Last January, I was fortunate to attend what will prove to be a milestone in U.S. labor history-the founding of U.S. Labor Against the War. Not since the days of Gene Debs and Mother Jones had there been such substantial organized labor opposition to a war before it was even launched.
This past weekend, October 24-25, I was privileged to be a delegate to USLAW’s second major gathering-the National Labor Assembly for Peace. In preparation for the event the organizers issued this brief history of USLAW’s accomplishments. It is worth reviewing:
In the months preceding the invasion of Iraq, hundreds of local, state and national unions, central labor councils and other labor organizations took official positions opposing war on Iraq. This led to the founding, on January 11 in Chicago, of U.S. Labor Against War (USLAW). By the time the invasion of Iraq was actually launched on March 20, labor organizations representing almost one-third of all organized workers in the U.S. were on record opposed to the war. This laid a foundation for the unprecedented decision of the AFL-CIO to break with the Bush administration’s policies in Iraq.
USLAW is a network of unions and other labor organizations opposed to U.S. policy in Iraq and to the misplaced priorities of the U.S. government that have resulted in a bloated and growing military budget paid for with severe cuts in domestic social programs. USLAW organizes labor movement resistance to the Bush administration’s ‘War on Workers’ – the assault on labor and human rights, on unions, social programs, immigrants, and the very idea of a public sector. USLAW opposes the so-called ‘Patriot’ Act and other administration initiatives that constitute a direct assault on cherished Constitutional liberties.
In its short history, USLAW has –
* Organized a network of labor organizations opposed to the direction the Bush administration is taking the world;
* Organized a National Day of Labor Antiwar Action last October 12th;
* Mobilized labor participation in the major national antiwar protests that preceded the war and that occurred after the war began;
* Initiated an international declaration in opposition to the Iraq war that has been endorsed by unions and labor federations around the world;
* Published a report that exposes the labor, human rights, environmental, social and criminal records of eighteen corporations given contracts for work in Iraq, now translated into Arabic, French, Portuguese, Spanish and Japanese;
* Helped initiate an international call for a Campaign for Labor Rights in Iraq and is participating in organizing an international labor delegation to visit Iraq to investigate how workers there are being treated;
* Launched a website to provide news, analysis and organizing resources, and distributed thousands of antiwar buttons and bumper stickers to labor organizations and individual workers across the country;
* Initiated a call on behalf of union members and retirees who are veterans or members of military families for an immediate end to the U.S. occupation and safe return of all U.S. troops;
* Has joined United for a Fair Economy in developing popular education workshops that make the connection between the war and military budget and their economic consequences for working families;
* Is participating in the national campaign to demand a thorough independent investigation of the Bush administration’s deception, misrepresentation and outright lying to justify and build support for its war policy.
* USLAW is currently organizing a National Labor Assembly for Peace to be held in Chicago on October 24-25, 2003.
USLAW invites local, regional and national unions, central labor bodies, and allied labor organizations to affiliate, become active in, and support this important work. JOIN US!
This is not the kind of self-serving huffing and puffing heard all too often in the labor movement. The achievements are real and significant, a testimony to the potential power of our unions when well led and properly focused.
In the beginning mass demonstrations, on a global scale, supplied some strong wind to the new group’s sail. When the opportunities for mass actions subsided after the invasion of Iraq it would have been easy for USLAW to have drifted aimlessly. But that didn’t happen.
Instead the organization, after consultation with activists in the field, shifted gears. USLAW was in the forefront of exposing the role of U.S. corporations in the occupation of Iraq. And they reached out to the fledgling labor movement rising once again among Iraqi workers, championing their labor rights. In collaboration with others USLAW began to demonstrate the adverse impact of the war and occupation on the labor movement here at home, with attacks on our labor rights and diversion of enormous amounts of tax dollars from useful public services to the war/occupation.
Mobilizing support around these issues was important. In addition these campaigns kept USLAW not only alive but growing, preparing for new stages in the fight against war.
USLAW, like the broader antiwar movement, brought together very diverse forces. As long as the focus remains on the Iraq war and occupation that is a great strength.
