AFL-CIO Refuses to “Clear the Air” on Foreign Policy, Operations

A report now circulating on the results of an October 14, 2003 meeting in Oakland between the California State AFL-CIO and AFL-CIO International Affairs leaders shows that national AFL-CIO leaders have not accepted a California labor initiative to reveal the federation's role in past and current foreign operations.

This meeting was the outcome of a process that began in 1998 with an effort by labor activists in the San Jose, California area to demand that the AFL-CIO "clear the air" about its involvement in events leading up to a 1973 coup that overthrew the elected government of Chile.

Initiated by Fred Hirsch, a member of Plumbers and Fitters Local 393, the "Clear the Air" resolution was drafted with the help of members and leaders of the South Bay Labor Council, Local 393, former political prisoners in Chile, and others.

Hirsch, in 1974, had discovered and publicized the fact that the AFL-CIO's Latin American operation, AIFLD (American Institute for Free Labor Development) had been involved in helping create the economic turmoil and conditions that led to the coup by the Chilean military.

Based on Hirsch's research, the Central Labor Council had passed a resolution in 1974 condemning AIFLD's involvement in undermining this democratically elected government, and refused to withdraw it even in the face of direct pressure by the then-head of AIFLD, William Doherty. This new resolution was to re-open the call for the AFL-CIO to "Clear the Air." Unfortunately, other events intervened, and the resolution was not acted upon at the time.


The effort was revived after an article on AFL-CIO foreign operations was published in the Summer 2000 issue of Labor Studies Journal by this author--"It's Time to Come Clean: Open the AFL-CIO Archives on International Labor Operations" and subsequent resolutions passed by California Central Labor Councils in the San Jose, San Francisco, and Monterey Bay areas.

These resolutions--stimulated by the initial "Clear the Air" resolution initiated by Hirsch--were combined into a resolution titled "It's Time to Clear the Air About AFL-CIO Foreign Policy Abroad" and were presented to the 2002 California Federation Convention in July of that year. Similar resolutions have been passed by the King County Labor Council from the Seattle area, the Washington State AFL-CIO, and the national lesbian-gay-transgender constituency organization, Pride at Work.

AFL-CIO representatives were aghast at the "Clear the Air" resolution. The author's sources weren't in the room at the time, but it appears likely that a deal was made whereby the AFL-CIO representative asked the California Federation's Executive Committee to accept a "watered down" resolution (#20) in exchange for a meeting between the Federation and California activists and leaders from the International Affairs Committee and Department to discuss these issues in a less confrontational manner. Resolution #20 called upon the AFL-CIO "to convene a meeting with the State Federation and interested affiliates in California to discuss their present foreign affairs activities involving government funds."

It then noted, "The aim of the meeting will be to clear the air concerning AFL-CIO policy abroad and to affirm a policy of genuine global solidarity in pursuit of economic and social justice with attention to domestic and international labor standards that include the right to organize and strike, an adequate social safety net, the right to health care and education, elimination of mandatory overtime, protection of the rights of immigrant workers, prohibitions on strikebreaking, and the pursuit of peace among nations and peoples."

While the "deal" for the meeting was ultimately accepted by the California Federation, and Resolution #20 passed instead of "Clear the Air," it was made clear that if the meeting with the AFL-CIO international affairs leaders was not satisfactory in moving substantively toward the goals of "Clear the Air," then the officers of the California Federation would support the original resolution.


Although it took over a year to take place, the October 14 meeting was historic. Top representatives of the AFL-CIO International Affairs Committee (IAC) and International Affairs Department (IAD) had never been called up to meet with representatives of a State Federation and its affiliates on matters of international affairs.

Representing the IAC was Bill Lucy, Secretary-Treasurer of the Committee, President of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, and International Secretary-Treasurer of AFSCME. Barbara Shailor, Director of the IAD was to attend but was unable to do so; in her place, Stan Gacek, Assistant Director, stood in for her. The meeting was chaired by Art Pulaski, Secretary-Treasurer of the California AFL-CIO. With over two million members in California, membership in the state federation makes up roughly 15 percent of the AFL-CIO's total membership.

