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miércoles, julio 20, 2005

All eyes on Chicago: U.S. labor movement to debate involvement in Venezuela and other nations

The AFL-CIO's national convention begins next Monday in Chicago. Most meetings of organized labor's central federation don't make national headline news. But this one is different.

Among the contentious issues to be decided at this year's convention is a little-known resolution called "Unity and Trust" that would call on the AFL-CIO to open up about its past and present activities in other countries -- especially Venezuela.

Of course, convention debates over AFL-CIO foreign policy (there's also a resolution calling for bringing our troops home from Iraq) will be overshadowed by The Big Question: will the AFL-CIO stay together, or break apart?

Next week's meeting, where a large group of unions may leave the AFL-CIO if they do not get their way on reform proposals, is the culmination of several years of debate on what the labor movement must do to confront the changing economy, right-wing attacks on workers, and growing corporate power. Everyone agrees that U.S. organized labor must change if it is to survive. The disagreement lies in how.

But buried in the news about this confrontation will be the foreign policy resolution, whose full title is "Build Unity and Trust Among Workers Worldwide". (This resolution has nothing to do with the debate over AFL-CIO leadership and structure.) Unity and Trust comes out of decades of efforts to drag the AFL-CIO's foreign operations out into the light, spearheaded by dedicated labor activist Fred Hirsch, vice-president of the plumbers' union here in San Jose.

During the Cold War, U.S. labor's activities abroad were often undertaken in support of U.S. government activities and the so-called fight against communism, which, of course, often amounted to undermining or overthrowing democratically elected leaders. The American Institute for Free Labor Development (AIFLD), the predecessor to today's American Center for International Labor Solidarity (ACILS, or "Solidarity Center"), played a key role in overthrowing elected Chilean president Salvador Allende in 1973.

When reformist John Sweeney was elected AFL-CIO president in 1995, he shut down AIFLD and the other international offices, and created the Solidarity Center. Though this was meant to be a break with the AFL-CIO's bad old past and a return to real international solidarity, some argue that many of ACILS's activities have continued along the same path of serving as a front for U.S. corporate interests. Many are concerned that its support for the 1973 Chile coup is being repeated in Venezuela today.

The ACILS gets almost all its funding from the National Endowment for Democracy, an organization funded by the U.S. government to "promote democracy" worldwide; in reality, its programs are more likely to undermine democracy in favor of multinational corporate interests. Allen Weinstein, who helped create the NED, admitted to the Washington Post that "a lot of what we do today was done covertly 25 years ago by the CIA."

Many union members worry that ACILS's financial dependency on the NED means political dependency as well; that the Solidarity Center, instead of acting in workers' interests, acts in the interests of Washington and corporate elites. At the same time, ACILS backers say it is doing legitimate work supporting workers' rights, and even opponents acknowledge that it has supported struggling unions in some countries.

Personally, I don't know whether the Solidarity Center's work in Venezuela has been legitimate support of workers' rights, or complicity in U.S. efforts to oust Venezuela's democratically elected, popular president. Getting the truth out about these issues is why the convention delegates needs to pass "Unity and Trust", which would commit the AFL-CIO to open up about its past and current international activities.

Revealing the AFL-CIO's complicity in destroying democracy in Chile and other nations may be painful, but we can't learn from our history unless we acknowledge and understand it. U.S. union members should know what is being done abroad in our name, and indeed, we should become active participants in building solidarity with our sister and brother unionists worldwide. We have nothing to lose and much to gain from greater transparency.

Further resources:

Jeff Crosby on Unity and Trust: "A 'Truth Commission' for AFL's Foreign Policy", July 2005

Speech by Fred Hirsch on Venezuela and the AFL-CIO, July 15th, 2005

Kim Scipes: "An Unholy Alliance: AFL-CIO and NED in Venezuela", July 11th, 2005

"Build Unity and Trust Among Workers Worldwide", resolution passed unanimously at the convention of the 2.4 million member California Labor Federation, July 13, 2004

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