An Unholy Alliance: AFL-CIO and NED in Venezuela

The National Endowment for Democracy promotes a specific type of democracy in its programs around the world. It has an on-going and established relationship with the U.S. State apparatus as a whole, and sees Labor as a target for its operations in "developing" countries. As such, the AFL-CIO has been related to the NED from the beginning.

The AFL-CIO’s “Solidarity Center” (formally known as the American Center for International Labor Solidarity or ACILS) was actively involved in bringing together the leadership of the right-wing Confederation of Venezuelan Workers (CTV) and that of the business community FEDCAMARAS (along with at least some of the leaders of the Catholic Church) just prior to the April 2002 coup attempt that briefly deposed the democratically-elected President Hugo Chavez. This I reported last year in the April 2004 issue of Labor Notes (www.labornotes.org/archives/2004/04/articles/e.html. (For this put in the larger context of AFL-CIO foreign policy, see my May 2005 article in Monthly Review at www.monthlyreview.org/0505scipes.htm.)

The Labor Notes article focused primarily on the Solidarity Center’s activities, although I did mention the monies they got from the National Endowment for Democracy or NED. I thought I would again revisit developments in Venezuela, but this time to better illuminate and discuss the NED. (This is especially timely in that a Venezuelan court just ordered that the Venezuelan head of the NED-funded Sumate to stand trial for accepting US money to influence Venezuelan electoral activities.)

As reported in the Labor Notes article, the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) has been involved in Venezuela, and has been active there since 1992. Altogether, according to the NED itself, “NED provided $4,039,331 to Venezuelan and American organizations working in Venezuela between 1992 and 2001; 60.4 percent of that, or $2,439,489 was granted between 1997-2001. Of that $2.4 plus million since 1997, $587,926 (or almost one-quarter) went to the Solidarity Center-for its work with the Confederation of Venezuelan Workers (CTV in Spanish). In 2002, the last year for which details are available, NED pumped in another $1,099,352, of which the Solidarity Center got $116,001 for its work with the CTV. Altogether, ACILS received $703,927 between 1992-2002 for its work in Venezuela alone.”

Thus, it is clear that the NED is an important actor in world events, especially in countries in which the US has “important interests.” It might help to better understand this beast.


The National Endowment for Democracy is a US Government program started in 1983 under the Reagan Administration. NED benignly presents itself as

a US initiative to strengthen democratic insitutions throughout the world through private, non-governmental efforts. It is a privately incorporated nonprofit organization with a Board of Directors comprised of leading citiezns from the mainstream of American political and civic life-liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans, representatives of bueinss and labor, and others with long international experience. The Endowment embodies a broad, bipartisan US commitment to democracy (NED, 1998, “Strengthening Democracy Abroad: The Role of the National Endowment for Democracy”: 1.)

However, William Blum quotes a statement made by Allen Weinstein to the Washington Post on September 22, 1991 that suggests that NED efforts were not all that benign. Weinstein had helped draft the legislation establishing NED. “A lot of what we do today,” says Weinstein, “was done covertly 25 years ago by the CIA.” Blum concludes, “In effect, the CIA has been laundering money through NED” (Rogue State, 2000: 180, on-line at www.thirdworldtraveler.com/Blum/TrojanHorse_RS.html; see also Bill Berkowitz, “Back to the Future: The National Endowment for Democracy is back and up to its old tricks again,” Working for Change, on-line at www.workingforchange.com/article.cfm?ItemID=11645.)

An earlier article, initially published by the New York Times, further supports this claim. Joel Brinkley writes that what was called “Project Democracy”-thought initially to be just the effort led by Marine Lt. Col. Oliver North to run secret operations from out of the Reagan White House, ultimately leading to the Iran-Contra scandal of the late 1980s-actually was one prong of a two prong program. “The public arm of Project Democracy, now known as the National Endowment for Democracy, openly gave federal money to democratic institutions abroad and received wide, bipartisan support. However, the project’s secret arm took a different direction” after North took charge (emphasis added) (Brinkley, “Secret Project in White House Led to Iran Deals,” NYT, February 15, 1987: A-1).

