Defying the AFL-CIO, seven national union presidents and more than 100 local union officials are sponsoring a tour here by six Central American labor leaders -- including a Nicaraguan Sandinista -- who are highly critical of U.S. foreign policy and AFL-CIO support of that policy.
AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland has called on American unionists to "shun contacts" with the Central Americans because, he says, their unions are connected to a communist-inspired "propaganda war" against the AFL-CIO's international activities. The touring labor leaders deny the allegations.
Controversy over the tour reflects a sharpening foreign-policy debate between the AFL-CIO -- which operates five international affairs programs receiving more than $35 million in government funds -- and a growing number of critics within the labor federation who contend that the U.S. government and the AFL-CIO in some cases have wrongly backed right-wing antilabor interests in Central America and elsewhere.
One union president sponsoring the current tour, Kenneth Blaylock of the American Federation of Government Employees, raised the issue in a fiery speech to the AFL-CIO convention last month in California.
"Now, I don't know about the rest of you people here," Blaylock said. "But when I look at Iran, I look at Vietnam, I look at Nicaragua, I look at El Salvador, Guatemala, I would like for one time for my government to be on the side of the people, not on the side of rich dictators living behind high walls."
The labor federation, which has long been strongly supportive of U.S. foreign policy, contends that its aid is aimed at fostering economic development and the growth of free trade unions to improve wages and living conditions in less-developed nations.
Critics have pushed the federation, unsuccessfully, to oppose U.S. aid to the antigovernment contra rebels in Nicaragua, although they succeeded in persuading the 13 million-member federation to adopt a statement last month criticizing Reagan administration emphasis on military solutions to Central American problems.
Kirkland called for the tour boycott because the federation has a policy against dealing with unions affiliated with the World Federation of Trade Unions, a communist-led group based in Czechoslovakia. But tour leaders said not all six of the Central Americans are affiliated with the group.
The message of the visiting unionists is that the United States should leave their strife-torn nations alone by stopping all forms of military aid, according to union officials Denis Melendez of Nicaragua and Miguel Cifuentes of Guatemala.
They said in interviews that concern with anticommunism is leading the United States to ally itself with oppressive governments such as the Guatemalan military regime, which has been accused of responsibility for the deaths of tens of thousands of citizens, including many trade unionists who have disappeared.
Cifuentes said that since the U.S.-backed overthrow of the Guatemalan government in 1954, millions of U.S. tax dollars have been used to enforce a "brutal dictatorship" which he said is interested in providing "cheap labor" for more than 400 U.S. multinational corporations.
"In the world there are not just two big bands of communists and non-communists. Political thinking is a big rainbow of colors," said Melendez, international secretary of his nation's largest union federation, the Sandinista Workers Confederation.
The Central Americans began their tour a month ago and appeared last week at Washington-area union headquarters, Capitol Hill briefings, public schools, and a television debate.
In addition to Blaycock, sponsors included union Presidents William Winpisinger of the International Association of Machinists, Bernard Butsavage of the International Molders, Keith Johnson of the International Woodworkers, James M. Kane of the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers, Henry Nicholas of the National Union of Hospital and Health Care Employeess and Carl Scarborough of the United Furniture Workers as well as Charles Sallee, executive vice president of the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers.