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.
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.
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Lessons From the Catastrophic Failure of the Metaverse
Lessons From the Catastrophic Failure of the Metaverse
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.
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.”
By this time, the Nixon Administration, working covertly with ITT, Kennecott Copper and other US multinationals, was deep into its campaign to weaken the Chilean economy and punish Allende for nationalizing industries in which US corporations held major stakes. In November 1972 O’Neill told McLellan that a CUT leader had approached him with a plan to unite “trade union support against multinational companies such as Kennecott.” In response, he told the official that “since the movement would obviously be communist-dominated, I doubted if the AFL-CIO would publicly take a stand against Kennecott.” (It never did.)
AIFLD utterly failed to make inroads into the CUT or win friends among unions striking against state-owned companies, even the copper workers, who took AIFLD by surprise when they went on strike in 1973, despite leadership by Communists supportive of the Allende government. So AIFLD’s strategy began to focus instead on the growing right-wing and gremio movements. One of AIFLD’s allies, the files show, was the National Party, a notorious right-wing political group that openly backed Pinochet’s coup in 1973. In October 1972 O’Neill proposed to use AID funds to send the director of the National Party’s labor department to Washington. “He is not a trade unionist in the strict sense of the word since he is a professional but he does have influence in the party structure,” O’Neill noted.
In the fall of 1973, a series of strikes by truckers, doctors and shop owners paralyzed Chile, giving Pinochet the pretext to launch his coup. The strikes, which were partially funded by the CIA, were no surprise to the AFL-CIO: The last pre-coup document in the Chile files, dated May 22, 1973, shows that at least two senior AFL-CIO officials had advance knowledge of the work stoppages. Bus and truckers’ unions “plan for unified strike action” in “early fall, 1973,” McLellan wrote to Jay Lovestone, the apostate Communist who headed the AFL-CIO’s international affairs department.
Pinochet, however, saw all unions, not just left-leaning ones, as the enemy. One of his first acts after seizing power was to outlaw the CUT. In the months following September 11, hundreds of trade unionists–including some who had worked with AIFLD–were rounded up, many never to be seen again. Figueroa managed to make his way to the Swedish Embassy, where he suffered a nervous breakdown during a monthslong stay. In a 1975 interview in Mexico, where he died several years later, he accused AIFLD of “13 years of massive social espionage.”
The significance of the AFL-CIO documents becomes clear in a 1975 report by the Senate Intelligence Committee on the CIA’s activity in Chile. “The scope of ‘normal’ activities of the CIA Station in Santiago,” the committee said, included “efforts to oppose communist and left-wing influence in student, peasant and labor organizations”; the use of “‘black’ propaganda to sow discord between the Communists and the Socialists and between the national labor confederation and the Chilean Communist Party”; and “combating the communist-dominated [CUT].” In his final radio broadcast to the Chilean people from the besieged presidential palace, Allende thanked the Chilean “patriots who a few days ago were continuing to struggle against the revolt led by the professional unions–that is, the class unions who were trying to hold on to the advantages granted to a few of them by the capitalist society.” His widow, in conversations with Hirsch and others, later identified O’Neill, AIFLD’s man in Santiago, as the “number one” US intelligence operative in Chile.
The archives’ Chile file for the year of the coup is remarkably thin, as are the files on Brazil following the 1964 military coup, in which AIFLD was heavily involved. Asked to explain, archive director Merrill said, “It sounds like there was a pattern of people looking through and pulling things.”
One of the saddest things about the Chile files is the absence of any statement condemning Pinochet’s coup. The AFL-CIO’s indifference comes across in Meany’s response to an October 3, 1973, telegram from Patrick Gorman, then president of the Amalgamated Meat Cutters International Union, beseeching him to protest the pending execution of Luis Corvalan, one of Chile’s leading Communists and a prominent member of the CUT. “A trade union leader in Chile could, with the present reactionary progress of the world, be a trade union leader of the United States tomorrow,” Gorman wrote. But Meany ignored the message: At the top of the cable appears a handwritten note by Ernest Lee, his son-in-law and director of international affairs: “No response.”
In August 1974, after it had become apparent that Pinochet was hellbent on destroying any semblance of democracy in Chile, the AFL-CIO executive council finally issued a statement. “Free trade unionists did not mourn the departure of a Marxist regime in Chile which brought that nation to political, social and economic ruin,” the council said. “But free trade unionists cannot condone the autocratic actions of this militaristic and oppressive ruler.” For Chilean workers, that was too little, too late.