In fact, NED is a product of a shift of US foreign policy from “earlier strategies to contain social and political mobilization through a focus on control of the state and governmental apparatus” to a process of “democracy promotion,” whereby “the United States and local elites thoroughly penetrate civil society, and from therein, assure control over popular mobilization and mass movements…” (William I. Robinson, Promoting Polyarchy: Globalization, US Intervention and Hegemony, 1996: 69). Perhaps another, more accurate way to describe NED’s project is “to support [polyarchal] democracy wherever it supports US foreign policy.” In other words, for the NED, democracy is good only when it advances US national interests and when it can be contained by the elites.

This article is intended to provide background information on NED, specifically looking at the specific type of democracy it proposes in its programs around the world; its on-going and established relationship with the US State apparatus as a whole; how it sees Labor as a target for its operations in “developing” countries; how the AFL-CIO (the US labor center) has been related to NED from the beginning; and a differentiation between AFL-CIO rhetoric and reality.

1. Promoting Democracy, Although Polyarchic NOT Popular

NED’s oft-stated goal is to “promote democracy,” and it suggests it is merely interested in democracy itself, with no other interests in mind. However, the reality is different: NED promotes democracy as a long-term strategic program intended to benefit the national interests of the United States (i.e., the US Empire), although it is not tied to any particular political administration in Washington, DC: “By its very nature, such support cannot be governed by the short-term policy preferences of a particular US administration or by the partisan political interests of any party or group.” Further, “The Endowment will be effective in carrying out its mission only if it stands apart from immediate policy disputes and represents a consistent, bipartisan, long-term approach to strengthening democracy that will be supported through successive administrations” (NED, 1998: 1).

To put it another way, the NED is a project of the US Empire that its leaders do not want any particular US presidential administration to even have the chance to counteract. The ramifications are considerable: the development of NED, supposedly to enhance and extend democracy around the world, is itself based on an anti-democratic formulation that specifically ensures that there can be no democratic oversight of its operations by the US public other than by its self-chosen board of directors-Kenneth Lay of Enron certainly must be envious. It makes the theme of “democracy promotion” all the more hypocritical.

Under the rhetoric of democracy promotion, the NED is, in fact, promoting polyarchal or top-down, elite-driven, democracy while using the rhetoric of “popular” democracy-the latter being the “one person, one vote” version that Americans are taught in US civics courses that emerges from grassroots citizens and that supposedly exists in this country. This polyarchal democracy suggests that citizens get to choose their leaders when, in fact, they only get to choose between those presented as possible choices by the elites of that country, or that viable solutions to social problems can only emerge from possibilities presented by the elites. In other words, polyarchal democracy appears to be democratic when, in reality, it is not (Robinson, 1996).

And institutionally, where the US Government projects this polyarchal democracy, is through its “democracy-building programs,” generally through the Department of State and the US Agency for International Development or USAID. In the case of the National Endowment for Democracy, however, Congress channels its money through the US Information Agency (USIA) to NED (David Lowe, “Idea to Reality: NED at 20.”2004. On-line at www.ned.org/about/nedhistory.html.)

2. Major Initiative of US State Apparatus: Not Independent, Despite Its Claims

And despite its benevolent-sounding slogan, “Supporting freedom around the world,” the NED is very clearly a major foreign policy initiative by the US State apparatus to ensure its continued control over and expansion of its Empire, as the Weinstein quote above suggests: NED has nothing to do with real freedom. In fact, when the Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Charles Percy (Republican, Illinois), introduced enabling legislation in the US Senate during 1983, he stated that he thought that the legislation was “arguably the most important single US foreign policy initiative of this generation” (emphasis added) (Lowe, 2004).

The history of NED is posted on its web site, and was written by David Lowe, the Vice President for Government and External Relations, National Endowment for Democracy (Lowe, 2004, Endnote 1). It is obviously a key document for understanding the development and approach of the NED.

