Sweeney Scabs on Antiwar Movement

by Charles Walker

The author is an editorial board member of Labor Standard.

Less than twenty-four hours after U.S. missiles struck Baghdad, AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney on March 20 announced his “unequivocal” support for the war and presumably for the war’s aims. “Now that a decision has been made,” he said in a prepared statement, “we are unequivocal in our support of our country and America’s men and women on the frontlines as well as their families here at home.” Nothing in the context of the statement indicates the slightest doubt that the war on Iraq deserves the absolute support of America’s workers.

Clothing his “unequivocal” support for the war as support for the nation’s military personnel, Sweeney is echoing the statements made by the top leadership of the Democratic Party. Teamsters President James P. Hoffa, a charter member with former Secretary of State George Shultz of the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq, agrees with Sweeney, saying that “the battle for the liberation of Iraq has begun, we must close ranks [and] rally behind our troops.” But the real supporters of the men and women in harm’s way, the burgeoning U.S. and worldwide antiwar movements, are demanding that the best way to support the troops is to bring them home—right now!

Expressing his confidence in the U.S. government’s intentions, Sweeney said: “We sincerely hope this conflict will result in a more democratic and prosperous Iraq and that it will be resolved with little loss of life.” But Sweeney’s sincere hopes will be cold comfort to innocent bystanders in the wrong place, at the wrong time.

Sweeney failed to explain why he thinks that a more prosperous and democratic Iraq will emerge as a U.S. protectorate, when the same U.S. government is determined to stifle the human, civil, and union rights of its own population. Sweeney himself, at times, has taken note of the government attempts to stifle our rights at home.

When the AFL-CIO at its February Executive Council meeting adopted a resolution opposing a unilateral attack on Iraq, the document stated: “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 at this time.” That was true, and, according to many policy analysts, it’s still true.

It’s also true that Sweeney has failed to make a “compelling and coherent” explanation to the labor federation’s 13 million members of why he seemingly no longer holds that the “American people and the world” are entitled to an explanation “about the need for military action at this time.”

The union’s February resolution was understood by many antiwar activists in the labor movement to be quite limited, perhaps no more than a tactical difference with Washington’s warmongers. Nevertheless, they hoped that the resolution would give them some “space” for their antiwar organizing. By the same logic that “space” has now been restricted.

But that doesn’t mean that workers’ efforts to bring the troops home now are likely to cease. The antiwar sentiment in the labor movement is growing stronger, even as Sweeney seeks to mislead workers as to the reactionary aims of this war.  Sweeney’s failure to stand up to the pressures of the nation’s ruling circles to “rally ’round the flag” is of the same cloth with his failure to put up a real fight for workers’ living standards.

Sweeney has no business being a shop steward, let alone being the head of organized   labor’s largest federation. His urge for basically collaborative relations with Corporate America explains his support of the war on Iraq; just as it explains his starkly feeble resistance to Corporate America’s downsizing of the U.S. labor movement.

Should the troops be brought home now? Should organized labor build its own fighting political party? Should unions resist the war on labor, on workers’ living standards? Is Sweeney, the labor bureaucrat, the leader for organized labor’s fightback? To pose the question is to answer it.