Public Papers

Remarks at the Biannual Convention of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations


Lane Kirkland, thank you, sir; Tom Donahue; and, of course, your special guest and our special guest -- America's special guest -- Lech Walesa. I've got some good news for you and some bad news for you. After Lech Walesa's stirring ovation before the United States Congress today, it is clear that he's ready to run for office in the United States. Bad news for some of you is he's going to run as a Republican. Thank you very much. [Laughter] Now, I knew you'd like that -- come on.

No, but in all seriousness, this is a great moment for the AFL - CIO. After 8 long years of struggle, Mr. Walesa has accepted the George Meany Human Rights Award, first intended for Solidarnosc. Back in 1981, you remember, Lech wasn't allowed to be here to claim that prize, and the waiting began.

I can really identify with Lech. [Laughter] I understand what it's like to wait so long to get here. But I don't regret a minute of it because, after all, it is great to be with you and to see the members who endorsed me sitting back there in the back row over there. [Laughter] All four of them. [Laughter] Lately I have been feeling pretty confident. Barbara had a hunch that I'd be addressing this group today. And this morning she caught me in the shower singing the ``Union Yes'' theme song. [Laughter]

Let me begin, sincerely, by congratulating the leadership. And some of you were over at the White House the other day, and I really wish every one of you could have been there for the ceremony in which not only was Lech Walesa honored by the country but Lane Kirkland was as well. He's now serving his 10th year, continuing the work begun by George Meany before him. Your unions truly are uniting under the banner of the AFL - CIO, as Lane promised. UAW [United Automobile Workers], mine workers, teamsters, Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers, longshoremen, Warehousemen's Union, Writer's Guild East -- all have affirmed their ties to this great organization. Lane Kirkland has done -- as he continues to do -- outstanding work on behalf of organized labor. And his work to consolidate and renew labor's strength gives the AFL - CIO the power to play its best role: protecting the rights of working Americans at home and striving for those rights abroad through the support of democracy around the world.

Labor has been an enduring force for freedom, at times a lonely cry in the wilderness, at times the conductor of a thundering chorus, rejecting all forms of totalitarianism, Fascist and Communist alike. With each passing year, through the labor movement, freedom is finding its voice.

You understand that democracy rests not on cold marble and pieces of paper but on institutions freely formed, fully free. Look down the main street of any small town, and you see them -- churches, libraries, schools, union halls, free associations that are the beating heart of American liberty. Such liberty calls for a democracy created less by governments than by people, through the give-and-take of competing interests, and individual and collective; a democracy that rejects management-by-decree or intervention from any centralized all-knowing government; a democracy where people speak for themselves, rather than a government which speaks for them.

You and I -- look, I know that we have differences, but those differences are a sign of democratic life, a way of life that demands respect for differences and respects an honest opinion as much as it respects an honest day's work. And that is the kind of frankness and directness I get from the leaders of these unions, and I appreciate it very, very much.

And clearly, there are times when the need for progress demands that we put differences aside. Where Poland is concerned, now is such a time. Last July in Gdansk, standing with Lech Walesa at the Worker's Monument, I pledged to the enormous crowd out there before us that America stands shoulder to shoulder with the Polish people in solidarity. And in Warsaw, we announced our initiative to assist Solidarity and Polish workers in making that difficult transition from a discredited centrally planned economic system to one of free markets and hope for a better future.

Our Labor Secretary, Elizabeth Dole, who met today with Prime Minister Thatcher and Britain's Labor Minister, also went to Gdansk in August to discuss the ways that our government, working together with organized labor in the United States, can help. In just 2 weeks, Secretary Dole and Lane Kirkland and some other leaders will join forces on a Presidential mission to Poland -- our government, together with the AFL - CIO, in solidarity with Polish workers.

Today I appeal to the unions and call on the American labor movement, the business community, and government to look for ways to support a partnership for progress in Poland for the sake of a nation and a people that need and deserve our help. Labor, business, and government can and should be partners and activists for Poland's future.

Last night, Lech Walesa came to dinner at the White House. Barbara and I wanted to try to reciprocate for the very special, warm hospitality that he and his wife, Danuta, gave to us in his own home there at Gdansk. There was only four of us there last night. We treated him like family. Barbara said the grace before the meal, and Lech joined in. It was a very special moment for me personally -- very special moment for the White House.

