Inside the AFL-CIO's International Program
excerpted from the book
Workers of the World Undermined
American Labor's role in U.S. foreign policy
by Beth Sims
South End Press, 1992, paper
In the immediate postwar period, the AFL-CIO carried out its foreign
activities from its Paris office. It focused particularly on consolidating
anticommunist union forces in Europe and working with other international
and regional bodies like the International Confederation of Free
Trade Unions. By the 1960s, however, both Washington and the AFL-CIO
felt the need for specialized instruments which could be mobilized
by the labor federation for unilateral intervention worldwide.
The international institutes of the AFL-CIO were set up to respond
to that need.
The Free Trade Union Institute (FTUI), created by the AFL-CIO
in 1977, acts both as the European regional institute of the labor
federation and as an umbrella for some government grants to the
other three institutes. Originally FTUI represented a resuscitated
Free Trade Union Committee-the AFL-CIO's European arm during World
War II and the postwar years. Following the successful implementation
of the Marshall Plan, the committee had gone dormant. When military
dictatorships fell in Spain and Portugal in the mid-1970s, the
AFL-CIO found itself without an effective apparatus to counter
the strong socialist union movements in the two countries. Recognizing
the need for an institute that could concentrate on European affairs,
the federation went about revitalizing its European arm. As a
result, FTUI was established to help prevent communist electoral
successes in Spain and Portugal as well as to increase U.S. influence
in European trade unions generally.
FTUI's mission was broadened in 1983 to include coordinating
and administering labor grants from the National Endowment for
Democracy (NED). Now NED's largest grantee, the Free Trade Union
Institute disbursed nearly 50 percent of the dollar total of NED's
grants from 1984 to 1988. It distributes these NED funds through
the other labor institutes, reserving some for its own European
grantees. Grants from AID and other government agencies are usually
channeled through the other institutes, but a number of AID grants
have been designated for FTUI-backed labor organizations in Eastern
Europe since the late 1980s.
As the umbrella organization for NED's labor grants, FTUI
has served as a conduit for NED funding for projects in countries
ranging from Jordan to New Zealand, and from France to Brazil.
Its grants support trade union exchanges, civic education, union-building,
leadership training, conferences, seminars, and production of
trade union publications. It also has assisted trade union exiles
and their families and has provided social services for unionists
in geopolitical hotspots like Poland.
FTUI's grants, like those of the other institutes, helped
fight the Cold War as well as providing services and support that
many foreign unionists were seeking. In Poland, for instance,
the institute not only helped Solidarity in its battle to organize
an independent union. FTUI grants also bolstered those elements
within the Polish trade union that were most dedicated to eradicating
communist influence in the country and were most amenable to conservative
economic and political strategies. By helping to keep the fires
of protest lit in Poland, the U.S. federation also helped bring
down the communist government.
As we discussed previously, FTUI's board of directors is drawn
from the leadership of the AFL-CIO. Included are representatives
from the labor federation's member unions, its international affairs
department, and its regional affiliates. FTUI's executive director
is Paul Somogyi, formerly the assistant director of the AFL-CIO's
powerful department of international affairs. He succeeded Eugenia
The American Institute for Free Labor Development (AIFLD),
founded in 1962, is the international arm of the AFL-CIO in the
western hemisphere and was the first of the four regional institutes
to be established. Described by former CIA officer Philip Agee
as a "CIA-controlled labor center financed through AID,"
AIFLD traces its origins to initiatives of the U.S. labor community
and government in response to the Cuban revolution.' As explained
in a staff report prepared for a congressional subcommittee in
1968, AIFLD was formed "primarily in response to the threat
of Castroite infiltration and eventual control of .~> major
labor movements within Latin America."
On the labor side, AIFLD was modeled on a training program
for Latin American communications workers launched in the late
1950s by Joseph Beirne, president of the Communications Workers
of America (CWA). Some 16 union leaders-members of unions affiliated
with the Postal, Telegraph and Telephone Workers International-
were brought to CWA's training center in Fort Royal, Virginia
for a three-month course in "democratic unionism." The
participants returned to their home countries following the training
armed with a nine month stipend and the principles of "free"
(i.e. conservative, probusiness, and anticommunist) trade unionism.
