Labor Takes the Field
Labor Takes The Field

Dave Dyson details the trade union contribution to El
Salvador solidarity activism.

     During the great national debate on the war in Vietnam,
the official voice of the U.S. labor movement was strangely
silent. Unlike its European or Latin American counterparts,
the AFL-CIO had long since purged itself of its progressive
and radical elements. What remained was a fiercely
conservative Washington-based bureaucracy sitting atop a
diverse federation of national unions with a shadowy
alliance with the U.S. intelligence community. While debate
on the war raged at dinner tables and town meetings across
the country, the AFL-CIO stood firm. The defining moment
came when Manhattan building trades hard hats beat up a
group of peace demonstrators on the steps of the New York
Stock Exchange.
     An increasing number of middle-level officials in
affiliated unions were uncomfortable with the AFL-CIO
position. They were coming to leadership positions in the
early 1970s when their children were coming to draft or
protest age. For them the question of patriotism was more
complex and the reality of the war more disturbing. In the
end, a handful of national unions took brave stands against
the war. Most local attempts were few and far flung and fell
instant victim to internal union "discipline."
     By the end of the 1970s the creeping signs of U.S.
intervention in Central America were plain enough. The
Sandinista revolution in previously occupied Nicaragua set
off alarm bells much as the Cuban Revolution had done in the
late 1950s. Popular insurgencies were gaining strength in
Guatemala and El Salvador. Fidel Castro appeared with
Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega on the review stand in
Managua. In tiny El Salvador death squads murdered the
archbishop, the U.S. nuns. Ronald Reagan was elected
president as oligarchs shot their guns off in the air across
Central America. U.S. military aid poured into the region
followed by "military advisors." The title of an early,
independent documentary asked the question, "El Salvador:
Another Vietnam?"
     As the question burned deeper, a group of "young turks"
in New York City, far from the AFL-CIO headquarters in
Washington, formed the New York Labor Committee in Support
of Democracy and Human Rights in El Salvador. As New Yorkers
are always forming committees, the event was viewed with
little alarm. Early activity was largely educational with
slide shows and speakers in union halls after hours. But
little by little the work began to strike a nerve. Local
union leadership showed increasing interest as the U.S.
involvement in the region grew. The AFL-CIO was concerned
enough to send William Doherty, Jr., the director of the
American Institute for Free Labor Development (AIFLD), the
foreign policy arm of the federation in Latin American, to a
meeting of the committee where the issue of military aid to
El Salvador was to be debated. The meeting was held in the
board room of the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers
Union (ACTWU) and was chaired by Sol Stetin, former
president of the Textile Workers Union and now executive
vice president of ACTWU, and Henry Foner of the Furriers
Union. Doherty held forth with a bombastic defense of the
Reagan policy and then was asked to leave the room. The
committee voted to oppose military aid to El Salvador.
     By 1981, Central America and the work of the New York
Committee was starting to attract the attention of some
national trade union leaders. In the summer of 1981, Jack
Sheinkman, then Secretary-Treasurer of the ACTWU, called me
into his office to ask if I thought a committee on a
national level was possible. At the time I was the director
of ACTWU's Union Label Department, responsible for special
projects and campaigns, usually of a confrontational nature.
Through this work we had developed a national network of
progressive unionists and supporters. I told Sheinkman a
national committee could work only if the national
presidents supported us fully, even when the going got
rough. The stakes were high. Foreign policy was considered
the exclusive domain of the AFL-CIO and AIFLD. To form an
independent committee would signal serious opposition to the
AFL-CIO's pro-intervention policies, something rarely, if
ever, done.
     Jack Sheinkman contacted Doug Fraser, then president of
the United Auto Workers, and William Winpisinger, president
of the Machinists Union, and asked them to co-chair the
committee with him. The National Labor Committee in Support
of Democracy and Human Rights in El Salvador (NLC) was
formed, with AFSCME (state, county and city employees), OCAW
(oil, chemical and atomic energy workers), UFW (farm
workers), GCIU (graphic communications), ICWU (chemical
industry workers), Molders, IUE (electrical industry
workers), BCTWU (bakery workers), NEA (teachers, non-AFL-
CIO), and myself as the only staff person. Like the local
New York committee the early work was largely educational
with the first major action in 1982 being a quarter-page ad
in the New York Times opposing military aid to El Salvador.
     By 1983 the National Labor Committee was growing and it
became clear that it could not play a credible role in the
national debate merely by sending out mailings and
commenting on the news. So the first delegation of union
presidents and staff to El Salvador was organized in 1983.
