A ‘Truth Commission’ for AFL’s Foreign Policy

Conflicting resolutions on the AFL-CIO’s relations with unions in other countries may spark real debate at the federation’s upcoming convention in Chicago. While overshadowed by other internal fireworks this summer, an open discussion on international affairs would mark a challenge to the AFL-CIO’s foreign policy.

The California state AFL-CIO is calling on the national federation to build “Unity and Trust” with workers in other countries through a public review of past policy. Supporters want the AFL-CIO to repudiate its past involvement in U.S. government efforts to interfere with the labor movements of other countries, and even to overthrow governments unfriendly to U.S. business.

The resolution would stop the AFL-CIO from taking funds from the U.S. government or from quasi-government sources such as the National Endowment for Democracy. Other central labor councils and the Washington State Federation have passed similar resolutions.

The “Unity and Trust” resolution is the culmination of many years’ work by Fred Hirsch of Plumbers and Pipefitters Local 393 and the South Bay Central Labor Council (San Jose). Hirsch has been bringing to light U.S. labor’s undermining of pro-labor governments in other countries. He was a leader in exposing the role that the AFL-CIO’s American Institute for Free Labor Development (AIFLD) played in overthrowing elected Chilean socialist president Salvador Allende in 1973.

Efforts to resolve differences over a previous “Clear the Air” resolution, in a meeting between California AFL-CIO leaders and leaders of the AFL-CIO International Affairs Department, were unsuccessful.


In June the AFL-CIO began circulating a draft “Resolution on the Solidarity Center.” President John Sweeney created the Solidarity Center in 1997 to do the federation’s international work, after dismantling the tainted AIFLD.

The resolution calls on central labor councils and state federations to work with the Solidarity Center and for the Center to continue its work. But the draft also refers specifically to U.S. government funding: “Whereas the AFL-CIO lobbies for continued government funds to strengthen trade unions and protect the right to freedom of association…”

The Solidarity Center’s program in Colombia has focused on genuine solidarity between unions and, unlike the AFL-CIO’s former programs, has been supported by many labor progressives. Thousands of Colombian trade unionists have faced death and death threats from right-wing paramilitary organizations in their country, and the Solidarity Center offered some of these leaders a year’s respite in the United States, funded by the U.S. Department of Labor.



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Here they stimulated grassroots support for Colombian workers, building contacts between U.S. union leaders and Colombian unions of various political stripes. Colombian unionists have helped out U.S. unions from Boston to Los Angeles on their organizing drives, and U.S. unionists have marched with Colombian unionists in Bogotá, Medellín, and Cartagena.


At the same time, the Solidarity Center came under fire for channeling over $1 million to the Confederation of Venezuelan Workers (CTV) in oil-rich Venezuela. The CTV is charged with working with the Venezuelan Chamber of Commerce in a failed coup to overthrow the elected government of President Hugo Chavez in 2002. That coup was hailed by the Bush Administration, which dislikes Chavez’s anti-U.S. positions.

The Solidarity Center has said that it was simply trying to support democracy within the CTV and in Venezuela, not topple the government. But the attempted coup was widely publicized even before the shooting began.

The Solidarity Center has operations in 40 countries, the details of which are unknown to most union members.

The “Unity and Trust” resolution may cause some embarrassment to U.S. trade union leaders who would rather forget the past. But it calls not for an idle review of history but for a purge of past practices in order to prevent their recurrence in the future.

After the 1964 military coup in Brazil, which led to a brutal 12-year dictatorship, an AIFLD Social Projects Director told Congress, “What happened in Brazil on April 1 did not just happen, it was planned—and planned months in advance. Many of the trade union leaders—some of whom were actually trained in our institute—were involved in the revolution and overthrow of the Goulart regime.”

These are the kinds of things that trade unionists of the affected countries do not forget, even if unionists in the U.S. would rather do so.

Countries like South Africa have organized Truth Commissions to review their painful history and help set their future course. The AFL-CIO should do the same.

Jeff Crosby is president of IUE-CWA Local 201 in Lynn, Massachusetts and of the North Shore Central Labor Council. He has participated in trade union delegations to Colombia with the AFL-CIO and Witness for Peace.