating event of some two months of
meetings and planning between these two organizations. "The
joint action [producing a "National Accord" to avoid
a supposedly "deeper political and economic crisis"]
further established the CTV and Fedecamaras as the flagship organizations
leading the growing opposition to the Chávez government."
"The Solidarity Center helped support
the event in the planning stages, organizing the initial meetings
with the governor of Miranda State and the business organization,
FEDECAMARAS, to discuss and establish an agenda for such cooperation
in mid-January." The report continued to detail more of their
efforts, concluding with the comment that, "The March 5 national
conference itself was financed primarily by counterpart funds."
Less than thirty days after the March
5 conference, the CTV and FEDECAMARAS launched a national general
strike to protest the firing of oil company management, and the
coup attempt-in which CTV and business leaders played central
Concluding that ACILS played no role in
the turmoil that rocked the country would require us to ignore
the central role being played by CTV and FEDECAMARAS leaders in
that turmoil-leaders with whom Solidarity Center representatives
were in regular contact. It would also require us to ignore the
$587,926 that was provided by NED to ACILS between 1997 and 2001-$154,377
in 2001 alone-to pay for work with the CTV. Along with another
grant from NED in September 2002 for $116,001 to work with CTV
for another six months-later extended another year-we find, according
to NED's own data, that between 1997 and 2002, NED provided over
$700,000 for ACILS work in Venezuela.
The growing evidence of AFL-CIO involvement
in the Venezuelan coup stimulated activists to join together and
mobilize in efforts to condemn AFL-CIO foreign operations. A resolution,
titled "Build Unity and Trust Among Workers Worldwide"
emerged from the 2004 California AFL-CIO Convention Resolution
Committee. "Build Unity and Trust" combined the original
"Clear the Air" resolution from the South Bay Labor
Council along with resolutions that had been passed by the San
Francisco and Monterrey Bay Labor Councils, and resolutions submitted
by American Federation of Teachers (AFT) Local 1493 (San Mateo),
the statewide California Federation of Teachers (CFT), and the
San Francisco Labor Council for transparency in National Endowment
for Democracy (NED) funding. "Build Unity and Trust"
was passed unanimously by delegates at the California State Convention
in July 2004. The actions of AFL-CIO national level foreign policy
leaders had been rebuked by the largest state affiliate of the
AFL-CIO, whose members comprise one-sixth of the entire AFL-CIO
The California State Federation action
followed those by the Washington State Federation, the AFL-CIO
gay/lesbian/transgender constituency group "Pride at Work,"
and the National Writers Union, each of which had previously condemned
AFL-CIO foreign operations.
The AFL-CIO's non-response to calls to
"clear the air" and the evidence concerning its Venezuelan
operations are not very hopeful signs for those who have hoped
that the federation has abandoned its old ways. But do these events
signal a return to labor imperialism, or are they aberrations
from the new course chosen by John Sweeney and his allies? To
help answer this question, it will be helpful to look at a third
event: labor's participation in the U.S. State Department's Advisory
Committee on Labor and Diplomacy (ACLD).
The ACLD is an initiative of the U.S.
State Department. Some of what it does can be found on its Web
site, where minutes of meetings and two formal reports are posted.
A careful perusal of this material establishes several things:
1. The ACLD is an initiative of the U.S. State Department, established
for the purposes of advancing U.S. foreign policy. It was begun
under the Clinton administration, but it has continued into the
2. Top-level labor foreign policy leaders, including the president
and executive secretary of the AFL-CIO (John Sweeney and Linda
Chávez Thompson), the head of the AFL-CIO Executive Council's
Committee on International Affairs (William Lucy), the head of
the International Affairs Department and an assistant (Barbara
Shailor and Phil Fishman), and the executive director of the Solidarity
Center (Harry Kamberis), each actively participated in
meetings and the work of the ACLD, as have people who formerly
operated at high levels of the U.S. labor movement but are now
working in some other capacity (one such former official is Thomas
R. Donahue, long-time NED board member and former secretary-treasurer
and president of the AFL-CIO who ran against Sweeney in the 1995
3. These labor leaders were independent agents in the process
and advocated an approach different from that of the administration,
especially that of President Bush.
