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Unholy Alliance? The AFL-CIO and the National Endowment for Democracy in Venezuela

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As two of the country’s largest unions leave the AFL-CIO, we talk to a labor journalist about what he calls an unholy alliance: the AFL-CIO and the National Endowment for Democracy in Venezuela. [includes rush transcript]

We turn now to a story that has major implications for the future of organized labor in this country–and internationally. It’s being called one of the largest shake-ups in union history. Yesterday, two of the largest unions within the powerful AFL-CIO announced they were pulling out of the federation. The presidents of the Teamsters and the Service Employees International Union made their announcements as the AFL-CIO began its 50th anniversary convention in Chicago.

The service employees have some 1.8 million members, while the Teamsters claim about 1.5 million. They contribute roughly $20 million dollars each year, or about one-sixth of the AFL-CIO budget.

Two other major unions, the United Food and Commercial Workers and Unite Here, are boycotting this week’s convention and have indicated they too would leave the federation.

At the center of this major split is the future of organized labor. The dissident unions have consistently criticized AFL-CIO President John Sweeney for not investing enough in grassroots organizing campaigns and relying too heavily on lobbying in Washington. Sweeney’s backers have accused the dissident unions of playing into the hands of opponents of organized labor.

Another major issue for some at the AFL-CIO convention in Chicago is the issue of the federation’s alleged involvement in destabilization campaigns in countries like Venezuela. This weekend, activists held a demonstration in Chicago to protest what they see as the federation’s cooperation with the Bush administration’s hostile foreign policies and covert operations.

  • Kim Scipes, Labor Journalist and Professor of Sociology at Purdue.
  • Fred Hirsch, Vice president of the plumbers union in San Jose and longtime activist in the Latin America Solidarity Coalition.

Related Story

StoryMay 11, 2006Empire’s Workshop: Latin America, the United States, and the Rise of the New Imperialism
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined now in Chicago by two guests. Kim Scipes is a labor journalist, Professor of Sociology at Purdue University. Also, we’re joined by Fred Hirsch. He’s vice president of the plumbers union, a long-time activist in the Latin America Solidarity Coalition. Let’s go first to Kim Scipes. Talk about why you held this protest on Sunday.

KIM SCIPES: Okay. We have been examining AFL-CIO foreign policy for a long time, and their foreign policy goes back to the early 1900s with the AFL. They had helped intervene in the Mexican revolution. They had tried to push the U.S. into World War I. And they played a key role in setting U.S. foreign policy towards the Soviet revolution in 1917. More recently, they have been involved in overthrowing elected governments, such as Guatemala in 1954, Brazil 1964, and Chile in 1973. We thought things would change under john Sweeney, but as we examine the situation, things are going back to the bad old days, and we’re protesting that. And we are — there has been a resolution by the California state AFL-CIO that was unanimously passed that condemned the top level foreign policy leaders for their operations, and we have a resolution at the convention. We are trying to build public support to get this resolution through the resolutions committee to keep it from being blocked up and get it to the floor of the convention. That’s why we were out there.

AMY GOODMAN: We tried to get on the Solidarity Center, the international wing of the AFL, but they didn’t want to come on with you, Kim Scipes. We hope to have them on later this week. But the AFL has said that they have taken a new approach to foreign policy, have admitted some of what AFIL did in the past, but what about today? What about the AFL today? I mean, I think most people think of the AFL-CIO as much more aligned with Democrats than with the Republican Party and President Bush’s foreign policies.

KIM SCIPES: We have to be clear here, Amy. This is not the overall AFL-CIO. What this is is a small level of upper level, upper echelon leaders, such as John Sweeney, such as Bill Lucy, such as Barbara Shailor, such as Harry Kamberis, people at the very top that have been carrying out a foreign policy that is behind the backs, although they act in the name of American workers. But they’ve never cleared the air about what they’ve done. They’ve never cleared what their operations are in something like 40 countries around the world today. They have been repeatedly asked by affiliated unions and organizations to clear the air. They refuse. We found that they had been involved in Venezuela and that we also had found them involved with the Bush department’s Advisory Committee on Labor and Diplomacy, which has been trying to reinvigorate the labor attache program in U.S. embassies around the world, and that’s a key point for attacking unions in these developing countries.

AMY GOODMAN: I understand —

KIM SCIPES: Excuse me. Let me finish.

