AFL-CIO’s Sweeney Facing Antiwar Opposition

For Discussion and Debate in the Unions!
Let the People Vote on War!

by Charles Walker

This article is adapted from the web site Labor Tuesday for October 29, 2002. It has been edited for Labor Standard.

At long last, the AFL-CIO has spoken out about the looming U.S. war against Iraq. In an October 7 letter to U.S. senators and representatives in Congress, AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney concludes that “we” must assure the sons and daughters of America’s working families that “war is the last option, not the first, to resolve this conflict before we ask them to put themselves in harm’s way to protect the rest of us.”

It’s not clear why Sweeney has lagged behind some union locals and wider union bodies that have taken positions on a war against Iraq. But what is clear is that Sweeney, at bottom, shares the bipartisan premises underlying the October congressional resolution that authorized all means, including force, against Iraq.

Sweeney asserts that Iraq is a “global terrorist threat” and “America certainly has the right to act unilaterally if we need to do so to protect our national interests…” In the same sentence, Sweeney says those “national interests are better served by multinational action,” but he doesn’t say that the AFL-CIO insists on multinational support, with or without a fig leaf cover provided by the United Nations.

Sweeney’s Call for “Full Public Debate”

Sweeney does caution Congress and the Bush administration on one vital point. He calls for a “fulsome public debate free of political inferences,” to ensure that Americans “are fully informed and supportive” of the government’s war plans. Sweeney’s warning (or maybe it’s only a reminder) undoubtedly comes to his mind because he remembers the deep opposition the Vietnam war aroused.

Of course, Sweeney doesn’t have to wait for the government to organize such an unprecedented “fulsome debate.” Sweeney can try to ensure that workers, at least, are “fully informed” by organizing a nationwide debate, open to all workers, union members or not.

Such an extensive debate couldn’t help but catch the attention of the entire population, and perhaps lead to the fully informed nation that Sweeney rightly calls for. Debates are useful in and of themselves, but an honest debate that included an honest straw vote couldn’t help but be even more useful; especially, if it, in turn, pressured the government to allow a national referendum on the war question, with all sides being given equal and uncensored access to the corporate media.

Of course the government is not going to organize a debate and a vote on an Iraq war. Sure, calling for a debate and referendum is unrealistic, but no more than Sweeney’s call for the government to ensure a fully informed populace. Is it likely that there will be a debate for workers sponsored and organized by the AFL-CIO? Sadly the answer is no, even though workers are not fully informed of their stake in an Iraq war, and the issue of right and wrong isn’t settled just because Sweeney set forth his position.

Growing Labor Opposition

There’s a small, but growing, vocal labor opposition that just may be the visible tip of a larger labor opposition both to the bipartisan war resolution and Sweeney’s position that war is an option, even as a last option.

Some union locals and wider union organizations have adopted antiwar resolutions, and new ones surface each week. One of the most recent signs of dissent is not a resolution, but an antiwar letter sent to Sweeney that unexpectedly originated from within the hierarchy of the AFL-CIO.

The respectful letter by Secretary-Treasurer Gene Bruskin of the Food & Allied Service Trades—a division of the AFL-CIO that has twelve affiliates, including the American Federation of Teachers, Operating Engineers, Hotel and Restaurant Workers, Retail Clerks, and PACE—calls upon Sweeney to promote broad discussion and action in the labor movement. (Click here for the full text of Bruskin’s letter.)

Bruskin’s Call for Open Debate in the AFL-CIO

Bruskin wrote: “Labor councils around the country could be encouraged to continue to take up this issue. (See the attached statement from the Washington State Labor Council.) The pages of the AFL-CIO publications could be open to debate and education about the War on Iraq and Bush’s War policies. Our members could become a force in shaping this policy.”

Unlike Sweeney, who gives uncritical backing to the administration’s so-called war on terrorism, Bruskin says that that policy and a prowar policy “is a losing strategy for us…” Those policies, he holds, undercut civil liberties (and that “will be used against unions”); they also undercut the rights of federal workers, the collective bargaining rights of West Coast dockworkers, the unions’ fight for immigrant rights, and the AFL-CIO’s “efforts for global justice.”

