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Workers of the world: the AFL-CIO struggles to define a global agenda for labor.

In the 1980s American labor's solution to globalization was American protectionism. Today labor is entertaining new solutions to old problems, most specifically pursuing an agenda, however inconsistently, of global solidarity and cross-border organizing. A combination of the changing economic climate, new leadership, and innovative social movements outside of labor has nudged, and at times, pushed labor into a global justice agenda.

With 13 million members, the AFL-CIO has the people, resources, and history to have a real impact on U.S. foreign policy. And as the United States remains a unilateral superpower, the federation of American unions becomes an even greater player on the world stage through its acceptance or rejection of the standards of global trade.

Making a New Turn

What was once a home of cold warriors and state department officials--infamously dubbed the AFL-CIA--the new AFL-CIO under the leadership of John Sweeney, Linda Chavez Thompson, and Richard Trumpka boasts as its mission "to promote democracy, freedom, and respect for worker rights in global trade, investment, and development policies and in the lending practices of international financial institutions; and above all to help the world's workers secure a voice in the developing global economy."

This is a significant turnaround from the mission of the past, when the AFL-CIO's image around the globe was that of the U.S. government's labor arm in Cold War policy. One of its more infamous programs was the American Institute for Free Labor Development (AIFLD)--well known for its ties to the CIA and its support of repressive governments in Central and South America.

The AFL-CIO's change in direction from its cold warrior mandate to the present internationalist perspective is due in large part to a push from the bottom for new leadership at the top. Dissatisfied with the old guard leadership of Lane Kirkland, union activists helped propel the "New Voices" slate of Sweeney, Thompson, and Trumpka to victory in 1996. Soon after winning the elections, Sweeney pushed for a change in mission and orientation of the organization's international work.

One way he solidified this goal was through the staff. Barbara Shailor, previously with the International Affairs Department of the International Association of Machinists (IAM), was hired to head the AFL-CIO's international work. Shailor became instrumental in bringing IAM membership in anti-WTO protests in Seattle in 1999. She is credited with bringing into the newly revamped International Affairs Department staff with experience in international labor solidarity and cross-border organizing work. Shailor, along with Bill Fletcher, then head of the Education Department, and others began to shape the AFL-CIO's international work in dramatically new directions.

Nudged from the Outside

In 1999, as efforts began internally to move a program of international solidarity and cooperation in the AFL-CIO, another major movement was gaining influence on the global stage. With its involvement in the anti-globalization movement, the labor federation propelled its work in new directions that many had not imagined possible.

"Prior to November 30, 1999, even though the AFL-CIO had been working in coalition with a number of anti-globalization groups, there was a real skepticism about the capacity of these organizations," admits Bill Fletcher. "But the demonstrations in Seattle sent shockwaves throughout the AFL-CIO, and they helped orient the federation toward a more global justice perspective."

Community/labor organizations like Jobs with Justice, along with progressive labor activists and a new generation of AFL-CIO staff with experience in global justice work, played a crucial role in bridging the gap between the AFL-CIO and social movement organizations.

Another important development influencing the AFL-CIO was the dramatic growth of the anti-sweatshop movement on college campuses. Students Against Sweatshops, a network of student activists throughout the country, forced their universities to commit to a code of conduct that would restrict their schools from purchasing apparel and goods made with sweatshop labor. The incredible success of these campaigns inspired a whole new generation of student activists and helped reinvigorate the unions engaged in this struggle. Today, the Workers Right Consortium, a watchdog organization made up of trade unionists, students, and university administrators that monitors these agreements, boasts conduct agreements signed at more than 100 colleges.

Not Making the Turn Fast Enough

Though these efforts mark a distinct shift in the AFL-CIO's work, some argue that the federation is not aggressive enough in its global justice agenda, especially amidst the speed and ferocity of globalization. The AFL-CIO faces serious conflict between its "new" approach to international work and its historical role as a cold warrior.

The aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, had a great impact on the federation's work internationally and its image abroad. The AFL-CIO's waffling on the issue of the invasion of Afghanistan by U.S. forces alienated its allies abroad. "After Sept. 11, relations with most labor federations of the Global South were very much strained," says Fletcher. "Many labor movements outside the U.S., while opposed to terrorist attacks, were equally opposed to a U.S. assault in retaliation." The federation's lukewarm opposition to the war and occupation of Iraq has raised skepticism once more about the ability of the AFL-CIO to commit to a global social justice agenda without U.S. government influence.

