Forgive me if I’m cherry-picking here—“optimists of the will” tend to do that—but I think there’s hope yet for America’s battered working class, old and new. It’s just sad to see that some of labor’s academic historians—and it doesn’t have that many—spend so much time at the movies, with their headphones on, trying to figure out which way the wind is (or has been) blowing.
AFL-CIO’s Secret War against Developing Country Workers: Solidarity or Sabotage?
By Kim Scipes
Lexington Books, 2010
Reviewed by Paul Garver
During the 1980s, a diverse movement of activists in and around the labor movement opposed U.S. government support for murderous and repressive regimes in Central America and the AFL-CIO’s international policies. This led to the creation of the National Labor Committee in Support of Democracy and Human Rights in El Salvador, and internal debate on the AFL-CIO’s policies eventually extended to South Africa and the Philippines.
Advocates of reform called for labor “solidarity without borders.” U.S. labor’s international activities should build a united global front of workers to support each other against multinational capital. By supporting stronger unions in developing countries, we could reduce the flight of American jobs overseas and assist foreign workers in pursuing their own economic and political objectives. Direct “union to union” ties would foster mutual solidarity among workers from different countries.
This position began to displace Cold War anti-communism as the dominant theme of labor international policy by 1990. The SEIU adopted this position by consensus at its 1988 convention, following a behind-the-scenes struggle within a committee formed to handle the flood of proposed resolutions on international issues. The convention decision contributed to SEIU President John Sweeney’s election over his former mentor Tom Donahue as AFL-CIO President in 1995. Donahue had been closely associated with former AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland’s ideologically rigid anticommunist views, and part of Sweeney’s appeal to more progressive union leaders was that he was open to adopting a fresh outlook on international issues.
As AFL-CIO President, Sweeney appointed progressive trade unionists Barbara Shailor and Stan Gacek to key posts in the International Department. He abolished the four semi-autonomous regional institutes that had been associated with Cold War policies, replacing them with the American Center for International Labor Solidarity (ACILS). Over the ensuing few years, a fresh generation of labor activists and community organizers staffed the ACILS and its numerous field offices. Previously strained relations between the American labor movement’s foreign operations and global union federations began to improve, as ACILS staffers pursued modest but useful projects to develop grassroots unions in many countries.
In AFL-CIO’s Secret War against Developing Country Workers: Solidarity or Sabotage?, Kim Scipes notes that he initially welcomed these changes. However, he now believes that Sweeney deliberately betrayed the hopes that his election raised. He vehemently argues that, in substance, nothing has changed and the AFL-CIO continues to be the major obstacle to achieving genuine international labor solidarity: “Despite any small efforts that might assist workers here and there, the overall project is toxic, and must be dug out root and branch, and replaced by a genuine program of international labor solidarity” (p. xii).
For Scipes, the appointment of Harry Kamberis—former director of the Asian-American Free Labor Institute (AAFLI)—as the first director of the ACILS and the retention of other staffers associated with the old regime demonstrated a basic continuity with the discredited past and Sweeney’s resistance to genuine change. The ACILS has conducted some “positive efforts” and interventions in Colombia and Central America. Scipes has even heard “anecdotes” that ACILS staffers have been helpful to trade unionists from Iraq. However, all of its efforts must remain suspect:
Until a detailed understanding of what they are doing in each particular country in which they are operating can be developed, evidence developed to date suggests that any overseas operations by the AFL-CIO, ACILS, or any other operation related to the AFL-CIO, the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), and/or the U.S. Government must be considered “guilty” of labor imperialism until proven innocent (p. 215, endnote 84).
This is indeed a tall order, since the ACILS has twenty-six field offices and activities in about sixty countries. Scipes presents several cases of U.S. labor “imperialism” but, with the single exception of Venezuela in 2002, all precede the creation of the ACILS. The detailed cases he presents of Chile and the Philippines date from the 1970s and the late 1980s, respectively.
The key event that convinced Scipes that nothing had fundamentally changed at the AFL-CIO was the alleged complicity of the ACILS in the attempted coup against Hugo Chávez in 2002. A detailed exchange between Stan Gacek and Robert Collier in the Summer 2004 issue of New Labor Forum1 presents the relevant arguments. The Venezuelan incident does not sufficiently demonstrate the link between current ACILS operations and the better-documented hostile interventions by U.S. labor operatives in the past. At most, the modest ACILS project to reform the Confederación de Trabajadores de Venezuela (CTV) was but circumstantially associated with the involvement of top CTV officers in plotting the coup.
