The AFL-CIO Executive Council and the Planned War on Iraq—Two Reports

1. The Statement Adopted Reflects the Heat from Antiwar Ranks

by Charles Walker

This article was posted on the web site Labor Tuesday for March 4, 2003. It is followed by the previous week’s article by the same author, assessing the prospects for an AFL-CIO statement against the war in the light of the various pressures on the AFL-CIO leadership. The article has been edited for Labor Standard.

In what is surely a historic step, the nation’s premier labor federation has moved back from its traditional stance of unqualified support for the ruling class’s wars. That doesn’t mean that labor’s top echelon has adopted a policy about imperialistic war that Eugene V. Debs (America’s foremost labor leader to date) could have abided. After all, Debs went to prison because of his unambiguous opposition to American involvement in World War I. Nevertheless, for the federation, that is the AFL-CIO, to even hint that an American war might not enjoy its full and complete support is, as we say, “historic.”

In a prepared statement issued on February 27 during its winter meeting in Hollywood, Florida, the AFL-CIO, representing some 13 million workers, declared: “The president [Bush] has not fulfilled his responsibility to make a compelling and coherent explanation to the American people and the world about the need for military action against Iraq at this time.”

Unfortunately, that’s about as good as the federation’s statement gets. The rest of it is pretty bad. For example, the statement also declares its full support for “the efforts to disarm the dictatorial regime of Saddam Hussein,” ignoring every nation’s right to self-determination, once proclaimed by the United Nations and earlier by the League of Nations.

The federation completely ignores Debs’s position that the first and foremost enemy of American workers is their own ruling class. Furthermore, the AFL-CIO would have no problem if the projected war, certain to kill countless numbers of Iraq’s mainly underage population, is waged “in concert with a broad international coalition of allies and with the sanction of the United Nations.”

The problem with Bush’s war plans, as the federation sees it, is that the U.S. government has failed to build the same international coalition that it led against Iraq in the 1991 Gulf War. In fact the labor leaders say, “Many citizens, while supporting the goal of [Iraq’s] disarmament, are not convinced that war now is the only option.” The labor leaders don’t acknowledge that if the recent worldwide marches and rallies are any indication, there’s substantial worldwide opposition to a war against Iraq with or without the backing of the United Nations.

The labor leaders say that “there may be times when we [sic] must stand alone and act unilaterally in defense of our national security,” but fail to note that there are times when the U.S. government acts through others, as it did when Iraq attacked Iran, hoping to defeat the Islamic Iranian government that followed the overthrow of the Iranian monarchy. That point comes to mind, since the federation’s statement rightly criticizes Iraq’s aggression against Iran, but fails to note that the United States was a principal supplier of Iraq’s weaponry, including poison gasses and other weapons of mass destruction.

The labor tops acknowledge that around the world people “are taking to the streets to speak out against a war in Iraq.” And they note that 100 U.S. cities have adopted antiwar resolutions. Strangely, the union leaders fail to mention the antiwar sentiment in their own ranks, as evidenced by the many antiwar resolutions passed by local, regional, state, and national union affiliates. In fact, there is now an antiwar organizing center within the labor movement, U.S. Labor Against the War, which reports new antiwar resolutions by labor bodies virtually every day. [See]

Perhaps, the fact that the highest labor body ignores in its statement the mushrooming antiwar outlook in its ranks is the strongest evidence that it is all too aware of that rank-and-file antiwar viewpoint.

The whole point of the labor leaders’ statement is to announce that they have a tactical difference with the administration’s war plans, hoping to gain some credibility with their antiwar ranks. But as the predicted terror rains down on the heads of innocent, defenseless Iraqis, their broken bodies are sure to spur greater worldwide revulsion and condemnation of the ruling elite’s war for oil and empire.

Labor organizations in several other countries say they will strike against the anticipated war. The U.S. labor movement hasn’t reached that point yet. But if history is any guide, when the American workers catch up with international labor, workers in the citadel of modern imperialism are not likely to rest content with union “leaders” who balance their concern over the ranks’ feelings with their self-assumed concern with being thought “respectable” and “loyal” by the nation’s rulers.

The threat of war is creating a widening gap between organized labor’s ranks and labor’s highest officialdom. That gap partly originated as a result of the leaders’ inability to use labor’s solidarity to defend the living standards of all American workers. Workers will find a way to solve their problems arising from the profit-driven system, with or without the hierarchy that rules over labor today, or so the rise of an antiwar movement in labor’s ranks would seem to suggest.

2. Key Question on Eve of Executive Council Meeting:
“Will the AFL-CIO Back the Antiwar Movement?”

by Charles Walker

This article was posted on the web site Labor Tuesday for Feb. 25, 2003. It has been edited for Labor Standard.