NED writes extensively about its “non-governmental” status, and in the history, Lowe talks about NED’s “independence” from the US Government. Yet the study that recommended its development “was funded by a $300,000 grant from the [US] Agency for International Development (AID).” “Its executive board consisted of a broad cross-section of participants in American politics and foreign policy making” (emphasis added). Its existence was enabled by passage of US House of Representatives Resolution (HR) 2915 in mid-1983, and the US Senate passed it on September 23, 1983; after a conference between members of the two houses of Congress, the House adopted the conference report on HR 2915 on November 17, 2003, and the Senate followed the next day (Lowe, 2004). On December 16, 1983, President of the United States, Ronald Reagan, spoke at a White House Ceremony Inaugurating the National Endowment for Democracy (Reagan, “Remarks at a White House Ceremony Inaugurating the National Endowment for Democracy,” 1983, on-line at www.ned.org/about/reagan-121683.html.)

The initial position of Chairman of the Endowment was US Congressman Dante Fascell (Democrat, Florida), and he was followed after a short term by John Richardson as the first permanent chair, “a former Assistant Secretary of State with many years of involvement in private organizations involved in international affairs.” The “chief executive officer” or President chosen by the Board was Carl Gershman, “previously the Senior Counselor to the US Representative to the United Nations,” who served under Jeane Kirkpatrick (emphases added) (Lowe, 2004).

And while there has been personnel turnover on the NED Board of Directors over the years, it has always included people who have served at some of the highest levels of the foreign policy apparatus of the US Government. Notable among these have been former US Secretaries of State, Henry Kissinger (Nixon) and Madeleine Albright (Clinton), former US Secretary of Defense Frank Carlucci (Reagan), former National Security Council Chair Zbigniew Brzezinski (Carter), former NATO Supreme Allied Command in Europe, General Wesley K. Clark (Clinton), and the current head of the World Bank, Paul Wolfowitz (George W. Bush). Another notable, Bill Brock, served as a US Senator, a US Trade Representative, and US Secretary of Labor, and then Chairman of the Board of NED.

Also, as Lowe notes, NED has been continuously funded by US Congressional appropriations on an annual basis, although the amount has varied by year. However, “From time to time, Congress has provided special appropriations to the Endowment to carry out specific democratic initiatives in countries of special interest, including Poland (through the trade union Solidarity), Chile, Nicaragua, Eastern Europe (to aid in the democratic transition following the demise of the Soviet bloc), South Africa, Burma, China, Tibet, North Korea and the Balkans.” [It is interesting that he doesn’t mention the $5.7 million dollars NED gave between 1983-88 to the AFL-CIO’s American Institute for Free Labor Development (AAFLI-AIFLD’s parallel institute in Asia) that was channeled to the Marcos Dictatorship-created Trade Union Congress of the Philippines. There are other cases not mentioned as well-KS.] Further, “… following 9/11 and the NED Board’s adoption of its third strategic document, special funding has been provided for countries with substantial Muslim populations in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia.” In fact, as Lowe points out, “NED is answerable to a wide array of overseers in both the Executive and Legislative Branches” of the US Government (Lowe, 2004). It seems impossible to deny its connection to the US State.

This ambiguous relationship to the US State was consciously intended from the beginning. As Lowe notes,

NED’s non-governmental status has a number of advantages … that are recognized by those institutions that really do carry out American foreign policy. As pointed out in a letter signed by seven former Secretaries of State in 1995 [James Baker, Laurence Eagleburger, George Schultz, Alexander Haig, Henry Kissinger, Edmund Muskie, and Cyrus Vance], “We consider the non-governmental character of the NED even more relevant than it was at NED’s founding twelve years ago” (Lowe, 1998).

3. Role of Labor Within NED Operations

At the same time that it appears distant from political wrangling, NED is very clear about the role of trade unions:

Free and independent trade unions play an indispensable role in the process of democratization. In addition to protecting the job-related rights of individual workers, unions represent an organized force for representing the interests of common people in the political, economic, and social life of a country. By giving democratic representation to working people and ensuring their inclusion in the processes by which decisions are made and power is distributed, unions help developing societies avoid the kind of sharp polarization that feeds political extremism and allows anti-democratic groups to exploit worker grievances. Unions also represent a major hope for the peaceful democratization of totalitarian societies. Independent trade unions thus constitute a fundamental part of the Endowment’s effort to promote democracy (emphases added) (NED, 1998: 3-4).

