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 Kemble.

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 organization."

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 the government-linked

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, and Turkey.

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 Asian unionists.

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 CIA links.

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."

Workers of the World Undermined

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