And we talked then about business. We talked about investment, the need to attract new capital to Poland, much in the spirit of Lech's words to this very convention. And yesterday he said, ``Such is the fate of a Polish trade unionist. He has to launch a publicity campaign for private entrepreneurship.'' Well, he's one smart trade unionist. Last night, labor's son and democracy's advocate was talking about banks and investment because he knows that means economic reform, and he knows that economic reform means jobs.

And business and government can learn from, and lend momentum to, labor's unflinching demand for dignity on behalf of every working man and woman not just in Poland but around the world. And let us join hands; let us work together as never before to fulfill that great promise of freedom.

You know, there is so much to learn from labor's history of democratic struggle. During Hitler's rise to power -- Lane is old enough to remember this and, regrettably, so am I -- during Hitler's rise to power in the 1930's, American labor was among the very first to recognize that great evil. You extended your hand in solidarity to those fighting in the early underground movement. And then when the Nazi regime was finally destroyed, American labor went to work building democratic institutions and these independent trade unions. And later, when postwar Western Europe was threatened by the spread of international communism, it was American labor that stood firm. Tough, behind-the-scenes operators like Irving Brown, your AFL's European representative, saw to it that the alliance was preserved and democracy prevailed in Western Europe. When Irving Brown died last winter, after four decades of fighting for workers' rights, he was widely recognized as an architect of Western democracy, symbolizing American labor's commitment to freedom around the world.

Today the tradition continues nowhere more powerfully than in Poland. The AFL - CIO was at the forefront, standing with Solidarity in its darkest hour, firm in the belief that the dawn would come. Because of that support, courageous leaders like Lech Walesa are now transforming Poland before the eyes of an admiring world.

Stories of that transformation continue to unfold. Early in this century, in the Polish town of Lodz, David Dubinsky, later to become the renowned head of the ILG, was arrested for organizing. In 1908 that would-be organizer was sent from Lodz to Siberia by the czar. Last week a Solidarity candidate was elected mayor of Lodz. Look at how things have moved.

In Poland, Solidarity unlocked freedom's door. Today, holding Poland in their hearts as an example and inspiration, workers around the world are risking everything for democracy. The door cannot be locked again. Miners are striking peacefully in the Soviet Union for the first time since the early 1920's, one of them even calling their independent union -- and this is high praise for our special guest today, Lech Walesa -- one of them even calling that union Solidarity.

They and those like them offer hope for peaceful change, which the AFL - CIO is supporting actively through direct contact and assistance on workers' rights, union organization, collective bargaining. These are the tools your brothers and sisters abroad need most to hammer out justice on the anvil of freedom.

With new legislation in the Supreme Soviet recognizing the right to strike in all but a handful of essential industries, the people of the Soviet Union now have an opportunity to voice their grievances. This will be a challenge to President Gorbachev as he works through perestroika to raise productivity and living standards at the same time.

Across Eastern Europe, we see vindication of the AFL - CIO's refusal to deal with puppet unions controlled by either employers or governments. Hungarian workers are turning to the Democratic League of Free Unions. Bulgarian workers are laying the foundations of a nascent free trade union to be called Support. East German workers have created their first independent trade union, free of Communist influence, to be called Reform.

The idea that motivated Lech Walesa and the members of Solidarnosc as they sat down to negotiate with the Polish Government is a powerful one: that men must be free in order to prosper. That idea spread to Hungary, where the physical dismantling of the Iron Curtain began. Uplifted by the hope that Europe will one day be whole and free, last week we watched in awe as Berliners danced atop the Berlin Wall. And we watched as a deep wound, a wound that has scarred the heart of Europe for 28 years, began to heal. And we saw it in the joyful faces of families reunited, in the smiles and laughter and tears of people greeting freedom like a long-lost friend, and in the wonder of children getting their first taste of freedom.

Last summer, I remember predicting that the wall would come down. I expected it during my lifetime; I hoped for it during these next 3 years. But you know, quite apart from predictions, change has a way of sweeping through like a fast-moving train. And no one and no government should stand in its way.

Just yesterday, we welcomed the news of freedom -- more freedom -- freedom of travel in this case for the citizens of Czechoslovakia as a positive step forward. But in that country, where the tradition of democracy runs deep, and in others, freedom of travel is not enough. Only free and unfettered elections can satisfy the yearnings of a free people.

