Deeper Into the Tunnel

A s General Stan McChrystal plans his march on Washington to demand more troops in Afghanistan the antiwar movement lies on the sidewalk, as inert and forlorn as a homeless person in the rain at a street corner, too dejected even to hold up a sign. This is at a time that as Mark Ames has just pointed out, "Obama is doubling down in Afghanistan with more troops deployed now than the Soviets ever had." Yes, add up US troops and contractors and you get a US invasion of Afghanistan bigger than the Soviet force at its peak.

Is there any sign of life in a movement that marshaled hundreds of thousands to march in protest against war in Iraq? Ah, but those were the Bush years. Now we have a Democrat in the White House.

One person hasn’t tossed aside her peace sign. Cindy Sheehan sees war as war, whether the battle standard is being waved by a white moron from Midland, Texas or an eloquent black man from Chicago. But when she called for protesters to join her on Martha’s Vineyard to stand outside Obama’s holiday roost for four days at the end of August there was a marked contrast to the response she got when she rallied thousands to stand outside Bush’s Crawford lair.

As John Walsh described it here last week, "the silence was, as Cindy put it in an email to this writer, ‘crashingly deafening.’ Where are the email appeals to join Cindy from The Nation or from AFSC or Peace Action or "Progressive" Democrats of America (PDA) or even Code Pink? Or United for Peace and Justice. And what about MoveOn although it was long ago thoroughly discredited as principled opponents of war or principled in any way shape or form except slavish loyalty to the ‘other’ War Party. And of course sundry ‘socialist’ organizations are also missing in action since their particular dogma will not be front and center. These worthies and many others have vanished into the fog of Obama’s wars."

Before he joined Sheehan on Martha’s Vineyard, Walsh says he contacted several of the leaders of the "official" peace movement in the Boston area – AFSC, Peace Action, Green Party of MA (aka Green Rainbow Party) and some others. Not so much as the courtesy of a reply resulted from this effort – although the GRP at least posted a notice of the action.

Click through the leftish or progressive websites these days and you’ll find endless alarums about the renascent right, the brownshirt threat, the massed stormtroopers of Glenn Beck. You won’t find too much practical organizing against Obama’s escalation in Afghanistan.

Take the craven behavior of the leadership of the October 17 anti-war protest in San Francisco, the first scheduled to be held in the Obama era. In the nuts-and-bolts details of organizing and endorsements, the saga tells us much about the spavined state of the antiwar movement.

On August 29, the October 17 Coalition voted to endorse a protest at the Westin-St. Francis, one of the city’s flashier hotels, the following Friday where San Francisco Congresswoman and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, was to be honored with a $100 a plate breakfast. But by the end of the day the October 17 coalition leadership got cold feet when it learned that the host of the breakfast was none other than the San Francisco Labor Council.

Now, in the Bay Area, the bleak truth is that organized labor’s participation in marches and demonstrations has been minimal since the first Gulf War. But rather than challenging the Labor Council about its apathy on the war questions and about its choice of Pelosi, a war supporter, as its breakfast honoree, the coalition – replete with supposedly fiery socialists – promptly tried to cancel the protest.

There’s nothing new here. Genuflections to the Labor Council has long characterized San Francisco’s anti-war movement leadership when it comes to determining its public agenda.

Unsurprisingly, panic at anything to do with Israel’s conduct has characterized many of these more odious chapters in this history, as was forcefully demonstrated by the refusal of what was then called the Spring Mobilization for Peace, Jobs and Justice to [include] planks to its major marches against US intervention in Central America and apartheid in South Africa in 1985 and 1988 that demanded, "No US Intervention in the Middle East," and "End US Support for Israeli Occupation," respectively.

In the spring of 1985, Israel was in its fourth year of occupation of Lebanon after an invasion that had been publicly supported by the AFL-CIO with no dissent from San Francisco’s labor bureaucracy. The main organizer of both of those marches was Socialist Action. In its newspaper this group regularly boasted of its anti-Zionism and solidarity with the Palestinian cause. Nonetheless, in this instance Socialist Action promptly turned into Socialist Inaction. The group was adamant about not allowing any demand that referred to the Middle East to be added to the Mobilization’s program. The limp excuse: "labor will walk." So determined was it, in fact, to keep the issue from being raised at the Mobe’s general meeting that Socialist Action had two of its members stand at the end of the aisle where she was sitting to keep Lebanese-born Tina Naccache, a well known radio host from Berkeley’s KPFA, from trying to approach a microphone and addressing the packed union meeting hall.