Sweeney says that the “AFL-CIO and the American labor movement have stood firmly in support of President Bush in the war on terrorism.” Bruskin, on the contrary, tells his chief that Bush’s “War on Terror, and War on Iraq have little to do with promoting security for U.S. citizenry. Rather, his foreign policy is designed to serve the same corporate interests that drive his domestic policy, making the world safe for U.S. multinationals. In the era of globalization the two cannot be separated.”

Bruskin’s letter to Sweeney only partly echoes the Washington State Labor Council’s resolution. That statement speaks out more strongly. It charges that “the AFL-CIO’s uncritical support for this profit-driven war has led to the callous withholding of solidarity from labor’s working class and poor allies in other countries who are suffering and dying as a result of this conflict…” (Click here for the full text of the Washington State Labor Council resolution.)

An even stronger statement was adopted October 18 by the second largest Teamsters local in the U.S., Local 705 in Chicago, which is among the largest union locals in the country. The Teamsters Local 705 statement was short, sweet, and blunt:

“Whereas, we value the lives of our sons and daughters, of our brothers and sisters more than Bush’s control of Middle East oil profits

“Whereas, we have no quarrel with the ordinary working-class men, women, and children of Iraq who will suffer the most in any war

“Whereas, the billions of dollars being spent to stage and execute this invasion, means billions taken away from our schools, hospitals, housing, and social security

“Whereas, Bush's drive for war serves as a cover and a distraction for the sinking economy, corporate corruption, layoffs, Taft-Hartley (used against the locked out ILWU longshoremen)

“Whereas, Teamsters Local 705 is known far and wide as fighters for justice

“Be it Resolved that Teamsters Local 705 stands firmly against Bush's drive for war

“Further Resolved that the Teamsters Local 705 Executive Board publicize this statement, and seek out other unions, labor and community activists interested in promoting antiwar activity in the labor movement and community.”

“We ask all those who support and are encouraged by this statement to contact Teamsters Local 705 to offer support:  Teamsters Local 705, 312 738-2800 or

The Oil Issue

To date, most antiwar union resolutions and statements are silent about Middle East oil and its place in U.S. foreign affairs. A notable exception is the United Electrical Workers (UE) resolution adopted at its September convention. “The Bush Administration is cynically using inflated claims of Iraq’s threat to vastly increase the military budget [and] to help his friends in the oil business…” The resolution was carried without opposition. The delegate (a District president) who introduced the resolution was quoted as saying, “The history of the Iraq issue is based around oil and U.S. corporations’ need to control oil.”

The UE delegate’s conclusion finds support from expert opinion outside the labor movement. A well-known geopolitics expert and Amherst professor, Michael Klare, wrote in the March issue of Current History magazine, “If the real motives were made clear—that this is a grab for oil and an attempt to break the back of OPEC—it would make our motives look more predatory than exemplary.” A Washington Post article on Sept. 15 reported this: “American and foreign oil companies have already begun maneuvering for a stake in the country’s huge proven reserves of 112 billion barrels of crude oil, the largest in the world, outside Saudi Arabia.”

From Alaska to Colombia, from Africa to Central Asia and beyond, the U.S. government and corporate America are relentlessly securing oil resources. But no area compares with the vast oil supplies that underlie the Middle East. And no part of the Middle East is as ripe for takeover as Iraq.

The Bush administration declares that a war against Iraq would be a battle between “good and evil.” But that’s likely to be a tough sell in an open and honest debate.

Judging by the number of “No War for Oil” signs at antiwar rallies, there seems to be increasing public awareness that a war against Iraq would be an oil war, part of corporate America’s battle with its international competitors.

An open public debate would surely bring out all the facts on that issue. And if the people of this country could vote in a referendum on this war, they surely would not vote for their sons and daughters to shed their blood and the blood of others for “Bush’s control of Middle East oil profits,” as Chicago Teamsters Local 705 rightly said.