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Inside the AFL-CIO's Solidarity Center

Inside the AFL-CIO's Solidarity Center

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Published by: CFHeather on Feb 25, 2011
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2/24/11 5:19 PMThe ClO without the CIA: Inside the AFL-CIO's Solidarity CenterPage 1 of 4http://www.thirdworldtraveler.com/CIA/CIO_without_CIA.html
The ClO without the CIA:
Inside the AFL-CIO's Solidarity Center
by Simon Rodberg
The American Prospect magazine, Summer 2001 For four decades, the AFL - CIO international presence was notable less for its promotion of laborrights than for its Cold War ferocity. At global conventions, for instance, the labor federation'sprotocol required AFL-CIO representatives to stand up and leave the room whenever members of insufficiently anti-Communist unions like Italy's CGIL entered. The labor federation's LatinAmerican arm, the American Institute for Free Labor Development (AIFLD), was especiallynotorious for its CIA connections and for siding with repressive governments, often againstprogressive unions. In the 19805, during the reign of the death squads in E1 Salvador, "AIFLD threwmoney at the most conservative and most pro-government union factions," says the Reverend DavidDyson, a longtime union activist. When the Reagan administration was supporting terror throughoutLatin America, Dyson says, "we'd find AIFLD people sitting around the embassy drinking coffee likethey were part of the team."In short, while the international operations of the Reagan-era AFL-CIO, funded in part by thefederal government in the form of grants from the National Endowment for Democracy, did performadmirable international work-particularly their support for Lech Walesa's Solidarity movement inPoland- they were better known throughout much of the third world for undermining active unionismthan for supporting it.The U.S. government still funds an AFL-CIO subsidiary, to the tune of approximately $15 million per
2/24/11 5:19 PMThe ClO without the CIA: Inside the AFL-CIO's Solidarity CenterPage 2 of 4http://www.thirdworldtraveler.com/CIA/CIO_without_CIA.html
year- but the international activism it supports is no longer what Ronald Reagan envisioned: The 28overseas offices of the American Center for International Labor Solidarity-the so-called SolidarityCenter-promote worldwide labor freedoms and help third-world workers and American unions toorganize jointly against multinational corporations. What produced such a transformation of theAFL-CIO's international role? And what will be its future under the Bush administration?The seeds of the Solidarity Center were originally planted during the Cold War, when John Sweeney, then the president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), joined the National LaborCommittee in Support of Democracy and Human Rights in E1 Salvador, a group of union presidentsopposed to the AFL-CIO's international policies. The end of the Cold War and the 1995 election of John Sweeney's reform slate to lead the AFL-CIO meant an opportunity to overhaul the federation'sinternational activities. And if American unions were in fact to have international cooperation, anoverhaul was necessary-because to that point the focus of the institutes had been not labor organizingbut anticommunism. "In 1996, the AFL-CIO asked me to go to Argentina to talk aboutglobalization," recalls Jerome Levinson, a distinguished international labor lawyer. A union leaderthere sat him down at lunch. "If there's one thing you do," said the Argentine, "change the name of AIFLD. The intervention against the progressive unions created such a bitter lack of confidence thatthey will never rehabilitate themselves otherwise."After he took over the AFL-CIO in 1995, Sweeney brought in the International Association of Machinists' Barbara Shailor to run the federation's International Affairs Department. As a youngstaffer, Shailor had helped set up the National Labor Committee. In turn, she hired younger unionistswith organizing experience. "Without creating an internal crisis in the place," says Levinson, "she hasgradually weeded out those people who were associated with the old crowd and their Cold War line.They have changed the face of the AFL-CIO."By 1997, Sweeney had consolidated the AFL-CIO's old international institutes into the SolidarityCenter. Harry Kamberis, who runs the center, is the link between the old guard and the new: Heworked from 1986 to 1997 in the Asian-American Free Labor Institute, one of the Cold Warprecursors to the Solidarity Center. Though 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.But Kamberis has succeeded in bringing a State Department-like organization to the SolidarityCenter offices, which in effect function as foreign embassies of the AFL-CIO, directed fromWashington, D.C., and run by American unionists aided by local program officers and office staff Thecountries of operation-from Bangladesh to