The AFL-CIO’s Mission to Moscow

Against the Current, No. 50, May/June 1994

Renfrey Clarke

Few in the international labor movement would deny that trade unions in rich countries have an obligation to help their counterparts in poorer nations, or in countries where labor organizations are having to be rebuilt after periods of dictatorship. On this score, the major US trade union body, the American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) might seem to be playing an exemplary role in Russia today.

For several years now the AFL-CIO has maintained an office and a team of organizers in Moscow. Funding has been provided for a research and education foundation in which U.S. union activists and academic specialists in the field of labor relations collaborate with Russian colleagues in providing services to local unions.

Money has even been found to pay the salaries of labor organizers working to set up new unions in provincial areas.

It may therefore seem strange that among the organizations that make up the great bulk of the Russian labor movement, the AFL-CIO’s operations have aroused undisguised anger. Even among the Russian unions that have worked most closely with the AFL-CIO, the American labor missionaries are viewed as a very mixed blessing. Letters have been sent by these unions to AFL-CIO headquarters in Washington, complaining bitterly about the way programs have been implemented.

This dissatisfaction, however, should not really be a source of surprise. While the AFL-CIO has an obligation to give practical help, it is sadly unqualified to issue recommendations on how to build labor unions. Accepting the AFL-CIO’s advice on strategy and tactics is like taking boxing lessons from a fighter who has suffered fifty knock-outs in fifty bouts. After dropping steadily over many years, the AFL-CIO’s membership is now down to 14 million — only around ten percent of the U.S. workforce.

Where Does the Money Come From?

Despite its failures at home, the AFL-CIO has an astonishing ability to fund assistance to foreign unions. This assistance is currently running at levels of $30 million a year — almost half the AFL-CIO’s total budget, and in strong contrast to the meager $1.5 million a year the union federation reportedly spends on organizing in the United States.

The paradox is explained by the fact that virtually all of the funds the AFL-CIO spends on international union assistance do not come from American unionists at all, but from the US government. Much of this money is channeled through the privately-run, extreme right-wing National Endowment for Democracy, while other sums are direct grants from the U.S. federal budget via the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Needless to say, the money has a political price. In order to keep the funds flowing, the AFL-CIO operatives in foreign countries have to strive to build the kind of national labor movements the U.S. government would want.

The AFL-CIO’s operation in Russia is clearly among the most extensive and best-funded of its foreign ventures. For several years now, official AFL-CIO representative in Russia Tom Bradley has been working in a well-equipped office in central Moscow. A recent leaflet issued by Bradley and detailing the activities of his organization (known formally as the Free Trade Union Institute, Moscow) lists a total of five non-Russian staff. The total number of Russian citizens employed by the institute and its programs is probably at least forty.

According to Bradley’s leaflet, the American trade unions have been among the financial supporters of the newspaper Delo, which began appearing early in 1993. Paying unusually well for stories despite having only a small print run, Delo concentrates on issues of interest to labor activists.

The AFL-CIO-funded program “Organizers,” now well established, has several dozen paid staff in major industrial regions and Moscow. In collaboration with Bradley’s institute, the American Federation of Teachers conducts seminars for Russian school teachers on the teaching of democracy and the role of teachers’ unions. The AFL-CIO is also a partner with U.S. mine operators and the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration in a program to make Russian coal mines safer and more productive. Finally, last June saw setting up of the AFL-CIO’s most ambitious project in Russia: the Russian-American Foundation for Trade Union Research and Education.

The Ideological Framework

From the start, the AFL-CIO’s operations in Russia have been highly “ideological.” Delo has a well-deserved reputation for being incapable of criticizing any word or deed of Russian President Boris Yeltsin. The fact that Yeltsin’s “reforms” have had a terrible cost for workers — the wiping out of savings by inflation, drastic cuts in real incomes, and now steeply rising unemployment — has not caused this support to waver.

Though supposedly aimed at developing the labor movement in Russia, the instrumentalities set up with AFL-CIO support have adopted a hostile and sectarian attitude toward the organizations that make up the great bulk of that movement. Of Russia’s 72 million-strong workforce, somewhere between 50-60 million people are members of the Federation of Independent Trade Unions of Russia (FNPR). However, the AFL-CIO rejects collaboration with FNPR member unions.

The reasoning behind this position is that the FNPR unions, as legal successors to the old Soviet-era bodies, are not genuine trade unions. But this is simply untrue. Since 1990 an important process of renovation and democratization has taken place in the FNPR. In one of the most important reforms, the old, highly centralized lines of authority within the federation have been broken; member unions now decide their own policies, with the FNPR’s leading bodies playing only a consultative and coordinating role.

Under pressure from increasingly demanding memberships, officials of the FNPR unions have had to learn the skills of labor organization and struggle. Many officials who have failed these tests have been replaced in elections. The degree of renewal varies widely from union to union. In few cases can the reform process be regarded as complete.

[Editor’s note: To get a feel for the complexity of the evolution of unions in Russia, we recommend to our readers, “The Crisis of Russian Labourism,” by Mikhail Tsovma, in Russian Labour Review 2.]

