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Union Delegates Call on AFL-CIO to ‘Come Clean’ on International Activities

The Washington State Labor Council (WSLC) is now the second major labor organization on the West Coast to pass a resolution calling on the AFL-CIO to "come clean" about its foreign relations activities and to make amends for the "excesses of the Cold War era."
Seattle, Wash. -- This past weekend the Washington State Labor Council (WSLC) became the second major labor organization on the West Coast to pass a resolution calling on the AFL-CIO to "come clean" about its foreign relations activities and to make amends for the "excesses of the Cold War era."

The language of the approved resolution applauds the "progressive new policies of the AFL-CIO in global affairs," but asserts that the labor federation's track record over the past quarter century continues to breed fear and suspicion among labor activists in other countries. To increase its credibility in the eyes of workers abroad, and in the United States, the resolution calls for action to be taken "to clear the air in affirmation of an AFL-CIO policy of genuine global labor solidarity."

The South Bay Labor Council, based in San Jose, Calif., passed a similar resolution in November, 2000.

"This sends a message to progressive elements in the AFL-CIO that steps are being taking in solidarity with bottom-up, militant, working peoples' movements around the world," said Dick Burton, a delegate to the state labor convention from the Seattle Community Colleges Federation of Teachers.

Citing sources tying AFL-CIO activities to C.I.A. intervention and the subsequent overthrow of a democratically elected government in Chile in 1973, as well as support for reactionary forces that backed the long-lived Marcos dictatorship in the Philippines, the resolution claims that "the AFL-CIO engaged in similar activities in many countries on almost every continent." These activities, it continues, "served corporate interests and were largely funded by the U.S. government."

The resolution also argues that the AFL-CIO's international activities during the Cold War generally supported corporate interests at the expense of workers, and resulted in the "persecution of working families and the torture, disappearance and death of many trade union activists and leaders." In order to advance new, progressive policies of the AFL-CIO, the resolution continues, it is imperative that the federation renounce past policies and practices and invite union members and researchers to review and discuss all AFL-CIO archives on international labor affairs.

"If the AFL-CIO is really serious about taking a whole new direction in dealing with international labor issues, this is very important," said Lou Truskoff, a delegate from the American Postal Workers Union. "There is a lot of mistrust of the AFL-CIO around the world based on these past actions. I think it is in our basic interest to do this."

The language of the approved resolution concludes by calling on the AFL-CIO to describe, country by country, all activities it may still be engaged in abroad with funds from the U.S. government, and to renounce any ties that could compromise the federation's credibility.

Arguments against the resolution at the state labor convention revolved primarily around concerns that the information would be used to embarrass the AFL-CIO, or that it was "old news" and that the current AFL-CIO leadership was cut from a different cloth. Supporters reasoned that is was the right thing to do, and, in fact, quite necessary in order to forge or rebuild relationships with global labor partners.

Roberta Wilson, a delegate from Washington Alliance of Technology Workers (CWA Local 37083), sees the resolution as a form of atonement. "The Catholic Church has done it regarding World War II and their failure to stand up to the Nazis. The United States has done it in terms of Japanese-American internment during World War II. South Africa is still running their Truth Commission. I don't think anything is gained by covering up misdeeds and much is lost -- the most important being trust."

The passing of the resolution comes amidst the AFL-CIO's "Campaign for Global Fairness", which aims to build international labor solidarity, and as the federation is stepping up its rhetoric and lobbying in opposition to "fast track" treaty negotiating powers. President George W. Bush is seeking such powers in order to finalize negotiations on the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA). Such authorization would give President Bush the ability to negotiate trade treaties without usual Congressional procedures or oversight, thereby limiting debate, eliminating the possibility for amendments, and preventing Congressional scrutiny of trade legislation.

Supporters of the resolution to "come clean" on past foreign policy sins say many of the AFL-CIO's recent proclamations about "fair trade not free trade" fall on deaf ears among union activists in other countries because they remember an AFL-CIO that not so long ago was working hand-in-glove with the U.S. government and the C.I.A. to undermine progressive or militant trade unions in their countries. After several decades of watching the AFL-CIO support a foreign policy agenda that favored corporate interests over those of workers, and liberalized trade rules and structural economic "reforms" that often came at the expense of the middle classes and working poor, the jury is still out among many global labor activists as to the true nature of the AFL-CIO.

The approved resolution will now be sent to the AFL-CIO Executive Board. Whether it will have any effect remains to be seen. Many delegates who voted in favor of the resolution say they see it as a good step in the right direction, but say a lot of education and organizing work inside the AFL-CIO lies ahead if the resolution is to move forward.

"It's a beginning," said Truskoff of the Postal Workers Union. "I would hope that pretty soon some other labor councils will start dealing with this and adopt it. If it's just coming from the South Bay and Washington State, it could be easily dismissed."

Burton, of the community college teachers union, says he hopes the resolution helps to rebuild some trust with labor activists in other countries. "I hope this sends a message to labor people around the world that there are labor council people and state delegate people who want to do the right thing."