Against War—Unconditionally

A Look at Labor Positions on the Threatened War

by Wayne McElyea

Note from the editors of Labor Standard: On one of the key questions addressed in this article, the question of the role of the United Nations, readers are also encouraged to revisit an earlier article by Joe Auciello.

Last fall AFL-CIO President John Sweeney quietly let the word out that it was okay for affiliates to discuss and adopt positions on the war danger. That was quite a departure from the AF of L tradition.

Ever since the end of the 19th century, when Samuel Gompers, head of the American Federation of Labor, signed on to the Spanish-American War and then to World War I (the “war to end all wars”), the mainstream union bureaucracy have been shameless, uncritical cheerleaders for every military expedition of U.S. imperialism.

More than that. During the Cold War, the bureaucrats of the AFL-CIO eagerly collaborated with their masters in pushing “free” trade unions—opposing “red” ones—in other countries, always following the State Department line.

During the Vietnam War, AFL-CIO President George Meany took personal charge of getting bosses to send their hard-hat workers to attack antiwar protesters.

There have been some honorable exceptions over the years. There was a lot of labor resistance to Gompers’s stand during World War I, mainly led by Socialists and the IWW (Industrial Workers of the World; the famous “Wobblies”). Many of the leaders and activists opposing that war were fired, blacklisted, jailed, deported, and even lynched (as in the case of IWW leader Frank Little).

By the time of World War II, within the U.S. labor movement the Trotskyist current organized in the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) was virtually the sole opponent of war. The SWP-influenced leaders of the Minneapolis Teamsters became the first victims of the infamous Smith Act—charged even before the U.S. formally entered the war.

During the Vietnam War there were a handful of union leaders, such as Cleveland Robinson, John T. Williams, Bill Lucy, and Tony Mazzocchi who stuck their necks out to collaborate with the broader antiwar movement early on. But significant labor opposition didn’t appear until about the fifth year of the war, following, not leading shifted public opinion among the working class.

So why does Sweeney seem to be more out front this time? Well, first of all, I wouldn't discount the possibility that he genuinely wants to see peace.

Also there is a section of the ruling class, admired by labor officials, expressing themselves politically through Kennedy and Byrd, who think Bush’s plan could be a disastrous folly.

And there is the painful experience of Vietnam, still within the living memory of millions—including Sweeney and a large part of the union bureaucracy.

For example, Gene Bruskin, head of the AFL-CIO’s Food and Allied Service Trades department, in a letter to Sweeney last October made this observation: “In an interview shortly before his death, George Meany told David Frost: ‘If I had known then what I know now, I would have acted differently about the [Vietnam] war.’”

Sweeney is also undoubtedly impressed with the union mobilizations against war abroad. He took the unusual step of issuing a joint statement with his opposite number at the head of the British Trades Union Congress (TUC) at the time of Blair’s recent visit to Washington. And no one could ignore the millions participating in coordinated demonstrations across the world on February 15–16. A good part of that mass of humanity was brought out by trade unions.

The number of U.S. unions adopting positions that can be considered antiwar is unprecedented. It was announced on Feb.19 that they collectively represent five million workers, nearly a third of organized labor in this country, and the number keeps growing.

An especially welcome development is the launching of U.S. Labor Against the War (USLAW) in Chicago just a few weeks ago, on Jan. 11. And USLAW has helped organize a joint statement by unions from around the world opposing war on Iraq. Those unions represent millions of workers globally.

This is one of the most heartening developments in the U.S. class struggle since the post–World War II upsurge—and in the worldwide struggle of the working class. We should, and do, feel gratified and enthusiastic.

However, we need to keep in mind how uneven, and how tentative, is this new approach to war on the part of AFL-CIO leaders.

When you examine the various resolutions and statements it becomes clear that there are two broad categories.

One category is what has been termed by some conditional opposition to the Bush/Blair war drive. There is always a hint—in some cases explicitly stated—that war authorized by the United Nations, and as part of a broader coalition, would deserve support.

The few liberal politicians who have ventured criticism of Bush/Blair usually say something like, “This is the wrong war, wrong place, wrong time.”

These are tactical differences among our imperialist masters. They don’t much worry about violating the sovereignty of independent states or about the right of all nations to self-determination. They are willing to accept a lot of Iraqi casualties, and a few American ones. But they see Bush’s war as counterproductive now for various economic and political reasons. That’s why they say “let the inspections work.” They will let us know when the right war at the right time comes along.

The union bureaucrats have never been accused of independent thinking. In fact the very notion that we of the labor movement should come up with our own program, or our own foreign policy, is subversive in their eyes. Like good athletes they “stay within themselves,” taking their cue from the liberal bourgeoisie and mimicking their slogans.

