Labor Advocate Online
Remarks by Bill Onasch to Alternative
Strategies to End the War & Occupation Workshop,
Labor Conference Against the Iraq War, Cleveland, December 3, 2006
I hate to direct moisture toward anyone’s parade but I cannot share in the joy and enthusiasm about the new, improved congress expressed by so many in the labor and peace movements. I am not only growing old but I’m also old school. I think the craft unionists who joined together to launch the American Federation of Labor 130 years ago got it right when they wrote in to the preamble of their constitution, “A struggle is going on in all nations of the civilized world between the oppressors and the oppressed of all countries, a struggle between the capitalist and the laborer ...” This language is no longer in today’s federation constitution and those union leaders so frankly describing class relations are definitely the exception to the rule. But, I believe the old observation remains true today, more than ever in the era of Globalization. Workers and bosses are not friends, not partners, but adversaries.
Politics is an additional arena for the clashes we have with our bosses in the workplace. And, as Clausewitz summed up so well in the nineteenth century, “war is a continuation of politics by other means.”
Unless the labor movement relearns and applies the class struggle perspective once more widely understood we have little hope in the big battles in collective bargaining–such as those currently raging at Goodyear nationally, Raytheon in Tucson, Vincent Bach in Elkhart, or at the Kaiser forge plant here in Cleveland. We won’t have a prayer of winning single-payer universal health care, or guarantees of adequate Social Security and pensions. We will fail to stop the unconscionable exploitation and intimidation by employers and government alike directed against immigrant workers. We’ll never be able to see our kids and grandkids afford to go to college. And we sure as hell won’t be able to help stop this unjust war.
I think the claim of a peace mandate is valid enough–and not only based on the vote totals. As usual, the majority of the working class did not vote but I have no doubt they too have had enough of this war. By all means we should exploit our claim of mandate to the hilt.
What we should not do is be under the illusion that congress understands and accepts this mandate from us. They derive their mandate elsewhere–from the people we battle every day on the job, who ship capital across borders like it was monopoly money leaving a wake of wrecked communities, and who think it is the duty of government, including the armed forces, to advance their agenda for profit on a global scale.
Most mainstream politicians distance themselves from the current war in Iraq only because it is going badly for those who launched it. They would have been pleased if Bush’s cocky proclamation of “Mission Accomplished” from the deck of a carrier had been accurate. But the dream of the Bush Doctrine to rule Iraq through a Gauleiter sitting in the world’s biggest embassy, as Henry Cabot Lodge once did in Saigon, has gone nightmarish. Rescuing the power and prestige of the American superpower from its current predicament is now their overriding objective.
The frank reality is that we remain the only country where the labor movement doesn’t yet have even one mass party of our own. It’s the bosses and bankers who select the candidates, who finance their campaigns, who brighten the days of those elected with bribes.
It is only because the ruling rich have become alarmed about the course of the war that Iraq was an issue in the election at all. If you recall, the war was a big non-issue between Bush and Anybody But Bush in the 2004 election.
When the congressional Democrats finally decided about a year ago it was time to seek some partisan advantage with antiwar sentiment, putting Murtha on point, the GOP had a shocking answer. They promptly put a resolution calling for immediate withdrawal on the floor of congress and challenged the Democrats to vote for it. Talk about putting the cat among the pigeons. Only eight lonely souls said yes, this war is wrong, and I vote to bring the troops home now. All the rest scurried away, like the devil from holy water, most voting no, some weak ones abstaining.
The Democrats were pleased with antiwar sentiment putting some wind in the sails of their long adrift ship–and would be quite content to continue this right through the 2008 election. There will be much talk about phasing, transitioning, and over the horizon scams that will prolong this war.
When we have a dispute with the boss we don’t lobby, we don’t take them out to lunch, we don’t give them money. We mobilize our membership to make life miserable for them, to convince them that granting our reasonable demands is a lesser evil compared to prolonged battle with us. That’s the approach we need to take to congress as well.
Most participants in this weekend’s events are too young to remember the Vietnam experience. That dirty war was launched by a liberal Democrat who ran as a peace candidate. It initially received solid bipartisan support in an overwhelmingly Democrat congress. Only after early student protests were eventually joined by hundreds of thousands of working people; only after significant sections of the union movement, such as the UAW, began to respond to this sentiment; and only after the young workers and students in uniform began carrying out widespread acts of virtual mutiny, refusing to launch any more offensive actions, only then did a divided congress and a Republican White House act to end that war.
While the world is a different place than it was in the Sixties and Seventies, and there are many important differences between today’s war and the earlier war in Southeast Asia, I still believe many of the fundamental principles and strategies of the ultimately successful antiwar movement around Vietnam remain valid, even indispensable for us today.
Fortunately, US Labor Against the War revived many of these even before the invasion. When a few brave union folks, like Bob Muehlenkamp, Gene Bruskin, and Gerry Zero called what turned in to USLAW’s founding conference, we didn’t have to reinvent the wheel, we picked up where some of us left off thirty years earlier.
We had no trouble understanding or explaining why we opposed the imminent war–it would be against the interests of the working people of both Iraq and the United States. We didn’t just declare that but went on to assemble facts to support it that were reproduced on our web site, in power point presentations, reprinted in union papers and fact sheets distributed by unions to their members on the shop floor.
When the war actually began we adopted, without dissent, the slogans End the Occupation–Bring the Troops Home Now! This clear demand not only supports the principle of self-determination for Iraq but also resonates with working people–including those in uniform--as they come to oppose the war. Once you decide the war is wrong the natural solution is to end it by getting out.
Over the course of the Vietnam war a great variety of activities were tried with varying degrees of success. The Teach-Ins, originating early on in campus settings were quite valuable. We had something called a moratorium that no body exactly understood but millions participated in.
Less successful were bombings of research labs, burning flags, calling on everyone in a town to flush their toilets at the same time, and attempting to levitate the Pentagon.
But undoubtedly the single most effective actions were mass, peaceful, legal demonstrations. Sometimes they were local events; periodically there would be national mobilizations numbering in the hundreds of thousands. They were the best way to gauge and articulate antiwar sentiment. They gave hope to those under the gun and they put enormous pressure on those responsible for the war.
Those giant mass actions were only possible when the movement came together on an open basis, excluding no opponent of the war, and setting fundamental policies and tactical choices through representative, democratic national conferences.
It is this last point where I believe today’s movement is the weakest. I, of course, have respect for UFPJ. I have known Jim Lafferty for many years and have the utmost respect for him as well as some effective initiatives that have come from ANSWER. But the fact that there continues to be two rival national organizations, and many local groups not plugged in to any national network, is a big shortcoming that prevents us from realizing anywhere near the potential that is out there for the movement against this war.
This modest conference initiated by the labor component of the movement is a good example. But we need to replicate it through more conferences, much bigger and broader, to mobilize our power in the workplace and in the streets against the Iraq war. Such representative gatherings, where activists of good will can have a healthy discussion of complex challenges, could also be much needed venues for forging a principled unified response to the ongoing U.S.-led war in Afghanistan; Washington’s threats of new wars, such as Iran; and U.S. complicity with the Israeli war machine in Occupied Palestine and Lebanon.
Our future cannot be left up to the new congress. With all due respect to the faithful among us it can’t be left to hopes for divine intervention. Our future depends on us. Hopefully we will leave Cleveland wiser, with recharged energy and a renewed commitment to fight on until our job is done.
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