4. This work has not been reported in any labor publications,
as far as I have been able to discover, nor put on the AFL-CIO's
The ACLD was established on May 20, 1999,
when its charter was approved by under secretary of state for
management, Bonnie R. Cohen. The purpose of the committee is clear:
The purpose of the Advisory Committee on Labor Diplomacy...shall
be to serve the Secretary of State...in an advisory capacity with
respect to the US Government's labor diplomacy programs administered
by the Department of State. The Committee will provide advice
to the Secretary and the President. The Department of State will
work in close partnership with the Department of Labor to enhance
the Committee's work and US labor diplomacy activities. Specifically,
the Committee shall advise the Secretary on the resources and
policies necessary to implement labor diplomacy programs efficiently,
effectively and in a manner that ensures US leadership before
the international community in promoting the objectives and ideals
of US labor policies now and in the 21st century.
While it is not clear where the idea for
the initiative that became ACLD developed, a strong argument was
made for the revitalization of labor diplomacy by Edmund McWilliams,
the director of international labor in the State Department's
Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor. McWilliams, recognizing
the key service provided by the labor movement to the U.S. government
during the Cold War, said that:
Labor diplomacy, those aspects of U.S. foreign relations that
relate to the promotion of worker rights and, more broadly, democratic
society, was a vital element of a successful U.S. foreign policy
during the Cold War. At the time, labor offered significant
political support to the U.S. Government in its efforts to contain
and defeat communism. In the years after the Cold War, labor
diplomacy has been relegated to the sidelines by foreign policy
makers; at the same time, the fight for worker rights has
become even more important as globalization has produced new challenges
for workers. It is time that a vibrant labor diplomacy can
be a valuable component of U.S. foreign policy once again....(emphases
McWilliams points out that "During
the Cold War, a vigorous labor diplomacy...implemented by State
Department labor officers, USAID and USIA...was critical to U.S.
foreign policy." He notes that the unions "rallied"
to the government's call for a struggle against communism, "and
offered political support to shore up Western governments."
However, "U.S. labor's role in U.S. foreign policy and U.S.
labor diplomacy more generally lost much of their purpose following
the collapse of communism."
The idea of a revitalized labor diplomacy
policy, however, is seen as alleviating the worse aspects of globalization,
which has "produced new challenges for workers." McWilliams
notes that, "The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights
established that worker rights are human rights," although
he also recognizes that these goals are still unmet in both the
developed and developing countries. He recognizes problems such
as "flexible" labor markets, privatization, and downsizing-the
latter "encouraged by international financial institutions
and our own bilateral assistance programs"-leave workers
"to adjust to new economic conditions without benefit of
social safety nets or job retraining." Additionally, he notes
that "globalization encourages companies to invest in countries
where labor standards are lowest, potentially pushing some countries
that embrace higher stands for workers right out of economic competition."
In short, McWilliams recognizes at least some of the serious impacts
that globalization is having on developing countries and their
workers, and wants U.S. labor's voice reinvited into foreign policy
discussion so they can present these concerns.
...today, labor could play just as significant a role in the formulation
and implementation of U.S. foreign policy as it did during
the Cold War. Many of the goals that U.S. foreign policy seeks
to promote-democracy, human rights, political stability, and social
and economic development-are the same ones that labor also embraces.
McWilliams goes on to elaborate the contributions
that unions make in societies around the world. He argues that
"Trade unions in many countries are uniquely placed to articulate
social as well as labor concerns responsibly and coherently"
and, accordingly, "...trade unions and workers can be valuable
allies for U.S. diplomacy."
McWilliams appears to recognize that U.S.
foreign policy has weaknesses that must be addressed. In this
case, he argues that globalization is doing harm to the world's
workers, that it is a mistake to ignore these escalating problems,
that U.S. labor-particularly because of its relations with labor
around the world-is uniquely capable of presenting labor's concerns
to foreign policy makers, and that labor should be reincorporated
into the government's foreign policy processes:
The U.S. would benefit from engaging international labor in the
pursuit of shared goals such as democratization, political stability
and equitable economic and social development. An alliance between
the U.S. and labor today would focus on worker rights, including
ensuring that economic development is not based on the exploitation
of child labor, forced labor or employment that discriminates
against women and minorities, and on economic justice, ensuring
that globalization's benefits flow to all and not simply to the
few best placed to profit from it. A revitalized labor diplomacy
today would foster democratic freedoms by shoring up fragile democracies,
just as the U.S. labor alliance of the Cold War era did.
