Antiwar Labor Pains
This article inaugurates a new series, "Waging Peace," covering the movement that is emerging across America--in union halls, in churches, on campuses, on the streets, even in some corporate and government quarters--to oppose war on Iraq.
In a letter to both houses of Congress in early October, AFL-CIO president John Sweeney broke what had been Big Labor's public silence on a possible war with Iraq when he wrote, "We must assure them that war is the last option, not the first." Sweeney also questioned the timing of the Bush Administration's push for war, saying it "has as much to do with the political calendar as with the situation in Iraq."
The letter was hardly a call to stiff antiwar resistance. But with an American labor movement long accustomed to interpreting the subtle political nuances of its cautious leadership, Sweeney's message was nonetheless unmistakable. The federation was openly shifting away from its markedly prowar stance after September 11 and offering at least some cover for militant action by antiwar elements in its ranks. "It wasn't the strongest statement in the world," says Michael Letwin, co-convener of the grassroots New York City Labor Against the War (NYCLAW). "But it makes people in the labor movement feel they now have some room to oppose the war."
That same week, Gene Bruskin, the secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO's food and allied service trades department, sent a letter of his own to Sweeney urging organized labor to take the lead in opposing the Administration's war plans. Bruskin said labor has been "naive at best" in trying to oppose Bush's domestic policy without more forcefully opposing its foreign policy. War with Iraq, he argued, would only provide the Administration with increased leverage in pressing a conservative agenda that conflicts with the interests of working Americans. "To support the War," Bruskin said, "is to invite all the inevitable political and economic effects."
Bruskin's call for the national labor leadership to speak out more consistently and loudly on the issue has not yet been heeded. "All of our energy really went into the midterm elections," says one AFL official. "Maybe now with the Republicans controlling everything, we can better find our voice on the issue of war and peace."
In the meantime, a small but determined network of antiwar labor activists is coming together and making its voice and influence felt through organized lobbying inside the Central Labor Councils and state labor federations. Letwin's NYCLAW is among the largest of the groupings, with endorsements from about 1,400 union members and sixteen current and former union presidents. "We're trying to be both an antiwar pole in the labor movement and a labor pole within the peace movement," says Letwin.
But an objective evaluation would conclude that so far only the former is being achieved. Peace is still very much a minority position within the greater world of labor, and so labor is still a minor part of the peace movement. The bulk of NYCLAW's support comes from white-collar, mostly intellectual workers like Letwin's own local of legal-aid attorneys. The school principals' union, the National Writers Union, museum workers and university staff and professors are also among the major players in the New York antiwar network.
Yet, the small peace circle within labor continues to expand as the threat of war with Iraq persists. New York's powerful healthcare union, 1199SEIU, recently bought a full-page ad in the New York Times unequivocally condemning war with Iraq. Chicago-based Teamsters Local 705, the second largest in the country, also adopted an antiwar resolution. The 100,000-member California Teachers Union did the same. And on October 1 the executive committee of AFL-CIO's Pride at Work, representing gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender members, followed suit. In Northern California the SEIU's large and politically influential Local 250 has also condemned a unilateral attack on Iraq and urged cooperation with the UN. And there's open talk that the SEIU might become the first national union to take an antiwar stance.