Organized Labor’s Antiwar Forces, What Now?

by Charles Walker


On April 10, an estimated 15,000 New York workers and others gathered at a pro-war rally at Manhattan’s former World Trade Center site. The Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York organized the gathering. “With dozens of union banners on the barricades around the trade center site and a succession of union leaders addressing the crowd, the event resembled a Labor Day gathering…Plumbers, painters, carpenters, ironworkers, elevator operators, journeyman apprentices, pipefitters, truck drivers and others mingled” (New York Times, April 11). New York’s Republican governor, George Pataki, and one-time Republican presidential candidate Robert Dole were among the invited speakers.

To date, organized labor’s antiwar activists have not been able to draw as many trade union officials and rank-and-file members—under trade union banners—to any one antiwar demonstration. No doubt many more trade unionists, including union officers, have joined the antiwar throngs in the past several months, but relatively few of them marched as trade unionists under their union banners.

Perhaps, if the antiwar forces had gathered their organized strength sooner, more unionists and officials would have been visible, as trade unionists, at the antiwar protests. But those forces, U.S. Labor Against the War in particular [which was not formed until Jan. 11, 2003], came together in response to the rhythms of the government’s quick war moves, which left little time for doing much more than organizing the existing antiwar sentiment in organized labor’s ranks.

While ad hoc formations of a united front character are very often absolutely necessary, they’re no substitute for an ongoing movement within organized labor based on social justice and a commitment to external trade union militancy and internal trade union democracy. Without such a movement to tap into, that is, a movement that has rightly earned a reputation among workers as a fighting force that has made a difference in at least some workers’ lives, ad hoc formations are fated to start mostly from ground zero, a strategic liability.

Antiwar forces in the labor movement had it much better when there were ongoing organized militant and democratic forces within the unions. The days when the Socialist Party, the IWW, and the Trade Union Educational League were relatively large and influential forces in this country come to mind. Though not as influential by the time of World War II, the influence of such formations lived on in other social and radical currents even then and counted for something, as evidenced by wartime strikes to redress sorely felt inequities. But the postwar, anti-Communist witch hunt led by the U.S. ruling class and its twin parties of reaction, Republicans and Democrats—and supported by an increasingly bureaucratized union officialdom—which swept through organized labor in the late 1940s and in the ’50s, all but snuffed out the highly developed class-conscious influence that had existed in organized labor.

The occupation of Iraq will continue to mandate opposition by labor’s antiwar forces to this empire building by the ruling circles of this nation. The need to popularize the demand “U.S. troops out of Iraq now!” couldn’t be more urgent. The ongoing domestic war on U.S. labor, unionized or not, which has imposed one defeat after another on workers, nevertheless could aid the building of a greater antiwar movement by U.S. workers. Both efforts, the enlargement of workers’ participation in the antiwar movement and the struggle to defend the living standards of workers, will remain seriously underdeveloped without the presence of a class-struggle wing, such as existed before the political witch hunt of the McCarthy era.

The elements of a class-struggle current do exist today, but those elements have failed to mount their own united front, an organized labor body with the critical mass to convince other workers that class struggle is worthwhile because it can prevail. Even a few thousand organized class militants have the potential to form an effective phalanx capable of maneuvers calculated to make maximum use of their relatively small numbers and draw the attention of workers in need.

If bringing such a workers’ united front into being were easy, it would have been done already. The difficulty of the job is indicated by the fact that it isn’t even being attempted, nor is there any sign that it’s thought of as a practical task at this time. But if the past is any guide to the future, then more attention should be paid to the history of the U.S. working class. Especially, its turnaround and upsurge during the 1930s.

It’s very true that the Depression Era upsurge was basically driven by deep deprivation, and the expectation of more to come, so there wasn’t all that much to lose by militantly taking on the bosses. But the decisions about how to take on the bosses and when to do battle were often based on the experiences of labor radicals, who had fought in many class battles going back to the turn of the century. Moreover, the radicals of the Depression years were organized, though not in the same organizations. Perhaps the CIO and the rise of industrial unionism would have been just as successful without the leavening of organized radicals, but to act or not to act on that supposition without overwhelming evidence is too risky for today’s radicals and militants, and the rest of the working class, as well.

For radicals and militants to organize a united front within the larger labor movement doesn’t mean that all problems have to be solved or all differences reconciled in advance of getting together. The construction of such a combination dedicated to relieving as much as possible the outrageous burden that this society places on workers—a burden that shapes so much of our daily lives—and the posing of solutions that build on today’s consciousness would be suitable enough for a start. And a start is what is needed.

But there’s a major obstacle to the building of a viable, useful united front of radicals and militants in the labor movement. That obstacle is the notion that the Democratic Party, even despite the lowest of expectations for that party, should be supported, no matter how critically. That notion more than any other, advanced by the labor officialdom at the top and the bottom, as well as by many otherwise clear-thinking labor activists, has taken organized labor down a blind alley.

That’s not to say that the Democratic Party hasn’t given something back for the decades of support it has received from organized labor and even many of labor’s class-conscious activists. If they gave nothing of value, or nothing that could be sold to workers as being of some value, the Democrats wouldn’t have any appeal. Thousands of local contracts for maintaining roads and bridges or covering schools and city halls are just an example of the ties that bind unions to the established two corporate parties, usually the Democrats. When the West Coast dockworkers were under attack last year their union leaders called on the Democratic Party to defend them, and many Democrat politicians gave soapbox speeches in the dockworkers’ defense. But that support was for show, as it invariably is when the die is cast; and the longshore union’s tops showed it, when they urged ratification of a contract that’s sure to weaken their future place at the bargaining table.

The commitment of the labor officialdom (and the labor militants that attempt to influence them) to the Democratic Party is not shared by a growing number of citizens. Many no longer buy the notion that the Democratic Party is a lesser evil, and therefore they refuse to vote at all. At the same time, the Democratic Party has lost a part of the white workers to the Republican Party. Whatever usefulness the Democratic Party still has for some unions or their members is far outweighed by the weakening, dependent state of organized labor that has resulted from its, critical or not, backing of the Democratic Party.

U.S. union workers are between a rock and hard place: A bureaucratic union officialdom that holds them in a class-collaborationist vise when it can; and the Democratic Party that tightens that vise as circumstances allow or demand. That vise has kept workers’ opposition to the war on Iraq limited. That is to say, decades of enforced dependency on the labor bureaucracy and the bureaucracy’s dependency on the Democratic Party has seemingly left this generation of workers without the virtually instinctive opposition to capitalist war possessed by many workers of previous generations. “It’s a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight” was once a common saying among workers.

In the abstract there was nothing inevitable about the New York workers rallying to support the war on Iraq, even though, perhaps, they had fellow workers, friends, or relatives in Iraq. But in the concrete their showing up at the rally was as inevitable as anything can be. We say that for the simple reason that class collaboration cannot be preached and practiced as much as it is in today’s labor movement on domestic issues, small and large, without it shaping workers’ views on “foreign” issues.

Class collaboration is a challenge, then, for labor’s antiwar partisans, as it is for all partisans of labor, unionized or not. The first step for building a mass labor opposition to capitalist wars, today’s and tomorrow’s, begins with the organized effort to remove by the roots class collaboration from labor’s ranks.