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Global Labor Rejects an Iraq War
Subj: Global Labor Rejects an Iraq War
Date: 2/20/2003 1:26:30 PM Central Standard Time
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[Note: The author of the article below, David Bacon, is a well-known
labor reporter based in the San Francisco Bay Area. He was one of the
many journalists on the antiwar unions global press conference phone
call on Wednesday, Feb. 19th organized by US Labor Against War.--A.B.]
GLOBAL LABOR REJECTS AN IRAQ WAR
By DAVID BACON
SAN FRANCISCO, CA (2/19/03) -- After a weekend of demonstrations
involving over 10 million people worldwide, protesting an impending
US war on Iraq, opposition to the Bush plan in many countries is
hardly a question. But US military action may have political costs
that go far beyond rising unpopularity. Particularly among unions in
many countries, opposition may take a much more concrete form.
On Wednesday, over 200 unions, on all five continents, representing
over 130 million members, agreed on a joint statement rejecting a war
in Iraq. That declaration questions the US rationale, saying no
convincing link exists between the terrorist attacks of September 11
and Iraq's Saddam Hussein, nor evidence for immediate threats from
weapons of mass destruction. Unions signing the statement point out
that such a war would be fought overwhelmingly by the sons and
daughters of workers, and they assert that war hysteria is being used
as a pretext for attacks on labor, and to mask the effects of a
sinking economy worldwide. The appeal ends by calling on labor to
organize opposition in every country.
Such an appeal is unprecedented. During the Vietnam War, the
majority of US unions supported involvement until it was almost over.
While unions in other countries voiced opposition, there was no
common front, much less one organized at the initiative of US labor.
The appeal made Wednesday was initiated by US Labor Against the War,
a growing coalition including at least five major national unions,
three state labor federations, and many locals and labor councils.
That appeal is not simply a flowery statement, but groups together
unions who have already taken action. In Britain, where opposition
is sharpest, unions have squared off against the support of the Labor
government of Tony Blair for an Iraq invasion. On January 9, two
train engineers refused to climb into the cab of a locomotive and
pull a train from Glasgow to the Glen Douglas military base on
Scotland's west coast, the largest weapons store in NATO.
The incident electrified British workers. Not only were the two
supported by their union, the Associated Society of Locomotive
Engineers and Firemen, but the union's general secretary warned
Wednesday that those actions would multiply in the event of war. "We
do expect more refusals," predicted Mick Rix. He added that the
bylaws of the British Trade Union Congress call for an immediate
meeting in the event of war, a provision dating from 1918, when many
unions sought to prevent the entry of European countries into World
War One. "The TUC must be convened, so that industrial action can be
considered," Rix warned.
This isn't an idle threat. Already five of Britain's largest and
most strategically placed unions have openly defied Blair, and some
call for his ouster, even at the cost of the Labour Party's grip on
power. It is just one sign of the growing gulf that now divides
British unions, not just from the prime minister, but from the party
they created decades ago.
In Italy, where unions organized a turnout of over three million
people in the streets of Rome over the weekend (the largest
demonstration since the end of World War Two), the leftwing General
Confederation of Italian Workers (CGIL) made a similar threat. On
Tuesday the union's executive council declared its intention of
calling a general strike in the event of hostilities.
Italy's unions are locked in bitter conflict with the rightwing
government of media magnate Silvio Berlusconi, who has strongly
supported the Bush war policy. Enzo Bernardo, director of CGIL's
International Department, explained Wednesday that "the big majority
of Italians, not just workers, are against the war. We know
terrorism in our country," he added, "and this war has nothing to do
with resolving it. Our government does not speak for the Italian
Pakistani trade union leader Rubina Jamil, President of the
All-Pakistan Trade Union Federation joined the call Wednesday. Her
federation represents over 5 million Pakistani workers who, she
emphasized, are already familiar with the cost of US military action
in Afghanistan, which they oppose. "This war is only for oil," she
declared, and threatened that her federation would organize mass
demonstrations, including hunger strikes, in front of the US embassy
and consulates when any invasion begins. In Pakistan the US depends
on the increasingly unpopular regime of President Pervez Musharraf to
support its continuing hunt for Taliban and Al-Qaeda militants, and
mass labor demonstrations against an Iraq war would create huge
political problems. Joining in the declaration of international
labor opposition was Djeman Hacene, general secretary of the
International Confederation of Arab Trade Unions, who agreed with
Jamil that the objective of intervention in Iraq was the pursuit of
Among supporters of the international labor declaration, sentiment is
sharpest in those countries where governments have aligned themselves
with the Bush administration. The trade union federation of
Australia, where Prime Minister Ron Howard has been one of Bush's
most vociferous supporters, declared it was "ashamed" of his actions.
"He has no mandate from our people," declared Sharron Burrows, the
federation's president. She also threatened industrial action in the
event of war.
Many rejectionist labor federations represent a much greater
percentage of workers in their countries than unions do in the US,
and can exact a price for political support. In the German
elections, unions supported Gerhard Schroeder in his successful
reelection bid, when he campaigned against Bush's military policy.
Schroeder's victory indicates that other governments also may survive
or fall based on their support for war. The political map of many
countries could easily be redrawn by bitter labor battles breaking
out in factories, ports and railway terminals at the start of an Iraq
invasion. In some of those countries, like Britain and Italy,
industrial battles may provoke a political realignment, and support
for Bush may cost those governments their hold on power.