National Endowment for Death Squads? The AFL-CIO and the NED

The AFL-CIO's Solidarity Center, which is funded by the NED, is at work in twenty-eight countries, discouraging radical organizing among workers and promoting privatization by assisting unions and labor groups that support private enterprise.

Few tax payers familiar with the National Endowment for Democracy, a publicly funded yet privately owned organization operating in at least forty countries.  NED’s mission?  To help the United States set up capitalist economies around the world, backed by regimes that are friendly to U.S. big business.

With no interference from the public or congress, the NED is free to accomplish its goals by manipulating and buying elections, starting political as well as economic turmoil, funding counter-insurgency material to right-wing groups, and using other tactics that would be considered illegal in the United States.

Equally disturbing, yet more surprising, is the role that leaders of the U.S. labor federation, the AFL-CIO, play in carrying out the NED’s dirty work.  The AFL-CIO’s Solidarity Center is at work in twenty-eight countries, discouraging radical organizing among workers and promoting privatization by assisting unions and labor groups that support private enterprise.

A glimpse into this NED constituent’s predecessor organization shows a history of collusion with Central Intelligence Agency terrorism since the early sixties.

The AFL-CIO Solidarity Center’s predecessor, the American Institute for Free Labor Development (AIFLD), was one of the four government-funded labor institutes created during the cold war to prevent foreign countries from establishing independent economic systems.  AIFLD was instrumental in the overthrow of democratically elected leftist governments in Guyana in 1963, Brazil in 1964, the Dominican Republic in 1965, and Chile in 1973.

By the late 1970s, the CIA was exposed for its sabotage of governments and labor movements around the world.  Corrupt dictatorships in Central America, backed by local death squads armed and trained by the CIA, massacred hundreds of thousands of peasants during popular insurgencies in Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala.

With these scandals fresh in the public’s mind, the Reagan Administration created the National Endowment for Democracy in 1983 to take care of its unfinished business.  As an NED founder, Allen Weinstein, stated in 1991, “A lot of what we do today was done covertly 25 years ago by the CIA.”

Some of the NED’s political accomplishments include the successful manipulation of elections in Nicaragua in 1990 and Mongolia in 1996, and the overthrow of democratically elected candidates in Bulgaria in 1990 and Albania in 1991-2.  By indirectly contributing “soft money” to the campaigns of candidates friendly to U.S. business, the NED is able to successfully buy elections in poor countries with only a few hundred thousand dollars.

With a 2004 budget of $40 million, and a 2005 budget of $80 million requested by President Bush, the NED will be capable of buying quite a few elections in the coming years.

From 1983 to 1994, the NED was funded exclusively by congress, at which point it began accepting private donations.  These sources include several oil companies and defense contractors—Chevron, Exxon Mobil, Texaco and Enron among its 2001 contributors.  Its funding is a very controversial subject, and its opponents frequently cite the inherent contradiction of a publicly funded organization charged with executing foreign policy, while remaining exempt from nearly all political and administrative controls.

Octopus Arms

The NED works through multiple constituencies: The International Republican Institute, The National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, the Center for International Private Enterprise, the Free Trade Union Institute, and American Center for International Labor Solidarity (ACILS), better known as the Solidarity Center.

Among its strongest U.S. supporters is the Heritage Foundation, a right wing think tank which has been very influential in policy issues.  Each constituent is given almost five million dollars, which they issue as grants to organizations or political parties all over the world.  The remainder of the NED’s budget is also given out as grants.

In her study of the NED, Barbara Conry, associate policy analyst for the free-market advocacy CATO Institute, states: “NED, which has a history of corruption and financial mismanagement, is superfluous as best and often destructive.  Through the Endowment, the American taxpayer has paid for special-interest groups to harass the duly elected governments of friendly countries, interfere in foreign elections, and foster the corruption of democratic movements…”

The National Endowment for Democracy and its constituents call their actions “supporting democracy,” but the governments and movements they target know them as “destabilization.”

One Empire, One Development Model

U.S. business could not destabilize or overthrow as many foreign governments as it does without the cover and aid of conservative, “old-guard” unions and labor groups who disorient, counter, and generally undermine radical unions and militant labor leaders.  Union leaders, in turn, couldn’t enjoy six figure salaries without an approval of capitalism, without seeing labor and business along with government as “partners” in political and economic development.

On September 11, 1973, Chilean President Salvador Allende, along with thousands of Chilean workers, students and political activists were killed in a particularly bloody military coup that ended a brief experiment in democratic socialism.  It was the culmination of a campaign by the Nixon Administration, working covertly with ITT, Kennecott Cooper, and other U.S. multinational corporations to destroy the Chilean economy and punish Allende for nationalizing industries in which U.S. corporations held major stakes.  The goal, in Nixon’s unforgettable words, was to “make the economy scream.”