But it should be stressed that few of the AFL-CIO unions are models of democracy either. The leading bodies of the AFL-CIO, in particular, are much less democratic and responsive to rank-and-file sentiment than their extensively reformed FNPR counterparts. The last time an election was contested at an AFL-CIO convention was in 1965.

The real reasons for the AFL-CIO’s hostility toward the FNPR include knee-jerk cold war prejudice, and in recent times, the FNPR’s sharply critical attitude to Yeltsin. In September 1993 the leadership of the FNPR condemned the Russian president’s actions in disbanding the parliament and overthrowing the constitution. In its essentials, the FNPR’s response to Yeltsin’s coup was shared by most of Russia’s political parties.

Rejecting collaboration with the mass trade union movement in Russia, the AFL-CIO has instead sought to work with the “free” trade unions that operate outside the FNPR structures. Emerging since the late 1980s, the “free” unions have a combined membership of only a few hundred thousand people. A number of these unions, set up years ago by labor activists who split from the traditional union movement because of its lack of militancy in defending workers’ rights, are among Russia’s best-organized and most combative labor movement bodies; these include unions of coal miners and air traffic controllers.

Among the other “free” unions, however, are some very strange organizations whose claim to be part of the labor movement is slender. Overall, the “free” union movement is not especially vigorous, and does not appear to be growing. Several attempts to organize a federation of “free” unions have had little success.

With their origins among opponents of Communist Party rule, the “free” unions have mostly given support to Yeltsin, though some have broken with him and embraced extreme nationalist positions. In recent times, this support for the Russian president has created major strains within the “free” union movement. For unions that arose as organizations of militants, there are obvious contradictions in backing a presidential administration that attacks jobs and seeks to justify long delays in the payment of wages.

As small and relatively poor organizations, the “free” unions badly need the research, training and legal assistance the AFL-CIO can provide. Furnishing this help is the task of the Russian-American Foundation for Trade Union Research and Education, the only one of the AFL-CIO’s initiatives in Russia that can be said, even in a highly qualified sense, to have played a useful and positive role. During the second half of last year, the foundation published four books, and began preparing manuals on practical questions of union organization. It conducted training seminars, and lobbied the Russian press with articles and information presenting the case of “free” unions involved in disputes.

Access to this assistance, however, has been limited to non-FNPR unions. The rigidity of this political apartheid is striking. A document explaining the activities of the foundation, for example, explains that its experts “write in local newspapers about violations of the rights of free trade unions.” Presumably, the foundation’s officials are unperturbed by attacks on the rights of unions which they do not consider “free.”

Far more controversial has been the AFL-CIO funded Organizers program. This was set up not in order to help existing unions, but with the aim of founding new ones. Meanwhile, the prospective members of the new unions are almost all members of existing union bodies. As a concerted membership poaching operation, the program has drawn protests both from the FNPR and from “free” unions.

In Yekaterinburg in the Urals, a report by the head of the Organizers program states, “dozens” of new unions have been established. In the Komi Republic in the north of European Russia, the program has helped set up five new unions, as well as a regional “free” union association. The five organizers employed in the Komi Republic are paid salaries of as much as US$400 a month. This is not a particularly large sum in the West, but very handsome earnings in Russia, where the top government salary — that of President Yeltsin — is currently worth $290. Needless to say, going to work for the Organizers program is a tempting prospect for union activists on tiny wages.

Whether the AFL-CIO also helps with the salary bills of the “free” unions has not so far been independently confirmed, despite a wealth of rumors. Still, it is known that Moscow staffers of the “free” Independent Union of Miners (NPG) have continued receiving generous salaries during recent months when large numbers of rank-and-file union members have been close to starvation, their wages unpaid.

Are the AFL-CIO’s operations in Russia proving successful, even in terms of their own — distinctly peculiar — set of goals and priorities? In at least two cases, these programs have fueled extremely sharp disputes within “free” trade union circles, to the point where any gains for the AFL-CIO and its strategies have probably been negated.

How the Organizers Organize

The major bone of discord has been the Organizers program, where hopes that the training and support of selected activists would help create a large and diverse social base for the “free” union movement have so far been illusory. To justify their salaries, the local organizers have to found unions, but it does not necessarily follow that these unions amount to more than small groups of friends and political associates of the organizers themselves.

Meanwhile the Organizers program, as a favored recipient of U.S. funding and a rising center of bureaucratic influence, has caused leaders of the “free” trade unions acute anxiety. This has been the case especially since staff members of the program, at a seminar late last year, decided to set up an Association of Free Trade Unions of Russia, which quickly attracted further funding from the AFL-CIO.

For Sotsprof, one of the more substantial and independently-based of the “free” trade unions, these developments were intolerable. Sotsprof leader Sergei Khramov wrote to AFL-CIO headquarters in Washington demanding the sacking of Organizers head Viktor Utkin. “Without any consultations with the leaders of the free Russian trade unions,” Khramov’s letter complains, Utkin “declared the founding of a new trade union federation involving no one except a few staff members of his `Organizers’ program.” According to Khramov, Utkin’s actions and his possession of “a substantial grant” threatened the unity of “the real trade union movement” in Russia.

