Labor Advocate Online
Labor Antiwar Forces Gather In
by Bill Onasch
Over 300 attended one or more sessions of an ambitious three day series of events sponsored by US Labor Against the War (USLAW) in Cleveland over December 1-3.
The Historic Development of USLAW
In the First World War the IWW, and Socialist trade unionists such as Eugene Debs, led a substantial working class opposition to war. But by and large the mainstream American labor movement has always been enthusiastic supporters of war efforts. In World War II most unions accepted a wage freeze and a no strike pledge for the duration of the conflict.
During the first few years of the Vietnam war only a couple of unions—UE and the ILWU—and a handful of individual leaders such as A Philip Randolph, Cleveland Robinson, and Tony Mazzocchi, supported antiwar efforts. Late in the war Walter Reuther came to join antiwar forces and this was one reason for the UAW leaving the hawkish AFL-CIO at the time.
USLAW was founded in January, 2003, two months before the invasion of Iraq. It came out of an initiative by labor leaders such as Bob Muehlenkamp, a labor consultant and former Teamsters director of organizing; Gene Bruskin, Secretary Treasurer, Food and Allied Service Trades (AFL-CIO), now heading up the UFCW’s Justice at Smithfield campaign; and Gerry Zero, then the principal officer of the huge Teamsters Local 705 in Chicago. (You can read my account of the founding conference, which includes the text of the resolution coming out of it, by clicking here. Kansas City Labor Against the War [KCLAW] was launched the following weekend.)
Along with parallel adoption of a similar antiwar stance by the Labor Party, this was a modest but crucial advance for both the labor and antiwar movements. Far from backing down once the fighting began USLAW adopted the twin demands, End the Occupation—Bring the Troops Home Now! It grew rapidly and carried out significant activities on several fronts:
●Antiwar resolutions in unions including national conventions of SEIU, CWA, AFSCME, APWU, Mail Handlers, AFT, UE and state fed conventions in California, Wisconsin, Washington, Maryland, and Vermont.
●Developed internal educational materials for unions to discuss the war through classes, workshops, and fact sheets distributed in the workplace.
●Organized labor contingents in major antiwar demonstrations. USLAW played a crucial role in unifying once rival demonstrations September 24, 2005 and took the initiative in calling the April 29, 2006 antiwar protest in New York.
●Through a much visited web site and 1500 member list serve USLAW became perhaps the best single source of antiwar informational resources.
●Helped draft and campaign for Proposition N in San Francisco, calling for bringing the troops home, that won 64 percent of the vote.
In the best tradition of solidarity USLAW reached out early on to the union movement in Iraq. Exposing the occupation’s union busting utilization of Saddam Hussein’s antilabor laws, USLAW sent a fact-finding mission to Iraq, and meetings in Europe, and later brought Iraqi unionists for a tour of the United States to meet and talk with American workers. That tour was documented by a first class film, Meeting Face to Face. (KCLAW brought Amjad Al-Jawhary, an Iraqi trade unionist living in Toronto, to speak to a conference and antiwar rally in Kansas City in March, 2004.)
The 2005 Iraqi unionist tour was timed to conclude with the AFL-CIO convention. With that moving assist, USLAW supporters were able to get a compromise resolution passed putting the federation on record in favor of “rapid” withdrawal from Iraq—a truly historic breakthrough for that traditionally pro-war body.
A further advance created by the tour was bringing rival Iraqi unions—who previously had literally refused to speak to one another—together for discussions that led to a joint declaration.
The 2006 National Labor
This year’s convention met in the context of increasing bloodshed in Iraq, a Democrat victory in the midterm election, and amid advance leaks of the Baker-Hamilton commission report. While all delegates remained committed to USLAW’s fundamental position of immediate withdrawal, and a nonpartisan stance toward political parties, there were clearly at least differences of nuance in how to navigate new obstacles and opportunities.
As has been the custom since its founding, USLAW leaders and activists strove to find an acceptable consensus. For the most part this was successful. Substantial divisions were reflected in a couple of votes but were not deal breakers for anyone.
Gene Bruskin keynoted the Assembly with a thorough and inspiring Main Political Report to set the table for planning future activities.
