New Labor Forum, Fall/Winter 2002
Toeing the Line? Sweeney and U.S. Foreign Policy
By Tim Shorrock
Two events last spring threw the AFL-CIO’s international policies into sharp focus for the first time since John Sweeney was elected president of the federation in 1995.
On April 15, 2002, Sweeney was one of some two dozen speakers to address a giant “rally for Israel” on the mall in Washington, D.C. Also on the stage were Benjamin Netenyahu, the leader of Israel’s right wing, former New York Mayor Rudy Guiliani, and a parade of politicians that included House Majority Leader Dick Armey and New York Senator Hillary Clinton. The rally coincided with Sharon’s massive military incursion into the West Bank following a rash of suicide bombings by Palestinian militants, and was so tilted to the right that Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, one of the Bush administration’s leading hawks, was booed off the stage when he suggested that Palestinians were suffering too.
That same week, the Venezuelan government of Hugo Chavez, a former general-turned-populist who is despised by the Bush administration for his friendly ties to Fidel Castro, was briefly overthrown by the military. The coup was preceded by a general strike led by the Confederation of Venezuelan Workers (CTV), the country’s largest labor federation. But it quickly unraveled, and Chavez was back in power within forty-eight hours. A few days later, the New York Times disclosed that the congressionally funded National Endowment for Democracy (NED) had funneled hundreds of thousands of dollars to groups opposed to Chavez, including the CTV, which received over $150,000 through the AFL-CIO’s American Center for International Labor Solidarity (henceforth the Solidarity Center). The Senate Foreign Relations Committee is looking at the NED funding in Venezuela and was planning to release its findings during the summer.
On the surface, these events were a reminder of the AFL-CIO’s conservative past. Sweeney’s appearance at the pro-Israel rally was a throwback to the days of Lane Kirkland and George Meany, when the AFL-CIO embraced a belligerent, anticommunist foreign policy that, particularly in the Middle East, was often to the right of the White House. His willingness, as the elected representative of U.S. labor, to address a partisan rally seemed particularly egregious on April 20, 2002, when 150,000 people, including hundreds of trade unionists, marched on Washington to protest the war on terrorism and Bush’s support for Sharon. At the same time, the reports of the AFL-CIO’s alliance with NED in Venezuela raised troubling issues about the federation’s work overseas. On May 1, the Monterey Bay Labor Council near San Francisco asked Sweeney to explain why “the AFL-CIO would be involved in funneling State Department money to a labor federation in Venezuela that was actively involved in trying to overthrow that country’s democratically-elected government.”
How much has the AFL-CIO changed under Sweeney, who took over as AFL-CIO president following the first contested elections in U.S. labor history? In this article, I’ll try to answer that question from the perspective of a journalist and trade unionist who has been writing about the AFL-CIO and its international operations for more than twenty years.
US Foreign Policy
Here, the record is decidedly mixed. On issues from U.S. relations with Indonesia to the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia, John Sweeney’s AFL-CIO has consistently supported U.S. foreign policy, sometimes with a vigor that seems out of touch with the potential impact of these policies on workers, both at home and abroad. It responded to the attacks of September 11 2001, by fully embracing President Bush’s war against terrorism and criticizing labor federations abroad that disagreed with the war. At the same time, it was quick to criticize racial profiling, the potential for civil rights abuses, and the willingness of some of the president’s men to equate patriotism with full support for Bush’s domestic agenda. But it has remained silent as John Ashcroft’s Justice Department has increased surveillance of American citizens and jailed others without filing formal charges or allowing legal counsel.
