War and Peace Are Union Issues

A majority of Americans think the U.S. should go to war against Iraq only with the United Nations. Internal trade union polls show their members share these sentiments -- disarm Saddam Hussein, but only with the U.N. It comes as no surprise that as a U.S. peace movement reflecting majority American opinion grows, organizations already opposing the war, reporters, journalists, and most importantly, union members are asking: "Where are the unions?"

In fact, unions have begun to question their government's war policy earlier, more broadly and more seriously than ever before at such an early stage of a war threat.

On Oct. 24, AFL-CIO President John Sweeney took an unprecedented step by sending a letter to members of Congress two days before the congressional vote authorizing President Bush to go to war. Although Sweeney did not urge members to vote against the legislation, he raised a series of points:


  • The war must not distract from the "vital mission" of destroying the al-Qaeda terrorist network.

  • The U.S. must "deal with Hussein's lawlessness in a manner that reinforces international law. We must treat his defiance of the United Nations in a manner that respects that crucial institution and all it stands for."

  • "We cannot defeat terrorism with military force alone. ... The world community must rededicate itself to the defense of basic human rights -- the freedom to speak, to assemble, and to organize as well as the freedom from starvation, from homelessness, and from curable disease."

  • "Military action and costs associated with re-building Iraq . . . should not be used as a reason for not investing in other critical national needs."

  • "It is, after all, the sons and daughters of America's working families who will be asked to carry out this mission" and therefore war must be "the last option, not the first."


The letter was sent after briefings to the AFL-CIO by Clinton National Security Advisor Sandy Berger and Admiral Pointdexter. A draft of the letter was run by all sectors of the AFL-CIO -- industrial unions, service and public sector, building and construction trades; all agreed that Sweeney should send it.

In effect, President Sweeney's letter outlines the reasons unions consider the issue of war and peace a trade union issue:

  • Make sure we keep America safe by destroying terrorist networks.

  • Make sure Hussein's weapons of mass destruction are disarmed -- but only through the UN. Make sure the Bush government does not use war as an excuse for not taking care of the urgent economic and social needs of America's working families.

  • Make it clear that Bush has not made his case -- to union members --that the U.S. should unilaterally attack Iraq. As Sweeney says, "America cannot engage in a conflict that involves the clear potential for significant casualties, as well as social and economic costs, without a full public debate free of political inferences."

  • Never let anyone forget that it is the kids of union families who will be put in harm's way by this war.


Winning Without War

With similar concerns, local unions, central labor bodies and even AFL-CIO state federations have begun to speak out.

Teamsters Local 705 in Chicago, the second largest in the union, passed a resolution on Oct. 18 which stressed that, "We value the lives of our sons and daughters . . . more than Bush's control of Middle East oil profits"; that the "billions of dollars being spent to stage and execute this invasion means billions taken away from our schools, hospitals, housing and social security"; and that "Bush's drive for war serves as a cover and a distraction for the sinking economy, corporate corruption, layoffs," and the use of Taft-Hartley against striking longshoremen.

The 85,000 member SEIU local 250 in Northern California resolution opposes "any unilateral, preemptive war against Iraq."

Local unions, central labor bodies and state federations in Washington state, California, Illinois, Wisconsin, Michigan, New Mexico, Pennsylvania and New York have passed resolutions.

Some international unions have sent information about the war to locals. Some have done internal polling to gauge membership sentiment. Some international unions have put the discussion on the agendas of upcoming executive board meetings and board members of other unions intend to do so.

The unions that have gone on record opposing the war have themselves begun to coordinate, to get information about union opposition to the war to other unions within their central labor councils and international unions, to encourage them to pass resolutions and to participate in anti-war activities.