Point number one in “Political Objectives” in the adopted USLAW 2007 Objectives and Plan of Work reads,
“Compel congress to defund the war and bring all U.S. troops home now, with continued funding only for the safe evacuation of the troops, full funding for their care when they return, and funding to fully finance reparations and reconstruction of Iraq under control of Iraqis, and to redirect national spending to serve human needs and promote peace and justice at home and around the world.”
There will be both legislative and mass action task forces established to promote these goals. USLAW will be supporting both a Bring the Troops Home Now national demonstration in Washington, DC, called by UFPJ on January 27, and “mass” lobbying efforts on Capitol Hill organized by the same forces on January 29.
The Plan of Work also calls for,
“Further develop USLAW solidarity with Iraqi unions, and other organizations that promote the interests of Iraqi working people, who are the key forces for the progressive democratic development of their country.”
Initially, plans had called for having three Iraqi representatives at the Assembly and to send them on an East Coast tour December 1-11. Unfortunately, two of them were unable to get visas out of Iraq and the tour had to be postponed. Samir Adil, President, Iraq Freedom Congress, holds dual Canadian/Iraqi citizenship and, traveling on a Canadian passport, was able to make it to Cleveland. Samir was kept busy, giving remarks to the Assembly, Federal Building Rally, the conference rally, and a conference workshop.
The Assembly also considered a number of resolutions from affiliates. A few were passed; most were referred to the incoming steering committee. One of these represented a major new direction for the organization—organizing a discussion on the broader questions of the Middle East, including the issue of Palestine.
Palestine has long been considered a “third rail” in the labor movement, threatening severe shock to all who touch it. Indeed, even a discussion may still prove to be a deal breaker for some. But even the Baker-Hamilton commission had to acknowledge that Iraq cannot be resolved in isolation from the rest of the Middle East. Iran, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, and Palestine are all involved in any fears of further war and any hopes for peace in the region.
The Assembly, of course, also dealt with such matters as finances, Bylaws, and electing a steering committee.
March and Rally
Being risk takers, conference organizers scheduled an outdoor march and rally following Assembly adjournment. As it turned out it was a sunny day in the Thirties (Fahrenheit), brisk but bearable. With the assistance of Labor Party national organizer Mark Dudzic, and brother Allen Sawyer from Alabama, I was able to carry the Kansas City Labor Party banner in the march of about 400. A mammoth USLAW banner reading “Bring the Troops Home Now”! led the procession.
Gratitude was felt by all for the speaker presentations being both lively—and brief. The rally was ably chaired by Harriet Applegate, AFL-CIO Zone Coordinator. Speakers included: Fred Mason, president, Maryland AFL-CIO and a USLAW co-convener; Clayola Brown, president of the A Philip Randolph Institute and a UNITE-HERE vice-president; Bill Burga, president Ohio AFL-CIO; Beatrice Maya, standing in for FLOC president Baldemar Velásquez; and Donna Dewitt, president of the South Carolina AFL-CIO and Labor Party national co-chair. My favorite movement singer, Anne Feeney, was on hand for some rousing music.
The Labor Conference Against the Iraq War was essentially divided into three segments: plenary sessions, a rally open to the public, and workshops. There were opportunities for all to speak in the plenary and workshop sessions.
Rally and plenary speakers included Cindy Sheehan; Rep Dennis Kucinich; John Ryan, executive secretary of the North Shore [Cleveland area] Federation of Labor; Nancy Wohlforth, secretary treasurer OPEIU; John Wilhelm, president of the hospitality division of UNITE-HERE; and Phyllis Bennis, an expert on Middle East affairs.
There were a dozen concurrent workshops. All sounded interesting but I could only be at one. I had been invited to give a presentation on a panel dealing with “Alternative Strategies to End the War & Occupation.” My fellow panelists included Jim Lafferty—whom I have known and respected for many years, going back to the Vietnam days—the executive director of the Los Angeles chapter of the National Lawyers Guild and a member of the ANSWER steering committee and Carrie Biggs Adams from Code Pink. You can read my prepared remarks by clicking here.
The gathering in Cleveland was a unique opportunity to bring together activists in both the labor and peace movements, to learn from one another, drawing out the best of both camps. All of us are now better equipped to tap pervasive, urgent antiwar sentiment and build the truly massive movement needed to put an end to this unjust war.
kclabor.org webmaster Bill Onasch has been active in USLAW from the founding conference. He represents Midwest chapters on the Labor Party Interim National Council.
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