In fact, the Free Trade Union Institute (FTUI) was one of the four affiliated “institutes” of the Endowment from the beginning, although this was superceded by the Solidarity Center (formally, the American Center for International Labor Solidarity or ACILS) upon the latter’s establishment in 1997 (Lowe, 2004).

A recent critique of the Bush Administration’s foreign operations also pointed out the importance of unions in “democracy promotion” overseas. It is in studies such as this that we can see the political understanding by those who are in positions of power and/or who write for such actors.

Recognizing the “hard power” of the Bush Administration and the concomitant loss of “soft power,” Joseph Siedlecki argued the need for a “more nuanced approach” to spreading democracy: “As an aspect of soft power, the United States should dramatically increase support for labor movements and free trade unions in developing countries” (Siedlecki, “In Support of Democratization: Free Trade Unions and the Destabilization of Autocratic Regimes, 2004: 69, on-line at www.lbjjournal.org/PrintLBJArchives/2004/Fall2004/09siedlecki_fa2004.pdf.) Siedlecki, a former staff member in the US Department of State’s International Labor Affairs Office, is interested overwhelmingly in targeting “autocratic” regimes, which basically means regimes that will not necessarily kowtow to the demands of the United States.

Siedlecki points out a number of desirable attributes of unions, calling them a “natural enemy” of authoritarian regimes. He argues, “History provides no other mass-based organization with such broad social appeal.” Further, “Unions are a natural ally of liberal democracies because they act as models of democracy, they share the goals of free and fair economic development, and they often advocate for democratic rule.” And then, tipping his true intentions, “… unions in developing countries and their members share the goals of free and fair economic and social development espoused by many democracies” (Siedlecki, 2004: 20-71).

He then reports the role of labor in the undermining of a number of autocratic regimes in Europe, Africa and Latin America. In Europe, he focuses on the cases of Spain (1977), Poland (1989), and Czechoslovakia (1990). In Africa, he discusses the role of the labor movement in overthrowing apartheid in South Africa-without noting that the AFL-CIO had opposed the anti-apartheid unions until 1986, when it became obvious a more sophisticated approach was required. He also notes that the labor struggles in Nigeria brought international attention to that country, and the struggles for democracy therein. In Latin America, he focuses on Peru (1978), Argentina (1983), and Chile in 1990.

Whether one would agree with his analysis of the situation in these particular countries or not, what is most interesting is that he totally ignores the many cases where labor activities do not fit his understanding. (Here’s where he reveals his political approach and shows the cynicism of his ideology.) Siedlecki ignores situations where parts of labor-specifically helped by the AFL-CIO-played a reactionary role in destabilizing democratically-elected governments, as in Guatemala (1954), Brazil (1964), and Chile (1973), as I discuss below. He also fails to mention part of labor’s reactionary efforts, against helped by the AFL-CIO, in Guyana (1964), the Dominican Republic (1965), El Salvador (1980s), Nicaragua (1980s and early 1990s), and Venezuela (2001-2003). 

Additionally, he fails to discuss three of the four cases where unions led the struggles for democracy-in the Philippines (1986), South Korea (1987) and Brazil (1987)-and he mistakenly suggests that the shift of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) in that country (the fourth case) to democracy was a product of external relations with primarily the African National Congress, when the unions that later joined COSATU were democratic from their very beginnings. This latter failure is the more shocking in that it would seem to strengthen his argument that unions are good democracy promoters. But these cases, we must keep in mind, don’t count: these are cases where the unions supported and projected popular democracy as a solution-not the top, down-elite driven polyarchal democracy that Siedlecki and other “soft power” advocates promote. (And, for the record, EACH of the labor movements fighting for democracy and regime change were opposed for a significant number of years by the AFL-CIO, which supported reactionary labor movements against these democratic labor organizations.)

