Wednesday, May 04, 2005


The AFL-CIO has eliminated its International Affairs Department (IAD), ending a once-powerful office that was created during the early days of the Cold War to fight communist and left-wing influence in the global labor movement.

The decision is part of a broad reorganization taking place at the AFL-CIO in response to a sharp drop in union membership and a challenge to the federation's leadership by a coalition of unions, led by the SEIU, UNITE-HERE and the Teamsters, that is seeking to reverse labor's decline by pouring resources into organizing. According to labor sources, all of the AFL-CIO's international work will now be conducted through the American Center for International Labor Solidarity.

ACILS, better known as the Solidarity Center, receives nearly all of its funding from two government agencies, the National Endowment for Democracy and the Agency for International Development.

By restructuring the IAD out of existence, AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, who was never very excited about international work in the first place, has ensured that organized labor will no longer have an independent voice in foreign affairs.

On May 4, the Washington Post reported that some of the department’s efforts “will be folded into organizing efforts." Altogether, 167 jobs at the AFL-CIO will be cut, the Post says, and 61 people will "have the chance" to apply for other jobs. "In order to meet this restructuring, resources are being shifted," said Lane Windham, an AFL-CIO spokeswoman.

Barbara Shailor, the current IAD director, will become the new director of the Solidarity Center, labor sources said. She will replace the current director, Harry Kamberis, who was one of Sweeney's worst appointments. Tim Beaty, Shailor's deputy, and Stan Gacek, Shailor's assistant for Latin American affairs, will be laid off, effective September 1.

"The International Affairs Department will be disbanded with pieces of the work going to the organizing department, the President's office and the Solidarity Center," Beaty wrote in an e-mail to colleagues on May 4. "My job is being eliminated and I'm being laid off effective September 1." He added: "We're facing a very difficult set of challenges in the US labor movement so I hope these changes will help us work better for social justice."

Kamberis took over the Solidarity Center in the late 1990s after a long career as a bureaucratic Cold Warrior inside the AFL-CIO. Like many of the men who preceded him at IAD, Kamberis came to his "labor" job directly from a career in the State Department, where he served as a political officer in Bangladesh, Pakistan and Greece. He is the son-in-law of Morris Paladino, a former labor operative in Asia and Latin America who was identified as a CIA agent by Phillip Agee in his book Inside the Company. Many labor insiders and activists have long suspected that Kamberis, who directed AFL-CIO programs in the Philippines and South Korea during the 1980s, worked as an undercover officer for the CIA while he was with the State Department.

Under Sweeney and Shailor, the AFL-CIO reorganized its international operations around the theme of global solidarity. Political intervention was out, international worker rights were in - theoretically. Despite Kamberis’s record during the Cold War (or perhaps because Kamberis himself had seen the writing on the wall), the IAD and the Solidarity Center took some positive actions.

As I reported in 1999 for Dollars & Sense, the “new” AFL-CIO worked closely with independent unions in Mexico (something that would have been unheard of 10 years earlier) and in 1987 convinced the Clinton administration to bring pressure on the South Korean government to recognize the militant, left-wing Korean Confederation of Trade Unions. Until then, the AFL-CIO had worked solely with the Federation of Korean Trade Unions, which was organized by the government in the 1960s.

In 2002, however, the AFL-CIO got caught red-handed in an embarrassing episode that resembled its Cold War operations. That April, the New York Times reported that the Solidarity Center had provided large sums of money, through the NED, to the CTV, the Venezuelan labor federation that had worked closely with Venezuela’s Chamber of Commerce to plot the overthrow of the populist government of Hugo Chavez. Some on the left immediately revived the old charge of AFL-CIA.

No direct evidence was ever found, however, that the Solidarity Center worked with the CIA or knew beforehand that a military coup was in the works. But it was clear that Sweeney and his people were taking the side of the Bush administration in a nasty foreign policy dispute. What rankled many activists at the time was the inability of the AFL-CIO to explain itself or provide transparent information that would explain what it was up to in Caracas in those months.

