Lane Kirkland's Legacy

The New York Sun By Arch Puddington

With the certification of Viktor Yuschenko as president, an important chapter in Ukrainian democracy has come to a successful conclusion. Should Mr. Yuschenko deliver on his promises to institutionalize press freedom, the rule of law, and other reforms, Ukraine will join the formerly communist countries of Central Europe as stable democracies and thus contribute to the remarkable transformation of a region that many once wrote off as culturally and geographically unsuited to freedom.

The consolidation of Ukrainian freedom is also a tribute to the modern democracy movement - the policy of America and other free societies to encourage, stimulate, and support the forces of freedom where dictators, juntas, and politburos hold sway.

If there is an event that can be said to have launched the democracy movement, it was the rise of the Solidarity trade union in Poland in 1980. And if there is a figure who it can be said inspired American support of the movement, it would be Lane Kirkland, the president of the AFL-CIO and America's foremost labor leader of the time.

The Polish events began with a strike by workers on the Baltic seacoast that quickly spread throughout other regions, until the country's communist authorities were faced with a general strike. The party leadership, in a weakened state, was compelled to agree to the establishment of a union that was controlled by its members and did not function as an instrument of communist control at the workplace.

Kirkland immediately grasped the historic significance of the party's recognition of Solidarity. He announced the establishment of an American trade union fund to assist Solidarity and urged trade unions in Europe to do the same.

In the recent series of elections in Ukraine, America's efforts to ensure an honest ballot drew sharp criticism from certain quarters. Likewise, Kirkland had his detractors 25 years ago. In the case of Ukraine, the critics came principally from the left and right margins, from Patrick Buchanan, a one-time Cold Warrior who now believes Ukraine is part of Russia's legitimate sphere of influence, to the Nation, which predictably frets over American imperialism.

By contrast, those who opposed Kirkland's steps on behalf of Solidarity came right from the midst of the American foreign policy elite. In diplomatic circles, a consensus view prevailed that the Soviets were determined to thwart all challenges to their domination of Eastern Europe and that anti-communist movements like Solidarity were doomed to fail. The foreign policy establishment also believed that the West should refrain from giving assistance to forces who posed a threat to the East European status quo, on the grounds that Western "intervention" would provide Moscow with a pretext for military response. Kirkland, however, flatly rejected the proposition that aid from Western trade unions would provoke official repression or a Soviet invasion.

Despite its stated policy to advance human rights, the Carter administration begged Kirkland to abandon the assistance effort. After failing to persuade Kirkland, Secretary of State Edmund Muskie issued a statement to the Soviets stressing that labor's project did not have the support of the American government. Meanwhile, Flora Lewis, a New York Times columnist whose writings reflected the foreign policy establishment's perspective of the moment, called labor's plans "most unfortunate," and, incredibly, compared Kirkland's actions to a putative Soviet decision to support New York transit workers (a transit strike had recently been broken by May or Koch).

Soon enough, the communist bloc press ignited a drumbeat of criticism aimed at Kirkland and the federation. The more sophisticated arguments were voiced by anonymous "moderates" within the Polish party in discussion with Western correspondents. Regime figures praised the restraint of the American government; in contrast, they criticized the AFL-CIO's initiatives as acts of "interference" that might have the effect of emboldening hard-liners within the party. The Polish press agency, or PAP, published a more vituperative commentary; it condemned the AFLCIO for its "rabid anti-socialist program" and accused American labor of trying "to intrude on the new Polish trade union with a line of action that is inimical to the Polish sociopolitical system and Poland's alliances." Not to be outdone, Tass denounced "trade union bosses in America" for "exerting every effort to support subversive, anti-social forces in Poland."

Once it became clear that Kirkland would not be dissuaded, administration officials suggested that if an aid campaign were to be established, it be done through clandestine channels. Kirkland regarded this as ironic, given the criticism directed at labor over past international projects that, it was alleged, were financed by the CIA.

Aid would be given; it would be done openly and transparently; and Solidarity, and not American labor, would determine how the aid was to be used. These were the principles that governed the AFL-CIO's Polish workers' assistance project from the creation of Solidarity until the 1989 election that swept the communists from power and triggered the collapse of European communism.

With the Polish project as a model, Kirkland moved to create mechanisms that would enshrine democracy promotion as a permanent feature of American diplomacy. He was a leading figure in the formation of the National Endowment for Democracy, an agency that provides grants to freedom's advocates in dictatorships and later poured resources into freedom campaigns in the Soviet Union, South Africa, and Chile.

Much has changed in the intervening years. After his retirement in 1995, the AFL-CIO reorganized its international affairs program; today it does not seek to play a prominent role in the cutting-edge freedom struggles around the world, focusing its attention internationally on trade and the anti-globalization movement.

On the other hand, Kirkland's hope that democracy promotion would be embraced as a priority by the American government has been realized. To be sure, the application of democracy criteria is often inconsistent, and policies often fall short of administration rhetoric. In Ukraine, however, it was the American government, the OSCE, and the European Union - including its new member, Poland - that supported election monitoring efforts, and it was Secretary of State Powell who spoke out when the critics asserted that what had happened amounted to, as a British newspaper put it, an "American coup."

Self-effacing to a fault, Kirkland never sought personal credit for his role in spreading freedom, though he did insist that his institution, American labor, get its due recognition. But in his unassuming way, he influenced changes in the way America deals with the world that have become a permanent part of foreign policy. The recent events in Ukraine are just the latest example of his formidable legacy.

Freedom House is an independent watchdog organization that supports democratic change, monitors the status of freedom around the world, and advocates for democracy and human rights.

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