But we have seen how easy it is, even among the best meaning people in the broader antiwar movement, for differences on other issues to intrude and divide. Going into the USLAW conference I saw three main potential bullets that had to be dodged:
Israel/Palestine. There are many who think Americans have an obligation to oppose our government’s complicity in supporting the brutal methods of the Israeli regime in suppressing Palestinians. Personally I agree with that general sentiment.
However, I believe we need an independent movement around this issue. It would be a serious mistake to demand that the movement against the war/occupation in Iraq also support Palestinian liberation.
First of all, this is a hot button issue that could drive a mortal wedge among us. Undoubtedly a majority of the unions and union officials supporting USLAW could not and would not support it if it was perceived to have an “anti-Israel” position. Splitting the Iraq movement could only harm, not help the interests of Palestinians.
Secondly, there is by no means complete unity among those who oppose Israeli repression. Some condemn the suicide bombers as terrorists while others consider them heroes. Some favor a “two-state solution” while others, including myself, support Arab Muslims, Arab Christians, practicing Jews, and nonreligious Jews, coming together on a basis of equality in a single democratic, secular state.
These are important questions but they can’t and won’t be resolved within the Iraq movement. Nor will Ireland, Colombia, the Philippines, the Congo, or any of the other conflicts nurtured by global capitalism.
That doesn’t mean we can never mention any issue besides Iraq. Bill Fletcher’s keynote address to the Labor Assembly for Peace spent a lot of time on the history of American imperialism and the effects it has had on the working class. Various delegates made remarks during discussions on the floor about Israel/Palestine and other hot spots. Such education and debate is not only permissible but beneficial.
Bill Fletcher gives keynote while Gene Bruskin looks on
But that’s different than committing an organization to an official position on other issues that may be in dispute, or adding additional slogans that will turn off many otherwise sympathetic.
To their credit, the delegates were sensitive to the explosive nature of this question and did not insist on USLAW taking a position.
The United Nations. Just as we have seen in the broader antiwar movement, there are some within USLAW who would have supported military action in Iraq if it had been conducted by the UN. Even more would favor the UN taking over the responsibility for the occupation and “rebuilding” of Iraq.
But there are also those of us who opposed the war, and continue to oppose the occupation, because we believe the whole thing is morally and legally wrong, against the interests of the working class majority in Iraq, Britain, and the United States. That would have been just as true, in our opinion, had the blue flag been on top of the stars and stripes.
This issue disrupted a good working relation that Kansas City LAW once had with the KC Iraq Task Force. The Task Force called a demonstration, ignoring these deep divisions, under the slogan “U.S. Out-U.N. In.” For us that was a deal breaker. We were not going to be captured by the pro-UN faction.
At the USLAW founding conference it was clear we were far from a consensus on this issue. We resolved that difference by remaining silent on the question. No calls for UN intervention, no denunciations of the UN.
That unspoken agreement held up once again as both camps made a good faith effort to maintain unity.
Defeat Bush At All Cost. Perhaps the most threatening bullet to evade was the question of the 2004 presidential election. The labor movement, always faithful providers of money and troops for the Democrats, have been joined by most “left” groups as well in raising the cry of “defeat Bush at all costs.” It could be expected that this pressure would be reflected at the Labor Assembly for Peace.
There are two big problems with USLAW officially weighing in on the side of the Democrat nominee.
First off, the major candidates, along with 99 per cent of the Democrat congressional “opposition,” supported Bush’s invasion of Iraq and supported the undemocratic Patriot Act. Their half-hearted criticisms have only come recently, as the occupation has become increasingly unpopular. They all now say they would have handled the war differently by building a bigger coalition, and/or involving the UN. Only minor players Kucinich and Sharpton have raised principled objections to the war and they have as much chance of being elected as I do.
There is no doubt that USLAW, and the rest of the antiwar movement, will continue to be needed no matter who wins the 2004 election. To put our stamp of approval on a disingenuous “peace” candidate would be a disorienting disservice to real supporters of peace.
Secondly, while there is no doubt the big majority in the antiwar movement will hold their nose and vote for Bush’s Democrat opponent, there is still a substantial number of local leaders and activists who are Libertarians, Greens, socialists, anarchists, even some Republicans. These folks who play such a crucial role in maintaining motion in the movement will be insulted and discouraged if required to give even back-handed support to a competing party in the election.
