David Bacon Stories & Photographs
Will the AFL-CIO's New Leaders Change Its Old Cold War Policies?
by David Bacon

NEW YORK (10/29/95) - Dan Lane was almost the last person to speak, on thelast day of the AFL-CIO convention which concluded last week. The day before, JohnSweeney was chosen president in the first contested election in a hundred years. Lanehimself was in the 56th day of a hunger strike, trying to rally the labor movement tostop the destruction of his union at the Staley plant in Decatur, Illinois.

Surrounded by dozens of locked-out fellow workers, and strikers from otherworkplaces across the country, he strode across the floor of the convention to thepodium, and began to recite the words to the old union anthem, Solidarity Forever.

"When the union's inspiration...through the workers' blood shall run," he intonedin the gravelly voice of a midwest preacher, "there shall be no power greater...anywherebeneath the sun." The huge hall fell silent as a thousand delegates strained to hear hisquiet intensity. "For what force on earth is weaker...than the feeble strength of one."Almost whispering: "But the union...makes us...strong." Then, in a voice as though itheld the strength of all those thousand delegates, he shouted out: "Brothers and sisters,Solidarity!" and the hall leapt to its feet in cheers.

It was a defining moment for the historic change which took place at the NewYork convention. Solidarity is becoming the byword of the new AFL-CIO. The conceptruns like a common thread through the program which Sweeney advocated during hiscampaign for the AFL-CIO presidency, and it successfully bound together a widespectrum of unions on his behalf. But while Lane's convention call for solidarityappealed for the AFL-CIO to support its own members, the era of the global economyposes an even deeper question. Will his call for solidarity cross borders? Will a newAFL-CIO leadership help bring together the unionists of the world, to face togethertheir common multinational employers?

From the time that the AFL merged with the CIO in 1955, past AFL-CIOpresidents Kirkland and Meany fought against the old labor traditions of solidarityamong rank-and-file workers, and denied that a working class even existed in the U.S.Instead, they brought U.S. labor into support for cold war foreign policies, redbaitingthose who opposed it, and often pitting the interests of U.S. workers against thestruggles of workers abroad.

Today, advocates of a solidarity-based movement seek to redefine the oldtraditions in a world in which corporations have declared class war on U.S. workers,where the domestic workforce is racially, nationally and sexually more diverse thananytime in its history, and in which U.S. workers are linked to those in other countriesby the ties of the global economy.

The struggle between these two points of view shaped the convention, and thecontest over the leadership of the AFL-CIO.

Opening the gathering, Tom Donahue, the interim AFL-CIO president whomSweeney defeated, tried to convince delegates that the federation was really a narrow"trade union movement." He attacked his opponents for supporting a "labormovement," or "social movement," one which would move away from Washington andinto the streets, organizing and speaking for immigrants and low-wage workers, inunions and out of them.

Donahue's vision of the past seemed irrelevant to delegates like Stewart Acuff,head of Atlanta's labor council. Over the last decade, national formations like Jobs withJustice have brought together union activists in campaigns which he says were designedto nurture a "culture of militancy," and to encourage coalitions with organizations ofpoor people, minorities, and environmentalists. Acuff himself organized sit-ins andcivil disobedience at House Speaker Newt Gingrich's office earlier this year, challengingthe AFL-CIO's traditional approach to lobbying.

Donahue called on delegates to "build bridges, not block them," a slap atSweeney's union, the Service Employees. The organizing tactics of the union'sshowpiece campaign, Justice for Janitors, bring low-wage and minority workers into thestreets, blocking thoroughfares and getting arrested.

Donahue tried to label his opponents as advocates of civil disobedience, in muchthe same way his predecessors redbaited the opposition of the past. Militancy, he said,"marginalizes" the labor movement. Debating him on the floor of the convention,Sweeney advocated a new commitment to use direct action tactics where necessary toorganize workers on a much larger scale. In the end, most AFL-CIO delegates sawDonahue's vision as the source of labor's marginalization, not the solution to it, andelected Sweeney instead.

In many ways, the Sweeney program for change is more limited than themovement which propelled it into office. It seeks to solve most problems by hiringstaff, and organizing committees and taskforces within the AFL-CIO structure, in astrategy called by one supporter "revolution from above." Sweeney and his supportersstill inherit the mental framework which sees organizing drives primarily as theproduct of paid staff, rather than as an upsurge among workers themselves. But thatframework will be challenged, and perhaps changed, in the course of the large-scalecampaigns he proposes.

