New Labor Group Organizing Union Opposition to War

by Charles Walker

This article and the two that follow are from the web site Labor Tuesday for Feb. 4, 2003. They have been edited for Labor Standard.

There will be a lot more trade union banners in future antiwar demonstrations if a new national group of union officials and activists have their way. On Jan. 11, about 100 union leaders met in Chicago and launched U.S. Labor Against War (USLAW). The group adopted a clear-cut resolution opposing the government’s war plans, declaring, in part, that “the principal victims of any military action in Iraq will be the sons and daughters of working class families…we have no quarrel with the ordinary working class men, women and children of Iraq…the billions of dollars spent to stage and execute this war are being taken away from our schools, hospitals, housing and Social Security…the war is a pretext for attacks on labor, civil, immigrant and human rights at home… neither the Bush administration nor the UN inspections have demonstrated that Iraq poses a real threat to Americans.”

Teamsters Local 705, the national union’s second largest affiliate with 21,000 members, many of them in the freight industry, hosted the meeting of representatives of the widely dispersed central labor councils, local unions, and ad-hoc antiwar labor committees with a combined membership of two million.

Local 705’s chief officer, Gerry Zero, told the gathering that his local union in October adopted a resolution against the war. “We had 400 members and all the debate was one-sided against the war. There was only one vote against the resolution. I was amazed. I expected an even split.” He added, “We are having this meeting because our members demanded it.”

At the Jan. 11 gathering, an informal survey indicated that at least 100 labor organizations around the country had adopted antiwar resolutions, some stronger than others. The group agreed to win the endorsement of at least 200 more union bodies as soon as possible, and raised $30,000 to kick off their effort. Since the meeting the American Postal Workers Union and the United Farm Workers have come out against a war on Iraq, as have a number of regional bodies and local unions. More recent reports say that unions representing four million (4,000,000 workers have adopted antiwar resolutions. The new labor group endorsed the Jan. 18 antiwar rallies in Washington and San Francisco, and is building the Feb. 15 and 16 antiwar actions.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch (Jan. 14) ran a relatively comprehensive report about the new antiwar labor group and its intention to “put organization and money behind what have been mostly spontaneous, grass-roots activities.” The paper reported that “union contingents from California, Seattle, New York, Washington, and Florida, as well as labor activists from St. Louis and other cities…passed a resolution against an ‘unprovoked war with Iraq.’” The San Francisco Chronicle (Jan. 16) reported that “Saturday’s rallies in San Francisco, Washington, D.C., and other cities come a week after 100 labor leaders from around the country—including several from the Bay Area—met in Chicago to plan how to sway their memberships toward opposing a possible war with Iraq and assume a bigger role in the anti-war effort.”

Participants at the Chicago meeting said the resolution that was unanimously adopted was preceded by a sharp debate over the issue of the United Nations. Al Benchich, president of UAW Local 909 in the Detroit area, wrote: “Debate centered on whether to address such issues as the role of the UN, the legitimacy of inspections, and statements regarding patriotism and U.S. militarism” ( Indeed, the invitation to the gathering said, “We have the responsibility and the opportunity to join with other mainstream American membership organizations to influence the Bush administration not to act outside the UN. That is the purpose of this meeting.”

A counter-resolution, modeled on the Local 705 resolution, which originated with a small group of workers at two UPS facilities in Chicago, was offered from the floor. Like the Local 705 statement the counter-resolution made no mention of the UN, focusing on unambiguous opposition to a war against Iraq. “In the end,” wrote Bill Onasch, a member of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1287 in Kansas City, “the delegates decided we could live without saying anything about the UN.”

Gerry Zero, chief officer of Teamsters Local 705, says his members are conservative; still their antiwar mood is obvious. “We’re not exactly a real liberal union. We’ve got a lot of truck drivers, UPS employees, freight drivers. I’d say it’s a pretty conservative union. Yet they feel pretty strongly against the war.”

[See also the new web site]

Is Sweeney Feeling the Heat of the Rising Labor Antiwar Sentiment?

by Charles Walker

Let’s compare two letters. The first was an October 2002 letter by AFL-CIO President John Sweeney to the U.S. Congress, “Regarding the Debate on Iraq.” The second was dated January 30, 2002, and was co-written by Sweeney and John Monks, general secretary of the British Trades Union Congress (TUC), to President Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair. The comparison suggests, though rather weakly, that Sweeney may at last have heard the U.S. unionists who have reminded everyone that sons and daughters of America’s working families will pay for a war on Iraq.

The slight evidence that Sweeney is paying attention to the antiwar voices in the labor movement is contained in the joint letter that tells Bush and Blair, “Today many citizens of the United States and of the United Kingdom are not convinced that war must be waged now in Iraq.” Of course, that’s true, especially in Britain, where the antiwar movement among workers has a head start on the U.S. movement. Still, the most recent reports indicate that U.S. unions representing some 4,000,000 workers have adopted resolutions opposing a war on Iraq, close to 25% of the unionized workforce. Moreover, a national labor organization has been launched to begin to educate and rally workers to oppose a war.