Again this threat was sidestepped-though just barely. Documents submitted placed a heavy emphasis on attacking the Bush war-fair enough-but virtually no mention of Democrat complicity. Certainly many speakers made plain their support for the Anybody But Bush strategy. Still, the leadership is to be commended for not ramming this down the craw of the minority who favor a different electoral approach. There is no formal endorsement of the Democrats-at least for now.
So these three potentially fatal bullets were avoided. Solid, broad based unity, a prerequisite for future success, was maintained. Like good physicians we observed the first rule of medicine, do no harm.
But doctors are expected to do more than just that-and so are we. I think the Labor Assembly for Peace laid out an ambitious, yet realistic plan for mobilizing the power of the labor movement against war.
Certainly the conference agenda and schedule were quite ambitious. Included were:
Welcome to Chicago and Teamsters Local 705 by President Jerry Zero. Local 705, second biggest in the IBT, had also been the host of the Founding Conference.
Organizational and Political Objectives of the Assembly, by Bob Muehlenkamp, Co-convenor, USLAW
Overview of Assembly: Logistics, Agenda, Task Forces, etc – Amy Newell, USLAW Organizer & Elena Marcheschi, Coordinator, Chicago Labor for Peace, Prosperity & Justice. The logistics challenge was handled admirably by a combination of Local 705 and USLAW staff along with hard working volunteers.
Review and Beginning Discussion of Mission statement Nancy Romer, Sr. College Officer, PSC-CUNY/AFT Local 2334
Review Proposal for Structure/Leadership/Finances Michael Eisenscher
Keynote Address – Bill Fletcher, Executive Director, TransAfrica. Fletcher has earned an outstanding reputation for his work at all levels in the labor movement-above all as an educator. He opened his remarks with “When does silence become complicity? When does ignorance become compliance? Silence and ignorance are no longer acceptable.”
Report from USLAW Delegation to Iraq
Mission Statement and Name Gene Bruskin, USLAW Co-convenor There was relatively little controversy about the well-written Mission Statement but several suggested new names were hotly contested. In the end, delegates stuck with the name US Labor Against the War.
Daniel Gluckstein, Coordinator, International Liaison Committee, Paris, reported on the international campaign for labor rights in Iraq.
Structure, Leadership and Finances Jerry Tucker, Executive Director, United Health Care Workers of St. Louis & Michael Eisenscher. The Founding Conference didn’t have time to develop much of a formal structure. We were faced with the urgent task of trying to stop a war. There was much improvisation and ad hoc initiative. This conference established a more formal structure based primarily on affiliated organizations. While unions will be the main source of affiliates provisions were also made for local ad hoc committees and labor related advocacy and service groups. There is also a provision for individual associate members for those not in an affiliated organization.
Bob Muehlenkamp and Gene Bruskin were designated to continue their much appreciated work as co-convenors.
Strategy Task Forces Carol Weidel, President, AFT Local 4999
Objective: To develop 1-3 action proposals as programmatic focus for coming year and identify core of those who will help to implement them. The Task Forces included: Vets and Military Families; War & the Economy Education; Defending Immigrants and Communities of Color; Defending Social Programs and the Public Sector; International Solidarity & Labor Rights in Iraq; Defending Civil Liberties and Labor Rights in the U.S.
Time was also found for musical presentations as well as an excellent slide show by labor journalist David Bacon who was part of the labor delegation to Iraq.
Attendance at the gathering would certainly have been greater had it not been for the fact of major national demonstrations in Washington and San Francisco scheduled for the same time. USLAW was already locked into this time frame when ANSWER issued their call for October 25. Attempts to rearrange schedules proved fruitless.
I believe the only national union officer present was Marybeth Menaker, president of the National Writers Union. The NWU did a good job of promoting participation in the event and were well represented there.
There were also officers from District 1199 health care workers, and SEIU Local 250 in California-both with membership totals in the tens of thousands-as well as three UE district presidents.
While the delegates were largely in the middle age range there were also a fair number of young people including some students working on No Sweat campaigns.
All in all the Labor Assembly for Peace was both business like and inspiring. USLAW will remain a valuable asset for both the antiwar and labor movements.
Bill Onasch is a Kansas City bus driver, a member of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1287-a union endorser of USLAW-and the convenor of Kansas City Labor Against War. Onasch is also a member of the Interim National Council of the Labor Party and webmaster of kclabor.org.