Date: Sat, 9 Dec 1995 07:22:03 GMT
Sender: Activists Mailing List <ACTIV-L@MIZZOU1.missouri.edu>
From: Rich Winkel <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Subject: Will the new AFL/CIO Change its Cold War Policies?
To: Multiple recipients of list ACTIV-L <ACTIV-L@MIZZOU1.missouri.edu>
/** headlines: 150.0 **/
** Topic: will the new AFL change direction? **
** Written 9:45 AM Dec 7, 1995 by newsdesk in cdp:headlines **
From: IGC News Desk <email@example.com>
/* Written 10:27 PM Dec 5, 1995 by dbacon in igc:labr.newsline */
/* ---------- "will the new AFL change direction?" ---------- */
Will the AFL-CIO's New Leaders Change its Old Cold War Policies?
By David Bacon
29 October 1995
NEW YORK (10/29/95) Q Dan Lane was almost the last person
to speak, on the last day of the AFL-CIO convention which
concluded last week. The day before, John Sweeney was chosen
president in the first contested election in a hundred years.
Lane himself was in the 56th day of a hunger strike, trying to
rally the labor movement to stop the destruction of his union at
the Staley plant in Decatur, Illinois.
Surrounded by dozens of locked-out fellow workers, and
strikers from other workplaces across the country, he strode
across the floor of the convention to the podium, and began to
recite the words to the old union anthem, Solidarity Forever.
"When the union's inspiration...through the workers' blood
shall run," he intoned in the gravelly voice of a midwest
preacher, "there shall be no power greater...anywhere beneath the
sun." The huge hall fell silent as a thousand delegates strained
to hear his quiet intensity. "For what force on earth is
weaker...than the feeble strength of one." Almost whispering:
"But the union...makes us...strong." Then, in a voice as though
it held the strength of all those thousand delegates, he shouted
out: "Brothers and sisters, Solidarity!" and the hall leapt to its
feet in cheers.
It was a defining moment for the historic change which
took place at the New York convention. Solidarity is becoming the
byword of the new AFL-CIO. The concept runs like a common thread
through the program which Sweeney advocated during his campaign
for the AFL-CIO presidency, and it successfully bound together a
wide spectrum of unions on his behalf. But while Lane's
convention call for solidarity appealed for the AFL-CIO to support
its own members, the era of the global economy poses an even
deeper question. Will his call for solidarity cross borders?
Will a new AFL-CIO leadership help bring together the unionists of
the world, to face together their common multinational employers?
From the time that the AFL merged with the CIO in 1955,
past AFL-CIO presidents Kirkland and Meany fought against the old
labor traditions of solidarity among rank-and-file workers, and
denied that a working class even existed in the U.S. Instead,
they brought U.S. labor into support for cold war foreign
policies, redbaiting those who opposed it, and often pitting the
interests of U.S. workers against the struggles of workers abroad.
Today, advocates of a solidarity-based movement seek to
redefine the old traditions in a world in which corporations have
declared class war on U.S. workers, where the domestic workforce
is racially, nationally and sexually more diverse than anytime in
its history, and in which U.S. workers are linked to those in
other countries by the ties of the global economy.
The struggle between these two points of view shaped the
convention, and the contest over the leadership of the AFL-CIO.
Opening the gathering, Tom Donahue, the interim AFL-CIO
president whom Sweeney defeated, tried to convince delegates that
the federation was really a narrow "trade union movement." He
attacked his opponents for supporting a "labor movement," or
"social movement," one which would move away from Washington and
into the streets, organizing and speaking for immigrants and
low-wage workers, in unions and out of them.
Donahue's vision of the past seemed irrelevant to
delegates like Stewart Acuff, head of Atlanta's labor council.
Over the last decade, national formations like Jobs with Justice
have brought together union activists in campaigns which he says
were designed to nurture a "culture of militancy," and to
encourage coalitions with organizations of poor people,
minorities, and environmentalists. Acuff himself organized
sit-ins and civil disobedience at House Speaker Newt Gingrich's
office earlier this year, challenging the AFL-CIO's traditional
approach to lobbying.
Donahue called on delegates to "build bridges, not block
them," a slap at Sweeney's union, the Service Employees. The
organizing tactics of the union's showpiece campaign, Justice for
Janitors, bring low-wage and minority workers into the streets,
blocking thoroughfares and getting arrested.
Donahue tried to label his opponents as advocates of civil
disobedience, in much the same way his predecessors redbaited the
opposition of the past. Militancy, he said, "marginalizes" the
labor movement. Debating him on the floor of the convention,
Sweeney advocated a new commitment to use direct action tactics
where necessary to organize workers on a much larger scale. In
the end, most AFL-CIO delegates saw Donahue's vision as the source
of labor's marginalization, not the solution to it, and elected
In many ways, the Sweeney program for change is more
limited than the movement which propelled it into office. It
seeks to solve most problems by hiring staff, and organizing
committees and taskforces within the AFL-CIO structure, in a
strategy called by one supporter "revolution from above." Sweeney
and his supporters still inherit the mental framework which sees
organizing drives primarily as the product of paid staff, rather
than as an upsurge among workers themselves. But that framework
will be challenged, and perhaps changed, in the course of the
large-scale campaigns he proposes.