The AFL-CIO Executive Council will meet February 25–27 to consider, it says, “political and legislative strategies for 2003, planning for the 2004 elections, a focus on how the nation’s healthcare crisis is affecting America’s working families, and a new level of discussion on how to help workers form unions…” Reportedly, the council also will be presented with at least two resolutions condemning the war plans of the Bush administration. One is to come from AFSCME and the other from the CWA, according to reports.

Chances are the council will not adopt either resolution, or anything like them. That conclusion seems almost instinctive given the history of the highest officers of U.S. organized labor and their support of the government’s foreign policy going back (gasp) before the First World War. But if ever there was a time to mistrust at least a little bit one’s gut about the highest ranks of labor’s entrenched hierarchy that time may have arrived.

We say that because of the rapid development since last autumn of an antiwar sentiment among U.S. workers, as well other sections of the population, that is unmatched, at least since 1941. Since January, various U.S. unions, numbering some 5 million members, have adopted antiwar resolutions and statements, some stronger than others.

Two major unions, the Teamsters and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), clearly seem to be out of step with the antiwar trend. But that hasn’t stopped many AFT locals from taking antiwar stands. Even two freight locals have broken with Teamsters President James P. Hoffa and his backing of the administration’s military scheme for oil and empire; and, we’re told, others are about to declare their differences with Hoffa over war, peace, and Iraq.

President Bush has likened February’s worldwide antiwar marches and rallies to a “focus group,” not deserving of his concern. Will U.S. labor’s highest body, the AFL-CIO Executive Council, representing something like 13 million workers, in effect, join Bush and write off the burgeoning antiwar movement within organized labor, dismissing it as not deserving its attention, never mind its support?

Whatever the pressures there are from below for the AFL-CIO tops to weigh in on the side of the antiwar forces within its ranks, there are other pressures that the labor tops have historically found almost impossible to resist. Those pressures come from the Democratic Party, a corporate party that demands and ordinarily gets organized labor’s dependency. No serious sector of the Democratic Party has broken with Bush and his total disregard for the national independence of Iraq. No sector of the Democratic Party elite has even demagogically played to the sentiments of the mushrooming antiwar movement, though some say that the UN inspections should be further prolonged, before, we guess, putting Iraq’s mostly underage population in harm’s way.

Moreover, the AFL-CIO tops’ favored candidate to get the Democratic Party’s nomination for president is Representative Richard Gephardt, an unambiguous supporter of the widely expectedly attack on Iraq.

But if the AFL-CIO chieftains elect to blow off their own antiwar ranks, they’ll also be turning their backs on much of the international labor movement. Over the Feb 15–16 weekend millions of workers, many unionized, declared their opposition to the U.S. government’s war against Iraq—actions endorsed and built by overseas unions of every description.

On February 19, some of those unions linked up in a conference phone call initiated by the U.S. Labor Against War group (USLAW), and clearly stated their determination to oppose any war on Iraq. In just ten days USLAW garnered the support of over 200 unions and 550 union leaders from 53 countries representing 130 million workers for a declaration stating, “We have no quarrel with the ordinary working class men, women, and children of Iraq, or any other country.”

The USLAW statement was based on its own founding resolution, which condemned the prospective war as “a pretext for attacks on labor, civil, immigrant, and human rights at home.” In turn, the USLAW statement was based on a clear-cut, antiwar resolution adopted in October by Chicago Teamsters Local 705, the second largest Teamsters local in the country. The Teamsters resolution was the handiwork of a handful of the local union’s UPS membership that had previously sought to defeat the ratification of the UPS contract, negotiated not long before. The UPS workers had no reason to think that the representatives of some 130 million workers worldwide would, in effect, adopt the substance of their resolution some 16 weeks later!

An international antiwar movement of great breadth and variety has grown extremely rapidly since last fall. Often, in the U.S., this mass movement has been politically ahead of any leadership. This movement has rejected the notion that the anticipated war is a moral war rather a naked grab for oil and empire. The movement is clearly opposed to a war, even if sanctioned by the UN. “No war for oil” is the predominant slogan written on hand-lettered signs. In historic numbers, U.S. workers, unionized or not, have been marching and rallying against the war. Now petitions are being circulated in unions demanding that President John J. Sweeney and the Executive Council speak out against the war.

The AFL-CIO’s Executive Council’s Florida meeting would do well to consider that before his death AFL-CIO chief George Meany is said to have stated, “If I had known what I know now, I would have acted differently about the [Vietnam] war.” Meany had some years to reconsider his actions. With the speed things now are moving, the union membership may not give Sweeney and Co. much more time to ponder how they should respond to the antiwar sentiment in their ranks.