What the AFL-CIO is Doing in Russia
/* Written  2:25 pm  Mar 11, 1994 by kaskor@glas.apc.org in igc:reg.eeurope */
/* ---------- "AFL-CIO Activity in Russia" ---------- */
From: kaskor (Cyrill A. Buketov)
Subject: AFL-CIO Activity in Russia


#By Renfrey Clarke

#MOSCOW -- Few people in the international labour movement would 
deny that trade unions in rich countries have an obligation to help 
their counterparts in poorer nations, or in countries where labour 
organisations 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 organisers in Moscow. Funding has been provided for a research and 
education foundation in which US union activists and academic 
specialists in the field of labour relations collaborate with Russian 
colleagues in providing services to local unions. Money has even been 
found to pay the salaries of labour organisers working to set up new 
unions in provincial areas.
#It may therefore seem strange that among the organisations that 
make up the great bulk of the Russian labour 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 
labour 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 labour unions. Accepting the AFL-CIO's advice on strategy 
and tactics is like taking boxing lessons from a fighter who has 
suffered 50 knock-outs in 50 bouts. After dropping steadily over many 
years, the AFL-CIO's membership is now down to 14 million -- only 
around 10 per cent of the US workforce. 
#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 US$30 million a year -- almost half the AFL-CIO's 
total budget, and in strong contrast to the meagre $1.5 million a year 
the union federation reportedly spends on organising in the United 
#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 
channelled through the privately-run, extreme right-wing 
National Endowment for Democracy, while other sums are direct grants 
from the US federal budget via the US 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 labour 
movements the US 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 organisation 
(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 40.
#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 labour activists.
#The AFL-CIO-funded program "Organisers", 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 US mine operators and the US Mine Safety and Health 
Administration in a program to make Russian coal mines safer and more 
productive. Finally, last June saw the setting up of the AFL-CIO's 
most ambitious project in Russia: the Russian-American Foundation for 
Trade Union Research and Education.
#From the start, the AFL-CIO's operations in Russia have been highly 
``ideological''. Delo has a well-deserved reputation for being 
incapable of criticising 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 labour movement in Russia, 
the instrumentalities set up with AFL-CIO support have adopted a 
hostile and sectarian attitude toward the organisations that make up 
the great bulk of that movement. Of Russia's 72 million-strong 
workforce, somewhere between 50 and 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 democratisation has taken place in the FNPR. In one of 
the most important reforms, the old, highly centralised 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 labour organisation 
and struggle. Many officials who have failed these tests have been 
replaced in elections. The degree of renewal varies widely from union 
to union, and in few cases can the reform process be regarded as 
complete. 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 labour 
activists who split from the traditional union movement because of its 
lack of militancy in defending workers' rights, are among Russia's 
best-organised and most combative labour movement bodies; these 
include unions of coal miners and air traffic controllers. Among the 
other ``free'' unions, however, are some very strange organisations 
whose claim to be part of the labour movement is slender. Overall, the 
``free'' union movement is not especially vigorous, and does not 
appear to be growing. Several attempts to organise 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 
organisations 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 organisations, 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 organisation. 
It conducted training seminars, and lobbied the Russian press with 
articles and information putting 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 Organisers 
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 
Organisers 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 organisers 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 
Organisers 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 rumours. 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 fuelled 
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.
#The major bone of discord has been the Organisers 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 
organisers 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 organisers themselves. Meanwhile the 
Organisers program, as a favoured recipient of US funding and a rising 
centre 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 Organisers 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 `Organisers' 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 reorganised 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 labour 
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 US labour 
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 
privatisation 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 
#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 organisation 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 
labour opposition than he would otherwise have faced. 
#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 labour 
movement that have mainly benefited have not been those of the 
``civilised 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 
`liberalisation', to mass sackings and factory closures.''
#Neither Alekseev's union organisation 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 
#So far, however, few Russians are aware that the US government via 
the AFL-CIO is mounting a political intervention in their country's 
labour 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 labour organisation, the FNPR, where they 
might have done real damage.
#Nevertheless, the interests of labour activists in the US 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 demobilise the Russian labour 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 US 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, organisation and legal matters to any labour 
movement organisation that approached it. But with the AFL-CIO 
leadership as it is, and changes in the near future unlikely, labour 
activists in the US 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.