AMY GOODMAN: Yes, go ahead.

KIM SCIPES: Okay, I was just going to say is that it had gotten better under John Sweeney, but as we keep examining, things have gone back, and then they’re continuing relationship with the National Endowment for Democracy, and so their claims that they have cleaned up, that they cleared the air, are bogus. They’re lying still.

AMY GOODMAN: I understand that as part of the amendment that was passed in Congress to respond to the launch of the international Latin American TV network, Telesur, was something like $9 million to the National Endowment for Democracy. Your response, Kim?

KIM SCIPES: Well, the National Endowment for Democracy is one of the most cynical operations I have ever seen. First of all, they claim it’s private and nongovernmental, and that’s a lie from A to Z. They have been almost totally funded by the U.S. Congress. They were founded under a resolution, a legislation passed by the Congress. President Reagan signed it into law in 1983. Basically what they’re trying to do is that they’re trying to use our love for democracy; the one person, one vote; the everybody who is affected gets to have a say in decisions. They’re going back to the no taxation without representation thing. That’s what we call popular or grassroots democracy, and that’s how most Americans understand the word “democracy.”

But the National Endowment for Democracy has no idea that what they are doing is a top-down elite-driven form of democracy, which is sometimes called polyarchal democracy, which means that people, yes people, get to vote, but their choices are do they get to vote for Pepsi or do they get to vote for Coke? Can they propose solutions? Yes, they can, as long as they have been presented by the elite. So the National Endowment for Democracy is going around the world instituting this top-down form of democracy, and yet calling it, using the terms of the grassroots, “popular democracy.” Now, combined in the National Endowment for Democracy is the international wing of the Democratic Party, the international wing of the Republican Party, the international wing of the Chamber of Commerce and the Solidarity Center, which is the international wing of the AFL-CIO, done behind the backs of the members of the AFL-CIO.

AMY GOODMAN: Kim Scipes, before we get to the end of the program, I want to turn to our second guest. Kim Scipes, a labor journalist and Professor of Sociology at Purdue University. Fred Hirsch, also in the Chicago studio, vice president of the plumbers and pipefitters union in San Jose, longtime activist in the Latin America Solidarity Coalition. You have done particular historical research on the AFL — the National Endowment for Democracy and Chile. Can you talk about that?

FRED HIRSCH: Yes, I first got involved with this issue in 1973, when we all had great hopes for the success of the democratically elected government and program of Salvador Allende in Chile, and when his government was overthrown. In San Jose, California, we put together an organization to defend democracy in Chile, and our labor part of the organization, labor task force, came up with some research showing how deeply involved the AFL-CIO had been through the American Institute for Free Labor Development and through use of ORIT, the InterAmerican — InterAmerican Workers Organization, part of the ICFTU, and through use of the international labor secretariats of the ICFTU, which is the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions. And it became quite evident that the coup in Chile, which cost lives of well over 3,000 people, most of them trade unionists and militants, progressive people, could not have taken place without the contribution made by the AFL-CIO and, in fact, in the last words of Salvador Allende just moments before he was killed when the Pinochet coup took place, he put responsibility for what occurred in Chile that day on the leaders of the professional unions, those very unions which we later saw were under — were receiving funds and resources through AIFLD and its international network.

AMY GOODMAN: AFILD being the international arm of the AFL-CIO years ago?

FRED HIRSCH: Yes. That was the — an organization that lasted 35 — 33 years and from its inception the leaders of the CTV, the Confederation of Workers of Venezuela, were on the executive board of the AIFLD and were working in collaboration then with the top representatives of U.S. industry involved in foreign trade. The Rockefeller interests, the Anaconda Copper were — people were on that board, and they stayed there in that relationship until today — not until today, until the demise of the AIFLD in 1997, when John Sweeney reorganized the foreign operations of the AFL-CIO and centralized all activity in the American Center for International Labor Solidarity, the Solidarity Center.

AMY GOODMAN: We have five seconds. Do you think it’s better?

FRED HIRSCH: We have — we’re moving to do our best

AMY GOODMAN: On that note, I’m going to have to say we’ll leave it there. We’ll continue the discussion. Fred Hirsch, vice president of the plumbers/pipefitters union in San Jose, as well as Kim Scipes, labor journalist, thank you so much for joining us.

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