Impressed favorably by the project, the AFL-CIO commissioned Beirne
to plan a training institute for all Latin American unions and
in May 1961 decided to create the organization he proposed.
In March of the same year, President John Kennedy had announced
his plans to initiate the Alliance for Progress. An ambitious
but ill-conceived program, the Alliance aimed at stifling Latin
American radicalism through a two-pronged strategy. On the one
hand, the Alliance was to promote regional economic development
and social reforms in order to drain off popular support for radical
change in the region. On the other hand, the Alliance was simultaneously
to strengthen Latin American militaries so that they could crush
popular challenges to the region's governments. Expanded U.S.
government aid would be funneled through both governmental and
nongovernmental institutions, of which labor would be one. AIFLD
became the AFL-CIO's conduit for U.S. government funds targeted
for Alliance labor projects.
In a related initiative, Kennedy called for the creation of
a Labor Advisory Committee on Foreign Policy, to be chaired by
Secretary of Labor Arthur Goldberg. George Meany, then president
of the AFL-CIO, was a member of the committee, and top-level representatives
of the State Department and the CIA attended the sessions. This
committee arranged for $350,000 from U.S. government coffers to
be used to set up AIFLD's first training program. Although the
funds were to be used "to facilitate securing funding from
private foundations, organizations, and companies," only
a small number of private contributions were ever received.
The presence of the CIA at meetings to discuss labor's role
in U.S. foreign policy presaged AIFLD's involvement in the undercover
operations of the U.S. government. AIFLD and its Latin American
allies participated in CIA-backed destabilizations of democratically
elected governments in various countries, including the Dominican
Republic, Chile, and Guyana. Similarly, in El Salvador during
the early 1980s, AIFLD staff members Mark Pearlman and Michael
Hammer-agrarian reform specialists gunned down with a Salvadoran
counterpart-were identified by the U.S. solicitor-general as "some
kind of undercover persons working under the cover of a labor
Over the years AIFLD has been active in almost every country
in the western hemisphere. It uses U.S. government funds to sponsor
education and training programs, provide technical assistance,
conduct labor exchanges, support social service projects, and
back the publication efforts of pro-U.S. unions. Assisting allied
unions to develop political-action capacities has become a new
focus of AIFLD and the other labor institutes. These projects
include political education programs, voter registration, get-out-the-vote
drives, media campaigns, election observation, trade union rights
monitoring efforts, and visitor exchanges.
The African-American Labor Center (AALC), founded in 1964,
is active in some 31 countries ranging from Angola to Zimbabwe.
Its founder and first director was longtime labor activist and
CIA operative Irving Brown.' He molded the institute into an anticommunist
organization that spread the doctrine of labor-business harmony
and bread-and-butter unionism to its African beneficiaries. Under
Brown, the AALC became a vehicle for funneling U.S. aid to procapitalist,
economistic African trade unions, a role which it continues to
play today. When he met with South African unionists in 1973,
for example, he warned them away from political activism against
apartheid and urged them to concentrate on ``practical" issues
such as collective bargaining. He also offered technical and financial
aid to unions with "responsible" Black leadership.
The institute is still known in South Africa as an organization
interested primarily in the "creation of a clearly capitalist
society where labor is not so radical," says Kenneth Mokoena
of the National Security Archive, a research institute based in
Washington DC. According to Mokoena, whose research has concentrated
on U.S. initiatives in South Africa, the AALC's trainings "emphasize
probusiness unionism" and are more concerned with "working
conditions, not general political relationships."
. The AALC builds and finances trade union education centers
throughout the continent where it trains unionists through courses,
seminars, and workshops. It also supports visitor exchanges, conducts
development projects, and sponsors job-creation schemes. Recipients
of its grants and training have promoted essentially harmonious
relationships with management, tend to be politically quiescent,
and, until recently, were known as collaborationists with South
Africa's apartheid regime.