While in the country the delegation followed an itinerary
which would become routine: meeting with unionists who were
under siege, visiting work sites, meeting with U.S.
officials at the embassy, meeting with the military, touring
the countryside. While on this first trip, the delegation
members learned that the war in Central America was more
than a human rights situation. U.S. companies like Levi-
Strauss, Kimberly Clark, and Bali had moved to the region,
lured by the promise of "free trade zones," armed opposition
to unions, and starvation wages. Workers in the U.S. were
losing their jobs to Third World enclaves in Central
America, where workers earned, on average, 60 cents an hour.
When they resisted or organized, Salvadoran unionists were
imprisoned, assassinated, or disappeared.
     During the first delegation, the U.S. union leaders
received a rare pass to visit Mariona Prison on the
outskirts of San Salvador. While inside they met Hector
Bernabe Recinos, a charismatic young union leader from the
hydro-electrical workers union (STECEL) who, along with
eight of his executive board members, had been in prison for
three years without charge or trial because of a work
stoppage. Most of the "political prisoners" who went into
Mariona did not come out. If they did, they were eventually
hunted down by the "death squads" which by 1983 roamed the
Salvadoran countryside with virtual impunity. Amid Recinos'
brave and principled testimony was the realization that this
could be the end for him and his comrades. Only pressure
from outside the country could help them now.
     The NLC delegation returned from the trip and
immediately organized a campaign to free Hector Recinos and
the STECEL 9. By now, local versions of the New York
Committee were springing up around the country among trade
union activists. Unions in Europe and Scandinavia were
starting to take an interest. The components of an
international "defense network" were starting to take shape.
A report was written by the delegation on the trip which was
endorsed by all the member unions of the NLC. Special
material was produced on the STECEL 9 case and national
unions and local committees were mobilized to put pressure
on the Salvadoran government and the U.S. State Department.
Recinos' sons were brought to the U.S. by the Children of
War project, toured the country and appeared on nationally
televised talk shows. After nine months of work and at a
particularly sensitive point in discussions about refunding
the U.S. military program, Salvadoran president Duarte
announced at the United Nations that Recinos and the other
eight would finally be released.
     Celebration quickly gave way to concern as NLC members
realized that the life expectancy for released prisoners was
often less than 48 hours. In some ways the STECEL men were
safer in prison. Recinos and the STECEL men would have to
leave El Salvador and leave it quickly.
     Even before the release, I flew to El Salvador with UAW
staffer Don Stillman. Talks were under way with the Canadian
and Mexican governments about accepting the STECEL 9 as
political refugees, but soon broke down. The last hope
seemed to be the Dutch, whose ambassador for the regime flew
up from Costa Rica to meet with us. The Netherlands had a
liberal policy on political exiles and the government had
been critical of the human rights abuses and the U.S. policy
of supporting the military. Finally, a deal was cut and the
Red Cross took the men in a tenuous middle-of-the-night
caravan to the airport where the STECEL workers and some 30
family members boarded a plane to Holland. This was to be
the first of many such campaigns waged by the NLC: some
successful, and some tragically not.
     More delegations followed; testimony before Congress;
the establishment of "sister union" relationships; heated
debate at AFL-CIO conventions; the further growth and
development of the local committees; the growth to 21
national unions in the NLC; the addition of Nicaragua and
the "contra" issue to the NLC agenda; the touring of Central
American trade unionists; and even some international trips
to gain support from foreign unions.
     By 1986 it was clear that the labor side of anti-
intervention work had advanced faster and farther than
anyone had thought possible. The swift and strong inclusion
of some large and progressive AFL-CIO unions in the NLC
(Auto Workers, Machinists, Municipal Workers, Electrical
Workers, Clothing and Textile Workers, Service Employees,
etc.) dissuaded the Federation from any formal punitive
action despite the fact that they worked furiously behind
the scenes against the Committee. National attention was
focused on the guerrilla war in El Salvador and the "contra"
war in Nicaragua. Many sectors of U.S. society had joined
the debate. Lines were being drawn around a new request by
the Reagan administration to re-fund the contras in 1987.