It was considerably more difficult for Socialist Action and its allies to ignore the Palestinian intifada in 1988 but again they rose to the challenge, managing to appease the Labor Council by doing so. This required Socialist Action to cancel a general meeting of anti-war activists that quite likely would have led to the addition of a demand for an end to Israeli occupation.

Today we find the very same Socialist Action leader, Jeff Mackler, longer of tooth but no closer to socialism, taking unilateral action to prevent the picketing of the Labor Council breakfast for Pelosi.

In an email to the October 17 steering committee, Mackler described in rather comically elevated terms the proposed picket of the breakfast as a "time bomb [that] was ticking…. I based my decision [to cancel the meeting] on a higher principle. We made a decision [to approve the picket] based on false information. No one knew that we voted to hold a demonstration at the Labor Council breakfast! No one knew that our coalition was going to be the ONLY initiator and sponsor of the demonstration!

"After I consulted with several of the leading forces present, it was clear that we had made a grave mistake that needed immediate correction. The demonstration we had approved was essentially 3 days away and we had to assume that it was being built in our name, with our leaflet and with our approval. It is now clear that no one approved such a demonstration, with perhaps one exception, the maker of the motion who neglected to inform us of what we were voting for."

The maker of the motion was Steve Zeltzer, a long time labor activist who may be remembered, along with Jeffrey Blankfort and anti-apartheid campaigner, Anne Poirier, for having successfully sued the Anti-Defamation League for spying on them and thousands other activists in the late Eighties.

"We could have done ourselves great harm had we waited," Mackler quavered. "Had we not acted as we did, we might have lost the coalition or a good portion of it. We definitely would have lost the ability to ask in good faith for Labor Council support. And no one doubts that labor’s support is critical in these days of terrible encroachments on the lives, health and stability of working people, not to mention the masses who are daily slaughtered in the course of the U.S. wars that we so strongly oppose."

Opposition to the war and the slaughter of the masses apparently stops and flees at the hideous possibility of causing embarassment to the San Francisco Labor Council. There is not a hint in Mackler’s lengthy email suggesting that the Labor Council might owe anti-war forces an explanation for having invited Pelosi in the first place.

So Pelosi and the Council were spared embarrassment. "As it stands now the event remains cancelled," wrote Mackler contentedly, "now agreed to by most everyone, and hopefully with the least amount of damage done."

The Executive Director of the Labor Council, Tim Paulson, who also happens to head the state Democratic Party’s labor caucus, was quick to show his appreciation to both Pelosi and to the October 17th Coalition while attacking Zeltzer.

"We are…honored to be visited by Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, who has been fighting tirelessly for real health care reform and is taking time out of her busy schedule to break bread with her friends in the labor movement before she heads back to Washington, D.C.." wrote Paulson in a letter to union members.

"I have recently received an email put out by Steve Zeltzer and was saddened to learn that Zeltzer is trying to organize and smear our event by protesting the Speaker at our celebration of Labor Day.

"Our partners in the anti-war movement have been calling me to say they are condemning this protest as irresponsible and divisive. U.S. Labor Against the War has written an email condemning this action. The A.N.S.W.E.R. coalition is also not supporting Zeltzer, and many progressive anti-war activists are emailing and calling the Labor Council to distance themselves from Zeltzer’s misguided efforts.

"This missive is just to let our friends know that you might be met outside the hotel by some protesters, but that almost unilaterally the labor and anti-war movements condemn these efforts."

"What labor and anti-war movements?" San Franciscans might legitimately ask.

For the historical record, and for illustrations of the political effectiveness of causing embarrassment and rocking the boat, the last picket of a San Francisco Labor Council event took place at the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco on October 15, 1987. It was the annual dinner that the Labor Council hosted for the Israeli Labor Federation, the Histadrut, which had an office at a San Francisco union hall and whose close business ties with apartheid South Africa had been exposed in the Israeli press. It was also the first public event of the Labor Committee on the Middle East which had been co-founded by Steve Zeltzer and Blankfort earlier that August.

The featured speaker was to be Mayor Willie Brown and Zeltzer and Blankfort wrote him requesting that, as an opponent of apartheid, he cancel the speaking invitation and make a public statement condemning the Histadrut. Needless to say, Brown refused and along with Walter Johnson, the executive director of the Labor Council at the time, and many of the guests, were forced to enter the hotel by a side entrance to avoid crossing our picket line. As a result of the protest, which garnered considerable publicity, there were no more Labor Council dinners honoring the Histadrut and shortly thereafter, it closed its office and left the city.

Alexander Cockburn can be reached at

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