Labor & War (Independent Politics News)

The article below, which recently appeared in the Winter 2003 issue of “Independent Politics News,” discusses the significance of the growing labor opposition to the war abroad and the war at home. The author, Gary Goff, is active in both New York City Labor Against the War and in Justice For Detainees.


Organized labor in the United States – with some heroic exceptions – has traditionally been pro-war and pro-imperialist. In World War II the AFL made a no-strike pledge even though it failed to get a no-war profiteering pledge in exchange. All through the Cold War the AFL-CIO willingly acted as an arm of the U.S. State Department sabotaging progressive unions around the world. George Meany and labor’s other top leaders supported the American war on Vietnam and aggressively smashed dissent in the ranks

Things are different this time around. Increasing numbers of unionists are coming to see an integral connection between the war abroad and the war at home.

The United Electrical Workers (UE) is the first – and, so far, the only – national union to take a stand against the war. But dozens of local unions are taking similar positions. As of this writing (early Dec. 2002) unions representing over 1.5 million workers have publicly declared their opposition to war on Iraq.

These unions stretch from New York to New Mexico, from Washington state to Washington, DC. Some have a few hundred members, while others are giants – like New York Local 1199/SEIU, which represents 236,000 workers. Both the Washington State Labor Council (representing that state’s 450,000 AFL-CIO members) and the San Francisco Labor Council passed resolutions against the war in August. Upstate New York central labor councils in Albany, Rochester, and Troy have also gone on record against the war.

Critic Marc Cooper writes in The Nation (12/9/02) that “the bulk” of these anti-war activists are “white-collar, mostly intellectual workers.” That’s highly questionable. Most of the UE’s members are blue-collar workers. The same is true of 1199’s quarter million members. And one has to assume that a number of union members in Washington state, San Francisco, and upstate New York are blue-collar as well. Unions representing postal workers, typographers, taxi drivers, longshoremen, carpenters, and painters have all come out against the war. When the Boston group Labor for Justice and Peace recently discussed printing anti-war/pro-union bumper stickers, local construction workers asked that they make stickers for their hard hats as well.

Thousands of workers are mobilizing against the war regardless of their unions’ positions. They come from anti-war unions, pro-war unions like the AFT, and unions that have no position at all. Labor anti-war groups are active in New York City, San Francisco, Albany, Detroit, Boston, Seattle, Washington DC, and Portland OR. Workers are also forming anti-war groups within specific unions. These groups often have a dual purpose – mobilizing rank-and-file workers and getting the unions themselves to formally oppose the war.

These days there is less money around to buy labor’s support for empire. And with union density dropping, there is less need to do so. Both globalization and neoliberalism make attacks on labor an essential part of the war at home. Bush has repeatedly invoked national security to break strikes. Under the Homeland Security Act, thousands of federal workers are losing their union rights. Thousands of Immigrant workers, traditionally a pro-union bloc, are being detained and deported by the government. Thousands more have been fired from their unionized jobs in airports and replaced by American-born non-union workers. And it’s clear that Bush wants to crush the ILWU, the West Coast dockworkers’ union, just as Reagan crushed PATCO, the air traffic controllers’ union. Most unions’ anti-war resolutions recognize the connection between the war abroad and attacks on American workers at home.

Organized labor has much to recommend it as an important part of the antiwar movement. It’s large – the AFL-CIO has about 13 million members. It’s nationwide. It’s organized. A relatively high percentage of union members are women. And labor is multinational in a way that is unique in our society.

Further, labor is in a position to see the unity of the war at home and the war abroad. Its participation in the anti-war struggle brings the question of class to the fore. This is vitally important. Until we address class, our analysis will be limited to treating imperialism as a policy rather than an economic system. Without this class analysis the anti-war movement will not develop into a genuinely anti-imperialist force, but will remain essentially reactive.

********************SIDEBAR #1*************************************


* The Labor Educator (has a “Labor and the War” section):

* Labornet (has a “Labor on the War” section):

* New York City Labor Against the War:

* ZNET Labor Watch:

* Media Workers Against War (UK Labor Group):

********************SIDEBAR #2*************************************

In addition to anti-war work, there’s been a flurry of other progressive activity in labor:

* Postal unions have made it clear that they will not take part in the TIPS program – the government’s plan to have half of the workers spy on the other half.

* Several unions – notably SEIU, UNITE, and HERE – are campaigning for amnesty for undocumented workers.

* In NYC, some 25 labor groups – including the city’s two biggest unions – have joined with religious, peace, immigrant, civil liberties, and women’s groups to demand justice for immigrants detained by the government in secret and without due process.


One response to “Labor & War (Independent Politics News)

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