IRAQ AND THE LABOR MOVEMENT
The Remarkable Story of USLAW
By Michael Zweig

EVEN AS THE LABOR MOVEMENT SUFFERS DEEP DIVISION OVER THE STEPS IT NEEDS TO TAKE to turn around the decades-long decline in its organized strength, major unions on both sides of the divide, notably SEIU, CWA, and AFSCME, have passed resolutions condemning the war in Iraq and the continued U.S. occupation of that country. While the disagreements over organizing strategies and structural changes in the Federation have dominated the labor world, another profound upheaval is underway, concerning labor’s foreign policy.

In a budget-driven retrenchment that also reflects political choices, the AFL-CIO has disbanded its International Affairs Department and transferred to the Solidarity Center all responsibility for organized labor ’s relations with workers and unions in other countries. While the AFL-CIO will continue to provide some funding to the Solidarity Center, the great majority of financial backing for labor’s international connections will come from U.S. government grants, particularly from the National Endowment for Democracy. With the loss of its International Affairs Department the Federation’s leadership has abandoned the possibility of an independent labor voice on foreign policy issues.

However, unions, central labor councils, and state federations representing more than four million workers have passed resolutions since 2003 opposing the war in Iraq and calling for an end to the occupation, withdrawal of  U.S. troops, and redirection of resources to domestic social needs. Spearheading this initiative has been U.S. Labor Against the War.

USLAW was founded in January 2003 at a meeting hosted by Teamsters Local 705 in Chicago, as the drive to war intensified. It has continued to expand its influence, having grown by mid-2005 into a coalition of over 110 unions, central labor councils, state federations, and other labor organizations. (A full list of affiliates and other information about USLAW is available at their website www.uslaboragainstwar.org.)

The growth and influence of USLAW stand in sharp contrast with organized labor’s role in the Vietnam era.The political factors that account for this difference will be discussed momentarily. But first of all, labor’s current opposition begins with the fact that the war is an abomination that was perpetrated through lies and deceit.Workers are offended by this as much as anyone. Almost every resolution condemning the Iraq war starts with the observation that it was based on lies, whether concerning WMDs or the supposed links between Saddam Hussein and the attacks of September 11.

The tremendous costs of the Iraq war also inspire opposition, especially when they are stacked up against the cuts in social services working people experience, to say nothing of the crying need for improved health care, housing, transportation, and so many other social needs for which we are told: “There is no money.” As Artie Scruggs,President of the Howard-Tipton Counties (Indiana) AFL-CIO put it in 2003: “The President asked for $75 billion for the first installment of the war.

He didn ’t ask for anything to provide relief for states and communities that are laying off teachers,cutting kids’ health coverage, closing museums, leaving potholes unfilled, and raising taxes.”
1

Besides the budgetary costs, union members are acutely aware of the human costs. Many are Vietnam and Gulf War veterans and many have family members in the military now. In the days leading up to the outbreak of war, Bob Balgenorth, president of the California State Building Trades Council, addressed a large labor conference in Sacramento. As reported in the Building Trades Council newspaper, Balgenorth said that “most union members support the war on terrorism, and that something needed to be done about Iraq, but not war. ‘We need to support our fighting men and women and bring them home.’”2 The comment got a standing ovation.

Sixteen months later, the Building Trades joined with others in the California Federation of Labor to pass a resolution at the State Fed convention acknowledging that “working families in the United States have paid a heavy price for the U.S. involvement in Iraq with the deaths of 836 U.S. military personnel with many more seriously injured …” and went on to “demand an immediate end to the U.S. occupation in Iraq, and to support the repeal of the Patriot Act and the reordering of national priorities toward the human needs of our people …”
3 By July 2005, the U.S. death toll had more than doubled, and labor opposition to the war continues to grow.

Why is labor so much more willing to oppose the war in Iraq than it was the Vietnam debacle?  First, the Iraq war is the work of a Republican administration that in all regards is openly hostile to workers and unions in the United States. Millions of workers are acutely aware that the Bush administration has made their lives worse and means them no good, whether through social service cuts paid for by tax breaks to the richest boosters of the President, or through appointment of management supporters to the NLRB, or by demanding that 180,000 federal workers transferred in 2002 to the newly created Department of Homeland Security give up the protections of collective bargaining.

The connection between the war in Iraq and the war on workers in the United States was the basis of Joslyn Williams’ address at the USLAW-sponsored National Labor Assembly for Peace, in Chicago ,in October 2003, the first national USLAW meeting after the outbreak of the war. Williams, president of the Metro Washington (DC) Labor Council, AFL-CIO, a USLAW affiliate, asked: “Why wouldn't we be against the war? The war is not just in Iraq and it ’s not just in Afghanistan, it ’s in my hometown and yours, the war is in Washington, it ’s in New York and Chicago, in Los Angeles and Des Moines. The war is in your city, your town, your community, and it ’s a war on you and me.”
4 Not all labor movement opponents of the Bush administration opposed the war, however.

