Will Labor’s Antiwar Movement Survive the 2004 Elections?

by Charles Walker

This article is from the web site Labor Tuesday for May 6, 2003. It has been edited for Labor Standard.

The worldwide antiwar demonstrations around February 15 were called a “superpower,” so great was the number of antiwar protesters who took to the streets. In the U.S. the number of protesters may have eclipsed the mass turnouts of the Vietnam War period.

Among the hundreds of thousands who marched in U.S. demonstrations were an undetermined number of trade union members. There must have been tens of thousands of them, at least, but for the most part they did not march as trade unionists per se. That’s not to say that unions, as such, did not endorse and join the protests. They did, but their numbers were relatively small. No doubt their numbers would have been even smaller if not for the organizing efforts of a labor-based coalition, U.S. Labor Against the War (USLAW), founded in Chicago on January 11 this year.

A recent national meeting (on April 26) of USLAW’s “continuations committee” decided to continue the organization, even though, it said, “the war on Iraq is an accomplished fact.” A report to be posted (http://www.uslaboragainstwar.org/) summarizes the gathering’s decisions as endeavoring “to draw the connection between the militarization of U.S. foreign policy and its consequences for working families here at home: the erosion of civil rights and civil liberties and cuts in funding for education, health care, housing, veterans’ benefits, and other public services…USLAW’s unique contribution will be to connect this to its [the Bush administration’s] foreign policy of preemptive war and conquest abroad…USLAW will make the case that the nation can not have both ‘guns and butter’ and the labor movement cannot effectively defend working families in the U.S. if it does not challenge the U.S. assault on working families abroad.”

The April 26 meeting of 31 trade unionists may or may not have been as “broad” a cross-section of the labor movement as the founding meeting was (attended by more than 100). That’s not clear. But what is clear is that it was only one-third as large, and missing from the official attendance roster were several earlier participants who are not likely to have endorsed some changes which seem to reverse both explicit and implicit understandings agreed to at the group’s January founding meeting.

For example, at the founding meeting a substitute resolution from the floor prevailed over the organizers’ resolution, which spoke favorably of UN inspections in the days before the “preemptive” invasion of Iraq. The resolution that finally prevailed didn’t mention the UN at all. Now the group, according to the report, is calling for “the reconstruction of Iraq under the auspices of the United Nations.” No doubt the earlier critics of the first resolution would repeat their case that the UN is primarily dominated by the Western industrial powers, and the UN has no more right to decide the fate of Iraq’s national autonomy than does the U.S. In other words, from the point of view of the interests of the Iraqi people, both the U.S. and the UN should butt out now.

Reportedly there was an informal consensus at the April 26 USLAW meeting that if Bush is to be beaten in 2004, the Democrat candidate, no matter who that is, will have to be supported.

While there is no plan to openly endorse a Democrat against Bush, at least some of those in Chicago would like to put the organization in a position to influence the selection of the Democrat candidate, and, if elected, to influence the next president. That sentiment may be predominant among the Chicago attendees, as their report of the meeting never mentions the heavily bipartisan support for the war, though it rightly, but one-sidedly, attacks the Bush administration’s “anti-worker, anti-labor policies.” A proposed mission statement, still undergoing revision, repeatedly attacks Bush, but fails to mention the support that Bush has received from the highest echelons of the Democrat Party, or how the Bush administration differs, in class terms, from the Democrats.

It’s been obvious, since before the Iraq invasion that there is a developing anti-Bush hysteria on the U.S. left. That’s nothing qualitatively new. The ranks of labor were urged by sections of the left to defeat among other Republicans, Goldwater, Nixon, and Bush, at all costs. Lyndon Johnson gained the support of much of the left when he ran as a “peace candidate” against Goldwater. Hubert Humphrey, Walter Mondale, and Albert Gore, not to mention Bill Clinton, were backed by some sections of the left, in order, they said, to beat the Republican candidate at all costs.

This anti-Bush hysteria on “the left” may be deeper and more pathological than we had reason to suppose. In off-the-floor discussions, we’re reliably informed, some Chicago attendees were talking of the rise of U.S. fascism, if only in an incipient form. There was a fear expressed in Chicago that stopping Bush’s reelection is essential, if a looming fascism is to be held off.

That talk was most prominently last heard during the McCarthyite days, when leaders of the U.S. Communist Party were arrested and others “went underground.” Leftists of many groups dropped their activities, burned their libraries, and buried their heads, hoping to avoid the worst of the political witch hunt. The fear continued long after the Eisenhower administration turned on McCarthy. It did not dissipate until the mass movements in support of civil rights, against the Vietnam War, and in support of women’s liberation took to the streets in the 1960s.

The talk of fascism these days is partly fueled by the bipartisan passage of the USA Patriot Act and by the increased police repression of antiwar protesters in several cities, the latest being in Oakland, California, whose mayor is Democrat Jerry Brown. But repressive laws and police repression are nothing new in America, as evidenced by Jack London’s classic The Iron Heel. No doubt, labor’s Haymarket martyrs were subject to extreme police repression, as were the railway strikers of Eugene V. Debs’s time, and autoworkers, steelworkers, miners, Teamsters, and longshoremen in the1930s and since. The copper miners of Arizona can’t have forgotten the Democrat governor (Bruce Babbitt) who smashed their strike with the National Guard in 1983–84, and neither did the popular author, Barbara Kingsolver. (See her book Holding the Line: Women in the Great Arizona Mine Strike…)

Classic fascism (basing itself on the wild desperation of economically ruined middle class elements) attempts to come to power by organizing strong-arm gangs (like the Nazi “Brown Shirts”) to attack the labor movement and its allies, in order to smash labor’s threat to the rule of big business. If today’s labor movement were not so profoundly bureaucratized, its ranks not so profoundly demobilized, if the labor movement had actually threatened to stop the invasion of Iraq, the ruling class might well be on the way to backing a fascist movement. But there is no mass fascist movement for the ruling class to arm and back. Nor is there the need for one, given the anemic state of U.S. organized labor.

That’s not to say that there hasn’t been a rise in police actions against dissidents, protesters, and even mainstream defenders of basic constitutional rights, who take their defense of basic rights to the streets. And it’s true that cops’ actions, and their Tactical Squad garb, often resemble military actions. But what antiwar protesters have experienced at the hands of cops and civil authorities is commonplace in many Black communities, and has been as long as Black residents can remember. But that’s not fascism, nor even the actions of a police state, as these things are usually understood.

Every four years there is a need on the part of some self-styled leftists to drum up support for the Democrats, if only to get close to or stay close to the AFL-CIO officialdom. Those “leftists” have raised the “fascism is coming” alarm in past elections, and intend to do so again in 2004.

This kind of misleadership grows more appalling as the crisis of capitalism presents ever more opportunities to begin the construction of an anticapitalist movement, as evidenced by the breadth and depth of the “global justice” and antiwar movements. Those who described the recent upsurge of anti-Establishment forces as a “superpower” may have exaggerated some, but they were closer to the truth than those who would mislead that movement’s activists into backing the electoral designs of the Democratic Party, historically the swamp of U.S. social justice movements.