Bulgaria, Paraguay to the Philippines-tend to have unionrepresentation among 3 percent to 5 percent of the workforce, with scarce enforcement of labor laws.The Solidarity Center receives grants from the U.S. government to promote workers' rights throughsuch activities as teaching organizing and collective-bargaining skills, providing advice and resourcesfor specific campaigns, and sponsoring exchanges to bring unionists to the United States.Even when they were also serving as Cold War tools of the CIA, the AFL-CIO's internationalinstitutes did do some labor rights training. But as the backlash against corporate-style globalizationhas spread across the world, the Solidarity Center has become far more active in organizing than theinstitutes ever were. The staff on the ground is almost entirely new in the last five years-and it is
2/24/11 5:19 PMThe ClO without the CIA: Inside the AFL-CIO's Solidarity CenterPage 3 of 4http://www.thirdworldtraveler.com/CIA/CIO_without_CIA.html
entirely new in Latin America. The invigoration of the center's work is connected, both substantivelyand symbolically, to the labor movement's partnership with the student-led movement againstsweatshops and to the strengthening of federal programs to promote workers' interests and humanrights initiated by the Clinton administration. Just four days before George W. Bush's inauguration inJanuary, for instance, then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright announced a grant of nearly $1million to the Solidarity Center for work against sweatshops and child labor. In the Philippines, Kamberis says, the money is used to test various industry codes of conduct and help Filipino tradeunions use the codes as organizing instruments. In Central America, the grant goes to expand thescope of anti-sweatshop organizing beyond the garment industry to other sectors, such as agriculture, transportation, and tourism.The Solidarity Center's activities are varied and far-flung. In Cambodia, says Kamberis, "we wrotethe labor codes" during the transition from autocracy. In Indonesia, during the height of the anti-sweatshop protests in the United States, Reebok sponsored workers'-rights seminars in its factoriesthat were led by the Solidarity Center. In each country, the center partners with a local workers'organization-often an incipient union at a multinational employer that already might beheadquartered, and unionized, in the United States.If the Solidarity Center is promoting an international workers' agenda, why does the U.S. governmentcover three-quarters of its budget? The AFL-CIO itself is struggling with that issue-and the questionis sure to occur to the Bush administration sooner or later. When the federation's InternationalAffairs Committee suggested the creation of the Solidarity Center, it also recommended that thecenter be weaned off government funding. The panel's fear was less that the Solidarity Center wouldbe susceptible to use as a tool of reactionary U.S. policy than that the need to appease governmentfunders would dull the edge of the union's international agenda. Kamberis says that the fundinghasn't compromised the center's mission; and it is true that even the federal government's grantmaterials say that the center's role is to help build strong unions and win social and economic justice.The Solidarity Center's "in-country" staffers, with their backgrounds in union organizing, act asconduits between American unions and their foreign counterparts while serving as the AFL-CIO'seyes and ears on the ground in other nations. "If the World Bank holds a meeting in Brazil," saysRon Blackwell, the labor federation's director of corporate affairs, "we need to have a labor personthere. The Solidarity Center will help. If there's an organizing drive [in the United States] with amultinational with operations in Brazil, we need to know what the operation there is like. It helps usact as if we were global." Tim Beaty, the AFL-CIO's deputy director of international affairs, speaksproudly of linking workers at a repressive Nike contractor in Mexico with the U.S. garment andtextile workers' union UNITE and of helping to bring workers from Korea to visit the Korean-ownedfactory in Mexico. When the AFL-CIO confronts the world of multinational corporations, theSolidarity Center staffers are its front-line troops.The Bush administration is not likely to take kindly to subsidizing a global battle for union power.But a proposed reduction in government funding could turn out to be beneficial to the AFL-CIO byforcing it to revise its overseas structure. The substance of what the Solidarity Center does is differentfrom the work of the old international institutes, but the form is much the same: The U.S. unionprojects its power through "embassies" around the world. Unlike the Bush administration, however, the AFL-CIO has neither the power nor the inclination to act unilaterally. The international workers'

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