Labor Advocate Online

Unifying the Antiwar Movement: USLAW Can Help!


The statement below was approved unanimously by the Executive Board of the Ohio State Labor Party, an affiliate of US Labor Against the War, on Sunday, January 30, 2005.


The Ohio State Labor Party enthusiastically welcomes the decision made by USLAW to organize labor rallies in New York City and San Francisco on Saturday, March 19. This is a long overdue break from the pattern of the past, when peace groups announced demonstrations, decided on demands, selected speakers, and then approached the labor movement to participate. The labor turnout for such actions was generally of modest size. By contrast, when unions and labor coalitions like USLAW call upon workers to take to the street to protest the war and occupation, the potential for their participation is obviously enhanced.


The climate for visible labor antiwar actions has radically improved since the days of Vietnam, when top leaders of the labor movement not only opposed antiwar actions but denounced trade unionists who supported them. George Meany’s unforgettable May 3, 1965 tirade to the AFL-CIO Building and Construction Trades Department was intended to lay down the law on what trade unionists could do and what they were forbidden to do. He said, “It is up to all of us, on affairs outside the boundaries of this nation, to have one policy. We can disagree in here, but we cannot disagree outside the boundaries of the nation, and have an effective foreign policy. So I urge you in your communities to follow the AFL-CIO position, to back up the commander-in-chief. There is no other way for freedom to survive.” How times have changed since Meany’s fulminations!


Whatever the turnout for the labor organized rallies on March 19, they could be the start of something of tremendous significance: mobilizing substantial numbers of workers in the streets to demand an end to the U.S. occupation of Iraq. At the same time, labor is only one component of what has become an extremely large and broad antiwar movement composed of people from all walks of life. Unfortunately, that movement is deeply divided and polarized, which undermines its ability to mount the largest possible actions.


Imagine the situation after March 19 when it will be imperative to organize even larger demonstrations against the war and occupation, reflecting the majority sentiment that has developed in the U.S. opposing the Bush administration’s course in Iraq. Ideally, representatives of all the major antiwar groups would assemble together and agree on coordinated and unified national actions. Instead, all we can expect right now is that after the 19th, the various wings and coalitions of the movement will go their separate ways and make their separate plans.


No country in the world needs a united antiwar movement more than the U.S. No movement in the world has a greater responsibility to build united demonstrations than our own.


There is nothing new about divisions in the antiwar movement. During the Vietnam war the two major peace coalitions were divided politically, ideologically and organizationally, and they also had their share of personal feuds. The difference between then and now is that during Vietnam, leaders of the movement communicated with each other, attended one another's conferences, and came together at critical moments to organize jointly sponsored mass actions.


Two factors helped spur this unity in action. One was that antiwar activists at the grass roots in cities across the country demanded it and made their views known. The other was the intervention of highly regarded antiwar union leaders who, when the need arose, helped the two coalitions bridge the gap and resolve their differences.


Unity does not come easily or automatically. It has to be struggled for by people who are not concerned about turf but whose primary motivation is to build the strongest antiwar movement possible.


So what does all of this have to do with USLAW? USLAW is focused on winning the labor movement to the antiwar cause. Indeed, the eventual success of the antiwar movement is dependent, to a considerable extent, on how successful USLAW and other forces are in winning U.S. workers to the antiwar movement. But no section of the population is capable by itself of bringing the war makers to heel. For that reason, USLAW should do all that it can to play a useful and constructive role as a voice for unity in its relations with other antiwar groups.


The starting point is to recognize and appreciate the contributions made by both of today's major coalitions, ANSWER and UFPJ, in mobilizing literally millions of people over the past few years in antiwar actions. Any criticisms anyone may direct at either of these coalitions or their leaders should not obscure what they have achieved.


Second, USLAW is in a position to influence both groups, just as trade unionists did during Vietnam. A positive step in this direction was taken at USLAW’s December 4 conference, when delegates voted to call actions in conjunction with all the peace groups on a non-exclusionary basis. Non-exclusion is a matter of principle. It is the only way possible to forge genuine unity.


Third, USLAW should engage in dialogue with the major figures in both coalitions, whether in one room or separately, and with representatives of other peace groups which have a clear-cut “Out Now” position and have made valuable contributions in their own right. Dialogue is essential to clearing the air and breaking down barriers. Whatever grievances or misunderstandings exist and stand in the way of unity can be aired and, hopefully, overcome.


To move the unity process forward, USLAW should establish a Unity Committee, which could meet with leaders of the respective coalitions and other key antiwar groups, address outstanding issues, and figure out how best to bring everybody together to plan united demonstrations in the future. Such a Unity Committee would, of course, report to and be subject to the direction of USLAW’s co-convenors and steering committee. All of this could be done without taking up the time of any USLAW member who is actively involved in other areas of the coalition’s work, especially organizing rallies and mass actions.


An alternative for USLAW is to do nothing and allow the divisions in the antiwar movement to fester and perhaps worsen. But this alternative is the polar opposite of USLAW’s decision to join with all antiwar groups to build united actions. How do we join with them if we are not even communicating with them or they with us?


In the same way that we all recognize the need for a united labor movement to fight the bosses’ offensive against the working class at home, so we need a united peace movement to most effectively oppose the U.S. government’s offensive against peoples abroad. Now is the time to take steps to unify that movement and USLAW has a key role to play in the process.