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Week In Review, March 14, 2004

Helping Iraqi Workers—Two Opposite Approaches
The headline read, "Labor groups aim to build unions in Iraq." The labor groups referred to was a none-too-cheerful gathering of the AFL-CIO executive council, back in their traditional winter retreat in Bal Harbor. AP labor writer Leigh Strope began his story, "Organized labor, with support from the Bush administration, is trying to build more unions in Iraq and help those already there to function free of government and employer control."

To the casual observer this might seem odd. Almost all of the rest of our busy leader’s agenda was spent detailing how Bush is the most antilabor president of all time, an administration that must be defeated at all cost. So how do they wind up in collaboration with evil incarnate building unions in Iraq?

The sad fact is that the Sweeney leadership, once hailed as a "progressive" reform current that would rejuvenate American labor, is reverting to the worst traditions of Cold War union bureaucracy.

In the late 1940s the Meany leadership of the AF of L brought on board a renegade former head of the Communist Party, Jay Lovestone, to coordinate labor foreign policy. Lovestone developed close ties with not only the State Department and employer groups but also the CIA. Lovestone soon figured out that there was even more gold to be had from Washington than had ever been made available to him by Moscow. For nearly forty years the AF of L, and later the merged AFL-CIO, got "grants" of millions of dollars to try to fashion tame, pro-American trade unions abroad in opposition to locally led militant left wing unions.

For these "AFL-CIA" leaders, as they were contemptuously labeled by many, the class struggle, if it exists at all, stops at the border. They have seen support to US government foreign policy, and allegiance to American corporate interests in other lands, as a patriotic article of faith.

Unfortunately, the bosses and governments have never reciprocated such warm feelings toward their loyal labor statesmen. American industry thrives today above all in "Red" China. Communist run unions seem to be no problem for them there. The union bureaucracy here at home is treated with contempt and hostility.

Are we now seeing one last pathetic attempt to again curry favor with the masters of state and industry by helping them to pacify Iraqi workers through unions that will be grateful for the US corporate invasion and the imperial rule of the American viceroy? No good will come from this for either American or Iraqi workers.

Fortunately there is another current in the American labor movement that is working to build genuine international labor solidarity, including in Iraq. US Labor Against the War (USLAW) has been leading an impressive campaign in defense of labor rights in Iraq. USLAW leaders are about to go on a second solidarity visit to Iraq and are raising funds from American workers—not the bosses or government, but workers—to help Iraqi workers build legitimate, independent unions. All this goes hand in hand with USLAW’s overall call to end the occupation and to bring our GIs home now.

We are proud that Kansas City Labor Against the War (KCLAW) will, next weekend, be sponsoring an appearance by a spokesman for the Federation of Worker Councils and Trade Unions in Iraq.

Learning the simple rule of worker solidarity is an absolute prerequisite for any further success in the labor movement. The inability of those in Bal Harbor to master this principle explains a lot of their other failures as well.

A Better Tradition Lives On In Minnesota
Separated from Bal Harbor by a couple of thousand miles, and fifty degrees on the Fahrenheit scale, we saw a different labor tradition at work in Minnesota.

Last fall, clerical workers at the University of Minnesota, organized in AFSCME Local 3800, pulled off an increasingly rare accomplishment these days—they won a strike. Their success is worth studying and, fortunately, they have proudly assembled much material to look at on their impressive web site.

Now there is another important strike being waged in the Twin Cities by transit workers organized in ATU Local 1005. Local 3800 immediately stepped forward in support. At a solidarity rally attended by several hundred on campus Mary Brandl, a picket captain during the clerical workers’ strike last October, said she spoke for many clerical workers in thanking Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1005 members for their help.

"You feel like family – in the very best sense of the word," she said.

During the clerical strike, Local 1005 members honked the horns on their buses, raised money and walked the picket line with the university workers, Brandl said. "No support stands out to me as consistently as the transit drivers."

The walkouts also share a common issue – health care, she noted. University clericals fought off high premium increases that would have eaten up workers’ paychecks – or caused them to drop health care coverage altogether. Transit workers are battling to keep down health care costs for current members and save coverage for retirees.

Local 1005 is organizing for a long fight. They have already set up a food pantry for striker’s families. It’s going to be tough—but this is a state with a history of tough fights leading to victory: the 1934 Minneapolis Teamsters strike, the organizing of the Iron Range, the CIO victories in meat packing and electrical industries, the Farmer-Labor Party and more. Stay tuned.

(In the interest of full disclosure I must admit to having lived through twenty winters in Minnesota—though gone since ‘87.)—Bill Onasch