While no direct link exists between the AIFLD and the CIA’s actions in Chile, the AIFLD’s program was synchronized closely with the CIA’s plan to create social unrest by sowing divisions within the labor movement and financing middle-class and professional organizations leading the opposition to Allende’s populist program.

Unable to divide and weaken Chile’s largest labor federation, the one-million-member, communist led, Central Unica de Trabajadores (CUT), the AIFLD channeled millions of dollars into right-wing unions and political parties that opposed CUT and Allende’s socialist agenda as a whole.

In the fall of 1973, widespread social unrest and a paralyzed economy provided the pretext for General Pinochet’s violent coup, and justification for his seventeen-year dictatorship.  Pinochet saw all unions, not just leftist, as the enemy, and one of his first acts after seizing power was to outlaw CUT.  In the months that followed September 11th, hundreds of trade unionists, including some who had worked with AIFLD, were rounded up, many never to be heard from again. 

From 1971 until the mid-eighties, the AFL-CIO, despite its pledge never to support government controlled unions, financed and supported the Federation of Korean Trade Unions (FKTU), with full knowledge of the government’s penetration.  A government puppet, the FKTU’s activities were restricted by law, leaving it no real power.

In the late seventies, U.S. religious and human rights organizations began calling attention to the appalling treatment of South Korean workers.  They were particularly concerned with the brutality directed at young women laborers in the textile and garment industry, and the lack of response by the FKTU.

Rather than denouncing the repression in South Korea, or severing its ties with the FKTU, the AFL-CIO tried to whitewash the violence, blaming it on “differing ethnic standards of Koreans,” amongst other things.

When Korean industrial workers finally organized the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions as an alternative to the FKTU, it wasn’t officially recognized by the AFL-CIO until 1997.  Just recently, pilots represented by KCTU protested its government’s decision to deploy 3,000 troops to Iraq by refusing to transport any troops or equipment there, and engaged in street demonstrations against the war.

ACILS: Reforming Or Restructuring?

In 1995, John Sweeney was elected AFL-CIO president with the support of a broad coalition of union leaders who broke with the former president, Lane Kirkland, over foreign policy.  In particular, they disagreed with the AIFLD’s support for U.S. policy in Central America and hoped to get rid of what they believed was a cold war relic, a pro-corporate anti-communist extension of the McCarthyism still dominating U.S. foreign policy.

Two years after taking office, Sweeney reorganized the four labor foreign policy institutes into a single organization, the American Center for International Labor Solidarity (ACILS), better known as the Solidarity Center.  Although the Solidarity Center has retained a few staff members from its predecessor labor institutes, it claims to represent a fresh start at building a stronger labor movement abroad by focusing on solidarity rather than intervention.  Some of the Solidarity Center’s goals in the past six years include facilitating an organizing campaign in Honduras that led to a viable maquila union in the free trade zone, helping set the stage for a labor law reform campaign in Ecuador by working with Bonita banana workers, and playing a crucial role in convincing a GAP supplier to finance the reopening of a plant shut down due to union activity. 

While many union leaders are hopeful about the reforms in U.S. labor’s foreign policy, as well as its accomplishments to date, a great deal of skepticism remains.  Much of this skepticism revolves around the Solidarity Center’s funding; three quarters of its $18 million budget still comes from government sources.  It receives annual grants from the State Department, the Agency for International Development, the Labor Department, and the NED.

Requests for a complete list of donors, including private foundations, and the amount of their contributions have been repeatedly denied by the AFL-CIO.  While Congress no longer dictates the Center’s policies, a lack of independent funding makes a truly autonomous global labor movement impossible.

Meddling in Venezuela

Critics also point to the Solidarity Center’s recent operations in Venezuela, which they feel are dangerously reminiscent of the AIFLD’s actions in Chile.  In Venezuela, the world’s fifth largest oil producer, the Solidarity Center funds a corrupt union amalgam, the Confederation of Venezuelan Workers (CTV).  CTV organizes destabilizing strikes and works with oil company management, the Catholic Church, and right-wing military officers to create opposition to the populist elected president Hugo Chavez.  How the Center’s largest, $150,000 contribution to the CTV was spent is unclear.  Stan Gacek, assistant director for the AFL-CIO’s International Affairs Department, says it was for internal union elections, but the CTV’s Institute director, Jesus Urbieta, says the money was used for conducting training courses.  In 2001 the Solidarity Center invited CTV leader Carlos Ortega to Washington, to discuss strategies to oust Chavez with U.S. government officials and representatives of the State Department.