The AFL-CIO’s Overseas Institutes
Sweeney’s conservative tilt on foreign policy doesn’t mean that “the bad old days” of CIA funding and intervention have returned, as Labor Notes and the Nicaragua Network seemed to suggest in recent articles on Venezuela. Although nearly all the money for the AFL-CIO’s overseas programs still comes from the U.S. government, Sweeney’s international affairs team has made a clear break with past AFL-CIO policies of collaborating with U.S. agencies to influence governments and trade unions abroad. Under the leadership of AFL-CIO International Affairs Director Barbara Shailor, the AFL-CIO has refocused much of its work overseas around globalization and fair trade. In the situation in Venezuela, AFL-CIO officials argue that the Solidarity Center used NED money to support progressive and even left forces within the CTV and had absolutely nothing to do with the coup. When asked about the wisdom of using money from NED-which was created to funnel money to groups that oppose governments at odds with the United States-they say it comes with no strings attached and is used to build support for unions and freedom of association around the world. AFL-CIO members, however, would be better served with more transparency from the Solidarity Center and the International Affairs Department about its programs and their relationship to the priorities set in their funding by the U.S. government and the NED.
These strands of labor policy reflect both a continuation and a break with the policies of the past. Sweeney’s embrace of Israel, for example, is partly the result of decades of cooperation between the AFL-CIO and Histradut, the Israeli labor federation, while the federation’s ties with the CTV in Venezuela go back nearly three decades. Many of the changes made by Sweeney’s AFL-CIO-such as the reorganization of its overseas institutes and the orientation of policies around globalization-began during the years when Kirkland and Tom Donahue ran the organization. Yet many of the AFL-CIO’s actions, such as its opposition to continued funding for the School of the Americas, its warnings against U.S. military involvement in Colombia, its participation with left and progressive forces in the global justice movement, and its endorsement of the Jubilee 2000 movement to end Third World debt, would have been unthinkable during the previous regime.
WHAT THE AFL-CIO SAYS
The events of 9/11 were a wake-up call for the labor movement. Until the attacks of the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, “the predominant focus of our work was the economics of globalization, and foreign policy issues were very much in the background,” Shailor explained in an interview for this article. “So the work we came to do has been defined by the global economic model being thrust on much of the world and our commitment to find a way to achieve sustainable, democratic economic development.”
As a result, she said, the efforts of “the International Affairs Department, the Solidarity Center on the country level, the departments of corporate and public affairs, are focused on issues of how we deal with the reality of the neo-liberal model we’re confronted with.” Looking back at the global coalition against corporate-led globalization that climaxed with the confrontations in Seattle in 1999, the AFL-CIO under Sweeney has been “enormously successful. Three or four years ago this wasn’t even on anyone’s radar screens.” That overwhelming concern with globalization also drives the AFL-CIO’s work at the Solidarity Center, funded by NED, the Agency for International Development, and some private foundations, Shailor said.
Sweeney, Shailor said, agreed to appear at the rally for Israel after consulting with other members of the AFL-CIO executive council. She explained that AFL-CIO policy on Israel is rooted in the AFL-CIO’s “long-standing set of relationships” with both Israeli and Palestinian trade unions. Overall, the AFL-CIO has a “dramatic interest” in peace and stability in the region and is “reaching out in every way possible.” U.S. Ambassador Dennis Ross, President Clinton’s lead negotiator in the Middle East, recently briefed the AFL-CIO’s international affairs committee. In addition, the AFL-CIO has launched a substantial dialogue with the International Crisis Group, a nongovernmental group (funded in part by the NED) that seeks to resolve conflict in key parts of the world. “The labor movement is not shirking its responsibility” in the region, said Shailor.
On Venezuela, Shailor reiterated statements made shortly after the coup attempt that the AFL-CIO and the CTV had condemned the brief military takeover in Venezuela and the attempt by Pedro Carmona, a business tycoon now in exile, to suspend the constitution and reorganize the Supreme Court. But Shailor could not be drawn into a discussion about how Sweeney’s policies on foreign affairs differ from those of his predecessors. The AFL-CIO, she said, seeks only to “look forward” and will let historians and others debate what happened in the past.
That unwillingness to discuss the Cold War record of the administrations of George Meany and Lane Kirkland has been characteristic of Sweeney and his allies since the heady days of the “New Voice” campaign in 1995.
