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AFL-CIO Should Formalize Its East Bloc Contacts

November 14, 1989|HARRY BERNSTEIN

WASHINGTON — There will be no dissenting cries when union representatives from across the United States tumultuously cheer Polish union leader Lech Walesa as one of their own today at the national AFL-CIO convention.

The jubilance of the American union leaders over Solidarity's success and their own important role in it has understandably drowned out the continuing debate within their ranks about a foreign policy stand that was adopted decades ago by the implacably anti-communist AFL-CIO: no contacts with leaders of unions that are controlled by the governments of communist countries or any other dictatorial nations on the left or right.

At the insistance of the AFL-CIO, its "no contact" policy has been adopted by both Democratic and Republican administrations. But it still faces strong opposition within the federation itself, and several of America's largest unions don't abide by it.

The trouble with the rigid policy is that it discourages useful union-to-union exchanges that have become so common at the governmental level, between organizations in science, medicine, business and especially the arts.

However, there will be no debate of the issue at this year's convention, the theme of which is labor solidarity at home and throughout the world.

Those who have defied the policy and made their own contacts with unions in communist countries are wisely avoiding a convention fight over the question.

They want unanimous support for what AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland says is a "new spirit of global solidarity among the workers of the world (that) has placed trade unionism at the head of the movement for democracy and human rights."

The "no contact" policy was set forth unequivocally more than three decades ago by then-AFL-CIO President George Meany and was continued unswervingly by his successor, Kirkland.

The two men, backed by a majority of leaders of the AFL-CIO's affiliated unions, insisted that an unjustifiable impression of support is given to undemocratic, government-controlled unions when their leaders meet even informally with union leaders from democratic countries.

That impression, it is argued, helps perpetuate the government-controlled puppet unions because they take on an aura of respectability when they associate--seemingly as equals--with unions from Western nations.

But the counter-argument is more persuasive: American unions can help spread word of the advantages of democracy by exchanging views with leaders of those government-run unions, especially in the disintegrating Soviet Bloc. Such promising efforts are worth the minimal risk of lending legitimacy to government-run unions. There are exceptions, and sometimes concentrating only on dissidents is the best way to go. Poland is a good example of a successful effort by U.S. unions to provide enormous help to dissidents like Solidarity while ignoring unions run by the old government.

With considerable justification, AFL-CIO leaders this week are unabashedly declaring that since 1981, their 14-million-member organization with its 90 affiliated unions has been the world's prime monetary and moral backer of the indomitable Walesa.

Clearly, U.S. labor's support was of enormous help to Walesa and the Solidarity union movement that he led to power in Poland, thereby ending the totalitarian rule of the country's communist government.

The federation's crucial role as a supporter of Solidarity has been largely ignored in the media, in part because much of it was played out quietly or in secret. And until now, no one in the anti-union administrations of either Reagan or Bush wanted to give American unions credit for anything, even for helping end communist rule in Poland.

That is being partially rectified this week by the highly visible Walesa as he publicly thanks the U.S. labor movement during his visits here and in New York, Chicago, Philadelphia and other cities. Bush might like his and the Reagan Administrations to get credit for the role that this country played in the Polish revolution, but American unions were more useful to Solidarity.

It will be interesting to see if any of the admiration that Americans feel for Walsea and Solidarity rubs off on U.S. unions whose fortunes have been flagging so badly in recent years even as they helped boost dissident union activities not only in Poland but also in 40 other totalitarian countries around the world.

Kirkland gives little credit even to Mikhail Gorbachev's glasnost for the political upheaval going on in the Soviet Union and in Eastern bloc nations. He maintains that the natural impulse of workers to have freedom has been "the animating spirit of democracy--and its ultimate hope."

But the AFL-CIO certainly aided that impulse in Poland. It provided more than $5 million worth of the critical tools of today's revolutions such as laptop computers, offset presses, police-band radio scanners and copying machines, none of which was available to the dissidents in Poland.

U.S. labor help on a lesser scale is also going to dissident unions in Hungary, some other Eastern bloc nations and to some within the Soviet Union and anti-communist countries with repressive regimes such as Chile and South Africa.

The AFL-CIO deserves far more credit than it has received for supporting democracy abroad, especially where it has been able to find democratically oriented organizations already functioning to some degree, as Solidarity was in Poland in 1981.

But that success should not discourage the efforts of many U.S. unions to end the AFL-CIO's "no contact" policy. Where there is no nucleus of dissent for them to encourage, then American unions should at least talk to officers of the government-run unions, encouraging them to practice democracy.

With Gorbachev's glasnost, exchanges of views between leaders of American unions and even officials of government-controlled ones in the Soviet Union can only help to encourage freedom.

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