Secretary of State Madeleine Albright
recognized the strength of the argument, even before McWilliams
published it. After receiving the first report by the ACLD-"A
World of Decent Work: Labor Diplomacy for the New Century"-and
having a couple of months to evaluate its recommendations, Secretary
Albright stated at the November 8, 2000, meeting of the ACLD,
"I am absolutely convinced after four years of doing this
job that we can't have a successful U.S. foreign policy without
effective labor diplomacy." She also added: "And becoming
a part of the US Government may not have been something you intended
in this way, but I do believe it has been a very important
partnership." (emphasis added)
The ACLD, although initially only expected
to last for two years, was continued by the Bush administration.
However, where the first report-during the Clinton administration-addressed
"the importance of labor diplomacy in U.S. foreign policy
and the promotion of worker rights in the context of economic
globalization"-by its second report in late 2001 (that is,
after September 11, 2001), the focus had shifted to "the
role and importance of labor diplomacy in promoting US national
security and combating the global political, economic, and social
conditions that undermine our security interests." (emphasis
added) This emphasis can further be seen in the title of the
ACLD's second report, "Labor Diplomacy: In the Service of
Democracy and Security."
There is a lot of talk in the second report,
just like in the first one, about the importance of labor rights
and democracy. However, one only has to read a little into the
second report to see that workers' rights are important only
if they help advance U.S. security:
The war on terrorism provides one more example of why labor diplomacy
functions are so important. Working conditions that lead to misery,
alienation, and hopelessness are extremely important in the constellation
of forces responsible for terrorism, especially when demagogues
blame the United States, globalization or other external forces.
Policies to improve these conditions are necessary components
of strategies to prevent and counter terrorist activities. Effective
labor diplomacy is important in informing American analysis and
shaping its policy to combat the conditions that breed terrorism
around the world. (emphasis added)
Further, the 2001 report argues, "...the
promotion of democracy needs to be part of any sustainable U.S.-led
effort to combat terrorism, promote stability and ensure national
The report discusses "Trade Unions
in Muslim Countries." It notes, "These unions are a
political battleground because they are proxy political institutions
and instruments for controlling the hearts, minds and jobs
of workers in these countries." (emphasis added) Further,
they note the role of ACILS in these unions:
As the U.S. Government-supported programs of the American Center
for International Labor Solidarity (Solidarity Center) already
demonstrate, a policy that aims to cultivate union leadership
at the enterprise and industrial sector levels represents
the most promising approach to inculcate modern economic thinking
and democratic political values among workers in Muslim countries.
So, without beating the issue to death,
it is clear that by the second ACLD report, ACLD members are seeing
labor diplomacy as a vital part of U.S. foreign policy and national
security efforts, and they are encouraging the Bush administration
to address areas of concern that they have identified. This certainly
includes conditions that they believe facilitate terrorism, and
particularly within the Muslim world. And yet, they state that
labor has already been working within the Muslim world, trying
to win "the hearts and minds" of workers in these countries.
But while great concern is expressed-again and again in the report-for
U.S. national security, concern for the well-being of the world's
workers and any possible expressions of mutually-beneficial solidarity-based
actions by the AFL-CIO are all but absent.
Now, obviously, there is a contradiction
that can be seen in McWilliams's argument, and it is one advanced
throughout almost all of the government's foreign policy public
documents. The evidence presented in this paper has shown that
labor's role in the Cold War was terribly reactionary. It acted
against democracy in a number of societies and labor movements
as well as internally within the U.S. labor movement itself
as it sought to maintain U.S. hegemony in the world. McWilliams
acknowledges and even celebrates the close ties between labor
and government during that period, and argues for their reestablishment.
And yet he claims that the shared interest of labor and the government
is to "spread democracy." How can these contradictory
claims/realities be resolved?
