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LABOR / Harry Bernstein

Unions Hope to Avoid Debating U.S. Policy

September 25, 1985|HARRY BERNSTEIN

In an unusual move, leaders of the AFL-CIO are sending out special "missions" across the country in an attempt to head off what could be the only acrimonious debate at the national AFL-CIO convention next month in Anaheim: differences over U.S. policies in Central America.

The convention will mark the 30th anniversary of the marriage of the conservative American Federation of Labor and the left-leaning Congress of Industrial Organizations.

Until the merger, and at times even afterward, America's unions fought each other almost as furiously as they battled employers and their political foes, quarreling with one another over issues ranging from political ideology and endorsements to battles over jurisdiction.

But, weaker than they have been in decades--because of, among other factors, a gradual shift in the nature of the nation's work force--unions today seem to feel that they cannot afford the luxury of inter-union struggles. In fact, organized labor today is acutely aware that its major foes are not within the movement but on the outside, from President Reagan to large corporations. And in many of those battles, the AFL-CIO is losing.

While union leaders still debate strategy and tactics on a variety of issues, they urgently seek consensus whenever possible. There are, nevertheless, some sharp differences among leaders of the federation these days over U.S. policies in Central America. And even those differences may be resolved before the convention begins as a result of meetings being held around the nation to discuss AFL-CIO foreign policy positions.

AFL-CIO staffers in the United States who deal with foreign policy questions have held meetings with union leaders in New York and Detroit and they will meet with others this weekend in Dallas to explain and "clarify" the sometimes confusing AFL-CIO policies on Nicaragua and El Salvador. A similar meeting will be held just before the convention in Anaheim.

One of the purposes of the meetings is to deal with the issues raised by the presidents of 20 of the largest AFL-CIO international unions (along with the leaders of such independent unions as the giant National Education Assn.) who have joined the National Labor Commmittee on El Salvador. The loosely knit commmittee has now enlarged its fact-finding activities to include Nicaragua.

So far, that committee has no formal resolutions to present to the AFL-CIO convention, but most of the individual unions and the Oregon AFL-CIO have already offered resolutions aimed at getting official AFL-CIO convention backing for their positions:

- Opposition to aid of any kind from the United States to the U.S.-backed contras , who are seeking to overthrow the Sandinista government in Nicaragua.

- More restrictions on U.S. aid to the government of El Salvador until there is more progress toward human rights, a complete end to right-wing "death squad" operations, more action on land reform and an overhaul of the judicial system.

AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland has said that he opposes aid to the Nicaraguan contras , but the official federation policy is unclear. By way of illustration, at the unusual union missions on foreign policy, William C. Doherty Jr., executive director of the AFL-CIO'S American Institute for Free Labor Development (AIFLD), has differed with Irving Brown, AFL-CIO foreign policy director, on just what stand the AFL-CIO is taking on Nicaragua.

And, although the AFL-CIO convention two years ago called for an end to military aid to El Salvador until progress is made on such issues as human rights, union leaders are still debating whether enough progress has been made in El Salvador to justify AFL-CIO support for continued U.S. military aid to that country.

Thus, there could well be heated debate on those questions at this year's convention unless compromise language can be found to please both the moderates in the AFL-CIO and the more impassioned anti-communists who often back President Reagan's position of violence, if necessary, to fight communists (as they define them) in Central America and elsewhere.

The close ties between Doherty's militantly anti-communist AIFLD and the U.S. government is evidenced by the fact that AIFLD gets almost all of its estimated $8-million annual budget from the U.S. government's Agency for International Development. AIFLD has offices in 16 countries around the world.

Ironically, Doherty, who has been leading AIFLD for 23 years, is the son of William Doherty, who was president of the National Assn. of Letter Carriers for 21 years. Today, that union is among those seeking a more liberal policy for the AFL-CIO in Central America.

But even the most fervent anti-communists, such as AIFLD's Doherty, are not likely to denounce their opponents as communists or communist sympathizers, something that might well have occured just a few years ago.

And the foreign policy debates, even if they do take place, will occupy only a portion of the convention time.

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