Under pressure from the competition between two slates of
candidates, the convention took a startlingly different course
from those of the past on issues of diversity. In previous years,
it was difficult to challenge the fact that the federation was led
almost exclusively by white men. This year, diversity in
leadership was debated on the floor, and supported by every
speaker. The slates competed in trying to demonstrate a
commitment to changing the color and sex of union leadership.
In the end, a new, expanded, executive council was
elected, in which 14 of 51 members are women and people of color.
Linda Chavez-Thompson, a vice-president of the American Federation
of State, County and Municipal Employees, was chosen unanimously
for a new executive vice-president position in the AFL-CIO. This
leadership still doesn't reflect the U.S. workforce, especially on
the bottom, but the convention took a big step in that direction.
Strikers from Decatur to Detroit will also benefit from
Sweeney's election, and his commitment to fight harder against
corporations. Donohue and his predecessors, in contrast, were
architects and advocates for labor-management cooperation. Many
delegates were clearly moved by the recent million man march in
Washington, and compared it to the solidarity day mobilizations at
the beginning of the Reagan era. They talked about calling a
similar national march, but focussing it on the picketlines of
national strikes instead of inside the Washington beltway.
A change in direction is more in question, however, in the
area of labor's international policy. This is now perhaps
the most important, long-range issue affecting the survival of
unions in the U.S. as they face the global economy.
At the AFL-CIO's convention two years ago in San
Francisco, held just prior to the South African elections and
during the debate over NAFTA, international relations were a
burning issue. Unionists across the country predicted NAFTA would
cause a massive loss of jobs, the fracturing of the Mexican
economy, environmental degradation, and systematic violations of
workers' rights in the wake of its passage. All of those
predictions have come to pass with a vengeance.
From January 1, 1994 to July 1, 1995, over 70,000 workers
claimed extended unemployment benefits because their jobs had been
eliminated by NAFTA. The Department of Labor certified half of
those claims. Virtually every authority outside the Clinton
administration believes the figures are a gross undercount of the
actual number of jobs lost. Additional thousands of jobs have
been relocated to free trade zones and maquiladora factories in
the Caribbean, Central America, and southeast Asia.
Nevertheless, there was no mention of NAFTA or free trade
on this year's convention agenda, set by Donahue. Both he and
Sweeney warmly greeted President Clinton on the opening day, whose
speech linked fair trade and free trade as though they were two
sides of the same coin, rather than opposites. He didn't mention
NAFTA by name.
Labor Secretary Robert Reich also avoided the issue in his
speech to the delegates. He claimed in a press conference outside
the hall that NAFTA created 140,000 jobs in 1994, and would create
thousands more as soon as the Mexican economy got over the shock
of devaluation. He left before anyone could press for details
supporting his assertion that jobs were created in numbers vastly
greater than even those claimed by NAFTA%USA, the treaty's
Nevertheless, in numerous statements Sweeney has made it
clear that the AFL- CIO will continue to support the Democratic
Party and Clinton in the 1996 election.
Instead of discussing NAFTA, the presentation of foreign
policy at the convention was like a death-rattle of the cold war.
Chinese dissident Harry Wu, a fellow at the ultra-conservative and
anti-union Hoover Institution, who was nevertheless billed as a
trade unionist, was the featured speaker. He called Chinese
prison camps the most extensive in the world, a system "run by the
Chinese government and its Communist Party." Condemning all trade
with China, he called the current strike against Boeing aircraft
company in Seattle, which has relocated some production to China
among other countries, "a strike against the Chinese
government...against the Chinese military...[and] against all
those in America who would lead China to undermine American
Wu's visit was organized by the AFL-CIO's International
Affairs Department, which he credited with organizing the campaign
to secure his release. His speech papered over, with cold war
rhetoric reminescent of past decades, the IAD's failure to oppose
free trade policies which have cost thousands of jobs. While some
job loss to China has occurred, the overwhelming majority of jobs
have fled to Mexico, the Caribbean, Central America and Southeast
Asia. In the under-industrialized countries of these regions, the
international department has cooperated with U.S. government
agencies in building export processing zones for U.S.
manufacturers, and assuring a favorable investment climate for
The International Affairs Department was set up when the
cold war started after World War Two, and was originally funded by
the Cental Intelligence Agency. After the Church Committee
hearings in the mid-1970s exposed CIA abuses, and its links to the
AFL-CIO, the IAD's funding was transferred to the U.S. Agency for
International Development, and later also the National Endowment
About $40 million annually in government money is
channeled through its quasi-independent institutes, including the
notorious American Institute for Free Labor Development (AIFLD),
which runs USAID and NED programs in Latin America, the Free Trade
Union Institute (FTUI) which runs them in Eastern Europe, and
similar bodies for Asia and Africa. These programs, under the
cover of "advocating democracy," fund and support political
parties and unions friendly towards U.S. foreign policy and U.S.