The activities of the American Institute for Free Labor Development-and,
to a lesser extent, the Free Trade Union Institute-have stimulated
controversy and a certain amount of scrutiny, but the operations
of the AALC have been clouded in obscurity. Like the other institutes,
however, the AALC has been accused of fronting for CIA operations
in the region. Certainly the key role played by Irving Brown in
the institute is a major factor supporting this conclusion.
One former intelligence officer, Paul Sakwa, identified Brown
as a funnel for CIA cash to Kenya's Tom Mboya, a rightist politician
backed by the United States until his murder in 1969.'° Brown
also helped organize the National Front for the Liberation of
Angola, a CIA-sponsored rebel army headed by Holden Roberto. Brown's
support for Roberto's "labor" activities was a cover
for funneling cash to the group." Another important figure
whose activities with the AALC drew suspicion was Nelson "Nana"
Mahomo. Mahomo-suspended and eventually expelled from the Pan-African
Congress due to allegations of financial improprieties and cooperation
with the CIA-was selected by the AALC in 1982 to head its Program
of Action in Support of Black Trade Unions. This selection occurred
in spite of the fact that Mahomo had been absent from Africa for
some 20 years and had had no experience as a trade unionist.
The political context surrounding labor activities in Africa
contains significant factors which influence the AALC's operations
on the continent. Africa's recent colonial past, its history of
foreign intervention and domination, extremes of poverty and unemployment,
and the importance of East/West divisions in national labor movements
are some of these factors. Such factors led to deeply militant
and nationalist labor movements, often allied with political parties
and movements which pushed for decolonization. Following independence,
however, many of these same militant labor organizations became
junior partners to the new political elites.'
The U.S. federation was supportive of Africa's decolonization
process-which perhaps not incidentally opened the door for U.S.
involvement on the continent. While backing the withdrawal of
the European powers, however, the AFL-CIO and later the AALC furthered
U.S. entry into African affairs. They also paved the way for the
acceptance of U.S. corporate expansion among indigenous labor
movements. Their emphasis on bread-and-butter unionism and their
predilection for institution-building over activism encouraged
an already emerging trend in the region toward the deradicalization
and bureaucratization of once-activist labor unions. During the
Cold War, U.S. labor projects amplified East/West divisions and
undercut labor unity, stimulating competition among labor organizations
both on ideological grounds and in pursuit of material support.
Institute documents regarding Libya, for instance, counseled
that "Libya is developing an increasing presence on the continent
as an agent of subversion." In response, according to the
documents, "AALC programs seek to offset...these [Libyan
and other continent-wide subversive movements] through a combination
of institution-building, exchanges, organizational cooperation,
and other efforts. In Chad-a target of a Libyan-backed rebel
movement-the African institute countered Libya's actions by supporting
Workers Confederation of Chad. Chad's Unatrat union federation,
however, was described by the AALC as "Libyan-supported"
and thus missed out on institute backing even though more moderate
elements of the AALC wanted to strengthen ties with the federation."
More than any of the AFL-CIO's other international institutes,
the AALC cooperates with regional labor organizations and supports
them with funding, technical assistance, and other services. Among
its beneficiaries are the Organization of African Trade Union
Unity (OATUU), a pan-African association of trade unions. The
AALC also supports regional institutions such as the Southern
African Trade Union Coordinating Council (SATUCC), the Organization
of Trade Unions of West Africa (OTUWA), and the Organization of
Central African Workers (OTAC). In addition to these strictly
African entities, the institute provides support to and through
the African Regional Organization of the International Confederation
of Free Trade Unions.
The Asian-American Free Labor Institute (AAFLI) was founded
by the AFL-CIO executive council in 1968 to operate as labor's
arm in Vietnam. Shortly thereafter, AAFLI expanded its operations
to include the Philippines and other Asian and Pacific countries.
