US Labor Against the War

"Bring the troops home NOW" is not only the slogan of a growing portion of the US peace movement, but it now part of the ratified program of US Labor Against the War (USLAW). Meeting in Chicago this past weekend (October 24-25), 154 delegates representing approximately 500,000 trade union members from all over the country held the first National Assembly of USLAW, and established the organization.

The purpose of the new organization is to force the AFL-CIO to address the US occupation of Iraq as well as the escalating war in the US against working people. The delegates specifically stated their recognition that people of color and women were those being most directly and extensively attacked.

Bill Fletcher, Jr., Executive Director of TransAfrica Forum, gave the key note address to the delegates on Saturday morning. Setting the tone of the conference, Fletcher asked, "When does silence become complicity? When does ignorance become compliance?" And then he answered, "Silence and ignorance are no longer acceptable."

USLAW grew out of frustration by a range of labor activists and leaders against Bush’s invasion of Iraq and the basic acquiescence by the AFL-CIO leadership. (In fairness to AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, he did co-author a letter to Bush and Tony Blair with British trade union leader John Monks in January 2003 advising the governmental leaders not to invade Iraq unilaterally, and to seek peaceful solutions before invasion. Sweeny has been rarely heard on Iraq since the invasion.)

The AFL-CIO has consistently and continues to separate domestic developments from foreign affairs. A quick visit to its web site will illustrate this: there is almost no mention of the war, and one has to search press releases by the term "Iraq" to even find any mention of it, other than support for "our" troops. This is despite the war affecting working class young men and women in the military: in addition to Iraqi working people: and that Bush’s $87 billion (in addition to the original $60 billion) will affect working people across this country. While this "head in the sand" approach is qualitatively better than in the past: labor leaders previously would have wholeheartedly supported the war: it is so weak and so inept that activists decided they had to change it.

The approach is not to split the labor movement but to advocate, educate and mobilize WITHIN the US labor movement.

USLAW’s Mission Statement begins, "We are living in an era in which the government has manipulated our nation’s fear of terrorism to launch wars, destroy our economic security, undermine government services, erode our democratic rights, and intensify racism, sexism, religious discrimination and divisions among working people." And later, after providing further details, the Mission Statement emphasizes its approach that directly contradicts the official line of the AFL-CIO: "We cannot solve these problems without addressing US foreign policy and its consequences."

USLAW’s approach is not just a concern with American working people: delegates specifically supported the reconstruction of Iraq and other war-devastated countries. They support the efforts by Iraqi workers to organize trade unions, bargain collectively, and to strike.

In fact, two trade union delegates sent by USLAW to Iraq returned a week ago, and gave powerful reports on the current situation. Clarence Thomas, former Secretary-Treasurer of International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 10 (Bay Area local of the West Coast dock workers), and David Bacon, labor photojournalist and member of the National Writers Union, spent a week in Baghdad earlier this month. The most shocking revelation they reported was that the occupation government is still enforcing Saddam Hussein’s 1987 law banning state workers from joining unions: most workers in Iraq fall into this category. Further, the occupation government issued an edict this summer that anyone organizing strikes would be treated as a prisoner of war. Seems like odd ways to try to establish a new democratic society….

The USLAW conferees established US Labor Against the War as an on-going organization. They promise to continue to fight for a just foreign policy, an end to US occupation of foreign countries, to redirect the nation’s resources from inflated military spending, to take care of needs of working people in this country, to protect workers’ rights, civil rights, civil liberties and the rights of immigrants, and to build solidarity with workers and their organizations around the world.

The big question now: and stressed again and again during the conference: was the need for financial support and on-going resources: can members develop it? A number of unions: mostly at the local level: have already contributed, and a number of leaders at the conference pledged to return to their locals, report on the conference, encourage continued support, and work to raise these needed resources.

And a big question not resolved was whether to see Bush as the main enemy: and focus on getting him out of office: or whether the Democrats were guilty as well. My sense of the proceedings: and this is a personal opinion: is that pro-war Democrats will be seen as part of the problem, NOT part of the solution.

For those not used to seeing the labor movement at the forefront of progressive politics, the founding of USLAW suggests that a growing number of labor organizations will join with other progressive organizations and groupings to fight for a just world for all. It is a development that all should applaud and support.

And most immediately important, USLAW is going to fight to BRING THE TROOPS HOME, NOW!


Kim Scipes is a long-time labor activist and former trade union member who lives in Chicago. He attended the National Assembly as an observer, not a delegate. This is not an official USLAW report. For more information, please go to . Scipes, who served in the US Marine Corps (1969-73), has also published "Supporting the Troops: It Depends," condemning the US invasion of Iraq, which appeared in the San Francisco Call and Canadian Dimension.

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