`We've Got to Start Talking'

YOU may foolishly believe it's time to end the cold war and get on with the business of establishing truly friendly relations with the Soviet Union. But the AFL-CIO knows better. The labor federation knows, for instance, that we must be protected from contamination by Soviet trade unionists. It's not clear what mischief they might cause should they be allowed to visit the United States as politicians. But surely it is great mischief they threaten, given the AFL-CIO's continued insistence that they be kept out and the federal government's agreement to the demand.

At one time the government denied entry to virtually any official visitors from the USSR and its satellites. That was done under provisions of that coldest of cold-war legislation, the McCarran-Walter Act, which called for exclusion of several categories of supposed subversives. Included were Communist Party officials and representatives of any organization controlled by the Communist Party. The law remains on the books, but with an amendment that allows the State Department to grant waivers and thus issue visas to people in the categories listed for exclusion - with one exception. Under heavy pressure from the AFL-CIO, Congress exempted ``representatives of purported trade unions in countries where they are in fact instruments of a totalitarian state.''

In practice that has meant that although the State Department has almost automatically issued visas to every other communist who has sought entry, it has denied visas to every one of the hundreds of Soviet and Eastern European trade unionists who have sought to meet with US trade unionists.

Jimmy Carter tried to change the policy in accord with his belief in promoting a freer flow of ideas and people between East and West. But complaints from the zealous anti-communists of the AFL-CIO forced him to back off quickly. His successor, Ronald Reagan, eagerly supported the AFL-CIO's position, despite his otherwise staunch opposition to the labor federation. President Bush has been as supportive.

The AFL-CIO, it's clear, is still fighting the cold war. As AFL-CIO president Lane Kirkland said, ``We have never shared in the illusions of d'etente that periodically grip businessmen, journalists, academicians, and politicians of both parties.''

Delegates to the federation's most recent national convention backed Mr. Kirkland by adopting a resolution that reiterated their opposition to contact with unions in communist nations.

Representatives of unions within the AFL-CIO nevertheless have been visiting the USSR and Eastern European countries in official and unofficial capacities over the past two decades, and doing so with increasing frequency.

One of the most important visits took place in April. A delegation headed by William Winpisinger, president of the International Association of Machinists and an AFL-CIO vice president, met with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and key trade union leaders in preparation for a United Nations conference to be held in Moscow next year on the need of many nations - the US and USSR above all - to convert from the production of military goods to the production of consumer goods.

Many of the US trade unionists who have visited the USSR have invited their Soviet hosts to visit them, only to have the visits blocked by the State Department's refusal to grant visas to the Soviets. Recently, for instance, the machinists invited 11 trade unionists to a conference of some 250 union leaders who had gathered from throughout the US and Canada to hear first hand about the nuclear accident at Chernobyl and to discuss common health and safety problems with the Soviet visitors. But just a few hours before the conference was to begin, the State Department said no.

This sort of thing should not be possible in a country committed to the free exchange of ideas, and it wouldn't be possible under legislation now pending in Congress. The bill by Rep. Barney Frank (D) of Massachusetts would allow the State Department to deny entry only on the basis of visitors' behavior, not on the basis of their membership in the Communist Party or any other organization.

``We've got to start talking, people to people,'' noted George Robinson of the machinists' union. ``There is so much to be learned by these exchanges with each other. You find out how not ready they are to go to war with you.''

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