A Whitewash of South Korea
From 1961 to 1979, South Korea was led by Park Chung Hee, a former general who made economic development his number-one priority and created a police state notorious for torture and long prison sentences. Some of the worst repression was directed at unions, which Park saw as a threat to economic growth and national security. The only legal union, the Federation of Korean Trade Unions (FKTU), was under tight government control and thoroughly penetrated by the Korean CIA (KCIA). The situation was so bad that in 1970, a young worker in Seoul committed a fiery suicide to protest conditions in the garment industry, an action that Korean activists point to as the beginning of their modern labor movement.
The AFL-CIO, despite its pledge never to support government-controlled unions, financed and supported the FKTU from 1971 until the late 1980s–with full knowledge of the government’s penetration of the FKTU. In 1971 Jack Muth, regional director of the Asian American Free Labor Institute, wrote a report to his boss, AAFLI executive director Morris Paladino, about a visit to Seoul. “Undoubtedly, the US [Embassy] Mission is aware that the Korean Government keeps a close watch on the activities of the unions,” Muth wrote. “Even during our visit, we were introduced to two Korean CIA agents who were attending the FKTU political seminars; they were introduced as CIA agents openly.” (The toothless nature of the FKTU is underscored by a CIA study of South Korea in 1979 that I obtained last year under the Freedom of Information Act. “Union activities are restricted by law,” the CIA reported. “Many labor leaders still lack credibility among the workers because they often are corrupt or have been co-opted either by management or by the government.”)
In the late 1970s US religious and human rights organizations began calling attention to the appalling treatment of South Korean workers. They were particularly concerned about the brutality directed at young women laborers in the textile and garment industry, and the lack of response by the FKTU. An AFL-CIO truly concerned about workers’ rights would have embraced those efforts by denouncing the repression in South Korea or severing its relationship with the FKTU. Instead, the archives show that Paladino spent much of his time railing against the churches’ involvement in Korean labor affairs. At AAFLI’s 1978 board meeting, for example, he complained bitterly about Korean religious activists who had come to Washington to protest “against the FKTU, alleging that women workers in South Korea are being seriously abused by their employers and the government without adequate representation by the FKTU unions.” Their charges, he fretted, had sparked inquiries from US textile workers and the United Auto Workers.
At the next board meeting, in 1979, Paladino lashed out at the Urban Industrial Mission, a religious group in Seoul that provided the only support available to struggling young laborers. Financed by the World Council of Churches, the mission had offices in an industrial area of Seoul that provided a safe place where employees in Korean factories could discuss working conditions free from police spies, learn basic organizing skills and connect to the largely underground resistance to Park’s dictatorship. Paladino, however, was incensed that the mission’s campaigns had “resulted in the diffusion of slanted and partial information in the United States and in Europe” about South Korea and the FKTU. In response, he told his board, AAFLI has “attempted to keep the record straight and provide the facts to American affiliates of the AFL-CIO whenever requested.” Paladino’s goal, apparently, was to whitewash the image of one of Asia’s cruelest dictatorships.
In October 1979 Park was assassinated by the head of the Korean CIA during a revolt in the industrial city of Pusan by students and factory workers. Park’s successor, Chun Doo Hwan, cracked down even harder on labor, outlawing all industrial unions and sending hundreds of church and labor activists to prison. In 1981, while Paladino was visiting Seoul, a group of garment workers seized the AAFLI office there to protest his refusal to meet with their illegal union. Police were called, and dozens of workers were injured in the ensuing melee. In a 1986 interview I conducted for The Nation, Paladino blamed the violence on the “different ethnic standards” of Koreans.
After military rule ended in 1986, Korean industrial workers organized the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions as an alternative to the FKTU; it wasn’t officially recognized by the AFL-CIO until 1997. “Many Koreans know the truth about AAFLI and the FKTU’s relationship to the KCIA,” Kwon Young Gil, a third-party candidate in South Korea’s recent presidential election and the first president of the KCTU, told me during a recent visit to Washington. “It’s important for American trade unionists to acknowledge those facts so we can move forward to build a better relationship in the future.”
Resistance in Okinawa
During the Indochina war, US bases on the island of Okinawa were used by the US military to store nuclear weapons and to launch B-52 strikes on Vietnam. This infuriated the citizens of Okinawa as well as many Japanese, sparking the political unrest that culminated in the 1972 reversion of Okinawa to Japanese control. But in 1967 and again in 1969, labor tensions in Okinawa boiled over, first after a military base workers’ union known as Zengunro called a general strike to protest Okinawa’s role in the war, and then when a new labor code imposed by Washington banned strikes on US bases and threatened strikers with severe punishment. The AFL-CIO became directly involved in stifling Okinawan resistance.