AIFLD's director, William Doherty, for instance, boasts of
his role in helping topple the progressive government of Joao
Goulart in Brazil in 1964. In 1973 he helped bring down Chile's
Salvador Allende, turning the country over to fascist dictator
Augusto Pinochet, who broke the back of Chile's labor movement.
In 1966 Doherty declared that "the key question of our time is the
future road of their [Latin American] revolution: toward
Communist totalitarianism or toward democracy. For the American
labor movement this is one of the paramount, pivotal issues; all
other questions...must remain secondary."
Using this logic, the international department attacked
unions and political parties which opposed U.S. domination, and
which sought deeper social changes, calling them radical and
Communist. But as U.S. foreign investment has led to the loss of
jobs at home, U.S. unions have begun looking abroad for
counterparts interested in confronting U.S. corporations, rather
than cooperating with them. The IAD's chickens are coming home to
Sweeney's running mate, who was elected AFL-CIO
Richard Trumka, head of the United Mine Workers. Trumka's union
has a long track record of assisting unions in South Africa and
elsewhere. In the new Sweeney administration, Trumka will be in
charge of departments planning broad strategic campaigns against
companies where workers are on strike or fighting to save their
jobs. That will probably include responsibility for international
affairs as well.
Trumka sees "an absolute need for a change in [AFL-CIO]
foreign policy," which he accuses of being geared towards the cold
war. "But the cold war has come and the cold war has gone," he
declares. "It is over with. What we want is to be able to
confront multinationals as multinationals ourselves. If a
corporation does business in 15 countries, we'd like to be able to
confront them as labor in 15 different countries. It's not that
we need less international involvement. But international
involvement should be focussed towards building solidarity on both
sides of the border you're talking about, helping workers achieve
their needs and their goals back here at home."
Trumka is not the only voice calling for uniting unions in
different countries in joint bargaining with their common
employers. Cross-border organizing, especially between U.S. and
Mexican labor, has become one of the most widely-discussed issues
in the labor movement in the wake of NAFTA.
In one of the convention's hottest moments, Jack Henning,
executive secretary- treasurer of the California Labor Federation,
took to the floor after Wu's speech. He pointed out that the real
source of U.S. job loss was the development of maquiladoras on the
Mexico/U.S. border, and free trade policies typified by what he
called "the Democratic Party's NAFTA." Existing international
union bodies supported by the AFL-CIO, he said, are worthless.
Instead, he called for the creation of a global unionism, with
real enforcement powers to prevent multinational corporations from
pitting workers in different countries against each other, in a
competition to win jobs by lowering wages.
Henning's comments so enraged Donahue that when his time
ran out, Donahue abruptly cut off his microphone. After an outcry
forced him to grant an additional 30 seconds, Henning boomed
across the hall: "Tom, I just want to tell you that if you want
to save this nation, and save your own soul, you'll get behind
Cleaning house in the International Affairs Department
will be very complicated, however, and require a lot of political
will. If the AFL-CIO applies for USAID and NED grants for
programs which oppose U.S. foreign and free trade policies, and
seek to build up union resistance to U.S. corporations abroad,
they're not likely to be funded. If the IAD loses its funding,
many high-level bureaucrats, well-connected to the administration
and the Democratic and Republican Parties, will lose their jobs.
One can imagine a call from Clinton to Sweeney, asking him why
he's embarassing the president he's suppossedly trying to elect,
opposing his policies and firing his friends.
In addition, Trumka's program for greater international
cooperation, if it's not funded by the government, will have to be
funded by members' dues. At present, almost none of the IAD's
money comes from AFL-CIO members. Real international solidarity
campaigns would have to compete for funding with organizing drives
and strategic support for strikes, both of which Sweeney has
pledged to increase. But accepting USAID money for pro-free trade
programs cooperating with multinational corporations, while
running campaigns to enlist the cooperation of foreign unions in
opposing those same corporations, is a course fraught with
Despite the anticipated problems, however, this is the
greatest opportunity to change the AFL-CIO's international
direction since World War Two. Henning is hopeful that it can be
done. "I think that as a result of the departure of Kirkland,
we'll have a more progressive approach," he says. "We were
associated with some of the very worst elements...all in the name
of anti-communism. But I think there's an opportunity to review
our foreign activities. The basic thing is that we would stop the
cannibalism, the global competition for jobs among the trade
unions of the world."
As Dan Lane points out, what's needed is solidarity, "for
the union makes us strong."