U.S. Unions & the War

Against the Current, No. 113, November/December 2004

Dianne Feeley

IN THE BUILDUP to the Iraqi war three members of the United Auto Workers Executive Board — Bob King, Elizabeth Bunn and Richard Shoemaker — spoke out against the pending invasion. Yet since the war began the UAW has not taken a position on the war, or even used the pages of its magazine Solidarity to open a dialogue about how it affects UAW members.

We hear that the local Veterans Committees have been percolating with discussion about the war. Yet in the current issue of Solidarity, which is devoted to exposing Bush’s anti-worker policies and getting out the vote for Kerry, there is a page summarizing Bush’s cuts in veterans’ health care, but the war itself is completely skirted.

Yet UAW members have been called up for service and are stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan, and many more have children or other relatives serving there.

I wear an antiwar button on my apron at work and another on my jacket. A few coworkers asked where they can get a button to wear. Others ask questions. More often people tell me about their relative who is, or may soon be, in Iraq. They see the situation as a quagmire.

Before the war some workers bought Bush’s line that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, but now they see that was just an excuse. When the administration announces plans for restoring Iraq’s infrastructure, most remark how ironic it is that Washington is pouring money into the war while the economy is in tatters here.

However, the deafening silence from the top levels of the UAW contrasts with antiwar discussions inside a surprising number of unions. U.S. Labor Against the War (USLAW) first came together as a network to prevent the Iraqi war and once the war was launched, to oppose U.S. occupation.

Through its website (www.uslaboragainstwar.org) USLAW has circulated resolutions that various unions have passed. The earliest of these were the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers (UE), the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), the United Farm Workers and UNITE (now UNITE HERE).

Then last summer a number of U.S. unions held conventions and passed strong antiwar resolutions. These include the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), Communication Workers of America (CWA), American Postal Workers Union (APWU) and the Mail Handlers.

While each resolution is different, the CWA’s resolution — introduced on the floor of the convention and approved overwhelmingly — is typical of the strong opposition to the war and occupation:

“That CWA demands that the President abandon his failed policy [of preemptive war] which has made our nation less — not more — secure, and support our troops and their families by bringing our troops home safely now….”

In addition a number of state labor federations (California, Maryland, Vermont, Washington and Wisconsin) and at least 20 district and regional bodies and more than 20 central labor councils have recorded their opposition to the war in Iraq. So too have the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance, the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, the Coalition of Labor Union Women, the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement and Pride at Work.

According to David Swanson, media coordinator for the International Labor Communications Association (ILCA), who calculated the membership of those unions and labor organizations opposing the war, approximately half the U.S. labor movement is now officially for peace.

I went to the October 17th Million Worker March with two others from my local. When speakers commented about the refusal of members from the 343d Quartermaster Co. to carry out a supply mission without armored trucks or escort, the crowd broke into applause. We want to “Bring the Troops Home Now.”

USLAW’s Work

Last summer labor journalist David Bacon and Clarence Thomas (a west coast dock worker from ILWU Local 10) participated in a fact-finding labor delegation to Iraq. They were able to visit factory, oil and dock workers. Since their return USLAW has organized several tours to get out the word about the conditions the Iraqi trade unions face: unemployment, the difficulty of organizing while the U.S. occupation allowed Saddam’s 1987 law against unions to remain in effect, privatization schemes that threaten their jobs while living conditions deteriorate and insecurity grows.

USLAW raised $10,000 and got the money into the hands of the two impoverished trade unions, the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions and the Federation of Workers Councils and Unions in Iraq.

We can be proud of the fact that at every U.S. antiwar demonstration unionists have been prominent as marchers and as speakers. When USLAW has its one-day conference in Chicago this December 4, unionists will have a chance to discuss strategy, to network and plan our continuing struggle, whoever occupies the White House.

ATC 113, November-December 2004