Few people know the full extent of the role that the AFL-CIO is playing in the political life of Central America, particularly in El Salvador. U.S. unionists were a major factor there in helping Jose Napoleon Duarte win the 1984 presidential election.
The union leaders are sharply divided over what their role should be in that strife-torn part of the world. But the division, while perhaps diminishing the effectiveness of their efforts, is a healthy sign that the passionately anti-communist policies that had for so long dominated the AFL-CIO have been replaced by more reasoned debate.
That doesn't mean, of course, that any of the AFL-CIO unions are pro-communist. Without exception, they oppose communism. But they no longer walk almost in lock step behind the most conservative elements within the labor federation.
For example, some of the largest unions here are vigorously opposed to President Reagan's fervent backing of Nicaraguan contras who are trying to overthrow the Nicaraguan government by force, while other unions support the contras. But the AFL-CIO itself, while denouncing the Sandinista government, said in a recent resolution that "unfortunately, the Reagan Administration continues to place emphasis on a military rather than a political solution" and called for a "negotiated settlement rather than a military victory" in both El Salvador and Nicaragua.
There is more bitterness, however, in the current debate over the role of U.S. unions in El Salvador. In 1984, unions both in this country and El Salvador united behind Duarte. To assist him, the AFL-CIO helped create a labor alliance in El Salvador known as the Popular Democratic Union (UPD), backed by liberal and conservative unionists in both countries.
It was set up primarily through the American Institute for Free Labor Development (AIFLD), an arm of the AFL-CIO formed in 1962 to help encourage moderate trade unionism throughout Central America. (Most of AIFLD's income, which last year totaled nearly $20 million, comes from the U.S. government.)
But a few months ago, several leaders of the UPD in El Salvador began denouncing Duarte. They protested his U.S.-backed economic austerity program that came down hard on Salvadoran workers and his insistance that, while he still favors "honest dialogue" with Salvadoran rebels, now is not the time for further negotiations to end the civil war in that country.
Infuriated by the criticism of Duarte, AIFLD--the AFL-CIO agency--denounced the alliance that it had helped to create and withdrew its financial support.
Then AIFLD charged in a news conference held in Washington on April 30 that the "discord" plaguing relations between Salvadoran unions and Duarte was actually caused "in part by a secret campaign organized by Marxist-Leninist guerrillas using several union collaborators." The U.S. organization based its accusation on what it said was a document captured from a Salvadoran guerrilla leader.
So AIFLD joined Duarte in setting up yet another labor alliance to back the Salvadoran president, one not "tainted" by those suspected of being influenced by Marxist-Leninists.
However, liberal leaders of some of the largest U.S. unions are ridiculing what some of them call the hysteria of their ardently anti-communist colleagues. They say that fear of a left-wing takeover has paralyzed AIFLD and its Salvadoran allies, preventing them from taking any constructive steps to end the civil war there and help the country gain some economic stability.
The liberal U.S. unionists are now assisting a competing--and apparently broad-based--labor coalition that includes moderate Salvadoran unions that once backed Duarte and more militant unions that see him as a front for the U.S. government.
Actually, there are many similarities in the arguments of U.S. union leaders on both sides. For instance, William Doherty, AIFLD's executive director, says Salvadoran unions must continue to press for military and judicial reform as a top priority.
Anti-Duarte guerrillas will continue to be helped, he says, "as long as Salvadoran citizens are subjected to arbitrary detention, physical abuse and psychological torture by police and security agents, (and) high-ranking military officials and members of the oligarchy are allowed to go unpunished for murder and death-squad activities."
But Doherty still insists that Duarte represents El Salvador's best hope because the greater danger comes from the threat of "the armed imposition of a Marxist-Leninist system."
Similarly, the liberal U.S. unions--which include most of the largest ones--say that not nearly enough is being done by Duarte to live up to his promise to try to end the civil war and bring about judicial, military and economic reforms.
But they also argue that, as Jack Sheinkman, secretary-treasurer of the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union, put it, "to continually put the problems in Central America in a Marxist-Leninist context ignores the real problems of that country."