Labor's Cold War
Sweeney was elected AFL-CIO president in 1995 with the support of a broad coalition of union leaders who broke with Kirkland over foreign policy--particularly AIFLD's support for US policy in Central America--believing that the old guard's belligerent anti-Communism had become a dangerous anachronism. After taking office, Sweeney reorganized the four labor foreign policy institutes into a single organization, the American Center for International Labor Solidarity (ACILS) and forced several of the AFL-CIO's most notorious cold warriors into retirement. The new center has refocused its mission on global solidarity and the right to organize. In Venezuela, ACILS insists, the US government money has helped the CTV build grassroots democracy and protect freedom of association.
Barbara Shailor, the AFL-CIO's director of international affairs, told The Nation that the federation is eager to begin a dialogue with the California unions. "We won't ignore questions about the past, but we're really going to focus on what we're doing now--organizing opposition to the Free Trade Area of the Americas and responding to the corporate governance meltdown," she said. But Shailor would not comment on the activities or policies of Sweeney's predecessors. Nor would she or her staff discuss what's in the AFL-CIO's international archives, which are stored, along with thousands of other documents from various AFL-CIO departments, at the George Meany Center for Labor Studies in Silver Spring, Maryland.
Under the archives' rules, documents can only be released twenty years after their creation, which means that the newest documents, given staff time for processing, date back to the late 1970s. Material about controversial AFL-CIO activities during the 1980s--such as AIFLD's support for the Nicaraguan contras and labor cooperation with US-backed counterinsurgencies in El Salvador and the Philippines--remains classified under the twenty-year rule. When I asked Shailor if the federation would consider speeding up the release of that material or requesting classified documents from US agencies that funded the institutes in order to provide the full story of labor's cold war, she deferred the question to Michael Merrill, director of the archives. Merrill said there is "no consistent policy on what to do when someone wants to open the books sooner." Any request to shorten the current twenty-year waiting period, he added, would have to be approved by the senior leadership of the AFL-CIO.
Over the past year, I've read hundreds of pages of newly released documents in the archives. Reading through the letters, policy papers, memos, newspaper clippings and declassified diplomatic cables in the files, it's impossible to avoid the conclusion that the AFL-CIO and its institutes were, in a few egregious cases, willing handmaidens for the Pentagon and US multinational corporations as they imposed their will on US allies and developing countries. Nowhere was that clearer than in Chile.
Collaboration in Chile
Salvador Allende was elected Chile's president in September 1970, and his Popular Unity government took office in November. Around that time, a secret group within the Nixon Administration directed the CIA to conduct a campaign of destabilization and sabotage designed, in Nixon's unforgettable words, to "make the economy scream." The archives contain no smoking gun directly linking the American Institute for Free Labor Development with the CIA. But they confirm that the AFL-CIO's program synchronized closely with the CIA's plan to create social unrest by sowing divisions within the labor movement and financing middle-class and professional organizations--known as gremio--that led the opposition to Allende's populist program.
AIFLD's primary target was the 1-million-member Central Unica de Trabajadores (CUT), Chile's largest labor federation. It was led during the Allende years by a Communist, Luis Figueroa, whom Allende appointed labor minister in 1972. The campaign to divide the CUT began in earnest in the spring of 1971, after Allende had strengthened his governing coalition in municipal elections. In response, AIFLD, in consultation with US diplomats and the Agency for International Development (AID), became more aggressive in seeking to expand US influence inside the CUT. That shift was made "with the full support of the Embassy and AID" and involved "the establishment of a dialogue between ourselves and the non-communist Allendista trade unionists," Jesse Friedman, AIFLD's regional director for South America, explained to Andrew McLellan, the AFL-CIO's director for inter-American affairs. Under the plan, Friedman wrote, AIFLD would invite "influential leaders" from selected unions to Washington to show them "that they have been misled in the formation of their concept of the United States."
Robert O'Neill, AIFLD's representative in Santiago, was enthusiastic, pointing out that US visits by Chilean unionists were the only way that AIFLD's allies "can grow and eventually control the trade union movement here." (Emphasis added.) He urged other US unions to get involved because a "reinforced effort would add to the unrest." In another cable, O'Neill laid out an ambitious plan to win over workers in the strategic copper, oil, maritime, airline and banking industries so they "could initially form a block within CUT to defend their positions and eventually be the basis for a break-up of CUT." But he hastened to add that "undeniably and unfortunately, the majority of organized Chilean workers still back Marxist leadership, at least in trade union elections."