Siedlecki focuses on what he calls “mechanisms” for promoting labor movements in other countries. He argues, “The labor attaché program at the US Department of State represents the primary diplomatic avenue for supporting foreign labor movements” (Siedlecki, 2004: 74). Later, he argues “If democratization is a goal of US foreign policy, the support for labor movements should be an integral part of the policy,” and that “the United States government should dramatically strengthen its international labor diplomacy” (Siedlecki, 2004: 75). Interestingly, in their work with the US State Department’s Advisory Committee on Labor and Diplomacy, top level AFL-CIO foreign policy leaders have been making similar recommendations (see Scipes, “AFL-CIO Foreign Policy Leaders Help Develop Bush’s Foreign Policy, Target Foreign Unions for Political Control,” Labor Notes, March 2005, on-line at www.labornotes.org/archives/2005/03/articles/e.html).

Whatever the specifics decided upon, it is clear that top level foreign policy officials in and around the US Government see trade unions and labor movements as key allies in their efforts to maintain and expand the US Empire.

4. AFL-CIO’s Foreign Policy: Decided from Within, Not Without

Before discussing AFL-CIO involvement with NED, one thing needs to be cleared up: who makes Labor’s foreign policy? Earlier analysis tended to argue that AFL-CIO activities had been formulated outside the labor movement, by the CIA, the White House, and/or the State Department. In other words, they explained Labor’s foreign policy efforts as a consequence of factors external to the labor movement.

However, beginning with my 1989 article, “Trade Union Imperialism in the US Yesterday: Business Unionism, Samuel Gompers and AFL Foreign Policy” (Kim Scipes, Newsletter of International Labour Studies, The Hague, January-April 1989), researchers-working independently and buttressed by solid evidence-began to contend that foreign policy was developed within the labor movement, on the basis of internal factors. While not arguing against considerable evidence that AFL-CIO foreign operations have worked hand in hand with the CIA, or that CIA foreign operations have benefited US foreign policy as a whole or supported initiatives by the White House or the State Department, this new approach has established that Labor’s foreign policy and its resulting foreign operations, while funded overwhelmingly by the government, have been developed within and are controlled by officials at top levels of the AFL-CIO.

These foreign operations have not been reported to rank and file members for ratification but, instead, have been consciously hidden-either by not reporting these operations or, when they have been reported, reporting them in a manner that distorts them. Thus, labor leaders have been operating internationally in the name of American workers, their members, while consciously keeping these members in the dark. Most AFL-CIO union members to this day have no idea of what the AFL-CIO has done and continues to do overseas, nor that its actions have been funded overwhelmingly by the US Government.

The refusal to “come clean” about their past continues to hurt workers overseas, as well as American workers. Without an honest reckoning with the past, foreign workers cannot trust American labor organizations, hindering needed solidarity (see Scipes, 2000, “It’s Time to Come Clean: Open the AFL-CIO Archives on International Labor Operations,” Labor Studies Journal, Summer 2000. On-line in English at www.labournet.de/diskussion/gewerkschaft/scipes2.html; see also Tim Shorrock, “Labor’s Cold War,” The Nation, May 19, 2003, on-line at www.thenation.com/doc.mhtml?i=20030519&s=shorrock.)

And, in fact, even when requested by affiliated labor organizations, AFL-CIO foreign policy leaders have refused to “clear the air,” not only about past practices but what they are doing currently. In the face of an effort by the California State AFL-CIO, AFL-CIO foreign policy leaders refused to even honestly discuss their activities (see Scipes, “AFL-CIO Refuses to ‘Clear the Air’ on Foreign Policy, Operations,” Labor Notes, February 2004, on-line at www.labornotes.org/archives/2004/02/articles/b.html.) In response, at the 2004 California State AFL-CIO Convention, delegates UNANIMOUSLY passed a resolution, titled “Build Unity and Trust With Workers Worldwide” that further stimulated efforts to transform the AFL-CIO foreign policy program into genuine international labor solidarity by repudiating AFL-CIO foreign policy leaders and their operations (see Scipes, “California AFL-CIO Rebukes Labor’s National Level Foreign Policy Leaders,” Labor Notes, September 2004, with an on-line and unedited version at www.uslaboragainstwar.org/article.php?id=6394, and for the text of the resolution, see Fred Hirsch, “Build Unity and Trust With Workers Worldwide,” posted on-line at www.labournet.net/world/0407/hirsch.html.)

