Talk at St. Paul Labor Speakers Club

Labor and War

by Dave Riehle

The following talk was given on Dec. 9, 2002, at the St. Paul Labor Speakers Club program entitled “War on Iraq—What Can Labor Do?” The audience consisted of about 70 trade unionists and peace activists. Dave Riehle, Local Chairman of Local 650 of the United Transportation Union (UTU), was expressing his personal views, not those of his local or international union.

Among the other speakers was longtime union and peace activist Wayne Wittman, reporting on an antiwar resolution adopted by his union in St. Paul, Local 459 of the International Association of Machinists (IAM). That resolution will be brought before the St. Paul Trades and Labor Assembly (AFL-CIO) in January.

Also speaking were: Todd Ericksen, Area Vice-President, Local 7200 of the Communications Workers of America (CWA), located in Minneapolis; Phyllis Walker, President, Local 3800 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), which represents workers at the University of Minnesota; and members of other labor and peace organizations.

The Labor Speakers Club is an 18-year-old, independent free-speech forum, which meets monthly in the St. Paul Labor Center in space provided by the Trades and Labor Assembly.

Labor isn’t supposed to talk about war. Labor is supposed to keep its mouth shut, pay the taxes, build the guns, planes, and bombs, and fight the wars. Well, we’re breaking the rules here.

What is it about this coming war? There is more discussion, agitation, and opposition to an impending war than within living memory of almost anyone here. Other speakers, I’m sure, will talk more about that. I want to use my time to try to address this underlying issue of whether labor should debate war and foreign policy within our own councils.

Who decides whether we go to war? Congress hasn’t made that decision since 1941, and the American people have never been allowed to have a referendum on whether to go to war. This is, among other things, fundamentally undemocratic. And, considering that we fight all our wars, so we are told, to protect and extend democracy, it is remarkably inconsistent.


The movement for peace in this country—the movement against unjust wars—extends back many generations, many decades. And it has many tributaries. In the broadest sense, I think you can say that the peace movement has had two great sources of inspiration and political conviction—the religious and the secular. For many people these elements overlap each other, and of course that is so within the labor movement. The religious tradition looks, I suppose, more than anywhere else, to the figure of Jesus as an exemplar of peace and love. And the greatest exponent of the struggle against war in our American history, who belongs heart and soul to the labor movement, is Eugene Debs. Nobody has anything bad to say about these two now, although, as we know, they were both reviled in their day. The trouble is, too few people seem interested in imitating either one of them.

My union, made of railroad workers, claims Eugene Debs as one of our own, as our inspiration for unity, solidarity, brotherhood. “Our Gene,” as the workers used to say, led the great Pullman railroad strike in 1894 and ran for president five times as the candidate of the Socialist Party. In 1920, the last time he ran for president, he got nearly a million votes while he was a prisoner in Atlanta federal prison, sentenced to ten years for his great antiwar speech at Canton, Ohio, delivered during World War I.

Why shouldn’t workers talk about war? Jesus was a carpenter and Gene Debs was a locomotive fireman. They talked about it. Debs said: “The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles.” Who more than us has a right to these discussions? It is the sons, and now the daughters too, of workers, who fight the wars. It is the working class who pays for them—in increased taxes, in wage freezes and inflation and no-strike pledges—and who bears the consequences for years and generations afterward, the personal pain and trauma of loved ones who are lost and damaged human beings who survive these abominations.


AFL-CIO President John Sweeney’s call for full debate on this question is most welcome and important. It is, President Sweeney says, “sons and daughters of America's working families who will be asked to carry out this mission.” He says, “It appears to many of our members that the sudden urgency for a decision about peace and war has as much to do with the political calendar as with the situation in Iraq.”

