Illness as Metaphor

Is the war making you ill? In San Francisco, a group called Direct Action to Stop the War put out the call to call in sick the day the United States invades Iraq. Most peace demos thus far have been held after work and on weekends in order to guarantee higher turnouts and to avoid interfering with the working day, but the rapidly maturing anti-war movement is looking for ways to dust off the old connections between war and capitalism by monkeywrenching the economy.

Thousands may call in sick even though the American labor movement hasn't made any calls for labor actions in response to the war. In Europe, though, actions are under way. Unionized railway workers in northern Italy have already had to be replaced by military personnel after they refused to transport war material from U.S. bases to Italian ports, and the dock workers at Livorno have also announced their intention to hold up the shipments.

The European Trade Union Confederation called for work stoppages across the continent on March 14 to protest the war, leading to midday work actions in Germany, Spain, Italy, Switzerland, and other countries. It was a light flex of muscle, but tools were downed, trams stopped, and assembly lines ground to a halt this afternoon.

Unions in the U.S. are beginning to stir as well. The AFL-CIO Executive Council on February 27 came out against a "unilateral" war on Iraq even though President John Sweeney had, only weeks before, stated that the unions were "supporting the President in the fight to free Iraq." U.S. Labor Against The War, a collection of 135 union locals and 76 national, regional, and central labor bodies, takes a harder line. Its resolution calls the invasion "a pretext for attacks on labor, civil, immigrant and human rights at home," and explains that the nearly 2 million members the unions represent have "no quarrel with the ordinary working class men, women, and children of Iraq, or any other country." A group of union activists in Santa Cruz, California, spent March 12, U.S. Labor Against the War's "Labor Day for Peace," canvassing for a communitywide general strike. Quite a shift from the Vietnam era, where hardhats got into street brawls with anti-war protestors.

In Europe, general strikes -- mass movements across many industries to shut down entire economies -- are not uncommon. The Chirac government was rocked by a strike of transport workers that saw 5 million people take to the streets in 1995. In the United States, however, the general strike is all but unknown except for a few local eruptions in the first half of the 20th century. The vision of millions of American workers taking off from, or taking over, their workplaces, remains only a fantasy weapon of mass construction for the left.

But San Francisco's sick day tactic, which has also been picked up by activists in Boston and Philadelphia, is a new attempt to bring the power of workers to bear. Since the unions aren't involved, the direct effect of thousands of hooky-playing workers on the American economy will probably be slight. Shutting down public transportation systems, factories, schools, government buildings, and utilities can have a major and immediate impact. The staff of the local vegan muffin shop taking off to do puppet theater, not so much. The two streams of the anti-war movement -- street activists and the new union-based drive -- aren't coordinating.

9-11 and the war on terror derailed the "Teamsters and turtles" connection that the anti-globalization movement forged during the Battle of Seattle in 1999. Sweeney declared that the union movement stood "shoulder to shoulder" with George W. Bush in the war on terror, but labor's changing stance on Iraq offers new possibilities. SF's sick-out poster, which shows a street kid in shorts and sneakers vomiting up missiles and tanks while holding a picket sign that reads "Fuck This Shit," is probably hanging in more coffee shops than hiring halls, but given the rapid shift in the labor movement, the upcoming months may see a lot more workers getting sick of it all.

Nick Mamatas is a freelance reporter and a science fiction novelist. His articles have appeared in the Village Voice, Razor, In These Times and other publications.

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