Labor Antiwar Forum Held in Connecticut

by Renee Tanner


On Thursday, April 28, 2005, Council 4 AFSCME in New Britain, Connecticut, hosted a panel presentation on the topic “The Costs of the Iraq War.” The panel was initiated by union members of the Connecticut United for Peace Statewide Coalition in conjunction with AFSCME Council 4. Approximately 55 people attended. There was a reception and refreshments from 5:30 to 6 pm, and the discussion started at 6 pm. Greetings were given to the assembly by John Olsen, president of the Connecticut AFL-CIO.

The sponsoring organizations were the CT AFL-CIO; AFSCME Council 4; Hartford Local 1716 of ASFCME Council 4; Central [Connecticut] Labor Council; CILU/CIPU; American Federation of Teachers—CT; CWA, Local 1298; Hartford Labor Council; SEIU, CT State Council; Steve Matthews of UNITE HERE; Local 217 United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers of America (UE) District 2; CT UAW CAP Council; and individual union members. There were representatives at the meeting from all the sponsoring unions.

The goals of the meeting in addition to education on the war were to create a support network for union members who are veterans or currently active in the Armed Forces and for those who have family members who are veterans or currently serving and to create a resolution to present to the CT AFL-CIO on the war in Iraq. The meeting was chaired by Gabriella Campos, an AFSCME Council 4 organizer who played a large part in organizing the meeting.

John Olsen, president of the State AFL-CIO, gave greetings to the assembly. Olsen had been president of Local 133 of the Plumbers and Pipefitters union. He also previously served as secretary-treasurer of the CT AFL-CIO and has been president since 1988. Olsen is also currently serving as chairman of the State Democratic Party. Olsen said that he welcomed discussion and debate on the question of the war in Iraq in the labor movement and called attention to the fact that the forum was being held on International Workers Memorial Day. He paraphrased Mother Jones’s famous saying, “Mourn for the dead, but fight like hell for the living.”

Olsen called into question the patriotism of legislators who lowered the death benefit for the troops and failed to exclude armed service forces from the recently passed bankruptcy bill, which will severely hurt all the working poor. He pointed to the legislature which capped interest rates for credit card companies at 30% instead of protecting working people from usurious lenders. He indicated that he would facilitate the process of bringing the antiwar resolution that was before the meeting to the national AFL-CIO convention.

The keynote speaker was José La Luz, Visiting Labor Leader at Cornell University and successful organizer of collective bargaining rights for public employees in Puerto Rico. While working for AFSCME he led one of the largest organizing drives in the trade union movement and is regarded as the principal strategist in the fight for passage of the public sector collective bargaining legislation in Puerto Rico, which paved the way for the unionization of more than 120,000 public employees in the Puerto Rican government. He has also worked with ACTWU (which merged with the ILGWU to form UNITE) and has led an international solidarity program to assist workers employed by runaway corporations in the free trade zones to organize their own unions. A leading voice in building a tri-national movement to fight for fair trade and sustainable development in lieu of NAFTA, he has also taught Labor Studies at Michigan State, Rutgers, and at the Meany Center.

La Luz started by saying he thought that September 11, 2001, had  triggered a transformation in the way the world looked at the U.S. when people from around the world were moved by sympathy for the victims of the terrorist attack and that at first the world felt solidarity with the American people. He said that as a Latino and Puerto Rican he had felt included for the first time. However, he said that another more sinister force than the terrorists has been unleashed in this country working over decades—the evangelical Christians or neoconservatives—the New Right. He called Bush an imperial president on a mission to exterminate every opponent of empire as a “terrorist” group. He recalled Bush’s lie about weapons of mass destruction and said that Bush used the policy of preemption to invade Iraq. He said it’s a lie that the government’s goal is to spread democracy in the Middle East and Iraq when they are denying freedom at home. He said that the neocons want to turn the clock back and are allowing vigilantes to function openly on the U.S. border with Mexico. He asked why more working people are not demanding freedom at home by organizing and putting a stop to the gutting of Social Security. He said that he could not conceive of how union men and women could support this war and that it was up to American labor, SEIU, AFSCME, UNITE, CWA, UE, and the Machinists to end it. La Luz is a passionate and articulate agitational speaker.