Despite these efforts by activists and even a few labor organizations, the AFL-CIO foreign policy leaders have continued to act in secret, without transparency, and behind the backs of most of their members. This is especially the case in relationship with the National Endowment for Democracy, which both funds AFL-CIO foreign operations (see Harry Kelber, “90% of Solidarity Center’s Annual Budget from Payoffs by US Government,” The Labor Educator, June 29, 2005, on-line at www.laboreducator.org/solcenter.htm), and whose policies the AFL-CIO foreign policy leadership helps create.

5. AFL-CIO Rhetoric of Democracy-Polyarchal as Well: Involvement with NED

It is in the context of working with the NED that we can understand the AFL-CIO’s continued emphasis about democracy when discussing foreign affairs. The AFL-CIO’s Free Trade Union Institute (FTUI) issued a report on “The AFL-CIO and the National Endowment for Democracy” in 1987 (FTUI, “Defending Freedom of Association-Private Work in the Public Interest: The AFL-CIO and the National Endowment for Democracy, 1987). [The FTUI had been established in 1977 to work with European trade unionists, but “In 1984, FTUI was given the assignment by the AFL-CIO of coordinating Labor’s involvement with the National Endowment for Democracy” (FTUI, 1987: 8).] In this report, we find:

This basic understanding-that unions and workers thrive in democratic systems, and must struggle even to survive in non-democratic ones-has traditionally guided the foreign policy views of the American labor movement. In 1983, it led the AFL-CIO to join with three other major American institutions in supporting a significant new venture in international affairs. Along with representatives of the US Chamber of Commerce and the Democratic and Republican parties, as well as distinguished scholars and others, leaders of the labor movement helped found the National Endowment for Democracy (emphasis added) (Free Trade Union Institute, 1987: 5).

The FTUI further connects American workers’ moral interests in democracy-“because, above all, it is the morally decent thing to do”-with “improvements in the material well-being of American workers,” and argues “American national interests are advanced by the spread of democracy in the world.” FTUI notes that NED is “a private, non-profit corporation, whose politics are determined by its Board of Directors,” but that while it gets public (i.e., taxpayers’) funds, “Endowment programs do not have to be approved by, nor can they be vetoed by, government.” Further, Endowment finances work that supports “the enduring American commitment to democratic development,” and that “The AFL-CIO would not have participated had this guarantee of independence not been assured, leaving all decisions about program and policy in private hands” (Free Trade Union Institute, 1987: 5-7). In other words, while NED is funded by the US Government, the NED runs its own show-and the labor aspect of it is determined by the AFL-CIO foreign policy leaders.

This has been further ensured by the man who has been President of NED since 1984: Carl Gershman. Gershman, identified by Holly Sklar as “former research director, AFL-CIO,” has long been part of the US foreign policy apparatus: he was “senior counselor to UN Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick (1981-84), senior counsel to the Kissinger Commission (1984); past resident scholar, Freedom House [identified as Sklar as a “conservative research, publishing, networking, and selective human rights organization”]; executive director of Social Democrats-USA (1974-80)” (Sklar, “Washington Wants to Buy Nicaragua’s Elections Again: A Guide to US Operatives and Nicaraguan Parties,” Z Magazine, December 1989: 59, 54).

In short, Gershman and a number of others from the labor movement-including the now-deceased Irving Brown, Tom Kahn, Lane Kirkland, Jay Lovestone and Albert Shanker, and the still-living (as far as I know) Sol Chaikin, William Doherty, Jr., Thomas R. Donahue, Sandra Feldman, John Joyce, Harry Kamberis, Eugenia Kemble, William Lucy, Jay Mazur, Barbara Shailor, and John Sweeney-have been and continue to be part of a small but very powerful group of people who are still in or who have come out of the US labor movement, who operate within a network of reactionary political organizations that often feed their members into especially the more conservative US Government administrations, and who work to further ideologically-based foreign policy goals from their organizational positions (Barry and Preusch, AIFLD in Latin America: Agents as Organizers (Albuquerque: The Resource Center, 1986; Sklar, 1989; Sims, Workers of the World Undermined: American Labor’s Role in US Foreign Policy, Boston: South End Press, 1992). And they do this with out any transparency, without any honest reporting to, much less democratic mandate from, the unions and their members whom they claim to represent.