(For two excellent accounts of this episode, read the reports by veteran labor journalist Harry Kelber and Socialist Worker staffwriter Lee Sustar. The AFL-CIO responded to the controversy by posting its own explanation on the federation website.


The IAD has its roots in the immediate period after World War II, when the AFL openly collaborated with the newly organized CIA to break and weaken communist-led unions in France and Italy. Its key operative at that time was Irving Brown, who was also identified as CIA by Agee. Another was Jay Lovestone, who was thrown out of the Communist Party in the 1930s and became a lifelong - and fanatic - anti-communist after that.

Lovestone was appointed IAD director by George Meany in 1964, nine years after the merger of the AFL with the CIO. Working closely with the US government, the IAD organized labor "institutes" in Latin America, Asia and Europe to act as shock troops in the war against communism and socialism. Their modus operandi was to split labor federations that included both communist and socialist-led unions and undermine the left by funding alternative union centers that supported US foreign policy goals. Often, these centers were covers for right-wing political parties; but as long as they were anti-communist, they won AFL-CIO support.

One of the most notorious chapters in IAD history occurred in Chile, where the AFL-CIO collaborated with the Nixon administration to help overthrow the democratically elected socialist government of Salvador Allende. As I reported in a lengthy report for The Nation two years ago, on September 11, 1973

Chilean President Salvador Allende was overthrown in a bloody military coup that ended a brief experiment in democratic socialism and took the lives of Allende and thousands of Chilean workers, students and political activists. Today, many trade unionists remain haunted by the knowledge that their own federation, the AFL-CIO, played a key role in the US campaign, led by the Nixon Administration and the Central Intelligence Agency, to destabilize Chile in the years before the coup. From 1971 to 1973, the AFL-CIO's American Institute for Free Labor Development (AIFLD), one of four US-government-funded labor institutes created during the cold war, channeled millions of dollars to right-wing unions and political parties opposed to Allende's socialist agenda. That aid helped finance the revolt by Chile's professional class and fanned the flames of social unrest that provided the pretext for Gen. Augusto Pinochet's violent crackdown and the justification for his seventeen-year dictatorship.

According to documents I've unearthed in the AFL-CIO's archives, AIFLD's program in Chile was closely coordinated with the US Embassy and dovetailed with one of the CIA's key aims in Chile: to split the Chilean labor movement and create a trade union base of opposition to Allende, who was viewed as dangerously anti-American and a pawn of the Soviet Union. The campaign's political agenda was summarized in a 1972 cable in the archives from Robert O'Neill, AIFLD's representative in Chile, to AFL-CIO headquarters in Washington. Chile, O'Neill proudly told his superiors, had become the site of "the first large-scale middle class movement against government attempts to impose, slowly but surely, a Marxist-Leninist system."


Several years ago, as a result of investigations in the AFL-CIO role in Chile by Fred Hirsch, a San Francisco trade unionist, and Kim Scipes, a Chicago labor writer and educator, local unions and labor councils in California began a movement to “open the books” on the AFL-CIO’s past. But Sweeney and his staff resolutely refused to either shed further light on what the labor federation knows about its activities in Chile, Brazil and other countries, or to apologize for its misdeeds and misrepresentations. As Scipes writes in the latest issue of Monthly Review:

(US) 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 U.S. government.

And when the California Federation of Labor managed to hold a single meeting to discuss the past, Scipes writes

AFL-CIO foreign policy leaders basically put on a dog and pony show rather than interact on substantive issues, greatly displeasing rank-and-file participants. They failed to honor the request of the California activists to gather information and report on any and all labor operations currently taking place around the world on a country-by-country basis.

Now, with the abolition of the International Affairs Department and its absorption into the government-funded Solidarity Center, this discussion is likely to come to a complete end.. That is, unless some of the opposition figures in the unions opposed to Sweeney decide to bring it up during their campaign to unseat Sweeney or at the AFL-CIO Convention next July. Its a debate and discussion that's long overdue.