Union Yes, War No
The AFL-CIO charts a new
course for labor by opposing an attack on Iraq.
by David Moberg
In These Times magazine,
April 14, 2003
The unanimous decision by the AFL-CIO
Executive Council to oppose the Bush administration's Iraq policy
reflects an historic watershed in the labor movement. The late
February statement did not oppose a multilateral war against Iraq
under all circumstances, nor did it reject unilateral military
action "in defense of our national security." But it
represents a break in a long tradition of American unions backing
the president on foreign military policy. And it marks a further
step toward a more internationalist perspective by a labor movement
that historically has been quite nationalist.
On one level, the call for international
unity, restraint and cooperation with the disarmament inspectors
in Iraq reflects a narrow and carefully hedged critique of the
Bush administration that grew out of internal discussions among
union leaders who had been briefed by a series of former high-level
Clinton administration officials. It is a specific response by
labor officialdom to a very specific possibility of war.
In other ways, however, the resolution
was shaped by a changing labor movement facing an administration
that is aggressively anti-union and brazenly in favor of a new
American empire that actively undermines the welfare of most working
people. The shift should not be overstated: If Al Gore were in
the White House pushing for war in Iraq labor might be much more
accommodating. Nevertheless a major change has been in the making.
The end of the Cold War marked a dramatic
divide. American labor had been much more militantly anti-communist
and supportive of U.S. foreign policy than unions in most of the
world, thus weakening the international labor movement. But the
fall of the Berlin Wall eliminated the glue that bound unions
to the government, especially at a time when employers and the
government became less sympathetic to labor. After the fall of
communism, employers and governments saw less need for political
buffers such as the International Labor Organization, established
in 1919 to provide protection for workers so they would be less
attracted to the revolutionary politics of the new Soviet Union.
U.S. government funding of labor's international activities, intimately
linked to Cold War politics, also rapidly declined.
More importantly, the rise of corporate
globalization made many unions increasingly skeptical of government
policies that did nothing about or even encouraged the flight
of U.S. corporations overseas. Unions began to see multinational
corporations and their apologists in government, both Republican
and Democratic, as hostile to the interests of American workers.
Consequently, U.S. unions started working more with unions in
other countries to fight those multinational corporations, instead
of fighting communism (or other leftists within the labor movement).
The first big break came in the mid '80s,
when the labor movement split over Ronald Reagan's Central America
policies. Some of the most ardent critics of Reagan and the AFL-CIO
President Lane Kirkland were leaders of unions, such as Textile
Workers President Jack Sheinkman, that had suffered greatly from
globalization and were beginning to develop a more internationalist
strategy. Widening fights over globalization led many of these
unions to increasingly support leftist unions overseas and to
adopt an international strategy more focused on threats from multinational
Meanwhile, the labor movement itself was
changing. As historian Nelson Lichtenstein, author of the recent
book State of the Union, suggests, the upper ranks of union staff
are increasingly filled with veterans of the '60s. As New Left
activists, many of them opposed the Vietnam War when only a handful
of union leaders spoke out-belatedly and without much concrete
action-against the war. As Jon Baker of the Machinists says of
his fellow veterans of the '60s anti-war actions, "We're
the hard-hats now, not the hippies."
The change in labor movement staff was
accelerated by the election of John Sweeney in 1995 as president
of the AFL-CIO. Much of the old labor international operation
was either swept aside or refocused with more progressive appointments.
Also, the make-up of union membership has shifted-more minorities,
more women, more new immigrants, and more workers for whom the
old Cold War red-baiting is not even a distant memory.
Sweeney's victory gave new impetus to
the formation of broad coalitions with community, religious and
other progressive groups. It also gave legitimacy to grassroots
activity within the labor movement. Over the past few months,
a growing number of individual unions have adopted anti-war resolutions.
Representing about one-third of the AFL-CIO membership, those
unions include AFSCME (public employees), UNITE (apparel and textile),
the Service Employees, Communications Workers, Postal Workers
and Farm Workers.
But even less progressive unions are beginning
to question the war. Machinists President Tom Buffenbarger, who
supports Bush's missile defense plans and called for "vengeance"
after 9/11, said after the recent Executive Council vote: "What
are we fighting for? Are we fighting for Wall Street's right to
make a buck by destroying our community? And the answer we get
from government-and it doesn't matter if it's Democratic or Republican-is
that the more we engage in trade, trade can be a useful tool in
bringing down dictatorial regimes. So why weren't we doing that
with Iraq or Korea? It's all bull. I don't mind asking for patience
and prudence before we send some members off to help get oil or
cheap labor in developing nations."
Many of these tendencies came together
with the formation of U.S. Labor Against the War, a coalition
of dozens of local unions, district organizations and central
labor councils from a wide range of unions. USLAW's position is
more fervently opposed to any war in Iraq than the AFL-CIO resolution,
and its supporters have been active in protests, including its
own March 12 day of workplace education about the war.
While leftists and veterans of the '60s-including
some actual veterans of the Vietnam War-were active in forming
USLAW, they too have found unexpected allies. For example, in
the Philadelphia Central Labor Council, John Braxton, co-president
of a small teachers union local, discovered that the head of the
building trades was not opposed to an anti-war resolution, but
simply wanted to discuss it first with his board. At the next
council meeting, when opponents questioned why unions should take
a stand on Iraq when they hadn't spoken out on other U.S. invasions,
like Haiti, the building trades leader responded that labor should
have spoken out then-and that's why it must do so now.
The groundswell of labor movement opposition
to Bush's Iraq policy undoubtedly helped consolidate the unanimous
AFL-CIO action. The passionate outcry against an invasion of Iraq
by labor movements around the world may also have encouraged U.S.
union leaders. Unions in Britain, Italy and Australia announced
intentions to block movement of materials for war by striking.
In February, union representatives in about a dozen countries
joined with U.S. Iabor leaders and USLAW in a unique joint telephone
press conference voicing opposition to the war.
But the hostility of the Bush administration
toward unions and its pursuit of a radical agenda favoring the
rich, destroying key social programs and failing to deal effectively
with the nation's economic problems-also made unions much less
willing to believe or support the president. "There is a
sense that Bush is not our friend, and not being a friend, why
should I trust him on the war?" says veteran labor leader
Jerry Tucker, who was an active United Auto Workers opponent to
In past wars, administrations have offered
concessions to labor to win support (and punished the Industrial
Workers of the World after World War 1, when it was alone in rejecting
any pro-war deal). But Bush is leading the attack on unions while
preparing for war. "This movement developed at the intersection
of Bush's domestic and foreign policies," says Food and Allied
Service Trades Secretary-Treasurer Gene Bruskin, a leader in USLAW.
Organized labor is still developing an
independent foreign policy perspective based on a broad, progressive
critique of both globalization and the drive for a new American
empire. Eventually the shifts in organized labor's foreign policy
perspective may make their mark on the Democratic Party and American
politics more broadly. Bush can take some of the credit for speeding
that change along.