The War and the Working Class | The Nation


The War and the Working Class

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In the United States we rightly have a tradition of civilian control of the military. Our armed services are not independent entities; they are deployed to defend and advance the interests of greatest importance to the civilian leadership that guides the country overall. So it is unsurprising that the basic priorities guiding our military operations overseas should correspond to those that dominate our society at home. That's not good news for working people, here or "over there."

About the Author

Michael Zweig
Michael Zweig, a professor of economics and director of the Center for Study of Working Class Life at the State...

In Iraq the occupation authority under Paul Bremer wiped the slate clean in terms of economic policy, with one exception--it kept in force the 1987 Saddam Hussein decree that stripped all legal protection from unions representing public-sector workers--a large portion of the workforce. Despite formal acknowledgment of union rights in the new Iraqi Constitution, the Parliament has passed no law to protect unions or workers trying to organize them. But then public sector unions are also illegal in North Carolina and many other states. Upon taking office after their election in 2006, the Republican governors of Missouri and Indiana immediately suspended all collective bargaining agreements their states had negotiated with state employees and declared the end of their collective bargaining rights. When Congress and the Bush Administration formed the Department of Homeland Security in 2002, they stripped collective bargaining rights from all DHS workers, even those who'd had those rights in their former agencies, declaring that union protections ran counter to national security. After more than five years of determined opposition and court challenges, the National Treasury Employees Union, which represents 22,000 of these workers, recently forced the DHS to give up its unionbusting power and agree to respect collective bargaining and civil service protections for all its workers.

The Bush Administration has made it clear that it expects the Iraqi Parliament to pass a hydrocarbon law that opens Iraq's oil reserves to US corporate exploitation, in addition to a law to distribute oil revenues among regions. Congress has made the hydrocarbon law a "benchmark" in all its attempts to tie continued funding of the war to "political progress" in Iraq. But it requires no such benchmark for women's rights (the Iraqi Constitution imposes Islamic law in all family matters) or, of course, for labor rights. US policy in Iraq reflects the same drive toward privatization and increasing corporate power that workers face here in the dismantling of our public sector and its services.

Emphasizing such parallels--and the fact that the best way to show solidarity with US soldiers is to bring them home--a movement to end the war has been growing in American unions. The state federations of labor in Connecticut, Maryland/DC, South Carolina, Vermont and Wisconsin have joined US Labor Against the War (USLAW; uslaboragainstwar.org), this country's first broadly based antiwar organization among workers and their unions (full disclosure: I am on its national steering committee). A coalition of more than 150 union locals, central labor councils, state federations and other labor organizations, USLAW coordinates its activities with Military Families Speak Out, Iraq Veterans Against the War and other veterans' organizations that support the troops with calls for their immediate return. The AFL-CIO, for its part, has called for the rapid withdrawal of all US forces from Iraq. And the ILWU Longshore Caucus is continuing its tradition of political interruptions of work with a call to shut all West Coast ports on May 1 to protest the war, a work stoppage it hopes will spread to other industries.

Labor opposition to the war stems in part from the war's economic cost, counted not just in dollars but in what else that money could buy. So far the war has cost more than $522 billion (not counting interest payments on the borrowing that has paid the bills and long-term costs for veterans' care). Taxpayers in Louisiana alone have paid about $4 billion, which could have created more than 47,000 units of affordable housing there, and the jobs that go with their construction. (The National Priorities Project has a thorough accounting on its website, nationalpriorities.org, of the real costs of the war to states and communities across the country. See the chart in this issue for a visual representation of these trade-offs.)

The movement that working people and their unions have organized supports the troops with calls for their immediate return with full veterans' benefits. It seeks the redirection of funds to serve human needs. And it expresses solidarity with Iraqi workers and their labor movement. Should a new Democratic Administration continue the Iraq occupation while offering to satisfy some of labor's interests as part of its domestic agenda, sustaining this movement will require additional analysis and new resolve.

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