One of the commonalities that a number of these people share is a common political heritage of the Social Democrats, USA, or SDUSA. SDUSA is the end result of a shift from Revolutionary Trotskyism to the point where they were especially powerful under the Reagan Administration. According to Michael Massing (“Trotsky’s Orphans: From Bolshevism to Reaganism,” The New Republic, June 22, 1987: 21), “group members have helped to popularize Reagan-style diplomacy with constituencies not generally susceptible to conservative proselytizing.” Massing, after describing the political trajectory of the group from Trotsky to Reagan, identifies Gershman, Kahn, and Kemble as members of SDUSA: Carl Gershman, President of NED; the late Tom Kahn at the time was head of the AFL-CIO’s International Affairs Department, and Eugenia Kemble was the Executive Director of the Free Trade Union Institute. Further, although not a member, the late Albert Shanker, then-President of the American Federation of Teachers and a key labor reactionary (see Schmidt, The American Federation of Teachers and the CIA, Chicago: Substitutes United for Better Schools % Substance), was on the SDUSA national advisory council. And Tom Donahue, then Secretary-Treasurer of the AFL-CIO-and for a moment between Kirkland and Sweeney was President of the AFL-CIO-was married to “Schactman disciple” (which I believe is another way to write “SDUSA member”) Rachelle Horowitz (Massing, 1987). Donahue was identified as Treasurer of the Board of Directors of NED in NED, 2000 (“National Endowment for Democracy Board of Directors, 2000,” and Vice Chair of the Board in NED, 2003 (“Thomas R. Donahue (Vice Chair), on-line at www.ned.org/about/board_bios/donahue.html.)

In short, a number of high-level AFL-CIO national leaders-based on the legitimacy of their Labor positions-have been invited into and have joined top-level US foreign policy circles, and actively participated in US foreign policy initiatives without informing their affiliated unions and their members, much less asking for a mandate to do so. They have consciously kept these affiliations secret from their members, and have lied when they have been exposed. In short, they have actively betrayed the trust of workers, both American and those in labor organizations around the world.

6. AFL-CIO Rhetoric versus Reality

The AFL-CIO leadership fetishizes democracy and freedom from government intervention in labor movements in their public statements. In the 1987 FTUI report, for example, the former AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland is extensively quoted from an article he wrote for the journal, Commonsense. Among other things, Mr. Kirkland wrote;

Of all the commonly enumerated human rights, we believe the most important is freedom of association-not only because it is the bedrock principle of trade unionism, but because it enables and defends the exercise of all other human rights.

Freedom of association means, simply, the right of ordinary people who share common interests to form their own institutions in order to advance those interests and to shelter them against the arbitrary power of the state, the employer, or other strongholds of self-interest. Absent such sheltering institutions, not only are the people powerless to defend such other rights as they may have against sate encroachment, but those rights are inevitably attenuated (quoted in FTUI, 1987: 9-10).

Were this reality, and not mere rhetoric, then the AFL-CIO would never do anything to support a state, and particularly one headed by an anti-democratic government. Conversely, from this statement, we would expect to see the AFL-CIO do all it could to support those governments that expanded the right to association and other freedom-enhancing measures.

Yet what we keep seeing again and again is, despite the rhetoric, the AFL-CIO keeps supporting trade unions that defend state control over the society. The AFL-CIO has supported the Trade Union Congress (TUCP) of the Philippines that was created by the Marcos Dictatorship to provide workers’ support for the dictatorship. We see the same thing with the Federation of Korean Trade Unions (FKTU) in that country, and with the Confederation of Mexican Workers (CTM-in Spanish) in Mexico, and in Indonesia. And we saw it under Mr. Meany, Mr. Kirkland, and Mr. Sweeney, and regardless of whether Washington was headed by Republicans or Democrats.