To help facilitate communication--at the urging of Lucy and Gacek--no one could be quoted directly for public consumption. They said they would submit a report of the meeting, giving their input and analysis of it, but no such report had been received as of December 17. The overall meeting report is a compilation of a number of reports by meeting attendees based on notes taken during the meeting. (The author did not attend the meeting.)

Lucy/Gacek reported on International work by the AFL-CIO, which has improved considerably since 1995, when the Sweeney administration came into office. This work now focuses around five different areas: (1) defending the ILO's (International Labor Organization's) core conventions--such as freedom of association, freedom of speech, freedom to collectively bargain, etc.; (2) making international solidarity work and increasingly important area for AFL-CIO members; (3) being for what they called "the moral imperative" whether it did or did not directly benefit AFL-CIO or its affiliated unions; (4) fighting for labor rights in trade/investment agreements; an (5) engaging in strategic organizing and collective bargaining interests in confronting multinational corporations.

In response to the demand that they "come clean" on past AFL-CIO operations, however, the AFL-CIO national reps argued that the past was past, and that efforts to get them to come clean on these past events would only give AFL-CIO opponents more ammunition to fight unions.

In response to the demand that they quit taking US government money--either from US Agency for International Development (USAID) or the quasi-governmental (and Reagan-created) National Endowment for Democracy (NED)--they argued that union members are taxpayers, and that they have just as much right to take government money as any corporation. And in response to the demand that an international work be funded only out of AFL-CIO member support, they claimed the affiliates would never support it.


While there is no question that the AFL-CIO has made improvements over the Meany/Kirkland years, it is certainly not near what the AFL-CIO projects--nor, more importantly, what workers around the world need. Current policies continue those of the past toward AFL-CIO members themselves: no transparency, no accountability, no democratic discussion or member decision-making power.

The AFL-CIO is still conducting labor operations in a number of countries, although these representatives did not offer information as to why it is involved in some countries but not others. They did not provide a country-by-country report of current operations, which they had been specifically asked to provide before the meeting--a request that the AFL-CIO representatives used to delay holding the meeting.

The AFL-CIO is still taking U.S. Government money from USAID and NED, but provided no amounts from either or on what basis it was provided. Interestingly, they stated that countries where USAID or the State Department had no interests are "off limits."

California labor activists, unsatisfied with the meeting's outcome, are planning to place another "Clear the Air" resolution on the State AFL-CIO Convention's agenda in 2004.

According to one participant of the October 14 meeting, "I don't know if any of the 50 people in attendance on October 14 would contend that the meeting had a satisfactory and productive outcome in regard to Resolution #20. It certainly did not in regard to 'clear the air'. "

Kim Scipes is a former member of the Graphic Communications International Union as well as the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association.


There are a number of resources relating to or reporting on recent efforts (since 2000) to get the AFL-CIO to change its foreign policy and operations-these efforts are obviously a continuation of efforts extending from the 1960s. I have collected here a number of key resources in this one place, illustrating the sizeable and growing opposition to these foreign operations.

These calls to “clear the air” have revolved around demanding an honest and complete detailing and accounting of past foreign operations, wanting a complete accounting of current operations, and calling for the end of accepting any external funding by the US Government, whether officially as through the US Agency for International Development (USAID) or through the quasi-official National Endowment for Democracy (NED), although not every researcher has included each of these areas in his/her work. These resources are posted on web sites on the Internet, and links are provided to these resources along with a quick overview of what each one is about.

I encourage everyone to read through these resources and do what you can to advance the struggle to change the AFL-CIO’s foreign policy and operations. (To be fair, the Solidarity Center -- in response to escalating pressure -- HAS established a web site, and it should be referred to as well.