It now supports unions in approximately 30 countries in Asia,
the Pacific, and the Middle East, with resident representatives
in Bangladesh, Indonesia, South Korea, the Philippines, Thailand,
Like AIFLD, the Asian institute was launched in response to
the Cold War factors in the international arena. The AFL-CIO's
growing dissatisfaction with the ICFTU because of the socialist
and social-democratic orientations of some of its members was
one such factor. The opposition of many ICFTU member unions to
the U.S. war in Vietnam was another. Creation of an institution
such as AAFLI increasingly was seen as necessary in order to provide
an alternative vehicle for AFL-CIO bilateral interactions with
Another incident that impelled AAFLI's founding was the Tet
offensive in Vietnam. According to AAFLI documents, the institute
was set up to help distribute relief supplies, some of them funneled
through CARE, after the flogging U.S. allies took during the offensive.
Soon thereafter the institute began conducting trainings and other
projects. Its beneficiary in the country was Tran Quoc Buu, the
corrupt but anticommunist leader of the Vietnamese Confederation
of Labor (CVT). Reminiscent of union efforts in postwar Europe,
the CVT-allied with the U.S.-backed regime of Nguyen Van Thieu-supported
CIA and U.S. military efforts by keeping the docks open to permit
entry of vital supplies. In outlying areas, CVT unionists cooperated
with U.S.-sponsored pacification campaigns.
Like the other institutes, AAFLI has been accused of providing
cover for U.S. intelligence operations. In fact, former CIA operative
Philip Agee charged that AAFLI is permeated with "principal
CIA agents." Agee identified Morris Paladino-former deputy
executive director of AIFLD, former executive director of AAFLI,
and former AFL-CIO official with the International Confederation
of Free Trade Unions-as the "principal CIA agent for control
of the [Interamerican Regional Organization of Workers], "
the ICFTU's regional arm for Latin America. In addition, the institute's
first secretary-treasurer, James Suffridge, came from the Retail
Clerks International Association, a U.S. union through which the
CIA ran operations with white-collar workers. Suffridge had suggested
that union-to-union programs in Asia be funded as far back as
1961 but AID and the AFL-CIO were at that time concentrating on
getting the Latin American institute off the ground. Valentine
Suazo, another AAFLI representative with a background in AIFLD's
Latin American labor activities, has also been alleged to have
Foreign intervention and domination-expressed through past
colonial and current neocolonial relationships-have helped to
shape Asian trade unionism. As Dave Spooner, an analyst at the
Asia Monitor Resource Center put it, "The union structures,
practices and labour laws of countries such as South Korea, Taiwan,
the Philippines, Malaysia, India and elsewhere, are as much the
result of support, imposition or manipulation by the governments,
political parties and trade unions of Europe and the U.S., as
they are of the activities of workers themselves." One outcome
of this historical reality is a frequent emphasis by more militant
unions on nationalism, anti-imperialism, and national liberation
as components of "genuine" trade unionism.
Most national labor movements in Asia are characterized by
cleavages along ideological, religious, or ethnic lines which
result in the formation of rival national union centers. The Philippines,
for example, has given rise to four such centers, two of which-the
Trade Union Congress of the Philippines and the Kilusang Mayo
Uno, or May First Movement-are in vigorous competition for the
loyalties of workers.
Close ties to national political parties and other elements
of national ruling structures is another common feature of Asian
trade unionism. The Fiji Trades Union Congress-supported by AAFLI-
launched the Fiji Labor Party in 1985 and has often been closely
aligned with the Fijian government. Likewise, the AAFLI-backed
Federation of Korean Trade Unions in South Korea, the Trade Union
Congress of the Philippines, and the All-Indonesia Workers' Union
(SPSI) each have close relations with the military, business community,
and/or government in their respective countries.
The dangers of such alliances for independent and principled
trade unionism are obvious. They also contradict the AFL-CIO's
oft-repeated claim that it backs "free" trade unions
around the world. Ernesto Herrera, the general secretary of the
Philippine federation and a member of Corazon Aquino's slate in
the national Senate, inadvertently demonstrated the dangers while
calling for tighter labor laws in the country. Labor leaders "who
do not adhere to the national agenda of industrial peace,"
he said, "[must] be arrested."
of the World Undermined