And should there be any remaining doubt on this issue, it was a man-Harry Kamberis-who had worked in both the Philippines and South Korea during times of incredible labor repression by states and labor movements supported by the AFL-CIO, a former US State Department official, that Mr. Sweeney promoted to serve as the head of the American Center for International Labor Solidarity. [For book-length reports of repression in the Philippines-and labor’s efforts to overcome it-see Scipes, KMU: Building Genuine Trade Unionism in the Philippines, 1980-1994 (Quezon City, Metro Manila: New Day Publishers, 1996) and for a similar book regarding labor in South Korea, see Chun Soonok, They Are Not Machines: Korean Women Workers and Their Fight for Democratic Trade Unionism in the 1970s (Aldershot, England: Ashgate, 2003).] That seems a weak foundation on which to build a reform project.

Not only that but, in fact, the AFL-CIO has a long-established history of undermining progressive, democratically-elected governments that try to extend human liberties-such as freedom of association, freedom of speech, and freedom of economic security-to working people. We see that in Guatemala, Guyana, Brazil, Dominican Republic, Chile, El Salvador, Nicaragua and, most recently, in Venezuela.

It seems the AFL-CIO really only supports these values in certain cases. Claims of support for universal values, such as freedom of association and speech, are found to be, upon closer inspection, only tools to whip those with which the AFL-CIO disagrees. Freedom of Association belongs only to those who kowtow to the US Empire.

7. Synopsis

The NED was specifically established by the US State to advance US foreign policy interests and, despite the supposed “non-governmental” nature of the NED, it has functioned on behalf of the US State for over twenty years. The AFL-CIO was one of the founders and core institutes of NED, and the Solidarity Center continues to play a core role to this day. Long-standing members of Labor play or have played key roles within NED, most notably Carl Gershman, Lane Kirkland, and Thomas R. Donahue.

In short, we have high-level Labor officials participating in activities as representatives of Labor in which they have certain legitimacy.

However, the association with NED and the US State Department’s Labor Diplomacy program have been consciously hidden from the members of the AFL-CIO. There has never been an honest accounting or transparency in AFL-CIO foreign policy and related operations. This has been true even if the face of repeated demands from AFL-CIO-affiliated labor bodies, such as the California and Washington State AFL-CIOs, the National Writers Union, and the “constituency group” for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender members of the AFL-CIO, Pride at Work. Lack of democracy inside the AFL-CIO makes it impossible for the AFL-CIO to promote democracy in any kind of a real way around the world.


This paper has provided background information on the National Endowment for Democracy, and provided a focus on its relationship with the AFL-CIO.

The AFL-CIO’s work in Venezuela, specifically by staff of the Solidarity Center (formally, the American Institute for International Labor Solidarity or ACILS), has been funded overwhelmingly-if not totally-but NED, a project of the US State. This work has not been intended to benefit workers in that country, but to undercut, if not destroy, efforts by workers to address real problems in a country that has long refused to address them: widespread poverty and destitution in a major oil-producing country is an obscenity.

But the decision to stop the AFL-CIO foreign policy program can only be stopped by AFL-CIO members and their official leaders, since it is quite unlikely that the National Endowment for Democracy will end them. The “Build Unity and Trust With Workers Worldwide” resolution is before the AFL-CIO Convention that will take place in Chicago at the end of July (2005). Will progressive trade unionists and their allies be able to overcome efforts to stop them, and will they finally decide to make the AFL-CIO a force for genuine international labor solidarity? We shall see what happens at the Convention and, even if passed, if the resolution will be enforced. But while the difficulties are many, this is the first time that labor activists have been able to force this level of discussion on Labor’s foreign policy in almost 20 years. The results will reverberate around the world for a very long time.

Kim Scipes, Ph.D., is currently a member of the National Writers Union/UAW. He is a long-time labor activist, and former rank and file member of three other unions. He currently teaches sociology at Purdue University North Central in Westville, Indiana. He can be reached at [email protected].