The ClO without the CIA:

Inside the AFL-CIO's Solidarity Center

by Simon Rodberg

The American Prospect magazine, Summer 2001


For four decades, the AFL - CIO 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 19805, during the reign of the death squads in E1 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 Reagan-era 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 E1 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. Though he spent a year as a union organizer in the mid-1980s, Kamberis, a former foreign-service officer and international businessman, doesn't share the liberal-left union background of his colleagues at the AFL-CIO.

But Kamberis has succeeded in bringing a State Department-like organization to the Solidarity Center offices, which in effect function as foreign embassies of the AFL-CIO, directed from Washington, D.C., and run by American unionists aided by local program officers and office staff The countries of operation-from Bangladesh to Bulgaria, Paraguay to the Philippines-tend to have union representation among 3 percent to 5 percent of the workforce, with scarce enforcement of labor laws. The Solidarity Center receives grants from the U.S. government to promote workers' rights through such activities as teaching organizing and collective-bargaining skills, providing advice and resources for specific campaigns, and sponsoring exchanges to bring unionists to the United States.

Even when they were also serving as Cold War tools of the CIA, the AFL-CIO's international institutes did do some labor rights training. But as the backlash against corporate-style globalization has spread across the world, the Solidarity Center has become far more active in organizing than the institutes ever were. The staff on the ground is almost entirely new in the last five years-and it is entirely new in Latin America. The invigoration of the center's work is connected, both substantively and symbolically, to the labor movement's partnership with the student-led movement against sweatshops and to the strengthening of federal programs to promote workers' interests and human rights initiated by the Clinton administration. Just four days before George W. Bush's inauguration in January, for instance, then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright announced a grant of nearly $1 million to the Solidarity Center for work against sweatshops and child labor. In the Philippines, Kamberis says, the money is used to test various industry codes of conduct and help Filipino trade unions use the codes as organizing instruments. In Central America, the grant goes to expand the scope of anti-sweatshop organizing beyond the garment industry to other sectors, such as agriculture, transportation, and tourism.

The Solidarity Center's activities are varied and far-flung. In Cambodia, says Kamberis, "we wrote the labor codes" during the transition from autocracy. In Indonesia, during the height of the anti-sweatshop protests in the United States, Reebok sponsored workers'-rights seminars in its factories that were led by the Solidarity Center. In each country, the center partners with a local workers' organization-often an incipient union at a multinational employer that already might be headquartered, and unionized, in the United States.

If the Solidarity Center is promoting an international workers' agenda, why does the U.S. government cover three-quarters of its budget? The AFL-CIO itself is struggling with that issue-and the question is sure to occur to the Bush administration sooner or later. When the federation's International Affairs Committee suggested the creation of the Solidarity Center, it also recommended that the center be weaned off government funding. The panel's fear was less that the Solidarity Center would be susceptible to use as a tool of reactionary U.S. policy than that the need to appease government funders would dull the edge of the union's international agenda. Kamberis says that the funding hasn't compromised the center's mission; and it is true that even the federal government's grant materials say that the center's role is to help build strong unions and win social and economic justice.

The Solidarity Center's "in-country" staffers, with their backgrounds in union organizing, act as conduits between American unions and their foreign counterparts while serving as the AFL-CIO's eyes and ears on the ground in other nations. "If the World Bank holds a meeting in Brazil," says Ron Blackwell, the labor federation's director of corporate affairs, "we need to have a labor person there. The Solidarity Center will help. If there's an organizing drive [in the United States] with a multinational with operations in Brazil, we need to know what the operation there is like. It helps us act as if we were global." Tim Beaty, the AFL-CIO's deputy director of international affairs, speaks proudly of linking workers at a repressive Nike contractor in Mexico with the U.S. garment and textile workers' union UNITE and of helping to bring workers from Korea to visit the Korean-owned factory in Mexico. When the AFL-CIO confronts the world of multinational corporations, the Solidarity Center staffers are its front-line troops.

The Bush administration is not likely to take kindly to subsidizing a global battle for union power. But a proposed reduction in government funding could turn out to be beneficial to the AFL-CIO by forcing it to revise its overseas structure. The substance of what the Solidarity Center does is different from the work of the old international institutes, but the form is much the same: The U.S. union projects its power through "embassies" around the world. Unlike the Bush administration, however, the AFL-CIO has neither the power nor the inclination to act unilaterally. The international workers' agenda preached at the AFL-CIO requires a global strategy. But maintaining 28 small outposts of American unionism isn't a particularly strategic way to globalize.

The good news is that the AFL-CIO leadership realizes that it needs a new way to operate. "There was a time when people at the union thought of the work outside of the country as international work, and the work inside as the AFL-CIO's work," says Barbara Shailor. "We've lost the sense that there are two different missions." The historically weak International Confederation of Free Trade Unions instituted a "Millennium Review" last year to figure out a new structure for an international labor movement, with the American Labor Federation's full support. As global coordination increases, Shailor foresees ~ reduction in the number of Solidarity Center offices. Rather than embassies of the AFL-CIO, she says, "we're moving much more toward a global union model."

Nobody knows how that model will work in practice. But one -clue comes from what may be the AFL-CIO's first truly global -campaign. On May 1, the federation launched a drive to get all U.S. businesses to post the ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights, which supports the right to organize and bargain collectively and rejects discrimination, forced work, and child labor. The choice to inform the traditionally isolationist American workforce of its international rights wasn't accidental; nor was the decision to kick off the effort on International Workers Day, which is usually ignored in the United States. At the same time, the Solidarity Center and its 28 offices launched their own campaign-to distribute the same poster around the world. It will be years before a global union can coordinate this kind of effort or fight for these rights. But the AFL-CIO, which not so long ago was busy fighting the Cold War, is starting the work now.


Simon Rodberg is an American Prospect writing fellow.

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