December 13, 2004

AFL-CIO’s Dark Past (6)

Do Solidarity Center’s Covert Operations
Help American Labor on Global Problems?

By Harry Kelber

The sixth in a series of six articles

In his campaign for the AFL-CIO presidency in 1995, John Sweeney proposed to create a “Transnational Monitoring Project” that would work with AFL-CIO affiliates to develop organizing strategies for international campaigns and monitor global institutions like the World Bank.

This was an excellent proposal at a time when multinational corporations were moving tens of thousands of good-paying jobs to low-wage countries, and their was an urgent need for international labor solidarity. The project remained little more than a campaign promise.

Instead, the Sweeney administration established the American Center for International Labor Solidarity (1997) to replace the four regional institutes under former AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland, whose staffs had worked with CIA agents to destabilize democratically-elected governments in the Dominican Republic, Guyana and Chile and to undermine governments that were either friendly to the then Soviet Union or hostile to American business interests.

Solidarity Center was going to be decidedly different, we were told. Its mission statement said: “The Center provides workers and their unions with information about internationally-recognized worker rights and basic union skills training in education and organizing. We’re training public awareness of the abuses and exploitation of the world¹s most vulnerable workers. We’re promoting democracy and freedom and respect for workers’ rights in global trade, investment and development policies and in the lending practices of international financial institutions. Above all, we’re giving the world’s workers a chance for a voice in the global economy and in the future.”

Anyway, if you’re curious, or possibly skeptical, to know how the Center does what it says it does, they’re not about to tell you. But that’s not all. Here are some other Herculean activities that Solidarity Center boasts about:

“The Solidarity Center is preventing and resolving conflicts worldwide by breaking down race and class barriers, building relations that can bridge ethnic and racial divides and providing training and education that give workers needed job skills and the opportunity for a better future.”

Does Sweeney and Barbara Shailor, the director of the AFL-CIO’s International Affairs Department, believe this self-serving hogwash? Why hasn’t anyone checked the Center’s ludicrous claims? And how come, if the Center is performing these miracles, that hardly any trade unionists in the United States even know of its existence?

Is Solidarity Center Continuing Kirkland’s Game Plan?

There are some remarkable similarities between the Solidarity Center and Kirkland’s four regional institutes. The Center gets about three-quarters of its budget from the State Department, the Agency for International Development, the Labor Department and the National Endowment for Democracy. The AFL CIO doesn’t publicize the amount of funding from each agency or what they expect from the Solidarity Center for their contributions, certainly not to promote international labor solidarity.

Like Kirkland’s “world empire,” the Center maintains offices and staffs in at least 26 countries. They include Bangladesh, Bulgaria, Croatia, Paraguay, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Venezuela and Zimbabwe, It’s not clear how the Solidarity Center’s operations in these countries have any relevance to the problems of American workers and their unions.

Solidarity’s director is Harry Kamberis, a former State Department employee, who worked for Kirkland’s Asian institute in the late 1980s, when it was involved in dirty tricks against militant unions in South Korea and the Philippines.

Kamberis and his staff continue the Meany-Kirkland policy of spending money on classes, workshops and seminars for foreign labor leaders, and providing them and their unions with substantial sums of money, office supplies and strategic advice. The goal is to attain their loyalty and unstinted cooperation in any crisis in which the American government is involved.

A major crisis came to Venezuela in April 2002, when an article in The New York Times revealed that Solidarity Center had served as a conduit for the infamous National Endowment for Democracy to deliver $154,377 to the Confederation of Venezuela Workers (CTV), whose president, Carlos Ortega, “led the work stoppages that galvanized the opposition to the democratically elected president, Hugo Chavez.”

The Venezuelan labor leader worked closely with the pro-American businessman, Pedro Carmona Estanga to engineer the April 11, 2002 coup against Chavez. Carmona’s first act was to dissolve the National Assembly. But two days later, Chavez was swept back into power by the military and a tidal wave of support by the working people and the poor, much to the chagrin of the State Department.

Prior to the coup, Solidarity Center invited CTV’s Ortega to Washington, knowing that he was one of the principal opposition leaders to Chavez. The AFL-CIO arranged for Ortega to visit with U.S. government officials, including representatives of the State Department, where opposition leaders met to discuss strategy against Chavez.

Available records show that even after the failed Venezuela coup, NED contributed $116,000 to Solidarity Center every three months, from September 2002 to March 2004. In return, the Center had to submit five quarterly reports containing information that its benefactor wanted.

Is Solidarity Center an Arm of the State Department?

The Venezuela incident shines a spotlight on how Solidarity Center operated behind the scenes to help subvert the freely-elected government of a country that is one of the major oil producers in the world and a target for American oil interests. It shows how bribes and favors, lavishly distributed to union activists in a poor country, can corrupt an indigenous labor movement to work against its own interests.

If this is how shamefully Solidarity Center operated in Venezuela, can we doubt that it would act in the same manner in a developing crisis in, say, Mexico, Nigeria the Philippines or any other of the countries where it maintains field offices and staff?

What is Solidarity Center doing in all of these countries, if not to serve as the eyes and ears and voice of the State Department? Should that be a function of an agency of the American labor movement?

What is especially worrisome is the tight secrecy that Solidarity Center and the AFL-CIO’s International Affairs Department maintain over their activities, hardly different from the cloak-and-dagger operations during the Kirkland years.

In the nearly ten years that Sweeney has been AFL-CIO president, the International Affairs Department has refused to publish a booklet, newsletter, press release or other material about its activities. It does not supply information, either in official union publications or on the AFL-CIO Web site. Apparently, what it says and does in our name is none of our business.

Solidarity Center provides some information on its Web site, almost all of it bragging about its highly-inflated, questionable achievements. But it offers no details about its shady, covert activities, like in Venezuela.

It is time to lift the veil of secrecy that shrouds the Solidarity Center and the International Affairs Department. American workers, suffering from the loss of tens of thousands of good-paying jobs through corporate outsourcing, should at least be kept informed about what¹s happening to workers and unions in other countries, and should be told what the AFL-CIO is saying and doing in foreign affairs.

Given the aggressive efforts of multinational corporations to seek the cheapest labor markets, international labor solidarity is essential if we are not to be forced to compete with workers everywhere “in a race to the bottom.” Yet how can we establish bonds of cooperation with unions and workers in other lands if we are kept completely in the dark about what they’re doing?

It is doubtful that the AFL-CIO International Affairs Department and the Solidarity Center will change their secretive behavior, since President John Sweeney has given them his silent approval and there has been no objection from the 51-member Executive Council.

* * * * *

I decided to research and write this six-part series, “The AFL-CIO’s Dark Past,” after many California unions had waged an unsuccessful campaign for several years to get the AFL-CIO to “Clear the Air” about its covert foreign activities over the past six decades.

The International Affairs Department refused to “open the books” to reveal the sordid story of how the AFL-CIO collaborated with the Central Intelligence Agency and the U.S. State Department to overthrow democratically-elected governments and disrupt nationalist labor federations that opposed American business interests.

It is questionable whether the “dark past” has truly ended and a new era of transparency about American labor’s foreign policies has begun. There are too many similarities between the past and the present to dispel our doubts and fears.

What is needed is an independent oversight committee that will ensure that we are kept adequately informed about AFL-CIO policy initiatives and have a voice in discussing them. Since the California unions were so concerned about revealing labor’s shameful past, they ought to take the lead in a campaign for an oversight committee to ensure that it doesn¹t happen again.

(End of Series)

This series of articles can be viewed and downloaded in its entirety by visiting our Web site My e-mail address is

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