To do this, it is useful to turn to William
Robinson's Promoting Polyarchy: Globalization, US Intervention
and Hegemony.19 In an excellent analysis of U.S. foreign policy,
Robinson argues that this policy began shifting in the mid-1980s
from supporting any dictator who promised fealty and control of
"his" people to intervening actively in the "civil
society" of targeted nations for the purposes of building
support among the more conservative politicians (including labor
leaders), and for linking their interests with the United States.
Key to this are "democracy-promoting" operations. However,
while using the rhetoric of "popular" democracy-the
one-person, one-vote grassroots-driven version that we are taught
in civics courses and supposedly exists here-the United States
is, in fact, promoting polyarchal or top-down, elite-driven, democracy.
This polyarchal democracy suggests that citizens get to choose
their leaders when, in fact, they only get to choose between those
presented as possible choices by the elites of that country. In
addition, viable solutions to social problems can only emerge
from possibilities presented by the elites. In other words, polyarchal
democracy only appears to be democratic; in reality it
And institutionally, the United States
projects this polyarchal democracy through its "democracy-building
programs," especially through USAID and the Department of
State. State, in turn, channels its money and its efforts through
the National Endowment for Democracy, upon which the 2001 report
comments: "The National Endowment for Democracy (a government-supported
but independent agency) funds its four core grantee institutions,
including the Solidarity Center, as well as a large number
of grantee groups around the world."
This understanding provides a means to
"decipher" government reports. When they promote "democracy"
and claim it is one of the four interrelated goals of U.S. foreign
policy-along with stability, security, and prosperity-in reality,
it is a particular form of democracy, a form of democracy that
has no relation to the popular democracy that most Americans think
of when they hear the word. When labor leaders use the term "democracy"
in this manner, they are collaborating with the government against
workers around the world, both in the United States and overseas.
Where does all this leave us? The AFL-CIO's
unwillingness to clear the air appears to be not an oversight
or a mistake. It seems a conscious decision because foreign policy
leaders fear a backlash from union members should their long-lasting
perfidy become widely known, as they should.
The AFL-CIO, through its American Center
for International Labor Solidarity (ACILS), was actively involved
with both the CTV and FEDECAMARAS in Venezuela before the April
2002 coup, and these organizations both helped lead the coup attempt.
ACILS was given over $700,000 by the National Endowment for Democracy
for work in that country between 1997 and 2002. These efforts
and receipt of the money were not reported to AFL-CIO members
and, in fact, the AFL-CIO has actively worked to keep these operations
from being known, despite a growing number of AFL-CIO affiliated
organizations formally requesting this information. These activities
and receipt of this money has not been reported in any labor press,
including its own Web site, by the AFL-CIO. And this intentional
refusal to address member organization concerns has also been
formally condemned by a number of AFL-CIO affiliates.
As if that weren't bad enough, labor leaders
also have been actively participating in the State Department-initiated
Advisory Committee for Labor Diplomacy (ACLD), which has been
designed to advance the labor diplomacy efforts of the United
States. While considerable benefit to the U.S. government has
been established, there has been no or little benefit to workers
either in the United States or in the rest of the world. Again,
there has been no transparency by the AFL-CIO foreign
policy leaders. Active involvement in the ACLD has taken place
not only under the Clinton administration but also under the Bush
administration. In short, there are good reasons to believe that
under AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, labor's foreign policy has
reverted back to "traditional" labor imperialism.
In light of these findings, it seems obvious
that any of the current efforts to "reform" the AFL-CIO
are doomed to failure unless they explicitly address the return
of labor imperialism at the highest levels of the federation.
While certainly not the only issue of importance, it is one of
the most important, and this cannot be sidestepped should meaningful
change be sought. Should this continue to be the case, it is clear
that labor activists must consider their own future actions in
regards to AFL-CIO foreign policy. The well-being of workers in
the United States and around the world-and our allies-will be
deeply affected by the choices made.
Kim Scipes is a former rank and file member
of the Graphic Communications International Union, the National
Education Association, and the American Federation of Teachers,
and is currently a member of the National Writers Union/UAW. He
teaches sociology at Purdue University North Central in Westville,
Indiana. He maintains an online bibliography on contemporary labor
issues, http://faculty.pnc.edu/kscipes/LaborBib.htm, and can be
contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.. Also by this author Global Economic
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