The growing opposition among workers Labor’s voice against the war on Iraq
February 14, 2003 | Page 5
ELIZABETH SCHULTE reports on the voice of labor in the opposition to Washington’s war on Iraq.
GEORGE W. Bush’s war on Iraq is bad for workers–at home and abroad. That’s the conclusion being reached by a growing number of working people–both individually, and together, through their unions and organizations.
At the January 18 antiwar protest in Washington D.C., some 2,000 unionists–among them, members of New York’s health care union 1199, who traveled on 25 buses to get there–marched together behind the banner “Labor Against the War.” Another national protest a few months before was led by a drill team from the West Coast dockworkers’ union, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU).
If anyone needed any proof of how willing Bush was to use the “war on terrorism” as an excuse to attack workers, the administration–claiming that locked-out ILWU members were a “threat to national security”–last year used the anti-labor Taft-Hartley Act to force a rotten contract down the throats of the dockworkers.
More and more unions are recognizing the threat of Bush’s war on workers at home, as well as his wars abroad. So far, six international unions and dozens of locals and labor councils have passed resolutions opposing an attack on Iraq. Labor activists came together from different unions to form antiwar committees in numerous cities.
On January 11, some 100 unionists–elected officials, staff members and rank and filers, representing the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), Teamsters, ILWU, United Auto Workers, AFSCME and others–came together in Chicago to form a national antiwar organization called U.S. Labor Against the War (USLAW).
This is a tremendous step forward–especially considering the AFL-CIO’s pro-war position after September 11, as well the federation’s long history of backing U.S. military adventures abroad, which earned it the nickname “AFL-CIA.”
At a meeting the night before the USLAW founding conference, Bill Davis, chief steward for International Association of Machinists Local 701 at UPS in Chicago and former national coordinator of Vietnam Veterans Against the War, explained that there is a different tradition in American labor–opposition to war.
“Working-class veterans comprised the movement during the Depression of the 1930s that marched on Washington,” Davis said. “And they didn’t just demand for themselves, they demanded for the entire class–housing, food and the basic things that are guaranteed us as human beings. The back home movement after World War II, the veterans’ antiwar movement during and after the Vietnam War–these are all legacies of veterans and the working class, and they’re something that we should be proud of.”
Past wars have shown that it is workers who pay the price for Washington’s military adventures–with their lives on the battlefield, and with their living standards and civil liberties at home. And the concessions don’t disappear when the war is over either.
The February 15 antiwar protest in New York City is a huge opportunity to show workers’ opposition to this war. Several unions–including 1199, SEIU, the Transport Workers Union, the Professional Staff Congress and the United Auto Workers–have promised to mobilize thousands of members.
Actions like these will give other workers around the country the confidence to stand up against Bush’s war on Iraq–a war that will be paid for on the backs of working people.
“The Iraqi people aren’t our enemy”
Michael Letwin is former president of UAW Local 2325/Association of Legal Aid Attorneys, co-convenor of New York City Labor Against the War (NYCLAW) and a founding member of USLAW. He talked to Socialist Worker about labor’s growing involvement in the antiwar movement.
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CAN YOU describe the growing labor opposition to the war?
THERE’S A huge increase in labor antiwar activity reflected in a number of different ways. Labor bodies in this country that represent 5 million workers have adopted antiwar positions. That’s a huge change from right after September 11, when committees like NYCLAW and those in the Bay Area and Washington, D.C., were really out there by ourselves.
Rank-and-file working people are overwhelmingly opposed to the war in Iraq. As a result, six international unions, and numerous central labor councils and local union have taken these positions. And new Labor Against the War committees are being established.
Since September 11, this has been an essential way of bringing people together across union lines to speak out–and to create space for others to speak out.
WHAT HAVE you found to be the sentiment about the war on Iraq?
IT’S HARD to find anyone in labor who supports the war. There are a number of reasons why. One, Vietnam vets in the workforce have played a critical role to conveying working-class opposition to the war, because almost all Vietnam vets are working class, and many are active in their unions.
Beyond that, Vietnam has a strong resonance among working-class people of all ages, and if Iraq looks and smells like Vietnam, people figure that this isn’t a good place for their sons and daughters in uniform.
They can see the war at home is directly hitting them–huge budget cuts at the state, federal and municipal level, all directed against services for working people. And people see that union busting has been escalated under the pretext of September 11, including attacks on longshore workers, airline workers, federal government workers.
Working people–especially immigrant workers–have been directly and harshly affected by the post-September attack on civil liberties and immigrant rights. When you put this all together, what you have is not homogenous opposition to the war, but nonetheless, all these factors contribute to a very high level of antiwar sentiment within the working class.
All of this–antiwar committees, resolutions, rank-and-file opposition–created the groundwork for U.S. Labor Against the War, which is an important development in terms of reflecting all this sentiment and organizing.
HOW DO we link the war at home with the war abroad?
IT’S EXTREMELY important to say that the people of Iraq are not our enemies. But above all, we must connect the war to issues that hit people most directly and immediately. That involves talking about American casualties–who will be working class and disproportionately people of color, because that’s the rank and file of the U.S. military.
We must also show that we will pay for this war with more terrorist attacks on the U.S., with our dollars, with our blood, with our rights, with our unions–with everything that people have fought so hard to win over many decades of struggle.
We have to make clear that it’s not Iraq that is the enemy of working people in the country. It’s our own government–just as, during Vietnam, Martin Luther King pointed out that this government is the biggest purveyor of violence in the world.
WHY IS labor’s participation so important?
LABOR HAS an unparalleled power to end the war because it’s working people in uniform who fight the war; it’s working people at home who run the economy as a whole. Were it possible to mobilize workers to oppose the war by taking direct action and resistance at those points of production and those points of warfare, then the war could not go forward.
We’re nowhere near that now, but we can move in that direction by mobilizing increasingly large numbers and by beginning to raise the question of direct labor action against the war. Eventually, we can emulate the GI resistance during Vietnam and the British railway workers’ recent refusal to load war materials.