US Labor And The War On Iraq


At the “Paths to a Just and Secure Future: Resisting Washington’s Endless War” Conference organized by the American Friends Service Committee (Simmons College, Boston, Oct. 11-12, 2002) I was one of four respondents to the Mary Lord’s plenary talk, “Organizing for Peace and Justice.” -Gary Goff

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Hi, I’m Gary Goff. I’m Vice President of AFSCME Local 2627. I’m also a member of both New York City Labor Against the War (NYCLAW) and the Labor-Religion Coalition of Greater New York.

Ms. Lord asked three questions that, according to my notes, asked: What are the seeds of this conflict? What do we do? And how do we sustain ourselves? I’ll give my answer to the last question first. In my experience there are two main things that lead to burnout. One is if we try to do too much, if we take on every task. The other is if we decide we can’t do anything; the problem is so enormous nothing we do will make any difference.

Now, in trying to answer the first two questions, I want to talk specifically as a labor activist. Labor has a vital role to play in the anti-war movement. It’s large; the AFL-CIO has about 12 ½-million members. It’s nationwide. It’s organized. A relatively high percentage of union members are women. And, perhaps most importantly, labor is multi-national in a way possibly no other group in America is.

Naturally labor is concerned with the economic consequences of the war. After a ten-year period of growth, the US economy went into crisis beginning in the spring of 2001.

How workers get by in a crisis depends largely on gains they were able to make during the preceding boom. Historically, economic booms lower the rate of unemployment. This leads to higher wages and a greater sense of security for workers. Workers tend to be bolder in their dealings with the bosses. One of the ways this manifests itself is increased union membership. It should also be noted that lower unemployment lessens the disparity between white workers and workers of color.

The boom of 1991-Spring 2001 did none of those things. Real wages were lower in 1996 than they were in 1991. Unemployment rose in 1992 and stayed high until 1999. Union density is lower today than when John Sweeney became President of the AFL-CIO seven years ago. In the private sector, union density is 9% – roughly the same as it was in 1930. Improvements in the economic situation of American workers in the last two years of the boom – 1999 and 2000 – were modest and never came close to making up for the loses sustained between 1973 and 1991.

Additionally, significant parts of the social safety net were shredded during this period of economic growth – most notably the near-total abolition of welfare in 1995.

All of this means the working class was already in bad shape at the beginning of the current crisis.

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Now I want to talk about another aspect of this war’s political context, the ruling class’ agenda. The overriding program of every administration since Reagan has been to free capital from all the things that impede it.

Although it’s not a word known by most of the American public, this phenomenon is called neoliberalism by much of the world. Now, don’t get confused by this term. Neoliberalism simply means liberating capital from restraints that have been placed on it. Examples of neoliberalism in practice include: · Deregulating industry · Privatizing utilities, transportation, hospitals, and anything else run in the interests of the people · Dispensing with the social safety net · Smashing organized labor · Letting the market settle questions such as those concerning human rights and the environment

The prime examples of neoliberalism applied to relations between countries are NAFTA, GATT, and the FTAA. The IMF and World Bank have made structural adjustment a prerequisite for third world countries getting financial aid. For structural adjustment read turn your country into a free fire zone for international capital.

Since the 9/11 attacks, Bush, Chaney, et al have used an ingenious cover for pushing the neoliberal agenda. Civil liberties have been violated, labor has been attacked, and social services have been dismantled or place on austerity budgets – even as the military budget is grotesquely inflated. And all this is being done in the name of national security. We should be particularly troubled by this theme that national security trumps all other concerns.

The anti-labor aspect of the national security mantra is becoming more and more evident. When the right of federal workers to join unions is taken away, national security is cited as a reason. When a Taft-Hartley injunction is imposed on the west coast dockworkers, national security is cited as a reason. And when large numbers of immigrant workers are disappeared by the federal government, national security is cited as a reason.

Beyond the economics, labor is also concerned with assaults on civil liberties. Those civil liberties are essential to labor’s ability to organize.

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It’s been a very long time since we’ve seen organized labor as uppity as it is now. The Washington State Labor Council, the Central Labor Councils of San Francisco, Rochester, and Albany, the United Electrical Workers, the west coast dockworkers, 1199 Health and Hospital Workers, AFSCME District Council 1707, California Federation of Teachers, Pride at Work, and assorted union locals have all come out publicly against the war.

I know of labor anti-war groups that are active in New York City, San Francisco, Detroit, Washington DC, Albany NY, and Portland OR. And I’m sure there are others I’m unaware of.

All of the postal unions have made it clear they will not participate in the TIPS program. This is the government’s scheme to have half the workers spy on the other half.

Several unions – notably SEIU, UNITE, and the hotel/restaurant workers – are campaigning for amnesty for undocumented immigrants.

And in New York City, some 25 labor groups – including the city’s two largest unions – have joined with religious, peace, immigrant, and civil liberties groups to demand justice for the mainly Arab and South Asian immigrants detained since 9/11.

I urge those of you who are unionists to organize against the war in that venue. Anti-war labor activists have a dual role to play. We must be an anti-war voice in the labor movement and a voice for labor in the anti-war movement.

Interestingly, anti-war unionists have been operating with relative impunity inside organized labor. This is much different than during the Vietnam War – or even the Gulf War. There have even been tentative feelers sent out by some near the top levels of the AFL-CIO indicating that the national leadership is waiting for local and regional labor to provide a mandate regarding the war.

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I want to make a pitch here for those of you who are members of unions and other labor organizations to sign the NYCLAW statement opposing the war. Over 1200 labor activists have signed it. Mostly we’re from NY, but unionists form all over the country – indeed, all over the world – have signed on as well. This could be a way to make contact with other progressive labor activists in the Boston area.

Now I’m going to see if I can get you to give up your next two weekends. First, NYCLAW is holding a conference on anti-war organizing in the labor movement next Saturday (10/19/02). This will be an important place to share experiences and learn from others. Some labor activists from Boston should attend.

Second, at the anti-war demonstration in Washington on October 26, there’s going to be a labor contingent. If you’re going to that demo, you should consider joining us.

Thank you.


For information about Justice for Detainees (the NYC group working on post-9/11 detentions of immigrants) contact: [email protected]

For info about the conference on organizing labor against the war see: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/LaborAgainstWar/files/Oct.%2019%20Conference.doc

To get in touch with NYCLAW or for info about the labor contingent at the 10/26 demo contact: [email protected]

 

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