Under pressure from the competition between two slates of candidates, theconvention took a startlingly different course from those of the past on issues ofdiversity. In previous years, it was difficult to challenge the fact that the federation wasled almost exclusively by white men. This year, diversity in leadership was debated onthe floor, and supported by every speaker. The slates competed in trying todemonstrate a commitment to changing the color and sex of union leadership.

In the end, a new, expanded, executive council was elected, in which 14 of 51members are women and people of color. Linda Chavez-Thompson, a vice-president ofthe American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, was chosenunanimously for a new executive vice-president position in the AFL-CIO. Thisleadership still doesn't reflect the U.S. workforce, especially on the bottom, but theconvention took a big step in that direction.

Strikers from Decatur to Detroit will also benefit from Sweeney's election, and hiscommitment to fight harder against corporations. Donohue and his predecessors, incontrast, were architects and advocates for labor-management cooperation. Manydelegates were clearly moved by the recent million man march in Washington, andcompared it to the solidarity day mobilizations at the beginning of the Reagan era.They talked about calling a similar national march, but focussing it on the picketlines ofnational strikes instead of inside the Washington beltway.

A change in direction is more in question, however, in the area of labor'sinternational policy. This is now perhaps the most important, long-range issue affectingthe survival of unions in the U.S. as they face the global economy.

At the AFL-CIO's convention two years ago in San Francisco, held just prior tothe South African elections and during the debate over NAFTA, international relationswere a burning issue. Unionists across the country predicted NAFTA would cause amassive loss of jobs, the fracturing of the Mexican economy, environmentaldegradation, and systematic violations of workers' rights in the wake of its passage. Allof those predictions have come to pass with a vengeance.

From January 1, 1994 to July 1, 1995, over 70,000 workers claimed extendedunemployment benefits because their jobs had been eliminated by NAFTA. TheDepartment of Labor certified half of those claims. Virtually every authority outside theClinton administration believes the figures are a gross undercount of the actual numberof jobs lost. Additional thousands of jobs have been relocated to free trade zones andmaquiladora factories in the Caribbean, Central America, and southeast Asia.

Nevertheless, there was no mention of NAFTA or free trade on this year'sconvention agenda, set by Donahue. Both he and Sweeney warmly greeted PresidentClinton on the opening day, whose speech linked fair trade and free trade as thoughthey were two sides of the same coin, rather than opposites. He didn't mention NAFTAby name.

Labor Secretary Robert Reich also avoided the issue in his speech to thedelegates. He claimed in a press conference outside the hall that NAFTA created140,000 jobs in 1994, and would create thousands more as soon as the Mexican economygot over the shock of devaluation. He left before anyone could press for detailssupporting his assertion that jobs were created in numbers vastly greater than eventhose claimed by NAFTA*USA, the treaty's corporate backers.

Nevertheless, in numerous statements Sweeney has made it clear that the AFL-CIO will continue to support the Democratic Party and Clinton in the 1996 election.

Instead of discussing NAFTA, the presentation of foreign policy at theconvention was like a death-rattle of the cold war. Chinese dissident Harry Wu, afellow at the ultra-conservative and anti-union Hoover Institution, who wasnevertheless billed as a trade unionist, was the featured speaker. He called Chineseprison camps the most extensive in the world, a system "run by the Chinesegovernment and its Communist Party." Condemning all trade with China, he called thecurrent strike against Boeing aircraft company in Seattle, which has relocated someproduction to China among other countries, "a strike against the Chinesegovernment...against the Chinese military...[and] against all those in America whowould lead China to undermine American policy."

Wu's visit was organized by the AFL-CIO's International Affairs Department,which he credited with organizing the campaign to secure his release. His speechpapered over, with cold war rhetoric reminescent of past decades, the IAD's failure tooppose free trade policies which have cost thousands of jobs. While some job loss toChina has occurred, the overwhelming majority of jobs have fled to Mexico, theCaribbean, Central America and Southeast Asia. In the under-industrialized countriesof these regions, the international department has cooperated with U.S. governmentagencies in building export processing zones for U.S. manufacturers, and assuring afavorable investment climate for multinational corporations.

The International Affairs Department was set up when the cold war started afterWorld War Two, and was originally funded by the Cental Intelligence Agency. Afterthe Church Committee hearings in the mid-1970s exposed CIA abuses, and its links tothe AFL-CIO, the IAD's funding was transferred to the U.S. Agency for InternationalDevelopment, and later also the National Endowment for Democracy.

About $40 million annually in government money is channeled through itsquasi-independent institutes, including the notorious American Institute for Free LaborDevelopment (AIFLD), which runs USAID and NED programs in Latin America, theFree Trade Union Institute (FTUI) which runs them in Eastern Europe, and similarbodies for Asia and Africa. These programs, under the cover of "advocatingdemocracy," fund and support political parties and unions friendly towards U.S. foreignpolicy and U.S. corporate investment.