Responding to a 2003 letter circulated by the National Right to Work Committee, in which unions were said to be unpatriotic, Uniformed Firefighters Association President Harold Shaitberger said, “How dare you question the patriotism of the nation’s firefighters and their elected union officials, all of whom have crawled down a burning hallway …and risked their lives countless times for the citizens of our great nation ….I have never felt more outrage, astonishment, and utter disgust than I feel today.”
5 Shaitberger led the UFA to endorse John Kerry in time for the 2004 Iowa caucuses, the first union to do so, but has not opposed the war.

The 2004 presidential election campaign included an unprecedented union mobilization to defeat George W. Bush. Yet the AFL-CIO provided no training to canvassers on how to address the Iraq war. USLAW tried to keep the issue of the war alive despite the single-minded focus on beating Bush. After considerable debate, delegates at the October 2003 National Labor Assembly for Peace explicitly rejected a formulation that laid blame for the war at the feet of President Bush alone. Rather, USLAW ’s mission statement named Congress, including its Democratic Party members, as a consenting party to the Bush foreign policy.
6 In the midst of the 2004 presidential campaign USLAW helped to secure successful passage of antiwar resolutions at state federation conventions in California, Maryland/D.C., Washington, Wisconsin, and Vermont. National union conventions of AFSCME, CWA, and SEIU also passed resolutions opposing the war. The APWU and the Mailhandlers Union, each with significant veteran membership, passed national convention antiwar resolutions in September 2004.Many other central labor councils and union locals signed on throughout the year.7

It seems certain that had USLAW joined the “anybody but Bush ” approach, the antiwar thread of labor organizing would have been destroyed in the campaign frenzy, especially since Kerry refused to oppose the war. The fact that USLAW resolutions carried in unions supporting Kerry despite Kerry ’s own stand on the war suggests the depth of feeling many working people have on this issue.

Beyond the partisan politics of the war, labor’s response to Iraq differs from the Vietnam era because many seasoned union leaders today are veterans of the Vietnam War and the antiwar movement of that time. They bring hard won experience, distrust of government pronouncements, and a basic understanding of the geopolitical interests of the U.S. ruling class that were missing from labor’s side in the 1960s. This generation of leaders is not afraid to talk about the war as a quest to control the world ’s oil supply, waged to protect U.S. economic interests globally. Compared with labor leaders (and many other Americans) of the Vietnam era, hundreds of today’s union officers and senior staffers are relatively free from jingoism, and prepared to oppose U.S. military intervention abroad when it contradicts the interests of their members and principles of internationalism.

USLAW has closely cooperated with Military Families Speak Out, Veterans for Peace, and the recently founded Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW).
8 These organizations work with union veterans committees and speak widely about the special impact the war is having on working-class soldiers like the union members and their families among whom USLAW organizes. These organizations draw the personal links between the war in Iraq and the war on working people at home in ways that open doors and minds often inaccessible to middle-class antiwar activists. They also help to explain why nearly every union resolution against the war supports the soldiers, calls for their safe return, and demands fair treatment for the vets and their families people whom the Bush administration so callously undermines.

That AFL-CIO affiliates and staff can participate in the Iraq antiwar movement is also a consequence of the laissez-faire attitude adopted by John Sweeney and the top AFL-CIO leadership. The end of the cold war and the 1995 election of the New Voices leadership ended an era of lock-step labor movement conformity to the commands of the national security state that earned the Federation the name “AFL-CIA.” Unlike the days when AFL-CIO leadership ruthlessly enforced discipline in support of anti-communist U.S. foreign policy, no such discipline exists today. The AFL-CIO Executive Council even passed a resolution opposing the race to war in early 2003 and condemning the Bush administration’s assertion of unilateral military power. Since then, although the Council has deliberately ignored the war,it has made no effort to isolate USLAW.

One can easily imagine that this might change if a Democrat were in the White House.

Senior labor officials might once again be tempted to play the role of junior partner in American political life,in exchange for their allegiance to Washington ’s foreign policy. But the longer labor remains ostracized from state power, the more possible it becomes to consolidate an independent labor foreign policy based on principles and policies that challenge U.S. corporate domination abroad as well as at home.

It is ironic that at this moment of great potential the AFL-CIO has abandoned its capacity for championing its own foreign policy.
In its place, USLAW will try to organize a coherent labor voice for a progressive foreign policy, focused on the war in Iraq. Despite many disagreements that some USLAW affiliates have with the Federation ’s policies and statements on the war, the Federation’s ties to the National Endowment for Democracy and the 2002 anti-Chavez coup in Venezuela, and other issues of international policy, USLAW refrains from directly attacking the AFL-CIO. There has developed a live-and-let-live mutual acceptance between USLAW and the AFL-CIO’s national leadership.