Key Articles

* Kim Scipes, 2000, It’s Time to Come Clean: Open the AFL-CIO Archives on International Labor Operations. Originally appeared in Labor Studies Journal, Vol. 25, No. 2, Summer: 4-25. This article compares the previous AFL-CIO foreign policy under George Meany and Lane Kirkland with the then-emerging foreign policy under John Sweeney. To do this, it provides a quick overview of the history of AFL and then AFL-CIO foreign operations-beginning in the late 19th/very early 20th Century-and provides a solid overview of the literature. It discusses AFL-CIO foreign policy under Meany and Kirkland with a special focus on the years 1962-1995, showing that CIA involvement was structured into the US Government’s foreign policy processes to which Meany and Kirkland and other top labor leaders (including John Sweeney) had committed labor. It gives an overview of the US Government’s campaign against the democratically-elected government of socialist Salvador Allende of Chile between 1970 and 1973. And then it specifically details the work of the AFL-CIO’s American Institute of Free Labor Development (AIFLD) and its efforts to economically destabilize the country, leading to social disruption and helping to lay the groundwork for the military coup of September 11, 1973, in which thousands of people, including many workers and labor leaders, were tortured and/or murdered. I concluded: “In short, AIFLD’s people played a crucial role in creating the economic crisis that led to the military’s coup-and creating the chaos was part of a long-term, coordinated effort to overthrow the government of Chile, planned at the highest levels of the US government, financed and implemented by the CIA, and with the direct organizational involvement of AIFLD and probably other organizations” (p. 20).



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I suggested that, while we could not know with certainty, had Sweeney’s post-1995 foreign policy been in affect that the time, it is probable that the AFL-CIO would not have been involved with the coup, and thousands of people would not have been tortured and/or killed.

However, I suggested that if we really ever wanted to build international labor solidarity, then we must recognize that because of past operations such as in Chile, that the AFL-CIO had to “come clean,” and provide “an honest coming-to-terms” with its past practices. Further, that the past foreign policy needed to be “specifically repudiated” by the leadership, and that a “verbal repudiation” would not be enough: the leadership of the AFL-CIO had to open “all of the AFL-CIO archives to interested scholars and rank-and-file members of AFL-CIO member unions.”

* Judy Ancel, 2000, On Building an International Solidarity Movement, originally appearing in Labor Studies Journal, Vol. 25, No. 2, Summer: 26-35. This article was written in response to “It’s Time to Come Clean,” and presents some more important material. [A shorter version of this article appeared in Labor Notes in May 2002 as To Build International Solidarity, AFL-CIO Needs to Dump Old Baggage.]

Ancel argues that labor’s post-World War II foreign policy was intertwined with business unionism [a point I made in my 1989 study on the origins of the AFL’s foreign policy under Samuel Gompers-see note (b) below], but that “Not only were international policies secretive and unaccountable to all but the highest level decision-makers, but also they consistently betrayed international solidarity and the interests of workers around the world for a privileged position for the AFL-CIO and (at least some) of its members.” Ancel argues the need to overcome labor’s past “baggage” that still affects labor’s foreign policy: (a) The idea that “We know what’s best for you”; and (b) “American firstism”; (c) as well as that labor’s international work is funded overwhelmingly by the government-which has its own interests-and not by workers and unions; and (d) “lack of transparency and democracy.” This is an incisive critique that deserves additional attention.

* Tim Shorrock, 2002, Toeing the Line? Sweeney and US Foreign Policy, originally appearing in New Labor Forum, Fall/Winter. This article looks at the ways the AFL-CIO’s foreign policy has changed under John Sweeney, but also how it has remained the same from the Meany/Kirkland days. Provides some information on both Venezuela and AFL-CIO’s support for Israel (the latter of which too little is known).

* Tim Shorrock, 2003, Labor’s Cold War, originally appearing in The Nation of May 19, 2003. This article discusses the resolutions that have developed among labor organizations on the West Coast, and reports results from his research in the files in the archives of the AFL-CIO, specifically focusing on AFL-CIO activities in Chile, South Korea and Okinawa. While the material on Chile supplements what we generally know, the material on South Korea and especially Okinawa is generally unknown. (There also are several “Letters to the Editor” in response to Shorrock’s article that were published in the print edition of The Nation only -- not posted on line -- and these appeared in a July issue, although I don’t have the specific date on hand.)

It is easy to see why the AFL-CIO leadership does not want researchers and union members going through the files of their foreign operations, and why they have so far refused to reduce the “20 year rule” before making material available to researchers. Shorrock did go into the files that are available and writes, “Over the past year, I’ve read hundreds of pages of newly released documents in the archives. Reading through the letters, policy papers, memos, newspaper clippings and declassified diplomatic cables in the files, it’s impossible to avoid the conclusion that the AFL-CIO and its institutes were, in a few egregious cases, willing handmaidens for the Pentagon and US multinational corporations as they imposed their will on US allies and developing countries” (emphasis added). Then he adds, “Nowhere was that clearer than in Chile.”

