Labor's Cold War | The Nation


Labor's Cold War

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In the months before President Bush invaded Iraq, thousands of trade unionists joined the massive protests that filled the nation's streets. Their ranks swelled when the AFL-CIO, for the first time in its history, openly challenged a US decision to go to war and charged that Bush's unilateralist policies had "squandered" the global solidarity that America enjoyed after September 11, 2001. Once the invasion began, AFL-CIO president John Sweeney did shift his antiwar stance, declaring that the federation would "support fully" Bush's war goals. But he also acknowledged the right of "people of good conscience and good faith" to express opposition. Those events, and Sweeney's respectful recognition of the splits in his ranks, marked a major watershed in US labor history--and could serve as a long overdue coda to the events of another September 11, thirty years ago, that still inspire raging debates about labor's role in US foreign policy.

Research support was provided by the Investigative Fund of the Public Concern Foundation. Tim Shorrock thanks Fred
Hirsch for his help in interpreting the AFL-CIO files on Chile.

About the Author

Tim Shorrock
Tim Shorrock is the author of Spies for Hire: The Secret World of Intelligence Outsourcing. He was raised in Japan and...

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That September 11, in 1973, was the day Chilean President Salvador Allende was overthrown in a bloody military coup that ended a brief experiment in democratic socialism and took the lives of Allende and thousands of Chilean workers, students and political activists. Today, many trade unionists remain haunted by the knowledge that their own federation, the AFL-CIO, played a key role in the US campaign, led by the Nixon Administration and the Central Intelligence Agency, to destabilize Chile in the years before the coup. From 1971 to 1973, the AFL-CIO's American Institute for Free Labor Development (AIFLD), one of four US-government-funded labor institutes created during the cold war, channeled millions of dollars to right-wing unions and political parties opposed to Allende's socialist agenda. That aid helped finance the revolt by Chile's professional class and fanned the flames of social unrest that provided the pretext for Gen. Augusto Pinochet's violent crackdown and the justification for his seventeen-year dictatorship.

According to documents I've unearthed in the AFL-CIO's archives, AIFLD's program in Chile was closely coordinated with the US Embassy and dovetailed with one of the CIA's key aims in Chile: to split the Chilean labor movement and create a trade union base of opposition to Allende, who was viewed as dangerously anti-American and a pawn of the Soviet Union. The campaign's political agenda was summarized in a 1972 cable in the archives from Robert O'Neill, AIFLD's representative in Chile, to AFL-CIO headquarters in Washington. Chile, O'Neill proudly told his superiors, had become the site of "the first large-scale middle class movement against government attempts to impose, slowly but surely, a Marxist-Leninist system."

Over the past two years, a coalition of grassroots West Coast labor activists has been seeking to use those archives to spark a discussion about the AFL-CIO's cold war past, when AIFLD and its sister institutes in Asia, Africa and Eastern Europe served as labor's spearhead in the US wars against Communism and left-wing liberation struggles. AIFLD's actions in Chile, Brazil and other countries, activists say, blackened the name of the AFL-CIO among the very people to whom American unions have been reaching out in recent years to build a movement for peace and economic justice.

Questions about the past have mingled with concerns about the AFL-CIO's current activities abroad, such as its financial support for the Confederation of Venezuelan Workers (CTV), which is allied with Venezuela's business elite in a bitter campaign to topple the leftist government of President Hugo Chávez. Initially, the AFL-CIO's program in Venezuela was financed with a $150,000 grant from the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), which was created by Congress to support pro-US democratic movements abroad, and came to light last spring, shortly after Chavez was briefly overthrown in a military coup initially backed by the Bush Administration. To a few critics, the incident resembled the interventionist days of old--a comparison hotly denied by the AFL-CIO.

In response, labor councils on the West Coast have been pressing the AFL-CIO leadership to "come clean" about the past and set the course for the future by fully opening its archives--including materials from the Reagan era that remain off-limits to researchers--and creating a truth commission to analyze and publicize their contents. The strongest resolutions, passed in 2000 by the San Francisco and South Bay labor councils in California and in 2001 by the Washington State AFL-CIO, asked the federation to "renounce" what it did in Chile and elsewhere in labor's name, and allow union members and independent researchers to make a full accounting of the past. Last July the California Labor Federation put the weight of its 2 million members behind the effort with a resolution asking the AFL-CIO to open a dialogue about its government-funded foreign affairs activities, past and present, and "affirm a policy of genuine global solidarity in pursuit of economic and social justice."

Ultimately, the West Coast activists want to force the AFL-CIO to draw a clear line between the cold war policies of George Meany and Lane Kirkland and the new directions in foreign policy it has started to map through its opposition to the Iraq war and Bush's pro-business economic agenda. "To counter corporate globalization, we need labor globalization," said Fred Hirsch, the vice president of Plumbers and Fitters Local 393 in San Jose, who played an instrumental role in getting the "clear the air" resolution before the California federation. "But we can't embark on a path of genuine solidarity, nor can labor unions overseas trust us, until we own up to the past and divorce ourselves from those actions and the government funding which made us a pawn of US foreign policy." Yet ten months after the California resolution, Sweeney has yet to set a date for a formal meeting with the state federation.

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