A series of widespread strikes orchestrated by the CTV paved the way for an insurrection on April 11th, 2002, that killed over a dozen citizens and injured hundreds more.  Pedro Carmona, a pro-U.S. businessman, was selected to run the country.  He immediately dissolved the National Assembly, but only two days later Chavez was swept back into power by the military and a flood of support from working people and the poor, much to the shame of the Solidarity Center, the State Department and the White House.  Not surprisingly, the NED tripled its annual Venezuela budget to almost $900,000 in the weeks and months leading up to the attempted coup.

While the CTV was disbanded after the attempted coup and replaced by the leftist Unione Nationale Trajabadores, Chavez’s opposition hasn’t given up.  The NED is currently handing out grants totaling more than a million dollars to organizations it feels can be useful in getting rid of Chavez.  From September 2002 to March 2004, the Endowment contributed $116,000 to the Solidarity Center every three months for this purpose.

Between September 2003 and September 2004, Sumate, a Venezuelan company that worked to organize a referendum to recall President Chavez, was granted over $50,000 from the NED.  Sumate released a poll just before the vote claiming Chavez was sure to lose.  To the chagrin of Sumate and the NED, Chavez won 59% of the vote. 

Iraq and Beyond

On November 6, 2003, President Bush gave a speech commemorating the NED on its 20th anniversary, and placing it at the center of the “democratization” of Iraq.  For the Bush Administration, the NED and the Solidarity Center, democratization is synonymous with privatization, as is evidenced in their attempts to hold the largest state liquidation sale since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

A key strategic aim of U.S. imperialism in the Middle East is to break state control over oil production and reserves and open them up to the direct control of U.S. based energy conglomerates.  The first act of L.  Paul Bremer, who led the U.S. occupation of Iraq from May 2, 2003 until his early departure on June 28, 2004, was to fire 500,000 state workers including teachers, doctors, nurses, publishers and printers.

Next he opened Iraq’s borders to unrestricted imports, declaring it “open for business.”  Enacting a radical set of laws unprecedented in their generosity to multinational corporations, Bremer allowed foreign companies to own 100 percent of Iraqi assets outside the natural resource sector, and to take all of these profits out of the country tax free with no obligation to reinvest in Iraq.  The only remnant from Saddam Hussein’s economic policy was—a law restricting trade unions and collective bargaining!

Rather than creating an economic boom, these policies instead fueled a resistance that has ultimately made reconstruction impossible.  Labor relations reached a bloody peak under Bremer’s occupation; faced with job loss, workers feared starvation, and managers in turn feared their workers, making privatization far more complicated than the Bush Administration anticipated.

Violent protests have kept investors out, and forced Bremer to abandon many of his central economic policies.  Several state companies have been offered up for lease, and thousands of the state workers fired by Bremer have been rehired.

Nonetheless, the Bush Administration’s plans to “democratize” Iraq are still underway.  In January, 2004, Bush requested to double the NED’s Middle East budget, putting it at $40 million.  According to Abd al-Wahhab al Kabsi, the NED’s program officer for the Middle East, the NED’s involvement is “expanding and we expect it to continue to expand.”

In the months before the Bush Administration invaded Iraq, the AFL-CIO for the first time in its history openly challenged a U.S. decision to go to war.  However, once the invasion began, AFL-CIO president John Sweeney shifted his antiwar stance, declaring that the federation would “support fully” the Bush Administration’s war goals.

Within two days of Bush’s request for an increased NED budget in the Middle East, Sweeney said that “training and other kinds of support from the international trade union movement should be encouraged” in Iraq.  Since then, he has applied for $3-5 million in grants from the NED.  The money will be used to counter independent labor organizing by leftist groups like Union of the Unemployed in Iraq (UUI), which has sponsored and supported strikes and demonstrations for jobs and against U.S. occupation.

The NED and Solidarity Center have chosen to support the General Federation of Trade Unions in Iraq, a discredited Ba’athist union formation sitting on the U.S. appointed Iraqi Governing Council.  According to the UUI, its history “is as gloomy and bloody as the history of the Ba’athist regime.”

The Reform Movement

Given the Solidarity Center’s actions in Venezuela and Iraq, many unionists are concerned about its true motives, and what it is doing around the world in its more covert operations.  Over the past four years, labor councils and grassroots labor activists on the West Coast have been pressing AFL-CIO leadership to come clean about its past and set a more honorable course for the future by opening its archives, which include material from the Reagan era that remains off-limits to researchers.  They also wish to create a truth commission to analyze and publicize the contents.