Resolutions, Overviews, Subsequent Reports (listed by date

* October 21, 2000, Building International Labor Solidarity: One Central Labor Council at a Time by Kim Scipes, originally appearing as a “Daily Commentary” on ZNet. It reports on the passage of the “Clear the Air” resolution by the South Bay Labor Council (in and around San Jose, CA), which is the first resolution passed, and gives an overview of the efforts to change AFL-CIO foreign policy and operations to that date.

* November 8, 2000, Building International Labor Solidarity: Escalating the Struggle Within the AFL-CIO. This is a copy of a letter, signed by Amy Dean, Executive Officer of the South Bay Labor Council, that was sent to selected unions and labor councils, asking them to take action accordingly to press the AFL-CIO. With her cover letter, Dean included a copy of her transmittal letter to John Sweeney-noting that the resolution was passed unanimously by Labor Council delegates-and a copy of the resolution as it was passed by the Council.

* July 2-16, 2002, The CIO without the CIA, by Simon Rodberg. This appeared in Vol. 12, Issue 12 of The American Prospect. A fairly positive view of the Solidarity Center and its then-relatively new approach to international labor work. However, in light of the claim that Solidarity Center’s Executive Director Harry Kamberis “looks like CIA” (see under May 2002 on Venezuela, below), Rodberg has this to say about Kamberis: “He worked from 1986 to 1997 in the Asian American Free Labor Institute, one of the Cold War predecessors to the Solidarity Center. Although he spent a year as a union organizer in the mid-1980s, Kamberis, a former foreign-service officer and international businessman, doesn’t share the liberal-left union background of his colleagues at the AFL-CIO.” And “But Kamberis has succeeded in bringing a State Department-like organization to the Solidarity Center offices, which in effect function as foreign embassies of the AFL-CIO, directed from Washington, D.C., and run by American unionists aided by local program officers and office staff.”

* August 28, 2001, Union Delegates Call on AFL-CIO to ‘Come Clean’ on International Activities, by Mike Blain and was published by Boston Indymedia. Blain reports of the adoption of the resolution for the AFL-CIO to “Come Clean” by the Washington State Labor Council. The Washington State resolution was strengthened by inclusion of direct references to the AFL-CIO’s work in supporting the Trade Union Congress of the Philippines (TUCP), which was created by the Marcos Dictatorship. (Note: I have been told that activists in the Seattle area passed a number of similar resolutions-I have heard of one at the King County Labor Council, and I believe the American Postal Workers Union also passed one, and I have been told that their efforts led to the passage of a similar resolution by Pride at Work, the national gay, lesbian and transgender AFL-CIO constituency group-but these have not been posted on the web to the best of my knowledge. I would love to know of these or any others that have been posted.)

In my 1996 book on the Kilusang Mayo Uno Labor Center of the Philippines-KMU: Building Genuine Trade Unionism in the Philippines, (Quezon City, Metro Manila, New Day Publishers) -- I detailed the AFL-CIO’s support for the TUCP through AAFLI, the Asian-American Free Labor Institute, which was the Asian counterpart of AIFLD (American Institute for Free Labor Development) in Latin America. I then detailed a case of the TUCP’s leading affiliate working with death squads as well as management, local government officials and the militarized Philippine Constabulary against a KMU local union at Atlas Mines in Cebu in the mid- to late-1980s. This is the most in-depth account of the results on the ground of AFL-CIO operations that I know of.

* June 19, 2002, CA State Resolution on AFL-CIO Foreign Operations. This is the official resolution, passed unanimously by Plumbers, Steamfitters and Refrigerator Fitters UA Local 393 on October 11, 2000, that was submitted to the California Labor Federation, AFL-CIO. This resolution is followed by an article by Fred Hirsch on the AFL-CIO in Venezuela, titled “The AFL-CIO: Is It Back to the Future?”, which was published in Journeyman, the official publication of the Building and Construction Trades Council of Alameda County (CA), AFL-CIO.