Sweeney’s push for the AFL-CIO presidency was supported by progressive trade unionists who had criticized the AFL-CIO’s collaboration with the U.S. government agencies during the Cold War. Some of the earliest rumblings of dissent during the Kirkland era were directed at the American Institute for Free Labor Development (AIFLD) and its war against left-wing unions in Latin America, and many of the leaders of that movement were key figures in the election against Kirkland. But publicly, the Sweeney campaign never took a stand against the Cold War policies of the old guard; instead, from Sweeney on down, the New Voice leaders stressed the importance of organizing and the need to build global coalitions against the growing power of multinationals.
Even when asked directly about institutes such as AIFLD, which cooperated with the CIA to undermine left-leaning unions in Brazil, Chile, El Salvador, and other countries in Latin America, New Voice leaders demurred. I vividly recall a press conference that I covered for the Journal of Commerce, where I was a labor reporter for many years. I asked American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) President Jerry McAntee, who was the chief spokesman for the New Voice campaign, about the new AFL-CIO’s approach to international affairs. Kirkland, he replied, had spent too much time overseas; but now that the fight against communism was won and the antiapartheid movement in South Africa had triumphed, it was time for American unions “to come home to America.”
That nationalistic call won broad support among U.S. rank-and-file workers, but provided little analysis to the trade union movement and the rank and file about why AIFLD had been so harmful to the interests of workers. Nor did it explain how AIFLD had nearly destroyed the AFL-CIO’s reputation in Latin America and made it difficult to develop relationships of trust with other trade union federations. Although many AFL-CIO staffers privately condemned AIFLD and the other institutes that operated during the Cold War, Sweeney never developed a comprehensive approach to foreign policy and was far more comfortable following the political line of the Democratic Party. As a result, the AFL-CIO continued to respond to U.S. actions abroad in a haphazard, ad hoc manner, as the following examples illustrate.
In September 1999, the world watched in horror as militia groups organized by the U.S.-supplied Indonesian military launched a campaign of terror and destruction in East Timor after its citizens voted for independence. As Dili, East Timor’s capital, burned and hundreds of Timorese lay dead in the streets, trade union federations in Canada and Australia called for global boycotts of Indonesia. Ken Georgetti, president of the Canadian Labour Congress, accused the Canadian government of being “far more concerned about good relations with Indonesia than stopping the slaughter of the East Timorese” and asked Canadian workers to refuse to handle Indonesian goods until the Indonesian military had brought the militias under control.
A similar threat from the AFL-CIO would have carried far more weight, because the U.S. military is the primary arms supplier to Indonesia, and U.S. multinational corporations are among the largest investors in the country. Instead, Sweeney expressed the AFL-CIO’s “grave concern” about the deteriorating situation in East Timor while carefully avoiding any linkage between the Indonesian military and the militias or the U.S. government and U.S. corporations with the Suharto government. “The Indonesian government has failed to maintain law and order and to protect the people of East Timor,” the AFL-CIO blandly stated in its vastly understated press release.
In 2000, the AFL-CIO took a much tougher stance in response to the escalating violence against trade unionists in Colombia and the Clinton administration’s proposal for a $1.6 billion aid package for the Colombian military. The statement adopted by the executive council condemned the violence “whether carried out by the military, paramilitary forces, or the guerrillas” and concluded that “the United States should not deepen its entanglement with a military which has been responsible for the violence perpetuated against trade unionists.”
During the U.S.-led NATO bombing of Yugoslavia that same year, the AFL-CIO came out strongly in support of Clinton’s policies while calling upon the international community “to make protection of civilians and of human rights a priority of the NATO operations and to declare that the continuing atrocities in Kosovo constitute war crimes on the part of Serbian political and military leaders.” The unambiguous backing for the U.S. and NATO bombing of both military and civilian targets set the stage for labor’s response to the Bush administration’s decision to launch a war against terrorism following the events of September 11, 2001.