USLAW’s growth has included affiliates from 20 different international unions in addition to state feds,central labor councils,and such labor-related organizations as CLUW, APALA, Pride at Work, and Black Workers for Justice. Membership is concentrated in locals of public sector unions and those representing private workers in social services dependent upon public funds principally AFSCME, AFT, and SEIU.These locals are suffering severe consequences from the war budget, including cuts in social programs and demands for givebacks in contract negotiations. These realities make it easier to make the case that opposition to the war is vital union business.

Of these three unions, only the AFT has not passed an antiwar resolution at its national convention. But USLAW affiliates in AFT worked together to bring the question to the July 2004 national convention, where they were both organized and numerous enough to force an extended debate on foreign policy on the convention floor for the first time in the union’s history. The antiwar resolution received about 40 percent of the delegates’ votes, a result that has encouraged USLAW activists to continue organizing for a new debate at the 2006 convention in San Francisco.

In November 2004,representatives from AFT, NEA, and AAUP locals formed Educators to Stop the War (ESW), an offshoot of USLAW dedicated to building antiwar activity within teacher unions and in schools at all levels. Their first conference in New York City in March 2005 drew over 800 participants, including 260 high school and college students.

Among its continuing projects, ESW is developing and making available antiwar curricula for classes at all levels from K-12 through graduate school, and has established ties with the United Association of Labor Educators (UALE) to develop educational materials for unions and labor education programs.
9 In summer 2005, USLAW completed two important projects. In June, it successfully sponsored a 26-city U.S. solidarity tour of six senior Iraqi labor leaders, and through the coordinated action of many USLAW affiliates, the July AFL-CIO convention adopted a resolution calling for rapid withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq, the first time the Federation has ever opposed an ongoing U.S. war.

USLAW seeks to promote a labor foreign policy that would establish real international solidarity with unions and workers in Iraq and across the globe, who have demonstrated in their millions against American unilateral military aggression, continuing occupation, and the neoliberal agendas of “structural adjustment ” and privatization of these economies. It is an attempt to create a wide-ranging, strategic foreign policy rather than the short-term, tactical cross-border alliances unions sometimes organize when dealing with a multinational employer. USLAW takes up the war in Iraq as one element of a just foreign policy that will bring genuine security and prosperity to working people; a policy that strengthens international treaties, supports human rights institutions, respects national sovereignty and upholds the right of self-determination for all peoples; a foreign policy that solves disputes by diplomacy rather than war; a policy that promotes global economic and social justice rather than the race-to-the-bottom, job-destroying, discriminatory practices favored by multinational corporations.
10 So far, with the exception of a few unions like the Professional Staff Congress (AFT 2334) at the City University of New York, USLAW affiliates have not converted their antiwar resolutions into active mobilization of members in the many massive peace marches of the past two years, although they have provided some financial support for USLAW ’s operations. USLAW affiliates have been otherwise occupied, with difficult contract negotiations, fights over job losses and budget cuts,the 2004 presidential campaign, and the contentious debates about the future of the AFL-CIO leading up to the 2005 convention.

However, as the Iraq war and occupation continue, as the Bush administration grows ever more bellicose generally, labor’s engagement in the struggle for a just U.S. foreign policy becomes more essential. The fact that at this crucial juncture the AFL-CIO has eliminated its own International Affairs Department significantly complicates the process by which labor can play a role in the national debate. This makes USLAW all the more necessary in the coming period.

Notes

1. Artie Scruggs, “Where Do Income Taxes Go? To War,” Kokomo Perspective, August 20, 2003.

2. “Labor’s 2003 State Legislative Conference –Taking on the Health Care Crisis,” Organized Labor (San Francisco), March 24, 2003.

3. “Bring the Troops Home,”  Resolution No. 15, adopted by the California State Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO, July 13, 2004, posted on the USLAW website www.uslaboragainstwar.org.

4. Joslyn N. Williams, “Address at National Labor Assembly for Peace,” Chicago, October 25, 2003, available at USLAW website.

5. Steven Greenhouse, “DeLay Denies Role in Letter Riling Unions: Patriotism of Labor Called into Question,” New York Times , February 8, 2003, A11.

6. See “Mission Statement ” adopted by the National Labor Assembly for Peace of U.S. Labor Against the War, Chicago, October 25, 2003, posted on USLAW’s website.

7. The texts of these resolutions are available on the USLAW website.

8. Websites that present the work of these organizations are www.mfso.org, www.bringthemhomenow.org, www.vfp.org, and www.ivaw.org.

9. To see the full range of ESW activities,visit www.educatorstostopthewar.org.

10. USLAW mission statement, available on USLAW’s website.

 
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U.S. Labor Against War (USLAW)
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