In the panel discussion “The Costs of the War on Iraq,” Gregory Spreeter of the National Priorities Project gave an Interactive Economic Presentation on the costs of the war. His organization offers citizens and groups tools and resources to shape federal budget and policy priorities which promote social and economic justice. NPP focuses on the impacts of the federal tax and spending policies at the community level. NPP translates policy information into everyday language and assists national and grassroots groups in their efforts on such issues as improving their schools, creating living wage jobs, and providing affordable housing. For a number of years NPP has focused on the tradeoffs between military spending and tax breaks with social spending. Streeter used an interactive visual show to demonstrate just how much communities are paying for the war in Iraq and what that money could be used for elsewhere. He said that tax cuts of $3.2 trillion resulted in a 16% reduction in discretionary spending of $214 billion and $138 billion cut from mandatory programs. He said that the tax cuts exclusively benefited millionaires.

He pointed out that at the end of the Cold War in 1991 the military budget was $373.9 billion. In 2001 it was reduced to $330.7 billion, buy now, in 2005, it has risen to $422 billion. He made a dramatic point by listing Connecticut towns and how much of their tax dollars had gone to support the military budget. He said that currently the U.S. spends as much as the military budgets of the entire world combined, or four times as much as the so-called threats or potential threats to the U.S. He pointed out that in contrast to the first war on Iraq the U.S. government is footing 90% of the bill for war in Iraq and that

Connecticut’s costs for this war amount to over $5 billion. Another striking statistic is that the U.S. spends $500 billion on offensive weaponry, $40 billion on defensive weaponry, and only $7 billion on “the prevention of war.” He said that this greatly endangers our security instead of securing it. He said that all polls show that this does not reflect the priorities of the American people and recommended that people can go to pipa.org to see how Americans want their tax dollars to be spent. This was a powerful presentation and one that should be recommended to any group trying to reach out to new layers who may not yet be against the war in Iraq.

The next panelist was Dave Ionno, a Vietnam veteran and vice president of the Hartford Public Library employees’ union, part of Local 1716 of Council 4 AFSCME. He was trained as a medic and fought in Vietnam. He has been involved in his PTO and the violence prevention program at his local elementary school and spoke on the social cost of the war. He referred to the many members of the armed forces from Connecticut who have died in this and other wars. He said that many veterans in the 42 to 52 age group of other wars have been committing suicide, many victims of Agent Orange in Vietnam. He said that males in our society are conditioned for war and feel a need to prove their manhood.

Ionno said that studies showed that in the Civil War and World War II only 15% of soldiers pulled the trigger, so averse were they to killing another human being. When the army learned of this they embarked on a program to change the situation, and more recent studies show that 95% of the soldiers in Vietnam pulled the trigger, showing that the population has been conditioned to kill combatants but also noncombatants, including women and children. He said that 10,000–12,000 have been wounded in Iraq and that post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is on the rise as soldiers suffer the trauma of war.

The last panelist was Gene Bruskin, national co-convenor of U.S. Labor Against the War (USLAW). He spoke on building international solidarity with Iraqi unions. He has recently met with unions in other countries to continue building solidarity with union workers in Iraq. He has been secretary-treasurer of the Food and Allied Service Trades (AFL-CIO), labor director for Jesse Jackson’s National Rainbow Coalition, a local union officer of the United Steelworkers of America, 1977–1986, plus active in many other local and national union campaigns and struggles for peace and justice.

Bruskin gave some labor history on Iraq, stating that during the British occupation of Iraq after World War I the Iraqi people began to form unions. Saddam Hussein crushed these unions after he came to power in 1963 in a Baathist coup that the CIA supported. The current U.S. occupation, although it overthrew Hussein’s regime, has kept in place Hussein’s ban on unions in the public sector, imposed in 1987.

In 2003 many exiles returned to Iraq, including trade unionists who began organizing and formed the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions. Iraqi unionists have also organized the unemployed in the fight for jobs to deal with the 50% unemployment rate in Iraq. He reported that Halliburton brought in South Indian workers to work for them in Iraq, which resulted in a 2004 general strike in Basra. The U.S. official in charge of the occupation forces, Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) pro-consul Paul Bremer, set wages below the level set by Saddam Hussein. Bruskin made the important point that the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions is for women’s rights.

