Labor Advocate Online

Labor and the War


100 attend Kansas City Teach-In Sponsored by KC Labor Against the War

It’s Our Issue Most of All
by Bill Onasch

This is an edited and slightly expanded text of a talk presented to an antiwar Teach-In in Kansas City. The February 15 event, held in solidarity with world wide protests that day, attracted 100 participants. It was sponsored by KC Labor Against the War.

Some people say that war is not a proper question for discussion within the labor movement. We should either patriotically support our Commander-in-Chief or, like at funerals, if you can’t say anything good about the war then at least keep your mouth shut.

We have to admit that too often in history that admonition to ignore war has worked.1

But war is not some esoteric diversion from the mission of organized labor. It’s not like unions wanted debates about quantum mechanics, or whether Indian was a better motorcycle than Harley. No, nobody has more at stake in war than workers.

It is primarily the sons and daughters of the working class who must fight. It is mainly taxes on the working class that pay for war. It is largely the working class that suffers from cuts in education and social programs as more and more money is diverted to war. And the working class is far more affected by loss of civil liberties than any terrorists.

I realized there was a big difference in labor attitude toward this war when I attended a national leadership meeting of the Labor Party early last December. For those of you not familiar with the Labor Party you should understand that it is a fledgling attempt to build a working class party with a foundation in the union movement. So far we have not ran any candidates. We’re issue and action oriented.

Prior to this December meeting the Labor Party had a strictly domestic program. Because of the diversity of views among the affiliated unions involved we felt we couldn’t reach a consensus on most foreign policy issues. Our late national organizer Tony Mazzocchi always told us not to propose any position for the Labor Party that you can’t get passed in your local union. We deferred those questions for the time being.

But it’s hard for a political party to defer on the question of war. Every party is expected to have something to say. So we opened up a round of discussion. First to speak was Jerry Zero who is the chief officer of Teamsters Local 705 in Chicago. This is the second biggest local in the Teamsters with over 21,000 members.

Zero reported that some rank-and-file members had approached the executive board with an antiwar resolution. The board agreed to post the draft on all of the union’s bulletin boards and to schedule a discussion at the next local membership meeting.

More than 400 turned out for that meeting. There was extensive discussion. Some of the most ardent speaking in favor were Vietnam vets. They will never forget that unjustified war that brought so much death and destruction. The resolution was adopted nearly unanimously.

As we went around the table we heard similar accounts from the California Nurses Association, the American Federation of State, County & Municipal Employees (AFSCME) and the United Electrical, Radio & Machine Workers (UE).

We then all turned to the representative of the United Mine Workers Union. We all knew he was a decorated Vietnam vet and active in the American Legion. He basically said that he shared the views of those vets who had spoken in Local 705. We knew then that we had consensus for a stand against this war danger.

When Jerry Zero returned home he convinced Local 705 to host a national conference of union leaders and activists to discuss labor and the war. I was privileged to be among the more than one hundred, representing collectively more than two million workers, who assembled on short notice at the Local 705 hall on January 11.

We had an all day discussion on a wide range of war related issues. The most contentious topic was that of the United Nations. Some wanted to praise the UN for keeping the peace so far and throw our support behind them. Others didn’t trust the UN, denouncing them as a tool of the U.S. government.

After awhile we remembered we had come together not to analyze the UN but to try to stop a war. We resolved this thorny question by simply not mentioning the UN in our founding document.

At the end of the day we launched a new organization—U.S. Labor Against the War (USLAW). Our resolution described our mission to “promote union, labor and community antiwar activity.”

The number and size of unions that have adopted antiwar resolutions is absolutely unprecedented. Not since the First World War has there been so much labor antiwar activity in this country.

This includes several of the biggest national union bodies such as AFSCME, the American Postal Workers Union, Coalition Of Labor Union Women, Communication Workers of America, National Writers Union, Service Employees International Union (SEIU), UE, and the United Farmworkers.2

In addition there have been three state federations, 22 central labor bodies, and dozens of local unions.