* 2002 (specific date not provided). “Call for the AFL-CIO to Reveal Past Foreign Relations Activities and to Affirm Its New Policy of Genuine Global Solidarity.” This was a resolution passed by the 2002 Delegates Assembly of the National Writers Union/UAW, listed on its site under “Political Issues.” The NWU notes that this action is taken in solidarity with “The Washington State Labor Council; Communications Workers of America, Local 9423; Service Employees International Union locals 250, 535 and 715; Newspaper Guild Local 98; San Francisco Labor Council; Plumbers, Steamfitters and Refrigeration Fitters UA, Local 393, South Bay AFL-CIO Labor Council; King County Labor Council; and the AFL-CIO Pride at Work Constituency Council….”

* May 1, 2003, Rezension von Kim Scipes (translated "Reaction of Kim Scipes") to Tim Shorrock’s article in The Nation. This was an introduction that I sent around with Shorrock’s article, placing it in the longer-term context and praising him for his work. Truth in Advertising: Because I directly quoted Tim Beatty of the AFL-CIO Foreign Affairs Department from a private conversation, and Shorrock did not like the tone with which I wrote this article, and because I place an importance on the AFL-CIO’s relationship with the National Endowment for Democracy that he disagrees with me about, Shorrock disassociated himself from this introduction, and publicly criticized me. Tim Shorrock disassociates himself from Kim Scipes on Labor’s Cold War.

* May 21, 2003, Are Secret Activities Being Conducted By AFL-CIO’s International Affairs Dept?, by Harry Kelber. This was a column for Labor Talk. Kelber notes that despite his numerous attempts to get International Affairs Department Director Barbara Shailor to report publicly on the Department’s, and particularly the Solidarity Center’s operations, she has refused to even return his repeated phone calls. Especially in light of previous activities by the International Affairs Department, Kelber finds this secrecy counterproductive and troubling.

* October 23, 2003, Report on AFL-CIO International Affairs Meeting, by Fred Hirsch. This is Hirsch’s report of the October 14, 2003 meeting in Oakland, which he sent out to stimulate other attendees’ providing their notes. He particularly noted a contribution by Ed Asner, former President of the Screen Actors Guild, who attended the meeting and make some positive suggestions. Hirsch then commented, “Our guests from Washington did not seriously discuss Ed Asner’s proposals.”

Venezuela: Because the AFL-CIO has had a long-standing (over 30 years) relationship with the CTV (Confederation of Venezuelan Workers), which was the predominant labor center in Venezuela for many years, and because of the important and prominent role in the coup attempt played by CTV President Carlos Ortega, there were several articles that appeared regarding AFL-CIO involvement in the April 2002 attempted coup against Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

* May 2002. Concerns Over Possible AFL-CIO Involvement in Venezuelan Coup by Katharine Hoyt, in Labor Notes. Hoyt reports on a February 12, 2002 meeting with representatives of the CTV in Washington, sponsored by the AFL-CIO and the reactionary National Endowment for Democracy (NED), and claims that there was discussion about CTV efforts against Chavez.

The New York Transfer News Collective transmitted an account of CTV President Carlos Ortega’s meeting with Otto Reich, Assistant Secretary for Western Hemispheric Affairs at the US State Department that appeared in El Dia of Caracas on February 17. They translated the article into English and posted the original Spanish version as well. With this, New York Transfer News included some material on Harry Kamberis, Executive Director of the American Center for International Labor Solidarity (ACILS), otherwise known as the Solidarity Center. Citing information provided by Daniel Brandt of Namebase Online, they published Kamberis’ details from the 1977 State Department Biographical Register. NY Transfer News then concludes, “… he [Kamberis] looks like CIA,” as “This is a very typical entry for a CIA officer under State Department cover.” NY Transfer News then note, “From 1986-1996, before getting selected for the new American Center for International Labor Solidarity, Kamberis was working for the Asian American Free Labor Institute, which had numerous CIA connections throughout the Cold War.” Cloaks and Daggers: The ‘AFL-CIA’ and the Venezuelan Coup, by Jamie Newman and Charles Walker, originally published in the Washington Free Press, July-August 2002. It raised the question of “Why was the AFL-CIO involved in funneling State Department money to a corrupt labor federation in Venezuela that recently tried to overthrow the country’s democratically elected government?” and besides asking other relevant questions, reported on the Monterey Bay (CA) Central Labor Council writing Sweeney and asking these and other relevant questions.