Bruskin said that from June 10 to June 26 this year Iraqi union leaders will tour the U.S. and be in Hartford, Connecticut, on June 22. He said that labor should care about what happens in Iraq, because the war and occupation are not about democracy but about reversing the nationalization of oil and privatizing the industry. He said that as a result of the “fundamentalist” policies of Bush, acts of terrorism have tripled since 9/11. He informed the group that as of now unions representing over 4 million workers have passed resolutions against the war. He said that Iraq owes over $40 billion in debt to Bechtel, the IMF, the Paris Club, and other Western creditors, and that this debt should be forgiven. He said that Iraq does not need U.S. bases. It needs clean drinking water, the right to organize, jobs, and electrical service.

Bruskin pointed out that in the U.S. it is only working people who are being asked to sacrifice for the war, while corporations and the rich have enjoyed tax cuts, removing $10 billion from the social safety net for workers and resulted in cuts in Medicare and food stamps. He pointed out that Bush has promoted Condoleezza Rice for lying, gave George Tenet, ex-CIA director, the Medal of Honor, and made Wolfowitz the head of the IMF. Bruskin’s main goal was to coordinate an intervention in the upcoming national convention of the AFL-CIO to get the resolution against the war proposed to this meeting passed.

(The resolution passed by the meeting follows this article.)

Gene Bruskin is a convincing, calm, and informative speaker and was well received by the unionists in attendance. The only unfortunate aspect of the meeting was that there was no gender balance and not one female union speaker was included on the panel.

In the lively discussion John Olsen took the floor and raised doubts as to whether the workers in the war industries would support such an antiwar resolution. Connecticut has many war industries, such as the giant Electric Boat plant of General Dynamics in New London, which make up a large part of the state economy. However, Bruskin answered that the resolution specifically targets the war on Iraq. Bill Shortell is political director for the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM, for short). He works in the war industry, at Pratt Whitney, where the F-22 warplane is manufactured. He said that his local has already passed an antiwar resolution, and this seemed to convince Olsen that the support was there.

(For the resolution on the Iraq war adopted by the Connecticut State Council of Machinists, see below, following this article.)

Olsen advised the group that the motion had to come to the Connecticut Executive Committee of the state AFL-CIO in order to go on to the national convention and informed the group how to do that. Gene Bruskin disagreed that it was necessary to go through the CT Executive Committee of the AFL-CIO to bring the resolution from this meeting before the national AFL-CIO convention, but he thought it would certainly be desirable if the state AFL-CIO were to endorse the resolution and bring it to the national convention.

This meeting was effective, educational, and inspiring and could be duplicated across the country. No one expressed any opposition to the resolution, and the discussion only clarified and toughened the resolution before passing it unanimously. The resolution that passed demands an immediate end to the U.S. occupation of Iraq, the return of U.S. troops to their homes and families, and the reordering of national priorities toward peace and the human needs of our people.

Sixteen union members also signed the USLAW call for unified fall actions against the war in Iraq after it was presented to the body by Linda Lancz, a member of the AFSCME Retirees’ Organization. The planning for the meeting was done in conjunction with a wide variety of union members and union staff. For further information on the meeting or on how to reach the speakers, contact Gabriella Campos, by phone at (860) 224-400 or by e-mail at gcampos@council4.org


Resolution Passed by CT Meeting for the AFL-CIO Convention

SUPPORT our Troops and Veterans: END THE WAR and BRING THEM HOME NOW!

(1) WHEREAS the Bush Administration carried out an illegal and immoral invasion of Iraq, using the pretense that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction and therefore posed an immediate threat to the security of the United States. But no evidence has been found that Iraq possessed these weapons or the capability to deploy them, and

(2) WHEREAS the war and military occupation of Iraq have cost the lives of over 1,600 U.S. troops, the wounding and disabling of thousands more, and deaths by some estimates of over 100,000 Iraqi civilians, causalities among soldiers of other nations, and the devastation of the entire country, and

(3) WHEREAS many U.S. military personnel are union members or family of union members that have faced extraordinary danger with courage and have made huge sacrifices in this war. They want to come home and bringing them home now is the best means of protecting them, and