The weekend following the Chicago conference ten of us met at Tony Saper’s home where we formed an organizing committee to build USLAW locally. Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1287 and Service Employees International Union Local 96, will be taking up endorsement of USLAW at their membership meetings next month.

We decided that in addition to obtaining further union endorsements we want to collaborate with the rest of the antiwar movement to educate and mobilize our community. We aim to bring on board a constituency that has so far been under represented.

The traditional peace movement, who can be counted on to oppose just about all wars, is largely based on philosophical or moral objections to war.

Most working people are not pacifists. They will support the use of force, including war, if they think it's justified. Many unfortunately bought the propaganda of the last Gulf War, that the U.S.-led coalition was liberating poor Kuwait from its ruthless, aggressive neighbor. Since that war ended very quickly, with relatively few American casualties, the impressive antiwar movement that developed among students and pacifists never penetrated very deep into the working class.

But while typical American workers may not be pacifists they will favor war only when they see no acceptable alternative. They have a tough time understanding the case for war being made by the Bush administration. They cannot help but be suspicious when they see most other governments withholding even verbal support for the proposed war. And today they are seeing millions across the globe forcefully saying “No to War On Iraq!”

The antiwar movement needs to reach out to these doubters. We need to explain the truth to counter the lies of the media. And we have to provide an atmosphere in the movement where all opponents of war will feel welcome.

That’s no easy task. When you get beyond the traditional peace movement you will find a great deal of political diversity among opponents of war on Iraq. You won’t find a consensus on Israel and Palestine, or on Ireland. Many will be members of the NRA and American Legion. There are pretty equal numbers of Pro-Choice and “Pro-Life.” So there are a lot of hot button issues that have the potential to blow things up. We have to be sensitive to these divisions if we are to realize the full potential of a truly mass antiwar movement.

We hope that we will be able to stop this war before it begins. But I think all of us realize there is a very good chance that the war will go forward despite popular opposition. Why is that?

Some people say that this war is to restore the honor of the senior Bush who feels humiliated by Saddam Hussein’s hold on power. That feeling undoubtedly exists but it doesn’t really figure in to the equation. The Establishment doesn’t support wars to settle personal grudges.

Others say Bush is trying to rally patriotism to protect his standing in the polls. That is a minor subplot in my view. You have to be very careful in wagging the dog.

One of the most common explanations is that it's “blood for oil.” Certainly American and British Big Business is concerned about assuring plentiful supply and even more plentiful profits flowing from the Middle East oil fields. But Saddam has never tried to cut off oil. On the contrary it is the United States that has imposed strict sanctions on the sale of Iraqi oil.

In my opinion this war has little to do with Iraq. It has everything to do with what has been modestly designated as the Bush Doctrine.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union there is only one superpower—the United States. The Bush Doctrine plans to exploit this advantage to the fullest on behalf of American corporate interests.

Under their game plan Iraq is featured as a grim showcase. They plan to fire hundreds of missiles into Iraq in the first two days of combat. They hope to be finished moping up within a few weeks. Then they will establish an occupation army to govern over the redistribution of Iraq’s wealth to the American and British victors.

The example will be none too subtle. This, they will say to the rest of the world, is what we are capable of doing anytime we want. Resistance is futile. If you don’t get with the program you can be the next Iraq.

Such global domination is not going to benefit the American working class. It will stimulate the flow of capital and jobs out of our country to countries with absurdly low labor costs and hardly any taxes. It will accelerate the race to the bottom among all the workers of the world.

Now this is just my personal opinion. We should be prepared for a long haul if necessary. But we also need to be able to fight wars one at a time. The time right now is Iraq. We have a duty to the people of Iraq, to the men and women in U.S. and British uniforms, and to the American working class to pull out all the stops to nip this war drive now.

Thank you.

1. There are many honorable exceptions. See Labor and War by Dave Riehle; Labor in Wartime: Some Lessons from History by David Montgomery; Eugene Debs, "The Canton, Ohio Speech," June 1918 For Which He Was Imprisoned.

2. Shortly after this talk was delivered I learned that the Farm Labor Organizing Committee also has come out against the war and were a prominent contingent in the February 15 antiwar march in Raleigh, North Carolina.