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Labor Activism Against the Wars


Michael Eisenscher, U.S. Labor Against the War,

Thank you for acknowledging the role that USLAW has played in moving the AFL-CIO to its present position on the wars and military spending. We have been quietly working on this for quite a while. We're not done yet.

I found the choice of terms used by the federation of particular interest and import. "Militaristic foreign policy" is not a phrase one expects to roll off the tongues of federation officials. Just as the 2005 resolution opened up many new possibilities for this work in the labor movement, we are hopeful that this development will also give us greater access and influence in the internal discourse taking place in many unions.

Opposition to the wars and demands for a shift in funding priorities are important advances, but those could well be short-lived unless we are able to press the conversation beyond those limits to the challenge of what it will take to convert to a peace economy. The huge number of workers who owe their livelihoods to the military-industrial-security complex provides a material base for imperialism in the working class. We need to find ways to reopen the work that (Seymour) Melman started and get people looking at what it will take to make that kind of shift – how to protect the interests of workers and communities now dependent on military contracts from bearing the burden of a transition – and how to engage them in the process so that they become agents rather than victims of change.

What is new and deserves to receive broad recognition is the development in the Plumbers' union.  Fred Hirsch, a retired member of the San Jose local (393), is Liaison from the South Bay Labor Council to USLAW. His international solidarity work spans many decades and he is achieving near folk-hero standing in the area labor movement. He continues to be active in his union and was elected a delegate to the UA's convention last week in Las Vegas.  He moved two resolutions (one specifically on the wars and the other on defense of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid with references to war spending) through his local to the convention. I sent those to you separately. Both were adopted without any organized opposition or dissenting speakers.

The antiwar resolution was modeled after the resolution adopted by the National Conference of Mayors.  By the standards of most antiwar activists it would be seen as fairly weak.  But when viewed in perspective against the history of the UA as George Meany's union, steeped in anticommunism, jingoism and unquestioning (even enthusiastic) support of U.S. foreign policy, this development represents an extraordinary shift of tectonic proportions. 

Undoubtedly the economic crisis and failure of the Obama administration to pull the economy out of its deep recession is a huge factor affecting how workers, whether they be plumbers or pot washers, view and understand their declining fortunes.  But that alone does not, in my view, provide an adequate explanation. To properly understand why one of the most conservative unions in the nation would take such a step, we must consider the context – near depression levels of unemployment in the construction trades, a decade of war, the failure of those wars to achieve their stated objectives and their costs (both human and financial), four decades of almost unbroken decline in the living standards of most workers, structural changes in employment (casualization, off-shoring, loss of fringe benefits, etc.), capital flight, the abandonment by the nation's largest corporations of the implicit postwar social contract that prevailed from 1946 until 1973, and the consequent impact that has had on organized labor.  And that is by no means an exhaustive list of factors.

Social consciousness almost always lags social reality.  What we are seeing now, in the UA, in Wisconsin, at Verizon, in changes within the AFL-CIO and its affiliates, is consciousness beginning to catch up with reality.

How this all will play out remains very much uncertain.  There is no guarantee that these changes will become deeply rooted in the rigid institutions and persistent business union culture of most unions. How this plays out will very much be determined by how successfully the left and progressive forces in the labor movement and more generally in society come to recognize openings and learn how to take advantage of them to nurture and encourage these shifts so that they do take root. 

Capital has relied on the shock doctrine to  impose its will and to disorient and defeat any sources of opposition to the changes it seeks to impose.  But those same shocks that are so unsettling, disorienting, and immobilizing also create opportunities for dramatic change over relatively short periods of time when the anger and energy they unleash is combined with the right kind of leadership and organizing strategies.

This is a case of the script being written as the play is already being staged.  The acts to come (and final act, if there is one) have yet to be written.  The challenge is to learn how to get much larger numbers of working people to become play writes rather than bit actors in the unfolding drama.

Yours in solidarity,

Michael Eisenscher 
National Coordinator

  

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