Organized Labor and the War in Kosovo

It’s an alarming signal of the declining influence of organized labor that with the

start of the bombing of Yugoslavia and the war in Kosovo, that neither the media nor the

public at large demand to know labor’s position on the conflict. Alas, labor has not

sought to draw much attention to itself and its stance on the war either – fearing that

any position on such a controversial issue not directly "affecting" its members

is bound to alienate some members. Yet, I would argue that labor should take a stand on

war, ethnic cleansing, and ultimately on how to resolve the crisis. These issues are too

important to working people and to the future of our global community to ignore.

What does war have to do with labor you might ask? Well, there is the immediate fact

that it’s workers who are sent to war as soldiers. It’s the workplaces and homes of

workers which are being bombed in Yugoslavia and Kosovo. The government offices, TV and

Radio stations, factories and utility stations are all organized worksites in Yugoslavia.

As well, the majority of ethnic Albanians who have been uprooted and expelled from Kosovo

are workers and their families. So, for both the Kosovars and the Yugoslavs, whether they

are the subject of ethnic cleansing or punishment bombings, it is workers and their

families who are the victims in this conflict.

Labor has always been at its core a human rights movement–after all, labor rights flow

from universal human rights, such as freedom of association. Organized labor has always

been about more than simply a vehicle for the negotiation of wages, benefits and

conditions of labor. Aside from the immediate concerns of international solidarity with

working people in other countries, for organized labor questions of war and peace are

fundamental. A movement seeking economic and social justice and equality must be prepared

to make statements and act publicly on issues as urgent to the world as war and human

rights. As one of the few democratic, mass organizations of working people, labor has an

obligation to speak up at times of major domestic and international crisis. And what labor

says on these issues should be viewed as an important indication of the quality of labor’s


The "new voices, new vision" leadership of the AFL-CIO has not been very

inspiring or imaginative in its statement on Kosovo. In their brief statement, dated April

1st, they appropriately drew attention to and condemn the murder of Agim Hajrizi, a leader

of the independent Kosovo trade union BSPK (Bashkimi Sindikate Pavarura Kosova) and the

disappearance of another BSPK leader, Dr. Hajrullah Gorani missing since Serbian police

raided his home. But when they turn to the wider issue of "ethnic cleansing" in

Kosovo and the NATO bombing the statement feebly attempts to nuance the NATO position–by

calling on NATO to make "human rights a priority."

"The AFL-CIO calls upon the international community to make protection of

civilians and of human rights a priority of the NATO operations and to declare that the

continuing atrocities in Kosovo constitute war crimes on the part of Serbian political and

military leaders, as well as those who are taking innocent lives in this senseless


As disappointing as this stance is, the concluding statement seems more appropriate for

the communities of faith rather than the labor movement. "We urge working Americans

of religions and faiths to offer prayers for the refugees from Kosovo and to send

contributions to: American Red Cross International Response Fund…" Prayers? One

needs to be very cautious in criticizing a call to pray in the US, but even many of the

communities of faith have felt that they could move beyond prayer in their suggestions for

resolving the conflict. I must confess, that after my first reading of the press release I

contacted friends at the AFL-CIO thinking it must be a spoof–after all, the press release

date of April 1st was surely meant to signal an "April fools" joke. But no, the

official position is to condemn ethnic cleansing, to call on NATO to prioritize human

rights in its bombings, and to pray.

In Canada, the Canadian Labour Congress, had a significantly more developed position,

though the CLC carefully worded its statement to avoid an outright call for an end to the

bombing. The central thrust of the Canadian labor position is to seek to negotiate a

peaceful settlement. Slipping into some Canadian nationalism, the CLC demands that Canada

return to its "traditional role of promoting dialogue under the auspices of the

United Nations." CLC President Robert White was quoted on April 8th, as saying

"The Canadian Labour Congress is deeply concerned about the growing signs of an

escalation of hostilities in the Yugoslav-Kosovo crisis, as well as indications of

Canada’s changing role and escalating involvement in the NATO operations. Any escalation

of Canada’s role in this terrible conflict must be focused on two points: to increase

humanitarian relief aid to the tens of thousands of refugees from Kosovo; and to renew

efforts, under the auspices of the United Nations, to return to the negotiating table to

achieve lasting peace in the region."