Resolutions passed in 2000 by the San Francisco and South Bay labor councils in California, and in 2001 by the Washington State AFL-CIO, asked the federation to renounce what it did in Chile, the Philippines, and other places in the name of labor, and allow union members and independent researchers to make a full accounting of the past.

In 2002 the South bay AFL-CIO Labor Council submitted its “Clear the Air” resolution to the two million member (with over one sixth of the AFL-CIO’s members) California Federation of Labor.  The resolution was withdrawn in favor of a substitute resolution, submitted by the Federation leadership, which simply asked the AFL-CIO to meet with the California Federation and its affiliates to open a dialogue about its government-funded foreign affairs activities, both past and present, and to affirm a policy of genuine global solidarity in pursuit of economic and social justice.

It was clearly understood that if the meeting failed to resolve the issues, the leadership of the Federation would fall back to support the “Clear the Air” resolution.

In March, 2004 the California Federation of Teachers unanimously passed a resolution at its annual convention calling for the AFL-CIO to accept no government funding for its work in Iraq and elsewhere, claiming this would be the first step in achieving true global solidarity.  That resolution was submitted to the July 13-14, 2004 Convention of the California Federation of Labor.

It took 15 months to organize the meeting on foreign policy called for in the resolution passed by the California Federation in 2002.  Not satisfied by the October 2003 meeting, the Plumbers Local 393 and the Labor Councils of the South Bay, San Francisco and Monterey Bay passed a resolution for “Unity and Trust among Workers Worldwide,” and submitted it to the California Federation of Labor 2004 convention.

The “Unity and Trust” resolution and the CFT resolution were combined by the convention’s resolutions committee to become a more strongly worded version of the 2002 “Clear the Air” resolution.  The new resolution, passed unanimously by the convention delegates, urges the AFL-CIO to “exercise extreme caution in seeking or accepting funding from the U.S. government, its agencies and any other institutions which it funds such as the NED for its work in Iraq or elsewhere, and to accept these funds only to further the goals of honest international labor solidarity, not to pursue the policies of Corporate America and the United States government.”

Fred Hirsch, vice president of Plumbers and Fitters Local 393 in San Jose, played an important role in getting both resolutions before the Federation.  “We expect tremendous resistance from the AFL-CIO to having their power base removed, and being forced to seek more funds from their affiliates, rather than the government,” says Hirsch.  “This will also force them to be more accountable to their affiliates by giving them total freedom of information on their actions abroad.”

Resisting Disclosure

Unfortunately, the AFL-CIO archives remain firmly closed.  Under the archives rules, documents can only be released twenty years after their creation, which means that material about controversial AFL-CIO activities during the eighties, such as support for the Nicaraguan contras and cooperation with U.S.-backed counterinsurgencies in El Salvador and the Phillipines, remains classified.

According to Michael Merill, director of the archives, there is no consistent policy on what to do when someone wants to open the books sooner.  Any request to shorten the twenty-year waiting period, he added, would have to be approved by the senior leadership of the AFL-CIO.

It is highly unlikely that this will occur without a great deal of pressure from the AFL-CIO’s constituents.  Since Sweeney and several members of his executive council were board members of the AIFLD and the other institutes, they are likely to be uncomfortable with an open record.

This also applies to the Solidarity Center’s current head, Harry Kamberis, a former State Department employee who worked with the Asian American Free Labor Institute (AAFLI), the AIFLD counterpart for Asia, while the institutes were known to be in collusion with the CIA.  His endeavors with AAFLI include donating six million dollars to a corrupt labor federation allied with right-wing death squads in the Philippines throughout the eighties.

In order to put pressure on the AFL-CIO, it is important for resolutions like the “Unity and Trust” to be passed in locals, then moved to statewide labor federations, and eventually, national and international affiliates of the AFL-CIO.

While the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), who passed anti-war resolutions at their national conventions in late June, are already having an impact on the AFL-CIO’s executive council, it is unlikely to open the books or significantly change its policies without pressure from a larger portion of its affiliates.

“To counter corporate globalization, we need labor globalization,” says Hirsch.  “But we can’t embark on a path of genuine solidarity, nor can labor unions overseas trust us, until we own up to the past and divorce ourselves from those actions and the government funding which made us a pawn of U.S. foreign policy.”

To let Harry Kamberis, executive director of the Solidarity Center, know you would like to see the AFL-CIO own up to its past actions and embark on a path of genuine global solidarity rather than act as a pro-corporate tool of U.S. foreign policy, call him at (202) 778 4503.  John Sweeney can also be reached at [email protected]

Source: Against the Current