It is against this backdrop of change that I will meet with President Gorbachev near Malta next month. We are not meeting -- and, Lech, take this message back with you -- we are not meeting to negotiate the future of Europe. The peoples of Eastern Europe are speaking their own minds about that future; and they are calling for democracy, freedom of the press and of conscience, the right of the governed to choose their leaders.

At Malta, I will work to advance that process of reform and democracy. And I also want to know what President Gorbachev thinks of the challenges that he faces at home and of the new course that he has set out for Soviet policy in Eastern Europe. I plan to discuss with him the importance of free trade unions in building a free country. The AFL - CIO has fought for that freedom around the world. And I'm going to carry that message to Mr. Gorbachev. I also want to talk with President Gorbachev about the opportunities to move beyond containment in U.S.-Soviet relations, to find areas of mutual advantage in our relationship.

Everywhere you look in the world, members of the AFL - CIO are fighting to keep the door for freedom open for all: working against such evils as apartheid; struggling for peaceful democratic change toward a system of one man, one vote; supporting free trade union movements in Paraguay, Guatemala, and El Salvador, Nicaragua; and helping workers in Chile's plebiscite last year, fighting for free elections now scheduled for next month. Manuel Bustos, president of the United Labor Confederation there, was until recently exiled in his own country. But thanks to you, thanks to the AFL - CIA -- [laughter] -- he is now free -- free enough to attend the great convention. That was a Freudian slip. [Laughter] Did you explain it to him [Lech Walesa]? [Laughter]

Your work is often accomplished at great sacrifice. Independent trade unions are often caught in a vise between death squads on the right and guerrillas on the left. In El Salvador, two of your own -- Mike Hammer and Mark Pearlman -- died at the hands of a right-wing death squad. And in Nicaragua, the Confederation of Trade Union Equity has been harassed and brutalized by the Sandinista regime's left-wing thugs.

It takes uncommon courage for workers to fight the scourge of tyranny because dictators know that free unions mean pluralism and pluralism denies complete control. So, the tyrant's first targets for suppression, arrest, or murder are often independent unions and their members. In all, over 200 free trade unionists were murdered last year around the world. We grieve deeply for these sacrifices. And let there be no mistake: We condemn any efforts by any government to try to intimidate democratic unions or their members.

In Thailand, South Korea, Malaysia, the Philippines, the AFL - CIO's support of worker education, libraries, and conferences on human rights all add to the inevitable momentum toward worker representation and collective bargaining. Workers in Southeast Asia by the millions -- especially children and young women -- are being used and abused and abandoned. Looking for a solution, we've enforced worker rights as part of the Generalized System of Preferences, and in our trade policy review mechanism under the GATT we've incorporated workers' rights. In the long run, the surest solution to the struggle for workers' rights is to support the growth of democratic institutions like free labor unions, and to encourage economic development that will render child labor and nightmarish working conditions not merely illegal but unthinkable.

Just as a house is built from the ground up, labor's house rests on a bedrock principle of free association and rises by the strength of its members. Free trade union movements today stand on the threshold of change as a leading force for democracy. Labor's strength has opened the door to freedom for millions. The door must remain open.

You know, last week the Soviet Union celebrated the anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution. In a protest march, a banner was carried that said, ``Workers of the world, we apologize.'' It was the first time in memory that Soviet authorities allowed such demonstrations on that holiday. That banner is another sign that democracy is doing the unthinkable by saying the unspeakable.

The 1984 of George Orwell has come and gone. And I am hopeful that 1989 will be remembered as the year when American labor, business and, yes, government first began to work together in a real partnership for the freedom and dignity of workers everywhere, not out of some utopian vision but because we simply believe in the same basic values. The key to freedom rests in our hands. With that key, nothing is impossible. The door to democracy will remain unlocked, to each according to his ability to dream.

Thank you all very, very much. God bless you, and may God bless working people everywhere. And, Lech Walesa, God bless you, sir. Thank you very, very much.

Note: The President spoke at 3:40 p.m. in the Sheraton Washington Ballroom at the Sheraton Washington Hotel. In his remarks, he referred to Thomas R. Donahue, secretary/treasurer of the AFL - CIO.