However, in both Canada and the United States, some individual unions adopted extensive

statements and proposals. Canada’s large and progressive private sector union, the

Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) was one of the first off the mark, circulating a statement

adopted by its National Executive Board on March 31st. The CAW statement notes the

"troubling chapter in the history of NATO as a cold-war defensive alliance"

which is now being "transformed into an offensive military alliance." In

response to the crisis, the nationalist CAW calls on the Canadian government to return to

its traditional role as a "peacekeeping nation." While pointing out that

"the need for humanitarian action to protect innocent refugees fleeing Kosovo is not

in question" the statement asserts that "finding a real and lasting solution

won’t be achieved through air strikes and bombs." Rather, the CAW suggests,

"it’s time for Canada to reassert its traditional role as a peacekeeper and push hard

at the United Nations for peacekeeping troops and meaningful discussion between area

leaders that will eventually bring a lasting peace to this part of central Europe once


It concludes with the following four demands:

1) recall all Canadian fighter jets immediately;

2) demand a meeting of the United Nations to develop a plan to send ground troops into

the region as a peacekeeping force to end the armed conflict and start the process of a

lasting peace in Yugoslavia;

3) increase our commitment to humanitarian aid for the refugees;

4) commit Canadian troops as peacekeepers to assist with the settlement of conflicts.

In the US, the progressive, independent union, the United Electrical Workers, issued a

statement adopted on April 30th by its General Executive Board which while similar to the

CAW position, was much more extensive. The UE condemned the atrocities committed by

"the armies and police of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic against the civilian

population of the province of Kosovo." However, in contrast to the Canadian union,

the UE felt it important to assert at the beginning of its statement its "support for

the United States military personnel on duty in the Balkans." As with the CAW, the UE

expressed "serious reservations about the NATO operation," calling for an end to

the bombing and for negotiations, conducted by the United Nations.

The UE statement argues that the bombing is not achieving its stated goal of halting

ethnic cleansing, but rather is accelerating this travesty. It predicts that "if NATO

intensifies its bombing campaign with a broadening range of targets, casualties among

innocent Serbian citizens will grow dramatically, as will the potential for loss of life

among U.S. and other NATO troops." The UE, adopting its statement over a month later

than the CAW, notes that NATO is now bombing civilian targets, including "industrial

sites such as two Yugo factories, a pharmaceutical plant, with the loss of lives and tens

of thousands of jobs." As with the CAW, the UE is concerned about the transformation

of NATO, arguing that "reinventing a role for NATO is not worth a single life,

American, Serbian or Albanian."

The UE resolution, unlike the CAW resolution refuses to simply start at ground

zero–the war in Kosovo–but reminds readers of the role of Western powers in contributing

to the break up of Yugoslavia and to the unleashing of militant nationalism. The UE not

only opposes the use of US ground forces, but warns against "the use of the Kosovo

Liberation Army as a proxy in a full-scale war on the ground."

Warning that "using violence in the name of diplomacy and stability accomplishes

neither" the UE concludes with similar demands to the CAW – though in an US context,

calling for:

1) immediately declare a cease-fire and halt US bombing missions;

2) Call on the United Nations to launch a major diplomatic effort to obtain an end to

assaults on the Albanian population of Kosovo and seek multi-lateral regional


3) Commit US troops to participation with troops from UN – member nations in a

peacekeeping force led by the United Nations;

4) Increase the US commitment to humanitarian aid to Kosovo refugees.

The current conflict has been a strange one–who would have ever thought we would have

erstwhile peaceniks defending bombing as a humanitarian act. Yet, if we look at the UE and

CAW statements, we can see signs of organized labor giving strong moral leadership in this

crisis. When compared with the aggressive pro-war statements of George Meany during the

Vietnam war, maybe the current AFL-CIO leadership’s call to pray should be seen as a small

step forward. And, it should be remembered that the Federation is precisely that–a

federation of autonomous affiliates. So for those who wish to promote a humanitarian

solution, you might consider drafting your own resolution, possibly adapted from the CAW

or UE statement, and proposing it to your union local. Working people have an important

stake in a just and peaceful outcome to this conflict, and our unions should be the

instrument for discussion, education and promotion of a peaceful and humanitarian


People can get the UE statement from the ZNet Kosovo page,

the CAW one is at http://www.newswire.ca/releases/March1999/31/c9137.html and the AFL-CIO

one is at http://www.aflcio.org/publ/press99/pr0401.htm.

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