This call is not only important, and progressive, but it is new and different. Samuel Gompers did not call for full debate over U.S. entry into World War I, and his successors did not call for full debate over entry into World War II, Korea, Vietnam, or anything else. Yet today we have union antiwar resolutions popping up everywhere—from the biggest Teamsters local in Chicago to the Duluth Central Labor Body to many, many more. This is, at bottom, yet one more expression of the so-called Vietnam Syndrome—that is, the deep, abiding, and residual resistance of the American people to being drawn into another foreign war.


Labor is not supposed to trespass on the prerogatives of the ruling and governing classes to make war. Most people who haven’t looked into this too deeply assume that the labor movement is a bulwark of pro-war sentiment. The most enduring image, probably, is from the Vietnam War, when hundreds of hard-hatted construction workers attacked antiwar demonstrators in the Wall Street area of New York City.

Labor is not supposed to trespass on the prerogatives of the ruling and governing classes to make war. This concept is so deeply rooted in tradition, and practice, that it is easy to assume that it was always so. But, like most things that seem like they are a part of a permanent and unchanging landscape, this tradition has a history, and a specific beginning.

It really goes back only about 100 years, to when America started to send its troops beyond the shores of this country—specifically to the Spanish American War, when we occupied Cuba and the Philippine Islands. And it continued.

The famous retired Marine Corps General Smedley Butler—and I know many of you know this—spoke out in the 1930s:

“War is just a racket…I helped make Mexico safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefit of Wall Street. I helped purify Nicaragua for the international banking house of Brown Brothers in 1909-1912. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for American sugar interests in 1916. In China I helped to see that Standard Oil went its way unmolested.”

I cannot refrain from pointing out here that Prescott Bush, the grandfather of the current president, was managing partner for the banking house of Brown Brothers Harriman in the 1930s and ’40s.

The dominant practice in this country over the last century has been that labor does not trespass on the prerogative of the employers’ government to determine foreign policy, and, of course, war. Those who have violated this social compact have been severely repressed, marginalized, and written out of history. But it is important to remember that there are two traditions here, not one. And labor’s antiwar roots are especially deep in this state. I especially urge you to read David Montgomery’s wonderful talk, “Labor in Wartime, some lessons from history,” which he delivered last year at the Meeting the Challenge conference. There are reprints of it available here tonight, and the full text is on the Workday Minnesota website.

In the years before World War I, Tom Van Lear of Minneapolis was the General Chairman for the railroad section of the International Association of Machinists. He was also an active socialist, a follower of Gene Debs. In 1916 he ran for mayor of Minneapolis and was carried into office on a wave of working class antiwar sentiment. He appointed his friend and comrade Lewis Harthill, another railroad machinist, as chief of police. The bosses and the Citizens Alliance went wild. One of Tom Van Lear’s first acts in office was to call a huge antiwar rally in the Minneapolis Auditorium. Of course nobody remembers him today except historians, and not very many of them, either.

In 1941 the leaders of Minneapolis Teamster’s Local 544, including Jake Cooper and Harry DeBoer, whom many of you knew, were militant socialists and opponents of the coming war. Eighteen of them were sent to federal prison during World War II after being convicted of sedition.

And there is much more—the heroic opposition of the Industrial Workers of the World, the “Wobblies,” to World War I, and similar opposition by the militant farmers in the Non-Partisan League; also, principled conscientious objectors like our friend Al Eide, a regular at the Labor Speakers Club meetings over the years, who sat in Sandstone Prison with the Minneapolis Teamsters during World War II.


I’m sure many of you participated in the huge antiwar march and rally on October 26 at the State Capitol. I think we were all stunned by the size of it. And not only the size. But what it meant. There was the Vietnam syndrome, on the streets and marching—against a war that hadn’t even started yet—and by people who weren’t even born during the Vietnam War. It was one of those times when you get a sense of what it means to cross the line from political protest to social mobilization.

This was the largest antiwar demonstration in this state since the Vietnam War—in other words the largest in some thirty years.

It was also the largest political demonstration of any kind in the state since the Minnesota AFL-CIO mobilized 11,000 workers at the State Capitol in the mid 1980s to protest against union busting in International Falls by the International Paper Company and BE&K Construction Company.