RESPONSE TO 9/11
On September 27, 2001, as the country was still reeling from the 9/11 attacks and the numbing death toll from the collapse of the Twin Towers, the Congressional Black Caucus sponsored a forum at its annual convention in Washington to discuss the events of 9/11. Sweeney was there, representing the AFL-CIO and its affiliated unions, along with five prominent African-Americans.
The discussion began with provocative talks by Andrew Young, the former civil rights leader and UN ambassador, and Ron Walters, a political scientist from Howard University. Young used Martin Luther King’s dictum from Vietnam that “the bombs you drop overseas will explode at home” as an opening to discuss U.S. policy in the Middle East prior to 9/11. During the 1970s, he noted, the United States trained the Iranian military and provided weapons technology to Iraq; a decade later, the two countries fought a vicious war and then turned against Washington. “Forty billion dollars invested the right way in that region would go a long way to resolving the roots of terrorism,” he said. Walters went further, arguing that “when Bush talks of eliminating terrorism, it’s a little like eliminating rain. Terrorism is an instrument for poor people and the powerless. Bombs won’t solve it. Force won’t solve it. Only justice will solve it.”
In his speech, Sweeney focused solely on social impact of the attacks rather than their cause. As he would do for the next coming weeks, Sweeney criticized the Bush administration for bailing out the airline industry while providing nothing to the thousands of workers left unemployed in the wake of September 11. “I was outraged” by the bailout, he said. “Airline workers need help and they need it now.” He also warned against racial profiling and potential violations of civil liberties that many feared would come with the domestic crackdown on terrorism. But when it came to the war, Sweeney was unequivocal. “We’ve been summoned to a historic effort against terrorism,” he declared. “It’s a battle we must fight and we must win.”
Those sentiments undoubtedly rang true with many trade unionists and progressives who felt that the United States was justified in taking some kind of military action if the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks could be identified and their guilt firmly established. But the situation changed in early October, when Bush ordered the bombing of Afghanistan to begin.
While many U.S. peace activists voiced concern about the expanding war and the potential for killing innocent civilians, the initial B-52 strikes drew a strong statement of support from the AFL-CIO. “We support the aggressive, considered military action ordered by President Bush” and “are grateful for the care he is now demonstrating in attacking only military targets in Afghanistan,” Sweeney and the executive council declared on October 8, 2001 the day after the bombing began. To some AFL-CIO allies overseas, however, the bombing signaled the beginning of a dangerous campaign by the United States and Britain to impose their will on the Middle East.
One of the strongest statements came from the Congress of South African Trade Unions. “COSATU condemns the attacks against Afghanistan by the U.S. and its allies,” the federation said. “While the attacks may appear justifiable and logical, in COSATU’s view they add to a vicious cycle of violence. It is worrying that the U.S. has hastened to attack Afghanistan without convincing the world beyond doubt about the culpability of Osama bin Laden and his crew in the deplorable attacks on the U.S. on the 11 September.” It would have been far preferable, COSATU said, for the UN to take leadership in resolving the issues because the “U.S. track record as a referee and a player, particularly in the Middle East is questionable.”
The statement angered Sweeney, who sent COSATU a strongly worded reply on October 24, 2001. While welcoming COSATU’s condemnation of the attacks, Sweeney wrote, “I strongly disagree with COSATU’s statement on U.S. policy in pursuing the terrorists that launched those attacks.” Without addressing the South African questions about U.S. history in the region, Sweeney defended Bush’s policies, saying the U.S. “has patiently sought to build a worldwide coalition against terrorism . . . . We believe democratic trade unionists must be part of that coalition so we can continue to articulate an alternative vision of a world economic and political system that foster and protects human rights and economic justice.”
