Antiwar Labor Pains

Antiwar Labor Pains

Unions are edging into the peace movement, but they are still minor players.


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.
   –The Editors

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.

Meanwhile, rank-and-file groups similar to NYCLAW have sprung up in Albany, Washington, Detroit, Portland and Seattle. And while the uniformly progressive San Francisco Labor Council went firmly on the record against Bush’s overall war on terrorism in August, its activists also fuel the very involved San Francisco Labor Committee for Peace and Justice.

But the growth of antiwar activity is uneven and is leaving some gaping holes. In Los Angeles, where the county federation has earned a progressive reputation on local and domestic issues, there have been no antiwar initiatives coming from the leadership. “You can sense a real antiwar sentiment in the union halls,” says a local SEIU organizer. “But apart from individuals trying to hook up with each other, there’s been no real attempt at significant organized action.”

Similar stories come from other urban labor councils. When George W. Bush came to Cincinnati in October to deliver a televised policy statement on Iraq, about 3,500 protesters rallied outside. But only about 150 of the demonstrators came from the ranks of organized labor. “A lot of our community coalition partners were at that demonstration,” says Dan Radford, a member of SEIU Local 7 (Firefighters and Oilers) and executive secretary-treasurer of the Cincinnati Central Labor Council. “But it hasn’t really come up as an issue at the council. It’s sort of funny because even some of the more conservative unions have not shown much enthusiasm for Bush on this war with Iraq. But at the council level it’s just not been discussed very much at all.” Indeed, Radford says, the most dynamic local antiwar figure comes not from labor but from show business. Television ringmaster Jerry Springer, a former liberal mayor of Cincinnati, gave the most fiery antiwar speech at a recent Democratic get-out-the-vote rally.

In Seattle, the King County Labor Council, which played a high-profile role in the 1999 protests against the World Trade Organization, took the opposite tack and has actively endorsed antiwar activity. The council’s executive secretary-treasurer Steve Williamson was a lead speaker at the October 26 Seattle peace rally, which brought out as many as 5,000 people.

“The national [AFL-CIO] didn’t really want to deal with this issue, after pretty much supporting whole hog the war in Afghanistan,” says Steve Hoffman, a member of the municipal employees’ union who also holds a seat on the King County Labor Council and is a leader of Seattle’s Organized Labor Against the War. “But now they see the way the war has been used to cut jobs, to call in the government on the ports strike, just the amount of money being spent on this. The AFL is finally coming under pressure from below, with more and more peace resolutions being passed at the level of county labor councils and those being proposed inside the international unions.”

Hoffman helped to ratchet up that pressure by shepherding a successful antiwar resolution through to adoption in August by the 500 delegates and guests of the Washington State Labor Council, the first such statewide statement.

The limited appeal of antiwar activity within unions is not only the responsibility of labor’s cautious leadership, but also of the peace movement in general and of some peace activists within labor, who have made a few strategic missteps. Many of the labor activists in the forefront of the Iraq peace movement are the same people who unsuccessfully tried to jump-start a similar movement in the immediate wake of the 9/11 attacks. Seriously misreading the sentiment of mainstream labor, which believed that at least some sort of limited US military response was in order, these mostly white-collar and ideologically left activists tried to drum up a movement to oppose intervention in Afghanistan. On September 27, 2001–just two weeks after the attacks and while the national and New York AFL-CIO were still actively mourning the death of hundreds of members in them–activists from NYCLAW, for example, had already issued their first public statement opposing any sort of US military action.

“This was really way off base,” says a politically progressive AFL official close to John Sweeney. “No matter what one’s personal political opinion, you really had to be out in left field to not understand the angry patriotism that was rippling through labor. We had just lost something like 500 guys, and no one was in the mood to go light candles at a peace vigil.”

NYCLAW’s Letwin concedes that the rushed September 27 peace statement by his group was looked on as “tainted” because of its timing. But, he argues, “I think that along with a lot of union leadership, a lot of the grassroots saw that as a good statement. They were saying to themselves, ‘I’m not going to sign it, but I’m glad someone is out there saying these things.'”

Maybe, but in any case, many at the top of the federation agree that the Iraq situation is very different from Afghanistan, and they recognize that there is now a lot more visible and vocal discomfort with and opposition to the White House’s overseas plans. “Also, the elections are now over,” says the federation official. “And if the Democrats take a harder line against the war than they have so far, labor will be more willing to do the same. But that leaves open the question of just what peace movement we are comfortable being part of.”

That’s a reference to discomfort with those currently orchestrating some of the highest-profile antiwar protests. While demonstrations in Washington and San Francisco brought out scores of thousands with an eclectic range of politics, the protests were organized and the podium dominated by a small, sectarian Stalinist group, the Workers World Party. Consequently, while much of the demonstration rhetoric was against the war, it was also tinged with an anti-Americanism and loaded down with ancillary issues ranging from support for convicted murderers Mumia Abu-Jamal and H. Rap Brown to sometimes paranoid condemnations of Zionism that in no way resonate with the bulk of organized labor. No doubt the rally crowds were peppered with hundreds, if not thousands, of union members and activists, but there was no institutional representation of Big Labor, as there has been at numerous antiglobalization events of the past few years.

“John Sweeney is no George Meany,” says the AFL official, referring to former federation president Meany’s aggressive support for the Vietnam War. And he notes that significant participation by labor in the peace movement would, indeed, aid in broadening and mainstreaming the antiwar message, pushing some of the sectarians to the side. But, he added, that moment is not yet upon us. “It’s not at all unthinkable that in the weeks to come we will see Sweeney speaking out more against the war. But you can be sure he isn’t going to be speaking from the same stage as the Workers World Party.”

Ad Policy