AIFLD's director, William Doherty, for instance, boasts of his role in helpingtopple the progressive government of Joao Goulart in Brazil in 1964. In 1973 he helpedbring down Chile's Salvador Allende, turning the country over to fascist dictatorAugusto Pinochet, who broke the back of Chile's labor movement. In 1966 Dohertydeclared that "the key question of our time is the future road of their [Latin American]revolution: toward Communist totalitarianism or toward democracy. For theAmerican labor movement this is one of the paramount, pivotal issues; all otherquestions...must remain secondary."

Using this logic, the international department attacked unions and politicalparties which opposed U.S. domination, and which sought deeper social changes,calling them radical and Communist. But as U.S. foreign investment has led to the lossof jobs at home, U.S. unions have begun looking abroad for counterparts interested inconfronting U.S. corporations, rather than cooperating with them. The IAD's chickensare coming home to roost.

Sweeney's running mate, who was elected AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer, isRichard Trumka, head of the United Mine Workers. Trumka's union has a long trackrecord of assisting unions in South Africa and elsewhere. In the new Sweeneyadministration, Trumka will be in charge of departments planning broad strategiccampaigns against companies where workers are on strike or fighting to save their jobs.That will probably include responsibility for international affairs as well.

Trumka sees "an absolute need for a change in [AFL-CIO] foreign policy," whichhe accuses of being geared towards the cold war. "But the cold war has come and thecold war has gone," he declares. "It is over with. What we want is to be able to confrontmultinationals as multinationals ourselves. If a corporation does business in 15countries, we'd like to be able to confront them as labor in 15 different countries. It's notthat we need less international involvement. But international involvement should befocussed towards building solidarity on both sides of the border you're talking about,helping workers achieve their needs and their goals back here at home."

Trumka is not the only voice calling for uniting unions in different countries injoint bargaining with their common employers. Cross-border organizing, especiallybetween U.S. and Mexican labor, has become one of the most widely-discussed issues inthe labor movement in the wake of NAFTA.

In one of the convention's hottest moments, Jack Henning, executive secretary-treasurer of the California Labor Federation, took to the floor after Wu's speech. Hepointed out that the real source of U.S. job loss was the development of maquiladorason the Mexico/U.S. border, and free trade policies typified by what he called "theDemocratic Party's NAFTA." Existing international union bodies supported by theAFL-CIO, he said, are worthless. Instead, he called for the creation of a globalunionism, with real enforcement powers to prevent multinational corporations frompitting workers in different countries against each other, in a competition to win jobs bylowering wages.

Henning's comments so enraged Donahue that when his time ran out, Donahueabruptly cut off his microphone. After an outcry forced him to grant an additional 30seconds, Henning boomed across the hall: "Tom, I just want to tell you that if you wantto save this nation, and save your own soul, you'll get behind global unionism."

Cleaning house in the International Affairs Department will be very complicated,however, and require a lot of political will. If the AFL-CIO applies for USAID and NEDgrants for programs which oppose U.S. foreign and free trade policies, and seek to buildup union resistance to U.S. corporations abroad, they're not likely to be funded. If theIAD loses its funding, many high-level bureaucrats, well-connected to theadministration and the Democratic and Republican Parties, will lose their jobs. One canimagine a call from Clinton to Sweeney, asking him why he's embarassing the presidenthe's suppossedly trying to elect, opposing his policies and firing his friends.

In addition, Trumka's program for greater international cooperation, if it's notfunded by the government, will have to be funded by members' dues. At present,almost none of the IAD's money comes from AFL-CIO members. Real internationalsolidarity campaigns would have to compete for funding with organizing drives andstrategic support for strikes, both of which Sweeney has pledged to increase. Butaccepting USAID money for pro-free trade programs cooperating with multinationalcorporations, while running campaigns to enlist the cooperation of foreign unions inopposing those same corporations, is a course fraught with contradictions.

Despite the anticipated problems, however, this is the greatest opportunity tochange the AFL-CIO's international direction since World War Two. Henning ishopeful that it can be done. "I think that as a result of the departure of Kirkland, we'llhave a more progressive approach," he says. "We were associated with some of the veryworst elements...all in the name of anti-communism. But I think there's an opportunityto review our foreign activities. The basic thing is that we would stop the cannibalism,the global competition for jobs among the trade unions of the world."

As Dan Lane points out, what's needed is solidarity, "for the union makes usstrong."

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