There was some disagreement on the size of the October 26 demonstration, as you are aware. The Pioneer Press reported that it was only 3–4,000. They said that the police “estimated” that there were 3–4,000 and that the march organizers “claimed” there were over 10,000—an interesting use of counterposed language, by the way. Let me show you this photo of the October 26 demonstration, which I found on the Internet. You can see people filling the northbound lane of John Ireland Boulevard all the way from the cathedral to the State Capitol steps, with people still leaving the starting point. This is obviously way more than 3–4,000.

I don’t think anyone here doubts that the Pioneer Press, a subset of the huge Knight-Ridder newspaper chain, a ruthless union-busting media conglomerate, has a vested interest in understating the numbers who came out into the streets to protest Bush’s war policy, which is their policy too. And, since newspapers constitute part of the historic record, this false report is a falsification of history. Does it matter? I think it does.


When Gene Debs came to St. Paul in January 1895, just before he reported to Cook County jail to serve his sentence for leading Pullman strike, he told a crowd of thousands that turned out to see him, and I quote, that “nothing equaled the mendacity and malignancy of the St. Paul daily newspapers.” The Pioneer Press, he said, should change its name to the Plutocratic Press.

MAY 1970

Let me just take a look back at the largest antiwar demonstration in the history of the state, because I was there too, and comparisons kept running through my mind on October 26. In early May 1970, just days after Nixon’s escalation of the Vietnam War by invading Cambodia, and just days after the killing of four student protesters at Kent State by the Ohio National Guard, as you undoubtedly know, an enormous wave of student protests and strike swept across the country. This culminated here with an enormous march to the State Capitol on Saturday, May 9, 1970. It came from Minneapolis, down Summit Avenue, around the Cathedral, and then down John Ireland Boulevard, as it did on October 26. It was led by several hundred recently returned Vietnam veterans. Even the police estimated there were 20–25,000 people there. The Pioneer Press “claimed” there were 18,000.


In 1971 the Nixon administration took another step in escalating the war at home: the Wage Price Freeze. This was the first time since World War II that the government had attempted to impose direct economic control—aimed directly at organized labor and its then-current round of national negotiations over wages. This began to direct the attention of organized labor more than ever toward the connection between the war and conditions at home, and it increased labor’s receptivity to antiwar appeals even more. There was no doubt on anybody’s part that this dictate from the Nixon administration was directed against labor. All strikes were forbidden during the 90-day test period—obviously a trial balloon to see what labor’s reaction would be.

The fall of 1971 was the first opportunity to test out this new climate here, and in the course of building support for yet another antiwar demonstration, there were some unprecedented gains in labor support.

In October 1971 the St. Paul Trades and Labor Assembly passed, with one dissenting vote, a resolution calling for immediate withdrawal from Vietnam and endorsing the November 6 march on the State Capitol. I have it here and I want to show it to you, in case anyone thinks I’m making this up. The rally was chaired by Norm Hammink, the president of Typographical Local 30 and a delegate to the Assembly.

I want to take this opportunity to acknowledge those brothers and sisters of conscience who spoke out here at that time: Frank Zaragoza of the Operating Engineers; Gordie Spielman of the Union Advocate, the newspaper of the St. Paul Trades and Labor Assembly; Bob Killeen of the United Auto Workers; Ed Donahue of the Lithographers; Norm Hammink of the Typographical Union—even though he didn’t get along with my father—and the St. Paul and Minneapolis teachers unions, who carried many important resolutions on war into broader labor bodies.


John T. Williams, who was a prominent African American officer of Teamsters Local 208 in Los Angeles, and a national anti Vietnam war leader, used to say, “When the students stood up against the war, it pricked the conscience of America—but when labor sits down against the war, the war will end.”