In a comprehensive statement issued November 8, 2001, the AFL-CIO’s executive council reiterated its backing of “military force to eliminate the threat these terrorists pose.” But in a significant expansion to earlier statements, the council argued that the elimination of terrorism “requires a global offensive for equitable, sustainable, democratic development” and pledged to work with global unions to “redress the conditions that provide terror its recruits and to support efforts to address poverty and hunger, relieve debt and empower workers.”
Despite these nuances, the executive council’s support for Bush’s war has generated opposition from within the labor movement. The center of the antiwar movement has been New York City, the scene of the greatest devastation from 9/11. On September 27, a group calling itself New York City Labor Against the War issued a statement condemning the 9/11 “crime against humanity” but declaring that “war is not the answer.” Bush’s war, the statement said, “will generate further terrorism in this country against Arabs, Muslims and South Asians” and “redirect billions to the military and corporate executives while draining such essential domestic programs as education, health care and the social security trust.” A second statement signed by over 1,100 trade unionists, including the presidents of fifteen locals in New York, expressed “fear that blind anger and violent retaliation will only result in further loss of innocent lives, both American and foreign, and perpetuate a destructive cycle of violence that has already gone on too long.”
The antiwar group has focused much of its work in the immigrant community. It organized several demonstrations at the federal detention center in Brooklyn and is slowly working to build a national antiwar coalition. On April 20, 2002, the coalition participated in the national antiwar march that marked the largest pro-Palestinian demonstration in US history. On May 15, fifty members of the New York City coalition picketed the appearance of Israeli Consul General Alon Pinkus before an AFL-CIO meeting in Manhattan.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict may be causing even deeper divisions than the war itself. In March 2002, the San Francisco Labor Council passed a resolution condemning Israel for blocking the “Palestinian struggle for both statehood and ancestral lands” and criticizing the United States for being the primary supplier of arms to Israel. The resolution sparked a furious response from the local Jewish community, who called the resolution “shockingly one-sided and mean-spirited,” according to an account in the Jewish Bulletin of Northern California. Several weeks later, the resolution was rescinded.
At his April 15, 2002, appearance at the pro-Israel rally, Sweeney made it clear where U.S. labor stood. “On behalf of the 13 million working women and men of the AFL-CIO, I stand with you to express our support for the people of Israel in this darkest of hours,” he said. “The AFL-CIO condemns all acts of terror directed against Israel and its citizens.” He recalled his visit to Israel in 2000 with Communication Workers of America president Morty Bahr and Union of Needletrades, International, and Textile Employees president Jay Mazur, noting that “we traveled to the West Bank and met with Palestinian trade union leaders.” But he said nothing about violence directed against Palestinians by the Israeli military and declared that the AFL-CIO “will continue to defend Israel’s right to exist and the right of its people to live in peace.”
Ten days earlier, Sweeney’s own executive council had issued a statement on the Middle East that was far more evenhanded. In a key passage, the council stated that “Israel cannot achieve security with military force. The Palestinians will not achieve statehood with terrorist bombings. Palestinian statehood requires that Israel be made secure; Israel security requires that Palestinians be freed of occupation. The only solution in the Middle East is a peace process that ends in a political settlement.”
Shailor, in her interview for this article, downplayed the disagreements with COSATU over the war, calling them “nuanced differences.” She described the AFL-CIO’s ties with COSATU as “one of our critical alliances with trade unions in the South,” and pointed out that the AFL-CIO’s first bilateral discussion after Sweeney took over was with the powerful South African labor movement.
Asked about Venezuela, Shailor directed me to the AFL-CIO response issued after press reports on the NED’s funding for the CTV in Venezuela. According to that statement, which is posted on the AFL-CIO website, the Solidarity Center has “supported the CTV’s process of internal democratization and its defense of freedom of association against the attacks of the Chavez government.” It also stated that Chavez’s programs, including “agrarian reform and assistance to Cuba . . . are and should be the sole and sovereign concern of the Venezuelan people and their government.”
