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Labor Tuesday 2.4.03
New Labor Group Organizing Union Opposition to War
By Charles Walker
There will be a lot more trade union banners in future anti-war demonstrations, if a new national group of union officials and activists have their way. In January, about 100 union leaders met in Chicago and launched U.S. Labor Against War (USLAW). The group adopted a clear-cut resolution opposing the government’s war plans, declaring, in part, that “the principal victims of any military action in Iraq will be the sons and daughters of working class families …we have no quarrel with the ordinary working class men, women and children of Iraq …the billions of dollars spent to stage and execute this war are being taken away from our schools, hospitals, housing and Social Security …the war is a pretext for attacks on labor, civil, immigrant and human rights at home … neither the Bush administration nor the UN inspections have demonstrated that Iraq poses a real threat to Americans.”
Teamsters Local 705, the national union’s second largest affiliate with 21,000 members, many of them in the freight industry, hosted the meeting of representatives of the widely dispersed central labor councils, local unions and ad-hoc anti-war labor committees with a combined membership of 2,000,000. Local 705’s chief officer, Jerry Zero, told the gathering that his local union in October adopted a resolution against the war. “We had 400 members and all the debate was one-sided against the war. There was only one vote against the resolution. I was amazed. I expected an even split.” He added, “We are having this meeting because our members demanded it.”
At the January meet, an informal survey indicated that at least 100 labor organizations around the country had adopted anti-war resolutions, some stronger than others. The group agreed to win the endorsement of at least 200 more union bodies as soon as possible, and raised $30,000 to kick off their effort. Since the meeting the American Postal Workers Union and the United Farm Workers have come out against a war, as have a number of regional bodies and local unions. More recent reports say that unions representing 4,000,000 workers have adopted antiwar resolutions. The new labor group endorsed the January 18 anti-war rallies in Washington and San Francisco, and is building the February 15 and 16 anti-war actions.
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch (Jan. 14) ran a relatively comprehensive report about the new anti-war labor group and its intention to “put organization and money behind what have been mostly spontaneous, grass-roots activities.” The paper reported that, “union contingents from California, Seattle, New York, Washington, and Florida, as well as labor activists from St. Louis and other cities…. passed a resolution against an ‘unprovoked war with Iraq.” The San Francisco Chronicle (Jan. 16) reported that, “Saturday's rallies in San Francisco, Washington, D.C., and other cities come a week after 100 labor leaders from around the country -- including several from the Bay Area -- met in Chicago to plan how to sway their memberships toward opposing a possible war with Iraq and assume a bigger role in the anti-war effort.”
Participants at the Chicago meeting said the resolution that was unanimously adopted was preceded by a sharp debate over the issue of the United Nations. Al Benchich, president of UAW Local 909 wrote that, “Debate centered on whether to address such issues as the role of the U.N., the legitimacy of inspections, and statements regarding patriotism and U.S. militarism” (labornotes.org.” Indeed, the invitation to the gathering said, “We have the responsibility and the opportunity to join with other mainstream American membership organizations to influence the Bush administration not to act outside the UN. That is the purpose of this meeting.”
A counter resolution, modeled on the Local 705 resolution, which originated with a small group of workers at two UPS facilities in Chicago, was offered from the floor. Like the Local 705 state-ment the counter resolution made no mention of the UN, focusing on an unambiguous opposition to a war against Iraq. “In the end,” wrote Bill Onash , a member of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1287 in Kansas City, “the delegates decided we could live without saying anything about the UN.”
Teamsters Jerry Zero says his members are conservative; still their anti-war mood is obvious. “We’re not exactly a real liberal union. We’ve got a lot of truck drivers, UPS employees, freight drivers. I’d say it’s a pretty conservative union. Yet they feel pretty strongly against the war.”
IS SWEENEY FEELING THE HEAT OF THE RISING LABOR ANTIWAR SENTIMENT?
By Charles Walker
A comparison of an October, 2002 letter by AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney to the U.S. Congress, “Regarding the Debate on Iraq” and another dated January 30, 2002 and co-written by Sweeney and John Monks, General Secretary of the British Trades Union Congress to President Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair weakly suggests that Sweeney may at last have heard the U.S. unionists that have reminded all that will listen of the price that the sons and daughters of America’s working families will pay for a war on Iraq.
The slight evidence that Sweeney is paying attention to the voices for peace in the labor movement is contained in the joint letter that tells Bush and Blair, “Today many citizens of the United States and of the United Kingdom are not convinced that war must be waged now in Iraq.” Of course, that true, especially in Britain, where the antiwar movement among workers has a head start on the U.S. movement. Still, the most recent reports indicate that U.S. unions representing some 4,000,000 workers have adopted resolutions opposing a war on Iraq, close to 25% of the unionized workforce. Moreover, a national labor organization has been launched to begin to educate and rally workers to oppose a war.
But Sweeney’s acknowledgement of the antiwar sentiment here and in Britain doesn’t mean that he too is now unconditionally opposed to a war on Iraq. If the United Nations would supply a political cover for a war, Sweeney then would have no reservations. “Our nation’s long-term interests,” Sweeney wrote in October, “require that we assemble a broad international coalition for an aggressive and effective policy of disarmament in Iraq—and work through the United Nations to the greatest extent possible.”
In the latest letter, Sweeny and Monk also urge Bush and Blair to lead through the United Nations, seek to build the “broadest possible coalition” against totalitarianism and terror and not to act without “the strongest international legitimacy,” and “to win the fullest support of our friends and allies before the path of war is chosen as a last resort.” Although the letter is addressed to both heads of state, that’s a mere formality, since Blair isn’t going to wage war on Iraq alone, but the same can’t be said of the empire builders in the U.S.
Missing from the joint letter is the assertion expressed in the earlier letter to Congress, “America certainly has the right to act unilaterally if we need to do so to protect our national interests, but the AFL-CIO strongly believes that our national interests are better protected by multilateral action.” The latest letter also takes sides on the issue of the inspections, saying that the inspectors in Iraq should be allowed “adequate time to be able to inform fully the international community in their appreciation of the threat to world peace and security.”
But at bottom, Sweeney hasn’t got what it takes to agree with Secretary-Treasurer Gene Bruskin of the Food & Allied Trades, AFL-CIO who wrote Sweeney in October, saying that “I do not believe, however, that Bush’s War policies are designed to increase domestic security. They are, rather, a Trojan Horse for his pro-corporate domestic and international agenda…[H]is foreign policy is designed to serve the same corporate interests that drive his domestic policy, making the world safe for US multinationals…I believe that the Labor movement must take the lead in opposing Bush’s War policies if we are going to succeed at advancing our own goals of improving the lives of the US working class.”
Bruskin’s views of the administration’s motives are probably similar to the views of many anti-war union leaders and activists, here and abroad. But his views are constrained by Bruskin’s reliance on the Democratic Party. “Here,” Bruskin wrote Sweeney, “we will have to set the pace for the Democratic Party who in large measure fear to challenge the President’s security-related initiatives.” How quickly Bruskin forgets the virtual Congressional stampede that enacted the Patriot Act.
At this point Sweeney’s position on an attack on Iraq has to be a disappointment to Iraqi workers and their families, sure to bear the heaviest burden of the expected war. What have they done to merit the lack of solidarity from the head of the U.S.’s labor federation?