Labor Speaking Out Against Bush’s War

Against the Current, No. 103, March/April 2003

Dianne Feeley

ON FEBRUARY 22nd at the historic UAW Local 600 hall in Dearborn, a crowd of more than 200 heard from more than a half dozen labor speakers articulating why the Bush drive to war is not in the interests of working people.

Although most of the speakers were not representing their organizations, nonetheless the presence of speakers such as Mark Gaffney, President of the Michigan State AFL-CIO, and Bob King, International Vice President of the UAW, indicated the depth of the antiwar movement. It is a labor movement that sees the connection between the anti-union initiatives of the Bush government and its war drive. Gaffney bluntly stated: “It’s guns or butter. You can’t have both.”

Elena Herrada, business agent for the Retail, Wholesale, Department Store Union, Local 1064, represents low-wage restaurant workers who work in Detroit-area plants. Frequently forced to negotiate a new contract around simply maintaining the health care package, she contrasted the federal resources available for war with the paucity available for urban centers like Detroit.

Union members in the United States and Britain have organized significant opposition to the threats of their government’s drive to war. They have concluded that the alleged link between Iraq and al Qaeda is a hollow pretext, and that a war against Iraq would actually increase the likelihood of terrorism.

In Europe, as labor writer David Bacon reported (posted to Portside) on February 20, opposition has reached the point of action:

“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 Labor 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.”

On February 15 Italian unions organized the largest demonstration since World War II. It snaked through the streets of Rome, more than one million strong. On February 18 the executive council of the General Confederation of Italian Workers (CGIL) declared its intention of calling a general strike in case of war. The dockworkers union announced it will not load military cargo.

Under pressure from this growing opposition, AFL-CIO President John Sweeney and John Monks, General Secretary-Treasurer of the British Trade Unions Congress, sent a joint letter on January 30th to President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Such a letter, and the opposition within labor upon which it is based, is unprecedented. In attempting to build a coalition to invade Iraq, President Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair have inadvertently provided space for the development of not only an antiwar movement, but one in which labor is playing a role.

By the middle of February the U.S. Labor Against War (USLAW) convened a global telephone press conference to brief the media about the more than 200 unions and 550 union leaders from fifty-three countries — representing 130 million working people — demanding that the U.S. abandon its threats of aggression against Iraq.

They outlined their opposition:

“We know that the principal victims of any military action in Iraq will be the sons and daughters of working-class families who serve in the military forces and innocent Iraqi civilians who have already suffered so much.

“We have no quarrel with the ordinary working-class men, women and children of Iraq, or any other country.

“We oppose the spending of billions of dollars to stage and execute this war when our nations need money for education, healthcare, housing, and other basic needs.

“We oppose the use of this war, and the threat of war, as pretests for attacks on labor, civil, immigrant and human rights in the United Sates and in other nations.

“We believe Bush’s drive for war serves as a cover and distraction for the sinking U.S. economy, corporate corruption, and layoffs.”

The participation of organized labor in the massive demonstrations that took place on January 18th and February 15th is the direct result of the work that began in the aftermath of 9/11. Even while grieving for those lost in the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, the New York City Labor Against War (NYCLAW) formed around a petition calling for just and effective responses, which meant no war, justice not vengeance, defense of civil liberties/opposition to racism, and aid for the needy not the greedy.

Their statement, signed by almost 2,000 unionists, pointed out that war “will inevitably harm countless innocent civilians, strengthen American alliances with brutal dictatorships and deepen global poverty.”

Nearly a dozen similar committees sprang up in cities such as Washington, DC, the San Francisco/Oakland Bay Area, Albany, NY and Detroit. They took up a variety of tasks, including training sessions in how trade unionists could raise issues with coworkers and opposition to the U.S.A. Patriot Act, particularly in support of airport security personnel who lost their jobs because they were not U.S. citizens. In the San Francisco airport over 800 workers lost jobs some of them had been working for years!

The various committees built a small labor presence at various teach-ins and demonstrations. But over the past year reality has hit — this permanent war has huge domestic implications. The economy is still tanking, and even when it revives little hiring will follow.

The dramatic expansion of the military budget, already outspending the next eight countries’ combined military budgets — is draining resources from U.S. needs. Today forty-eight out of the fifty states face severe budget deficits. Governors are floating various deficit-cutting proposals, including turning off every third light bulb in public buildings and cutting public education to four days a week!

Passage of the Homeland Security Act has eliminated union rights from at least 170,000 government workers (no one really KNOWS the details, because the act is 500 pages long). And Bush’s invoking of the Taft-Hartley Act against the International Longshoremen and Warehousemen’s Union looks like only Act I of the offensive on labor.

A Growing Discussion

Over the course of the past year discussions in the plants, yards and offices have snowballed into introducing, discussing and passing a number of resolutions opposing the coming war in Iraq.

Today, after the passage of more than a hundred local union resolutions, the executive board or conventions of six national unions — American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, American Postal Workers Union, the Communication Workers of America, Service Employees International Union, United Electrical, Radio & Machine Workers and the United Farmworkers of America have come out in opposition to Bush’s war drive.

Two dozen Central Labor Councils, two state labor federations (Hawaii and Washington) as well as the Coalition of Labor Union Women, Pride at Work and many other ad hoc committees and labor organizations have also taken a stand. The list grows by the week.

On February 27 the AFL-CIO Executive Council issued a statement against the war that concluded: “The president has not fulfilled his responsibility to make a compelling and coherent explanation to the American people and the world.”

These letters, statements and resolutions reflect the reality at the workplace, where relatively few people support a war on Iraq despite their understanding that Saddam Hussein is a brutal dictator.

While there may be some confusion over the role the United States has played in providing Saddam Hussein with weapons in the past, many feel the United States should not be the world’s cop. They hear Bush and his advisors say “we can afford the war” but see no willingness on the government’s part to take up comprehensive health care, resolve the growing problem of homelessness or outline a job creation program.

Many others have said goodbye to their sons, daughters or younger brothers and sisters as they have been shipped out to Kuwait. They are not suffering in silence, but wear a “No War” button or put up an antiwar lawn sign, or attend a demonstration with a sign “Military Family for Peace.”

[U.S. Labor Against War website is]

ATC 103, March-April 2003