Another fissure in its relations abroad is the AFL-CIO's staunch opposition to Chinas admittance into the WTO. Many community and Asian organizations found the AFL-CIO to be overly zealous with its opposition, as if to imply China, alone, was the main cause of problems for the American working class. This issue became a lightning rod for old cold warriors on the executive council, the main leadership body of the federation. "The momentum around the work from Seattle was temporarily derailed by the refocusing of efforts and resources on fighting Chinas inclusion into the WTO," adds Fletcher. "The AFL-CIO waffled and misrepresented what was at stake the main problems facing U.S. workers were not from China."

Biting the Hand That Feeds

A substantial point of contention among trade unionists and social justice activists within the AFL-CIO is the fact that the federation still receives money from the USAID and the U.S. State Department for its international programs. Some approximate up to 80 percent of the funding to the International Affairs Department's Solidarity Center comes from the U.S. government. Many argue that this funding has dampened the level of militancy shown by the federation toward U.S.-dominated globalization efforts. Also, activists within the house of labor believe that direct financial ties to the U.S. government keep the organization from fully transforming its direction, especially in taking on a more adversarial role toward U.S. multinational interests.

The concern over the level of government influence on AFL-CIO foreign policy and programs has become so serious that trade unionists in California, through resolutions at their local AFL-CIO bodies, have asked for full disclosure of the amount of government funding the International Affairs Department receives. These demands have led to "Clean the Air" meetings where staff and elected leaders from the International Affairs Department are addressing these concerns with local unionists. The main question that AFL-CIO officials posed to trade unionists is whether the work can continue if public funding was not acquired. Will trade unions within the federation fund international work?

Independent Initiatives

As the AFL-CIO's role on global issues remains precarious and unpredictable, there are independent efforts among trade unionists that are forcing a more proactive and progressive stance on international issues.

The creation of the U.S. Labor Against the War has been one the most significant developments of the new social justice agenda of labor in decades. Trade unionists representing dozens of unions throughout the country have joined together to oppose the war on Iraq and the war on workers. Most recently the organization established relations with Iraqi trade unions, organized teachins and rallies involving thousands of union members, assembled a dossier of information on U.S. companies working in Iraq, and most recently sent a fact-finding delegation to Iraq. This work, independent of the AFL-CIO, helped expose the consequences of the war on terrorism on workers to a broad audience of union members, with the hope of building strong labor opposition to the occupation.

Another sign of hope is the role of the United Steelworkers of America (USWA) in the international campaign against Coca-Cola in Colombia. The USWA has helped file a lawsuit on behalf of workers in Colombia against the Coca-Cola Corporation for the murder and harassment of trade unionists in their Colombian plants. Significantly, the USWA was one of the most fervent advocates of American protectionists' policies in the '80s, and today they are helping fund a campaign that serves no immediate economic interest other than supporting a global justice agenda. The campaign has also been adopted by United Students Against Sweatshops as one of its major new campus projects. A coalition of students, unions, and social justice activists in Latin America and in the U.S. has launched the "Undrinkable, Unthinkable Coca-Cola" campaign. Many expect this to be another exciting chapter of the student-labor alliance during the anti-sweatshop movement.

And most recently, AFL-CIO members and anti-globalization activists stood side by side at anti-FTAA protests in Miami. The United Steel Workers of America is demanding a congressional investigation into police brutality during the protests, and the AFL-CIO, along with the ACLU, is launching a lawsuit against the City of Miami on behalf of protesters.

Demands for New Global Strategies

Even with these promising signs of labor's new turn, it's unrealistic to expect the AFL-CIO under its New Voices leadership to complete the course of institutional change anytime soon. There are more than 50 members of the AFL-CIO's executive council representing dozens of unions across the country and multiple stands on the spectrum of ideological beliefs. Many labor activists question whether an alignment of strategies with more militant unions around the globe can ever be achieved with this federation, given its sordid history and political murkiness.

But according to Katie Quan, former president of the International Lady Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) of San Francisco and current chair of the John F. Henning Center for International Labor Relations at UC-Berkeley, the organizing demands under globalization are urgent.

"In 1994, I went to Thailand to see the factories that were outsourced by our San Francisco companies. These plants were now doing the work our members did in San Francisco. Workers were not unionized and were making only a couple of dollars a day, though these garments sold for the same prices they did when the work was done in San Francisco. I spoke with the plant manager and he said that soon this factory would close because they can't compete with the Indonesians where labor costs are even lower. It was really clear to me that this is a global problem for all workers, and we need new global labor strategies to deal with this phenomenon."

Raahi Reddy is a union organizer and labor specialist at the U.C. Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education.
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Title Annotation:report; American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations
Author:Reddy, Raahi
Publication:Colorlines Magazine
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2004
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