An anti-war coalition of mainstream membership organizations is reaching out to unions, asking them to join it both nationally and locally. The Keep America Safe/Win without War statement of purpose closely tracks the same concerns spelled out by almost every union resolution:

"We are patriotic Americans who share the belief that Saddam Hussein cannot be allowed to possess weapons of mass destruction. We support rigorous UN weapons inspections to assure Iraq's effective disarmament. We believe that a preemptive military invasion of Iraq will harm American national interests. Unprovoked war will increase human suffering, arouse animosity toward our country, increase the likelihood of terrorist attacks, damage the economy, and undermine our moral standing in the world. It will make us less, not more, secure. We reject the doctrine -- a reversal of long-held American tradition -- that our country, alone, has the right to launch first-strike attacks. America is not that kind of country. We can achieve the valid U.S. and UN objective of disarming Saddam Hussein through legal diplomatic means. There is no need for war. Let us instead devote our resources to improving the security and well-being of people here at home and around the world."

The steering Committee of the "Keep America Safe" campaign consists of representatives from major mainstream membership groups, including the National Council of Churches, NOW, the NAACP, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious and the American Friends Service Committee. It is expected that many unions will coordinate their activities with and officially participate in this mainstream coalition.

Says Local 705 Secretary-Treasurer Gerry Zero, "Teamster families are America. We have to work with any and all other mainstream American organizations to stop this war."

Protecting Civil Liberties

There is an additional reason why it is important that unions participate in the anti-war movement: to protect civil liberties -- for their own trade union struggles and for all those opposed to the war.

American trade unionists know the importance of civil liberties. Unions would not exist without the right to picket, march in the streets and demonstrate -- to disrupt the normal routine of business in our country. Those rights are now under heavy pressure during this war threat.

The language of the recently passed Patriot Act and the structure of the Homeland Security bill give the government new powers to quash dissent of any kind.

The language of the so-called Patriot Act is so broad and the consequences are so severe that they could have a chilling effect on demonstrations, collaboration among organizations and even strategic planning of opposition to the war. Antiwar protests could be the leading edge of governmental efforts to quash dissent in other forms. Violations of trespass by civil disobedience, for example, could be federalized. Where does it stop? Will janitors trying to get a building owner to recognize their union by blocking entrances to office towers in New York and Los Angeles have their violations of noise statues federalized? Could their civil rights be suspended during a national emergency?

Bush's Second War

It is clear that much of what fuels this early anti-war sentiment with unions is the fact that it is George W. Bush pushing the war effort. Unions have little reason to trust Bush on this "second war" -- his "first war" being his effort to lower the security and living standards of working families.

Union opposition to Bush's war policy is based on both moral and practical grounds. The issues -- false and real -- are increasingly clear.

It is not about patriotism or terrorism -- unions and their members are the most patriotic Americans. They know that since Sept. 11 America is under attack. They fully support the war against terrorism -- so much so that they don't want anything to distract from that war.

It is not about Saddam Hussein. Unions and their members understand, as Sweeney says, "that Hussein is a menace -- to his own people, to stability in a critical region of the world and potentially to America and our allies." He must be disarmed of his weapons of mass destruction.

It is about law and war and economics and humanity, about working within the law and with the UN to disarm Hussein. It is about using every other means other than war to disarm him; war, as declared by the UN, can be only the last resort. It is about the urgent needs of American working families for decent jobs, health care, education and retirement security. It is about the kids of working families being put in harm's way by a policy that has not been adequately explained to those working families.

And it is about the moral obligation to stop war especially when we can make that difference. As it becomes clearer every day that the UN Security Council will not provide a fig leaf for Bush to unilaterally attack Iraq (i.e., that it will not authorize military force to disarm Iraq absent some gross violation of UN policy by Hussein), it also becomes clearer that the American public can stop this war.

The rest of the world has spoken out and acted and will not authorize an irresponsible preemptive war on Iraq. That means Bush has to go it alone. And that means it is up to us, the American people, to stop him. We can, and unions can play a decisive role in mobilizing majority U.S. opinion for non-military disarming of Iraq.

The next steps for unions include closer coordination among unions at the local level to get more information out to other unions; passing resolutions at central labor bodies and state federations; and encouraging their own international unions to oppose the war. Unions, locally and nationally, will begin coordination with the Keep America Safe campaign.

Where are the unions? They are coming.

Bob Muehlenkamp was executive vice-president and organizing director of 1199/SEIU, the National Hospital Workers Union, and assistant to Teamsters General President Ron Carey, and the Teamsters organizing director. He was one of the coordinators of the million-person June 11, 1982 peace rally in New York City.
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