But Sweeney’s acknowledgement of the antiwar sentiment here and in Britain doesn’t mean that he too is now unconditionally opposed to a war on Iraq. If the United Nations would supply a political cover for a war, Sweeney would have no reservations. “Our nation’s long-term interests,” Sweeney wrote in October, “require that we assemble a broad international coalition for an aggressive and effective policy of disarmament in Iraq—and work through the United Nations to the greatest extent possible.”

In the latest letter, Sweeny and Monks also urge Bush and Blair to lead through the United Nations, seek to build the “broadest possible coalition” against totalitarianism and terror, and not to act without “the strongest international legitimacy,” and “to win the fullest support of our friends and allies before the path of war is chosen as a last resort.”

Although the letter is addressed to both heads of state, that’s a mere formality, since Blair isn’t going to wage war on Iraq alone, but the same can’t be said of the empire builders in the U.S.

Missing from the joint letter is the assertion expressed in the earlier letter to Congress, “America certainly has the right to act unilaterally if we need to do so to protect our national interests, but the AFL-CIO strongly believes that our national interests are better protected by multilateral action.” The latest letter also takes sides on the issue of the inspections, saying that the inspectors in Iraq should be allowed “adequate time to be able to inform fully the international community in their appreciation of the threat to world peace and security.”

But at bottom, Sweeney hasn’t got what it takes to agree with Secretary-Treasurer Gene Bruskin of the Food & Allied Trades, AFL-CIO, who wrote Sweeney in October: “I do not believe, however, that Bush’s War policies are designed to increase domestic security. They are, rather, a Trojan Horse for his pro-corporate domestic and international agenda…[H]is foreign policy is designed to serve the same corporate interests that drive his domestic policy, making the world safe for U.S. multinationals…I believe that the Labor movement must take the lead in opposing Bush’s War policies if we are going to succeed at advancing our own goals of improving the lives of the U.S. working class.”

Bruskin’s views of the administration’s motives are probably similar to the views of many antiwar union leaders and activists, here and abroad. But his views are constrained by Bruskin’s reliance on the Democratic Party. “Here,” Bruskin wrote Sweeney, “we will have to set the pace for the Democratic Party [politicians,] who in large measure fear to challenge the President’s security-related initiatives.” How quickly Bruskin forgets the virtual Congressional stampede that enacted the USA Patriot Act. That wasn’t just fear; they were eager to get rid of the Bill of Rights, both Democrats and Republicans.

Still, to his credit, Bruskin, who is now one of the two main contact people for U.S. Labor Against the War, is suggesting that labor should not fear Bush but should set the pace and take the lead in opposing Bush’s policies.

Meanwhile, Sweeney’s position on an attack on Iraq has to be a disappointment to Iraqi workers and their families, sure to bear the heaviest burden of the expected war. What have they done to merit the lack of solidarity from the head of the U.S. labor federation?

Communist Party Transit Workers Approve of Pact

by the Austin Hogan Transit Club

New York City transport workers, members of Transport Workers Union Local 100 were tested in a struggle of historic significance, their recent contract struggle… Key events in the contract struggle were general membership meetings, attended by upwards of 11,000 members, on Dec. 7, just eight days before the expiration of the contract. At these meetings the membership voted unanimously to authorize the union’s executive board to call a strike when and if circumstances warranted… The final contract, although not perfect in every respect, represents a major victory for transit workers…Unfortunately the unity of the local has been threatened by a tiny phony left faction who have been opposed to the unified leadership under [President Roger] Toussaint and Ed Watt from the start.

This breaking of the ranks is nothing new for these elements but it did, initially, confuse some pro-Local 100 forces in NYC. Fortunately, due to lack of any political base and their general ineptness, their impact has been small. Meanwhile, their actions are daily exposing their arrogant, anti-worker attitudes. Local 100 leadership took great pains to assure that they worked in conjunction with the broader labor movement every step of the way. This approach was key in forcing the employer to begin to bargain seriously. The recent accomplishments of TWU Local 100 are examples of what can be achieved by a unified labor movement, spearheaded by a pro-working class and anti-racist leadership. The word on the street is that, with this struggle, Local 100 has assumed a leading role in NYC labor. It has been a long time, but we’re back!

The Austin Hogan Transit Club is a club in the New York State Communist Party and is comprised of TWU Local 100 members. The club can be reached here.

[Note by the Editor of Labor Tuesday: The full statement by the Austin Hogan Club of the Communist Party can be found in the People’s Weekly World, Saturday, Feb. 1, 2003. As the piece says, the contract was ratified by a 60 percent vote. However, the opposition to the pact, at 40 percent, was significant. Further, some members of the same slate that Toussaint was elected with opposed it. It’s true that some high-ranking New York labor officials have praised the accord and Toussaint. But praise from that quarter of the labor movement should also raise suspicions.]