     A conference was called of anti-intervention leadership
at a Machinists Union retreat center in September 1986. As I
rode down to a meeting with David Reed, the executive
director of the Coalition for a New Foreign Policy, we
discussed the state of the "movement." Although there had
been communication and some cooperation between labor,
religious, solidarity and student groups, what was missing
was a nationwide, unified effort that could put tens of
thousands of people in the streets, probably in Washington,
D.C. It was true that CISPES had called several Washington
demonstrations in the 1980s, but because of the limits of
their network and their explicit pro-FMLN stance, position,
the demonstrations had averaged between 25,000 and 35,000
people. After CISPES would issue the "call" to a
demonstration, they would then have to scramble to collect
endorsements from national religious and labor leaders who
were either too militant or too angry to let the FMLN
connection bother them. For most religious and labor leaders
the FMLN connection was a problem. While clearly "anti-
interventionist" in their own positions and while supporting
a "negotiated settlement" to the war in El Salvador, they
were not ready to throw personal or institutional support
behind a military victory for the FMLN. David Reed and I
felt that there had to be some way for these "mainstream"
anti-intervention forces to participate in a national
demonstration if we were to kick the movement up into the
next "gear" and include some of the large memberships and
larger resources that these groups could bring to bear. At
the conference Reed and I proposed that we reverse the
"formula" of the previous CISPES demonstrations and invite
the solidarity groups to participate. Congress was gearing
up for a fight on contra aid in the spring, so we set a
tentative date of April 25, 1987 of a national mobilization
in Washington, and set out from the conference to see
whether or not we could talk anybody, including the
solidarity groups, into it.
     A steering committee was formed that, for the first
time, included representatives from national trade unions
and national religious organizations at the same table with
the solidarity groups. It was clear from the outset that
most of the political and philosophical concessions would
have to come from the solidarity organizations. In exchange
for support and participation from major unions and church
groups, the thrust of the "call" would have to reflect "no
military aid" to El Salvador and "no aid to the contras"
instead of solidarity with the FMLN and the Sandinistas.
This would mean instead of a Sandinista speaker, the speaker
would be a Nicaraguan priest; instead of an FMLN speaker the
speaker would be women from the Mothers of the Disappeared
in El Salvador. Early on in the discussions everyone decided
that the demonstration was too "white" and that many of the
unionists who were hopefully coming to Washington in buses
were not. After long, and often heated, debate, the issue of
U.S. policy toward Southern Africa was added to the call. A
civil disobedience action was also added for CIA
headquarters in Langley, Virginia.
     Organizing and planning for the demonstration went on
for months. As money was raised, a staff was hired and a
parallel effort sprang up for a demonstration in San
Francisco on the same date. For the first time since the war
in Vietnam, a real working relationship developed between
the various national sectors. The negotiations over the
wording of the official "call," the program for the event
itself, and the financing and administration of the
mobilization were very difficult and sometimes threatened to
rip the coalition asunder. Ultimately the "prize," the
prospect of a larger, more mainstream effort, one that would
be taken more seriously by Congress, prevailed.
     On April 25, 1987, despite a driving, freezing rain,
more than 100,000 people, from all over the country, marched
from the Ellipse, south of the White House, to the steps of
the U.S. Capitol. They were met by actor Ed Asner, who
served as emcee. They listened to Rev. Jesse Jackson and
representatives from the African National Congress. They
listened to Ken Blaylock, president of the Government
Employees, speak for labor, and Bishop Thomas Gumbleton from
Detroit speak for the churches. They listened to Eleanor
Smeal, president of NOW and Russell Means of the American
Indian Movement. They listened to a Nicaraguan priest and
the Mothers of the Disappeared from El Salvador. They
listened to Jackson Browne; Holly Near; Peter, Paul and
Mary; and the Stetasonics, a rap group.
     Thirty-five thousand of the 100,000 were trade
unionists, an element missing in previous demonstrations.
Over 110 buses of union members came from New York City
alone. The route of the march came near to the national AFL-
CIO headquarters and for the first time in memory the
building was closed on a Saturday and was surrounded by
private security guards to "protect" the federation from its
own members.
     The contra vote was postponed until the following fall.
The Reagan proposal for funding was finally defeated,
prompting Oliver North and George Bush to go to bizarre and
illegal lengths to fuel the Nicaraguan war. But the labor,
religious, and solidarity groups were never again to
cooperate as successfully as they did on April 25. Many of
the solidarity groups felt they had conceded too much. Many
of the union presidents were shaken by the attempts of the
AFL-CIO to coerce them into withdrawing their support for
the demonstration (none did). Many local groups were
exhausted and nearly bankrupt by the eight months of work it
took to produce the mobilization.
     In many ways it was the beginning of the end for large-
scale U.S. intervention in Central America. The mobilization
showed the Congress and permanent government in Washington
that opposition to U.S. policy was no longer confined to a
small core of activists or Central America specialists, but
had spilled over to working people, people of faith, people
of color, people whose patience and patriotism had a limit.