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." ANOTHER VIETNAM? 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. FIRST LABOR DELEGATION 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. 1987 MOBILIZATION 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.