Stan Gacek, Shailor’s deputy on Latin American affairs, added more details in a letter to Amy Newell, the staff director of the Monterey Bay Central Labor Council. “The AFL-CIO was not assisting the Venezuelan labor federation so that it could bring about a coup d’etat and the overthrow of democratic structures,” Gacek wrote. “Quite to the contrary, the AFL-CIO and its Solidarity Center were providing assistance to the CTV to further the process of democratization in Venezuela and within the Venezuelan trade union movement.”
The NED funding was used, Gacek explained, to assist the CTV in building “internal democratization” that included the “pathbreaking” 2001 elections of the national executive committee by union rank and file (a right that not even AFL-CIO members enjoy). As a result, Gacek said, nearly half of the CTV leadership is now drawn from “trade union leaders from well-known left tendencies,” including Chavez’s “Bolivariano” labor front. The AFL-CIO, said Gacek, “condemns the coup attempt of April 12, 2002, as an attack on Venezuelan democracy.”
In an interview just before this issue went to press, Gacek told me that the Solidarity Center spent less than half of the money provided by the NED for its Venezuela work. As for the labor movement’s independence from NED, he said that “the proof is the application of the funding.” In Venezuela, “we helped the left gain more seats” on the executive board of the CTV and “that’s unprecedented.”
AFL-CIO staff are adamant that the money they receive from NED carries no strings or political expectations. “We think it’s a good thing to use U.S. taxpayer dollars for foreign assistance involved in helping unions,” said Tim Beaty, the deputy director for international affairs who was a recipient of NED money when he ran the Solidarity Center’s offices in Mexico City. Asked if NED director Carl Gershman-a neoconservative activist who was an active supporter of the Nicaraguan contras-might have a different agenda than the AFL-CIO, Beaty said Gershman exerts no influence on labor activities. “Programs were approved or not approved,” he said. “They are not changed to reflect the position of any funding organization.”
Exactly what the NED was doing in Venezuela won’t be known until the Senate Foreign Relations Committee completes its investigation into the endowment’s operations. But the questions that arose over the initial stories on NED’s involvement with the AFL-CIO wouldn’t have come up if the federation was more open about its overseas programs. The Solidarity Center’s largest presence overseas, for example, is in Indonesia, where U.S. aid has increased substantially since the inauguration last year of President Megawati, a U.S. ally closely supported by the Indonesian military. Yet neither the Solidarity Center nor the International Affairs Department publishes any information about what its program officers in Indonesia are doing (Kirkland’s administration, in contrast, published reams of information about its institutes and provided detailed breakdowns of its government money to reporters). The AFL-CIO’s full disclosure of its government-supported activities overseas would go a long way to answering the questions that continue to be asked about those programs.
So has the AFL-CIO’s approach to international affairs changed in a fundamental way from the Cold War days of Lane Kirkland and George Meany? Yes and no. Under Sweeney, the AFL-CIO continues to provide unqualified support to the basic tenets of U.S. foreign policy and to accept U.S. government money to further the social objectives of American foreign policy through the Solidarity Center. But the AFL-CIO’s refocus on corporate globalization and cross-border solidarity has created a sharp break with the past. Instead of trying to dominate overseas unions, the AFL-CIO now devotes its resources to building opposition to corporate trade policies and reforming U.S.-backed institutions like the World Bank that trade unions around the world see as a threat to their livelihood and the future of democracy.
The problem with government funds isn’t their origins but the inability of unions to use them in their campaigns against U.S.-based multinational corporations. The Solidarity Center, for example, won’t openly assign a staffer to work with an affiliate to fight a U.S. company because that would violate AID and NED funding guidelines (and possibly anger corporate recipients of that money, as a senior staffer told me once). At the same time, because AID money goes to specific programs (such as HIV prevention in Southern Africa), the AFL-CIO’s work overseas is sometimes driven not by a trade union agenda but by U.S. foreign policy in that region of the world. Breaking away from that cycle, and relying instead on funds provided by affiliates for organizing purposes, would set the AFL-CIO on a new course that would fully earn the trust of its rank and file.