As it turned out, organized labor did not sit down in the factories and the workplaces to stop the war before direct American participation in the ground war ended in January 1973. Maybe we would have if it had gone on longer. Maybe if we had, we would have known what to do when they started moving our jobs to overseas sweatshops. But even this is more complicated. The Vietnam War WAS ended by a sit-down strike—-a sit-down strike by labor, even—and this is the best-kept secret of the war. The GI’s, the American troops, ended the war by going on a sit-down strike. They just quit fighting. By 1972 refusals to fight were becoming epidemic. Troops who were ordered to head into the jungle to fight would go out a ways and just find a spot to stop at where there was no fighting.

By mid-1972 it was clear to the inner circles of the Pentagon that if the war did not end VERY soon, the probability of open insurrection breaking out among the troops—somewhere, somehow—and rapidly spreading throughout the U.S. army in Vietnam was very great, in fact, a certainty. This was an urgent and unpostponable crisis with no solution other than a rapid end to the ground war. Not only would this have created an incredible crisis of American power throughout the world, but it, probably more than any other factor, would have accelerated the movement of organized labor into antiwar action. This is what really happened.


It was the great student strike in May 1970 that broke the solid front of organized labor in support for the war. On May 7 Walter Reuther, the head of the United Auto Workers union and possibly the most authoritative union leader in the United States at that time, telegrammed President Nixon condemning his decision to invade Cambodia and calling the Kent State killings “inexcusable.” Other top union leaders repeated Reuther’s example: Pat Gorman of the Meatcutters and Jacob Potofsky of the Clothing Workers.

And then this happened: On May 9, 1970, the same day as the giant St. Paul antiwar demonstration, a private plane crashed on its approach to a small airport at Pellston, Michigan, near the site of the UAW’s Black Lake conference center. All six people aboard were killed, including Walter Reuther and his wife May…I think any further comment on this event would be superfluous, under the circumstances.


The stakes are high, very high, in this struggle. But it must be fought. Inherent in the reckless warmongering of the unelected oil oligarchy in the White House is the possibility of nuclear war and the unimaginable catastrophe for the human race that that implies.

There are two things I want to point to in conclusion. One, there is unprecedented opposition to and agitation around the impending war with Iraq. Labor is more deeply engaged in this process than at any time since the period before World War I—the war, I might add, that was advertised as the “War to End War.” The Vietnam Syndrome, far from being dispersed by several decades of unceasing and escalating pro-war propaganda, especially in the popular culture, has visibly reemerged with great force, renewed by a new generation of antiwar activists.

Two, it ought to be crystal clear, and I’m sure it is to the warmakers, that a prolonged ground war in the Middle East would provoke a wave of active opposition that would reach far into the ranks of labor. That much is obvious already. The only possible government response to that, if they were not willing to abandon their war, would be greatly increased repression of free speech, free assembly, and free expression. You would have to be blind to fail to see that the Bush administration has already reached this conclusion and is preemptively putting into place a repressive apparatus unprecedented since the public safety committees of World War I. The now official establishment of the “Homeland Security Department,” with its echoes of the Nazi Heimwehr—the “Homeland Defense” battalions of the SS—should make it plain enough what is being prepared. The recent intervention by the administration in the West Coast longshore workers’ contract negotiations shows where they are headed with this.

The labor movement has the power to stop this, if it is united and willing to act. If this can happen, it will not occur just in one step. It will require discussion—and debate—in the halls of labor, just as is beginning here. If we allow this discussion to be driven out of the labor halls and the union meetings—if we allow the discussion to be monopolized by the professional politicians, the newspaper pundits, and the talking heads on TV—the cause of peace will be far set back, and the working people, those in uniform as well as those in the workplaces, will suffer again. Nothing good comes out of war—wars for conquest, wars for profit, wars for domination. 

Let me finish with this: Our comrade and teacher Gene Debs told us, in his speech at Canton, Ohio, in 1918:

“Do not worry over the charge of treason to your masters, but be concerned about the treason that involves yourselves. Be true to yourselves and you cannot be a traitor to any good cause on earth.”