Mainstream Press Reports on U.S. Labor Against the War

by Charles Walker

This article, and the two that follow, are from the web site Labor Tuesday for Jan. 21, 2003. They have been edited for Labor Standard.

It’s not clear that the hundred or so trade unionists that gathered in Chicago on Jan. 11 to form an antiwar committee expected to get much attention from the mainstream press. But two mainstream papers have sat up and taken notice that a relatively small number of unionists have organized to oppose the government’s looming attack on Iraq.

True, the press reports aren’t on the front page, but they’re not buried with the obituaries either. It would be nice if the friendly press accounts indicated an antiwar stance in the papers’ editorial rooms, but whatever it means, we can be sure the papers recognize the inherent social power of organized labor—and the power of the strike. Sure the new antiwar group can’t yet claim to speak for a majority of labor, but then most majorities start out a minority.

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 raised $30,000 to set up a group called U.S. Labor Against War [USLAW]. They passed a resolution against an ‘unprovoked war with Iraq,’ and they plan to send protestors to anti-war Marches in Washington and San Francisco. They also hope to enlist the support of 200 local unions in the next few weeks.”

The paper reported that Herb Johnson, secretary-treasurer of the 260,000-member Missouri AFL-CIO said that if USLAW “ask [us] to do something, we’ll endeavor to get people together and join some kind of concerted effort. It’s going to be an unprecedented thing for the United States to go and initiate an armed conflict. We’re all red-blooded Americans, but I have not read any evidence that this lousy fellow over there is the one who attacked us on September 11.”

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. So labor union banners will be a highly visible presence at Saturday's march and rally afterward at the Civic Center.”

The paper estimated that the Bay Area “march down Market Street and to the Civic Center will include representatives of more than 50 Bay Area labor unions—twice as many as attended October's big anti-war demonstration along the city's main drag.”

"Labor’s support is a boon to peace activists, who know that the image of longshoremen and nurses speaking out against a possible war in Iraq puts a 'real people' face on their message.”

While the Chicago group won’t find their task an easy one, David Moberg reported in Z magazine (Dec. 6) that already there is substantial antiwar feeling among unionists. “But opposition to the Iraq war has drawn more mainstream labor backing, including the Washington State Labor Council, Electrical Workers, New York state nurses, the Wisconsin SEIU, the California Federation of Teachers, Pride at Work (the AFL-CIO gay workers organization), New Mexico carpenters, and central labor councils from such cities as San Francisco, San Jose and Oakland, California; Albany, Troy and Rochester, New York; and Duluth, Minnesota.”

APWU Joins Ranks of Unions Against the War

Since the Chicago meeting of Jan. 11, several union organizations have adopted antiwar resolutions, including the National Executive Board of the American Postal Workers Union.

Gerry Zero, the principal officer of Teamsters Local 705, which hosted the Chicago gathering, told the Post-Dispatch that the degree of antiwar feeling is “quite unusual. It’s early, it’s very early, no military action has started yet, and people are really organizing against this thing.”

Peace Sentiment Echoes Ever Louder in Cleveland Labor Movement

by Jerry Gordon

Jerry Gordon, a well-known Cleveland unionist, was a staff representative of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union for twenty-three years.

On January 12, about a thousand people packed one of the largest and best-known African American churches in Cleveland. One of the featured speakers was John Ryan, executive Secretary of the Cleveland AFL-CIO. Ryan made a strong presentation, condemning the war for oil and forcefully stating “it will be working class youth who will be doing the fighting and dying.”

On January 14, GE workers in Cleveland held a big rally on the first day of their two-day strike opposing employer cost shifting on health care. Rev. Marvin McMickle, whose church hosted the rally held two days previously, told several hundred workers, “It's a disgrace that the government is willing to spend $100–$200 billion for a war against Iraq, but is not willing to spend anywhere near that sum to guarantee health care for all of our people.” This remark drew loud and sustained applause.

The Cleveland Citizen is the oldest labor newspaper in the country and is now in its 113th year of publication. It is published by the Cleveland Building and Construction Trades Council AFL-CIO.

The paper's editor and general manager is Bill Obbagy, who was a featured speaker at the first big rally of the Northeast Ohio Anti-War Coalition (NOAC)on November 16 opposing the U.S. war on Iraq. By then, the Citizen had already printed antiwar articles.

The front page of the January edition of the Citizen has a huge cartoon divided into four blocks, each of which contains a caricature of Dick Cheney. The first block says, “Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense under Bush I, helps to destroy Iraq’s oilfields.” Cheney is saying, “Bombs away! Take that, Saddam!”

The second box says, “Dick Cheney, CEO of Haliburton, makes millions in helping to rebuild Iraq’s oilfields.” Cheney says, “Mine.”

The third box says, “Dick Cheney, Vice President under Bush II, argues for a war likely to destroy (among other things) Iraq’s oilfields.” Cheney remarks, “Homeland security requires it. Bombs away!”

The final box says, “Dick Cheney, CEO of (fill in later, Inc.) makes more millions in helping to rebuild Iraq’s oilfields?” Cheney comments, “Hey, a guy’s gotta think about his future…”

On an inside page, the Citizen runs a caricature of Bush lampooning him for claiming that “to protect civilization from terrorism we must invade Iraq.” The paper asks, “And all that oil your oil buddies would then get to pump?” Bush answers, “Just a happy coincidence.”