(4) WHEREAS the Bush administration has used the Iraq war and national security hysteria as a pretext to create a climate of fear at home, to restrict civil liberties, and to attack the rights of workers and unions, and

(5) WHEREAS, the war and occupation have cost over two hundred billion dollars, leading directly to cuts in social and human services, education, and even benefits for the very veterans of this and other conflicts. Meanwhile war spending has lined the pockets of immensely wealthy anti-labor corporations and

(6)Whereas the Bush administration has announced the wholesale privatization of Iraqi factories and workplaces and kept in force a ban on unions in the public sector to benefit corporate interests at the expense of working families, and

(7) WHEREAS national unions (SEIU, AFSCME, CWA, APWU, GCIU, NPMHU/LIUNA, UE) and numerous state labor federations, central labor councils, local unions, and other labor bodies, representing millions of union members, have passed resolutions calling for our troops to be brought home, and

(8) WHEREAS AFL-CIO President John Sweeney has asked the labor movement at every level to discuss important issues, challenges, and problems we confront, and given that the issues of war and peace, and the destruction of the social safety net, are among the most important of challenges we confront,

(9) THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED that the undersigned Coalition of CT Labor Union Members calls on President Bush to bring our troops home from Iraq now, and to reject the doctrine and practice of preemptive war, and

(10) BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that the undersigned Coalition of CT Labor Union  Members calls on President Bush to provide adequate veterans’ benefits and otherwise meet the needs of returning veterans, and our people in general to jobs, education, and healthcare, and begin the process of converting to a peacetime economy with full employment and good jobs, and

(11) BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that the undersigned Coalition of CT Union Members will assist fellow union members and their families who are called upon to serve in Iraq and returning veterans by identifying and by providing information about resources and services available to meet their needs, advocating for their interests, by protecting their jobs, seniority, and benefits, and further calls upon other unions, labor councils, and state labor federations to organize this kind of support at the local level, and

(12) BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that the undersigned Coalition of Labor Union Members calls on the Connecticut AFL-CIO and the national AFL-CIO to demand an immediate end to the U.S. occupation of Iraq, the return of U.S. troops to their homes and families, and the reordering of national priorities toward peace and the human needs of our people, and

(13) BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that the undersigned Coalition of CT Labor Union Members calls upon the Connecticut AFL-CIO to create a permanent International Affairs committee, whose role shall be to analyze global issues as they relate to workers, to educate the labor community and the community at large on such issues as they relate to workers, to assist in mobilizing workers on global issues, and to make recommendations to the CT AFL-CIO on its positions on such issues, and

(14) BE IT FINALLY RESOLVED that the undersigned Coalition of CT Labor Union Members shall make this resolution available to fellow members and communicate it to the respective national organization, labor councils, and state federations with which it is affiliated with a request that it be adopted and forwarded to the AFL-CIO for adoption.


CONNECTICUT STATE COUNCIL OF MACHINISTS, IAM&AW, RESOLUTION ON IRAQ WAR

WHEREAS: The central issue of the national election of 2004 was the war in the Middle East.

WHEREAS: the majority of the U.S. trade union movement, including the IAM, had no position on the war. Despite our increased efforts, we had less influence on the outcome of the election.

The results were a disaster for our members and their families, leaving them exposed to continuing attacks by both corporate America and an anti-worker administration that supports the corporations.

WHEREAS: the record shows that the American people were led into this war under false pretenses. And further shows that the true beneficiaries of this war are the political manipulators and corporate profiteers.

WHEREAS: The effect of this war on the federal budget, and the economy in general, has caused a crisis in social and governmental programs that support working families.

WHEREAS: The cost of this war is being paid for by working families both financially and in human life. It has not slowed the hemorrhage of manufacturing jobs.

WHEREAS: The presence of U.S. troops in Iraq is not bringing the peace nor adding to security at home.

THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED:

The Executive Board of the Connecticut State Council of Machinists supports a phased-out withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, beginning immediately; and demands that the resources now being spent on the war be redeployed in creating jobs and prosperity for working families here at home.

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED:

That we communicate this position to our elected representatives, other unions, and the public at large.