Most still think the living standards of American workers are dependent on the success of the corporations that employ us. These union officials have little understanding of the real dynamics of what is called “globalization.” Many can be expected to effortlessly float between peace and war depending on what their “friends” in the Establishment tell them.

But some may be capable of learning. Others will try to adapt to the widespread antiwar sentiment in the ranks.

The other category is what we could call unconditional opposition to this war. Most union statements expressing this point of view are modeled on the resolution adopted and circulated by Teamsters Local 705. That was the position adopted at the founding of USLAW—though only after some heated debate about supporting the UN.

Role of UN Historically

The history of the United Nations is not one of peace through conflict resolution. Quite the contrary, the UN has often been used to provide cover for imperialist intervention.

The UN lent its name to the unworkable partition of Palestine/Israel that had been shaped by the grand master of partitions—British imperialism. The UN then stood by, with neither power nor interest to intervene in the 1948 war that destroyed even a token Palestinian state.

In 1950 the U.S., taking advantage of a Soviet boycott of Security Council meetings, won the UN seal of approval for the Korean War.

In 1960–61, UN “peacekeeping” forces in the Congo handed over the leader of Congolese independence, Patrice Lumumba, to Belgian mercenaries who promptly murdered him.

We could fill several pages with similar examples. The UN is not our salvation, is not even a friend.

The USLAW resolution was a compromise on this question. It didn’t mention the UN at all. If either of the two positions had been imposed, we would have seen a split before we even had a name for the organization.

All sides are to be congratulated for trying to build a united response to the war danger. All sides are free to express their own views outside the framework of USLAW.

We should work in good faith to build broad coalitions inside and out of the unions around the simple demand of “No War on Iraq.” We have a duty to the people of Iraq as well as the working class in this country to do everything we can to stop this war before it begins.

But as socialists we have a lot more to say than coalitions can. We need to explain why we don't support “let the inspections work.”

Wide acceptance of this slogan by many “progressives” in and out of unions shows the grip of imperialist ideology even upon those who should know better. What gives U.S. imperialism—which possesses more weapons of mass destruction than all other countries combined—the right to demand unrestricted access to search another country? What gives the U.S. “superpower” the right to tell the people of another nation that they can’t fly in their own air space? What gives the U.S. government the right to spread misery and even death by determining what another country can or cannot buy and sell on the open market?

Of course the answer to these questions is that Iraq was defeated in a war 12 years ago by the U.S. imperialist military machine, backed by a “coalition of the willing”—that is, most of the capitalist governments of the wealthy industrialized countries, and with the authorization of the United Nations. Iraq had no alternative but to agree to vicious encroachments on its sovereignty.

Instead of pleading for Bush/Blair to allow the inspections and sanctions to “work,” slowly bleeding to death the people of Iraq, all of us in the antiwar movement should be denouncing this shameful injustice.

Certainly we have no love for Saddam Hussein. Our comrades in Iraq have long been brutally repressed, along with all other working class currents in Iraq, and the Kurdish nation. We would like to see the workers and farmers of Iraq settle accounts with this evil dictator. But that’s their job. Nothing good for the Iraqi people can come from defeat and occupation at the hands of Bush/Blair and the Anglo-American oil corporations who stand behind them.

It is the job of socialists to explain how war is linked to, actually an integral part of, the class struggle here at home. The American working class has nothing to gain from the success of “Bush Doctrine” imperialism. This is the military arm of corporate-dominated globalization. The victory of this corporate agenda abroad will stimulate the exodus of capital and jobs from the U.S. to countries where workers have to labor for a pittance. The Bush Doctrine means speeding up the race to the bottom for all workers everywhere.

Opposing imperialist aggression is not only the morally correct thing to do. It is also very much in the material interest of the working class in this country.

Strategy of Class Struggle

For decades the Socialist Workers Party had a strategy of building a class struggle left wing—bringing together workers who were ready to fight the bosses and bosses’ parties even if they were not yet fully convinced socialists. This strategy focused on struggles for union democracy and union independence from the corporations and corporate-dominated government; for a labor party independent of the bosses; and for opposition to the bosses’ imperialist wars.

Of course the SWP abandoned this strategic approach when they dumped most of the rest of their traditional theory and program during the 1980s. But in my opinion it is still a valid perspective.

There are ongoing campaigns for union democracy. There is a fledgling Labor Party. And now there is a rebirth of an antiwar movement in the trade unions. The beginnings of a new class struggle left wing are in place.

The revolution may not be just around the corner. But the millions of workers, students, and others who marched against war on February 15–16 should be a wakeup call. Our class is stirring again.