Below this cartoon is an article titled, “Cleveland AFL-CIO Joins Move Against Iraq War.” The article quotes from the Federation’s antiwar resolution passed unanimously at its December meeting and then details reports of similar resolutions passed by other labor bodies, including AFSCME’s International Executive Board on December 12.

This writer vividly recalls an antiwar rally held in Cleveland's Public Square a decade ago, protesting then the U.S. war against Iraq. The 1,500 people who turned out suddenly found themselves confronted by a large crowd of hostile building trades workers who supported the war. A huge brawl appeared imminent but was averted.

How things have changed! Demonstrations by antiwar forces in this period draw friendly reaction on an almost universal scale. All sections of the Cleveland labor movement today are increasingly gripped by peace fever and express support for the antiwar movement.

In over 50 years of antiwar activity, dating back to Korea, I entertained the hope that someday labor would not only would be part of the peace movement but actually lead it. But not even during the highest point of the Vietnam antiwar movement, when in January 1973 the Cleveland AFL-CIO finally passed a resolution calling for the immediate and unconditional withdrawal of all U.S. forces from the area, has there been anything even remotely resembling what we are seeing today.

Antiwar sentiment in the ranks of Cleveland labor will surely deepen as the consequences of the looming bloodbath in Iraq become all the more clear.

Hard-selling the Dockers Pact

by Charles Walker

As this is written, the results of the tentative agreement between the ILWU and the maritime bosses have not been revealed. The vote tallies are to be announced in a few days. No one I know is forecasting that the proposed deal will be turned down.

Nevertheless, that hasn’t prevented the union’s top leaders from telling the ranks that disaster is in store for the union should they vote the pact down. Admittedly, their one-sided argument for acceptance is scary. On the other hand, so is their single-minded attempt to scare the ranks into believing that they have no other rational course.

Although there is opposition to the deal that was negotiated under the aegis of the Taft-Hartley Act, there’s no evidence that an organized opposition has come together. Usually, that means that a contract will be ratified, if only because the proponents are organized and the opposition is not. Still, the union’s leaders have chosen to sell the members on the compact, not just on its alleged merits, but on the fearful consequences they say will follow a rejection by the ranks.

“What we cannot do is cast ourselves as rebels looking to defy the federal government,” the leadership has told the ranks. “And this is exactly what we would accomplish by voting down the Memorandum of Understanding [MOU]…

“[O]nce again, the Administration has made it clear: another West Coast trade disruption will not be tolerated.” Moreover, “If anyone thinks they can get more by voting ‘no’ and going back into negotiations [as some opponents have urged], keep dreaming, you’re wrong.”

Despite the rising opposition to the administration’s war against Iraq, the union’s tops rest their case for ratifying the agreement on the “conservative” mood of the American people. “We live in conservative times; our society is very conservative, good jobs are scarce and hard to find, and politicians are sensitive to this. As a result, legislators weigh the conservative factor first, then make their decisions.”

Moreover, the leaders plainly say that the union and its allies are helpless to help themselves without the support of the Democratic Party. “Just look at the Democrats who cross party lines and vote with Bush on so many different issues. Who do you think,” the ILWU leaders cry out, “is going to protect us or even feel sorry for us, with public opinion already dead set against us, when an issue resurfaces painting us as a bunch of overpaid and spoiled workers who already enjoy wages and benefits far above the average American Worker and now demand more?”

The leaders’ fearful words today stand in sharp contrast with their defiant cries to beat back both the bosses and the Bush administration before they cut their deal with the shipping and terminal bosses.

Back in July, the union’s president, James Spinosa, declared, “When we exercise our rights to collectively bargain new contracts with better wages and conditions, when we enforce those rights the only way we can by collectively withdrawing our labor, they claim we are unpatriotic. But these are our legal rights. There is nothing unpatriotic about American workers insisting on their rights under American law.” (Quoted in the People’s Weekly World, July 6.)

“The entire American labor movement sees the ILWU contract as important. Everybody knows if the ILWU gets hammered, every other contract is in jeopardy,” said ILWU spokesman, Steve Stallone (quoted in the San Francisco Chronicle, July 25).

Moreover, the Teamsters union and the International Longshoremen’s Association, representing the East and Gulf coasts, declared they would stand with the West Coast dockers. “Teamsters President James P. Hoffa promised that his 1.4 million members, who drive the trucks that deliver and pick up goods from the port, would honor and join any picket line set up by the dock workers,” according to an Associated Press report of June 28, 2002. The Marine Union of Australia and the International Transport Workers’ Federation also declared their solidarity.

Labor journalist David Bacon has written that the government’s so-called war on terrorism has caused “the entire terrain of labor negotiations [to shift] dramatically in favor of business, and many unions may find themselves facing federal intervention in the months to come” now that “[i]nterruptions of economic activity…are [considered] a threat to national security.” Perhaps Bacon is correct. Certainly, the ILWU’s decision not to strike in defense of the right to strike reinforces the adverse shift of power that Bacon rightly deplores.

There’s speculation that, from the beginning, the ILWU leaders never intended to strike the dock bosses. That theory was fueled by the fact that the union’s leaders never asked the ranks to take a strike vote. Although the union’s caucus, representing the affected locals in 29 ports, and the union negotiators had their own power to call a strike, the ranks were never given a chance to throw their weight into the balance.

Could the ranks’ voice have made a difference in the outcome? It did in 1934, when the union militantly won its spurs, and again in 1948 and 1971, when it fought back against the imposition of the Taft-Hartley Act. But in those days the union’s leadership didn’t tell the ranks, “What we cannot do is cast ourselves as rebels looking to defy the federal government.”