In April 1967 F.T. Unger, the US Army’s High Commissioner in Okinawa, wrote a letter to Meany informing him that Zengunro “has veered considerably” toward the “opposition reversion movement.” He asked Meany to send an AFL-CIO staffer to Okinawa because “the Zengunro leadership needs a firm yet reassuring hand to protect them from the hotheads.” A year later, Meany’s representative in Okinawa warned his boss of the dangers to US interests presented by the election of a prominent leader of the reversion movement–who was also a member of the local teachers’ union–as Okinawa’s first chief executive. Japanese leftists, he complained, were calling the election “a mandate for immediate unconditional reversion, removal of all US military bases and ultimate abrogation of the Japanese-US Mutual Security Treaty in 1970”–developments anathema to the AFL-CIO.
The general strike in February 1969 infuriated Meany and his staff, particularly because it was endorsed by Domei, the conservative Japanese labor federation aligned with the AFL-CIO. In a memo to Meany, his international affairs director, Ernest Lee, warned that the strike was “primarily against the US government authority on the island as well as US foreign policy” and “could affect our Vietnamese effort and support a communist offensive in Vietnam.” Lee became livid when he learned that Victor Reuther, international affairs director of the UAW and one of the few labor leaders who challenged AFL-CIO foreign policy, was openly backing the Okinawa base workers. Reuther’s telegram of support to Okinawa, Lee told his boss, “is one of the encouragements upon which [Japanese trade unionists] will lean” during the strike. He added, “I believe that both State and Defense should be aware of that cable.” Turning in one of the country’s most respected labor leaders to the Pentagon surely ranks as a low point in AFL-CIO history.
Venezuela and Beyond
Since taking control of the AFL-CIO’s international programs in 1996, Shailor and her deputy for Latin America, Stan Gacek, have worked hard to transform relations with unions around the world. Last fall, Sweeney and Arturo Martinez, the president of Chile’s CUT, signed a declaration urging their governments to include “enforceable obligations” on workers’ rights in any free-trade agreement and rejecting the imposition of Chile’s privatized social security system “on the workers of the United States.” (Ironically, that pact is now threatened by US anger at Chile’s refusal to vote with Bush during the UN debate on Iraq.) And a delegation of organizing directors from three US unions recently used ACILS funds to visit South Korea, where they exchanged ideas with their counterparts in the KCTU. Solidarity, in other words, has now replaced intervention as the cornerstone of labor’s foreign policy.
The AFL-CIO’s overseas work, however, retains close government ties. ACILS obtains most of its $18-million-a-year budget from AID and the Congressionally funded NED, with some additional funds from private foundations. AID just concluded a five-year grant to ACILS of $60 million and will provide another $9 million a year for the next five years. ACILS currently has programs in twenty-eight countries, where, according to Tim Beaty, deputy director of international affairs, staffers work with overseas trade unionists “to build a better labor movement” by linking unions within the same industry and building coalitions with social movements. (The day of our interview, Beaty was coordinating meetings between US unions and a delegation of environmental activists from Taiwan trying to win compensation from RCA for the pollution it caused there before pulling out in 1992.) Proof of the AFL-CIO’s independence from the government, Gacek told me, “is in the application. Can we basically follow an agenda that is not tied to any geopolitical interest other than international trade union solidarity? Without making any comments about the past, I think yes, that is something we are doing now.”
But the AFL-CIO’s experience with Venezuela’s CTV illustrates how the line between geopolitics and solidarity can get blurred. The AFL-CIO’s relationship with the CTV goes back to the 1970s, when Venezuelan unions, through their alliance with the Democratic Action Party, were for many years part of the center-right government. The archives show that the AFL-CIO and the CTV worked closely in those years to isolate Cuba and counter the influence of left-wing unions in Latin America. The labor federations were used by the US and Venezuelan governments as unofficial channels on oil. In a 1974 meeting with the CTV, for example, the AFL-CIO pointed out that “the oil pricing arrangement of OPEC and of Venezuela are wrecking the economic balance of the free world.” The CTV assured Meany “that Venezuela is a secure source of supply for the United States. We are not the Middle East. We are similar people. We dress the same. We have the same unions. We have the same capitalists and the same military. When you talk with us it is not a conversation between Kissinger and the shieks [sic] but between brother trade unionists.”
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.
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.