Since Scipes’s references to positive interventions by the AFL-CIO and the ACILS are vague and sketchy, I include here an incomplete list of such actions from the recent months:2
1. In collaboration with the national labor center in Colombia, the AFL-CIO is maintaining strong opposition to the enactment of a free trade agreement between the U.S. and Colombia, while forcing the two governments to promise much more detailed and specific provisions safeguarding the threatened lives of Colombian trade unionists.
2. The ACILS has been instrumental in assisting with the creation of new reformminded trade unions and a new labor center in Egypt, which have been leading forces in the ongoing democratic revolt.
3. U.S. campus activists are promoting the products of the unionized Alta Gracia factory in the Dominican Republic. The union at the plant was formed with the assistance of the ACILS.
4. The ACILS just sponsored and facilitated a visit by representatives of the United Electrical Workers (UE) to study labor unions in China. This would have been unthinkable a few years ago, both because the UE is not an AFL-CIO union and because China was off limits.
Scipes eloquently advocates genuine international labor solidarity, but his book suffers from an overly narrow perspective. There are no transnational corporations to combat or global union federations, and there’s no International Trade Union Confederation. His bibliography leaves out numerous key books on how international labor solidarity is actually organized.3 The beam of light that he casts upon the AFL-CIO’s international policy is too narrow to capture the complex contemporary reality of global capital and labor.
However, even his narrowly focused beam illuminates troubling structural flaws in the way that the AFL-CIO operates internationally. Scipes soundly criticizes the continuing total reliance on U.S. government funding, in particular from the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). The adage “who pays the piper, calls the tune” is a useful starting point for analysis. The day-to-day activities of the ACILS may not follow the immediate vagaries of U.S. imperial policy, but its reliance on the U.S. government as its single donor puts some useful solidarity initiatives off limits.
The ACILS itself would prefer to lessen its reliance on U.S. government funding. Its website encourages donations from “concerned individuals and organizations,” but it offers no evidence of any response to this appeal. American trade unionists should directly provide funding for international labor solidarity. Some foreign labor movements have developed creative ways to fund international solidarity efforts that reduce their dependence on government money. German unions fund the Hans Böckler Foundation from fees contributed by union members placed on corporate boards by the co-determination legislation. In Nordic countries, “clubs” of union members at the local level support specific organizing projects in developing countries. The Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) fund their own international solidarity projects by negotiating special contributions from employers in collective bargaining agreements. American unionists who share Scipes’s view that reliance on NED funding inevitably compromises solidarity could follow the latter two models.
Exclusive reliance on government Exclusive reliance on government funding is also associated with the lack of transparency and failure to adequately report back to unions. The ACILS must submit periodic reports to the NED to justify continued funding. These reports are not in a detailed format that would actually jeopardize the foreign unionists supported by ACILS projects. However, the reports must present ACILS projects as consistent with U.S. governmental policy, and they do not lay out any systematic strategy for solidarity.
ACILS reporting to union leaders and members is sporadic and desultory in comparison. As Scipes correctly asserts, American unionists have a right to know what initiatives are being taken in the name of international labor solidarity.
Without adequate documentation, an intelligent internal debate within labor cannot take place, opening the door to systematic suspicions. Scipes cites an egregious example to illustrate this problem: at the 2005 AFL-CIO convention a critical resolution from the California AFL-CIO on the ACILS was replaced by a substitute resolution praising the work of the ACILS, with no debate permitted. The failure to allow a rare opportunity for debate damaged the reputation of the AFL-CIO and the ACILS for no plausible benefit.
Scipes’s goal of “consciously building support among workers to . . . join the global movement for economic and social justice as active participants, individually and, most importantly, collectively” (p. xxi) is laudable. If his book stimulates greater debate on how to accomplish this goal, whatever its flaws, it will have made a useful contribution.
1. See New Labor Forum 13, no. 2 (Summer 2004): 93-99.
2. These were covered in the Talking Union blog (talkingunion. wordpress.com) that I co-edit.
3. For instance, Kate Bronfenbrenner, ed., Global Unions: Challenging Transnational Capital through Cross-Border Campaigns (Ithaca, NY: ILR Press, 2007).