Labor's Cold War | The Nation


Labor's Cold War

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Today, the CTV and the AFL-CIO remain very close, though President Chávez has denounced the CTV and its political supporters as part of the oligarchy that is out to weaken his attempts to redistribute the country's oil wealth. To counter the CTV, Chávez encouraged the organization of a rival labor federation and refused to recognize the results of a CTV election won by former oil workers' leader Carlos Ortega. In response, Ortega built an alliance with Fedecamaras, the Venezuelan Chamber of Commerce, with the aim of toppling Chávez's government.

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.

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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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A year ago, they came close to that goal when a general strike they organized became the pretext for a brief military coup. When the New York Times revealed that NED had funded the opposition, the AFL-CIO was swamped with questions about its ties to the CTV. The AFL-CIO immediately put out a lengthy statement condemning the coup and explaining that the CTV used its US funds to fight Chávez's attempts to undermine labor rights. "There is no evidence that the CTV or its leaders went beyond the democratic expressions of discontent," the AFL-CIO concluded. In a significant break from the past, it added that Chávez's programs, including "agrarian reform and assistance to Cuba, are and should be the sole and sovereign concern of the Venezuelan people and their government." Gacek maintains today that ACILS's support for internal democracy within the CTV boosted progressive forces in Venezuela's labor movement. "We assisted a process that actually brought more of the left, and including some elements sympathetic to the admirable redistributive rhetoric of the Chávez government, to the leadership of the CTV," he said.

But with tensions still high in Venezuela, questions remain about the CTV and its tactics. Tellingly, strategic, non-Chavista unions in steel, oil and the public sector didn't support the CTV during the general strike last year. A member of a recent fact-finding delegation to Venezuela from the International Federation of Journalists wrote Gacek last summer that "the CTV was actively, directly involved in the illegal plotting for the April coup." Gacek rejected that assessment, but made it clear that the AFL-CIO was trying to defuse the situation. He is working with Brazil's new government and a "friends of Venezuela" labor group formed at the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil, to "bring down the temperature" in Caracas by negotiating amnesty for some of the 16,000 fired oil workers Chávez has threatened to jail. (Ortega, who was on Chávez's list, is now living in exile in Costa Rica.) Overall, said Gacek, the AFL-CIO wants Chávez to respect the "democratic rule of law" and insure that "violence and force are not employed to force regime change." Using labor funds to undermine a foreign government, he added forcefully, "goes against my fiber."

A Full Accounting

Today the labor movement is facing a multitude of challenges, from Bush's attacks on unions to the failing economy and the fallout from the war. Given the internal politics at the AFL-CIO, whose unity was shaken by the recent departure of the Carpenters Union, Sweeney's reluctance to embrace the "clear the air" movement is understandable. Many of the unions most closely identified with the federation's cold war policies, such as the Bricklayers and the American Federation of Teachers, fought bitterly against Sweeney's election. Sweeney himself, and several members of his executive council, were board members of AIFLD and the other institutes, and would likely be uncomfortable with a full probe of the past--as would ACILS executive director Harry Kamberis, a former Foreign Service officer who held senior positions in AAFLI during the 1980s.

Meanwhile, ideologues on the right may be seeking to revive their old labor alliances in an effort to popularize American goals in the war against terrorism around the world. Recently, American Enterprise Institute scholar Joshua Muravchik cited Jay Lovestone and Irving Brown--the godfathers of the AFL-CIO's overseas operations--as leading lights in "the war of ideas that we waged in the cold war." Those battles, he noted candidly, were fought "largely through the good offices of the CIA," but are now being "carried out overtly by US broadcasting agencies [and the] National Endowment for Democracy."

Although it is unlikely the AFL-CIO would join such a campaign, these pressures raise serious questions for labor. Can the AFL-CIO continue to work with institutions like the NED and AID and still maintain its integrity overseas? If, even in this political climate, Colin Powell can proclaim, as he did recently on Black Entertainment Television, that the US role in Allende's downfall "is not a part of American history that we're proud of," could John Sweeney finally say the same about AIFLD?

"I think every country and every institution has a right to its own history, particularly in the case of AIFLD, which was publicly funded," said Robert White, who served as US ambassador to El Salvador during one of its worst periods of repression and is now president of the Center for International Policy. During those years, White said, AIFLD "became a total instrument of US foreign policy. It seems to me that the public has a right to know." Indeed, meeting that simple demand would go a long way toward restoring the global prestige American unions enjoyed before the cold war as the folks who invented May Day, industrial unions and the eight-hour day.

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