* May 2, 2003, AFL-CIO and Venezuela: Return of Labor Imperialism, or a Mistaken Reaction?, by Kim Scipes, ZNet's Labor Watch. This is an account to report about a flurry of e-mail messages concerning possible AFL-CIO involvement in the Venezuelan coup attempt, and efforts to understand what actually went on. It includes a discussion of the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and its documented involvement in the coup-the AFL-CIO, for some unstated reason, is one of the four core “institutes” of the NED, which was created by that resolute democrat and stalwart labor supporter, Ronald Reagan. It includes a statement by Stan Gacek of the AFL-CIO International Affairs Department, giving the official position on “The AFL-CIO and Workers Rights in Venezuela.” And then, while recognizing that we did not have a “smoking gun” about AFL-CIO participation in the coup, despite many similarities to AFL-CIO operations in Chile in 1973, I asked three questions of the AFL-CIO that I felt key-and which have never been answered by the AFL-CIO: (1) Why is the AFL-CIO doing anything in Venezuela?; (2) Why does the AFL-CIO have any relationship with the NED?: and (3) Why has the AFL-CIO never given a detailed and honest accounting of its past and current operations to its membership?

* February 26, 2003/April 2, 2003 (the February dating is questionable, but in any case, I did not find this appeal until after I wrote my May 2, 2003 piece). “Appeal to US trade unionists on behalf of workers in Venezuela” by Andaiye (from Guyana), Paula Bustamante (Peru), Phoebe Jones Schnellenberg (USA), and Nina Lopez-Jones (England) on behalf of Global Women’s Strike, a non-governmental organization based in the United Kingdom. It is presented as an Open Letter to John Sweeney, President of the AFL-CIO, from the Global Women’s Strike.

This is a letter to John Sweeney that details the CTV leadership’s involvement in the April 2002 coup attempt-especially that of its President, Carlos Ortega-and demands that the AFL-CIO should quit engaging in reactionary activities against the working people of Venezuela. Besides making a very detailed and powerful critique of the CTV’s activities and AFL-CIO support, they point out that “This AFL-CIO collaboration with the White House has weakened its ability to defend workers in the US.” This is an extremely powerful critique and demands a detailed response from the AFL-CIO, although none has been provided to date as far as I can determine.

Because I am not a specialist on Venezuela, and my detailed knowledge of the coup is quite limited, I sought to find someone who could knowledgeably and critically examine these charges. Through contacts, I was put in touch with Steve Ellner, who is a professor of economic history at the Universidad de Oriente in Venezuela, where he has taught since 1977. Ellner has written extensively about developments in Venezuela, and just co-edited a book (with Daniel Hellinger) titled Venezuelan Politics in the Chavez Era: Class, Polarization, and Conflict (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers, December 2002). Within this collection, he wrote Chapter 9, “The Labor Movement and the Challenge of Chavismo.”

With the exception of one minor detail about how to refer to a labor grouping within the labor movement, Ellner has confirmed that accuracy of this Appeal/Open Letter: “I … looked over the letter. I thought it was well documented and did not see anything I would disagree with.” Further, in a letter to the editor of The Nation, that was published in July 2003 in response to Tim Shorrock’s “Labor’s Cold War,” Ellner writes, “However, in his discussion of the AFL-CIO’s disgraceful support for coup plotters against Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, Shorrock leaves out one relevant detail. He quotes the AFL-CIO as justifying its backing of the totally discredited Venezuelan Confederation of Labor (CTV) on grounds that ‘we assisted a process that actually brought more of the left, including some elements sympathetic to [Chavez’] distributive rhetoric, to the leadership of the CTV.’ In fact, there is no current in the CTV at the national level that has questioned the confederation’s obsession with overthrowing Chavez by any means possible -- even to the detriment of worker objectives (emphasis added). Who were these CTV ‘leftists’ whose efforts the AFL-CIO assisted?” Who, indeed?

Kim Scipes is a former member of the Graphic Communications International Union as well as the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association.