Khramov’s letter also pointed to major problems within the Russian-American Foundation for Trade Union Research and Education. The Sotsprof leader called for the foundation to be reorganized under a new leadership based on the heads of the “free” trade unions. The foundation, he charged, was “preoccupied with internal squabbles and with distributing among [its] leaders funds assigned by the Americans as aid to the trade unions.”

The problems besetting the AFL-CIO’s programs, of course, have roots far deeper than the opportunism and venality of staffers and the rivalry of dependent unions fighting for the aid dollar. The basic obstacle faced by the AFL-CIO operatives in Russia is the fact that their whole approach to trade unionism — that of subordinating labor struggles to “social partnership,” and of constructing bureaucratically-run pro-business unions in which real rank-and-file democracy is stifled — is useless for defending workers. It has been useless in the United States, and it is proving doubly useless in the far harsher conditions of Russia.

To rank-and-file unionists demanding serious action to win the payment of wages and protection against inflation, the U.S. labor emissaries habitually reply with warnings that (to quote Bradley’s leaflet) “the old communist unions still exist and are still powerful, controlling vast assets and resources, and are seeking a return to power.” When pinned down on economic questions, the AFL-CIO representatives can do little more than mumble assurances that privatization and the market, as preached by Gaidar and the International Monetary Fund, will soon begin working their magic.

Not even Russia’s capitalists, by and large, believe this line any more. Among workers, the response is overwhelmingly scornful. Nevertheless, the leaders of “free” trade unions are very reluctant to break with the AFL-CIO’s strategies. Such a shift would raise serious questions of why these unions remain in isolation from the broad trade union movement. Also, one cannot help suspecting that at least some of these union leaders have personal material interests at stake.

It should come as no surprise that the “free” trade union movement is now suffering from extreme internal tensions. These were clearly visible during the weeks leading up to the massive coal industry strike on March 1. Rank-and-file pressure forced an obviously reluctant NPG leadership in Moscow to support this action, which was initiated by the FNPR coal industry union. But the NPG leaders drew the line at endorsing the demand, raised widely by miners’ strike committees, that the government resign and that Yeltsin call early presidential elections. The local NPG organization in the Vorkuta coal basin in the far north of European Russia then adopted a motion of no confidence in the all-Russian leadership, and for some time the “free” coal union was reputedly on the verge of splitting.

The fact of outside support for a rival union movement, however small and ineffectual that movement might be, has arguably forced the FNPR apparatus to accept reforms and lead struggles it would otherwise have shunned. Ironically, the net impact of the AFL-CIO’s blunderings has probably been to present Yeltsin with a more active and resolute labor opposition than he would otherwise have faced.

Ammunition for the Ultra-Nationalists

It would be wrong, however, to regard the AFL-CIO intervention in Russia as perversely beneficial despite the intentions of those who mounted it. To the extent that Russian workers have reacted against the AFL-CIO’s presence and activities, the currents in the labor movement that have mainly benefitted have not been those of the “civilized left” — which remains small and weak — but of the anti-Yeltsin ultra-nationalist right.

During January, for example, the Confederation of Free Trade Unions of Russia, a small formation headed by nationalist ideologue Alexander Alekseev, won publicity with a declaration calling for a boycott of “the AFL-CIO `teachers’ from across the ocean, whose actions are intended to harm the national interests of Russia.” The declaration denounced “’trade union’ activity in which the workers, instead of fighting for their rights, adhere blindly to the course of American policies in our country, that is, close their eyes to Gaidar-style `liberalization,’ to mass sackings and factory closures.”

Neither Alekseev’s union organization nor his “National-Social Party of Workers of Russia” are significant players on the Russian political stage. But it is disturbing to note that the AFL-CIO programs in Russia provide a good deal of unintended ammunition that could readily be used by larger and more dangerous ultra-nationalist currents.

So far, however, few Russians are aware that the U.S. government via the AFL-CIO is mounting a political intervention in their country’s labor movement. The impact of the AFL-CIO’s activities in Russia remains almost negligible, largely because the cold war manias of the AFL-CIO leadership have prevented its operatives in Russia from moving in on the country’s mass labor organization, the FNPR, where they might have done real damage.

Nevertheless, the interests of labor activists in the United States have definitely been harmed by what the AFL-CIO leadership is doing in Russia. Among large numbers of Russian worker activists, the American unions now have a foul reputation for attempting to suborn union leaders, to split and demobilize the Russian labor movement, and to subordinate it to government policies that have already brought large numbers of workers to hunger and destitution.

Ideally, the AFL-CIO would reject its U.S. government funding — which comes at unacceptable political cost — and restructure its operations in Russia on a more modest basis, offering practical help with research, training, organization and legal matters to any labor movement organization that approached it. But with the AFL-CIO leadership as it is, and changes in the near future unlikely, labor activists in the United States might well decide that the best way they can help their Russian counterparts is to demand that the AFL-CIO shut down its operations in Russia entirely.

ATC 50, May-June 1994