San Francisco SEIU workers join a February 15 march against war in Iraq.

Workers Unite

Unions around the world oppose the drive for war

BY David Bacon

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After a weekend of anti-war demonstrations involving more than 10 million people worldwide, opposition to invading Iraq in many countries is hardly in question. But U.S. military action may have political costs that go far beyond rising unpopularity.

On February 17, more than 200 unions from five continents, representing 130 million members, agreed on a joint statement rejecting a war in Iraq. That declaration questions the U.S. rationale, saying no convincing link exists between the terrorist attacks of September 11 and Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, nor is there evidence for immediate threats from weapons of mass destruction.

Unions signing the statement point out that such a war would be fought overwhelmingly by the sons and daughters of workers, and they assert that war hysteria is being used as a pretext for attacks on labor and to mask the effects of a sinking economy. The appeal ends by calling on labor to organize opposition in every country.

Such an appeal is unprecedented. Most U.S. unions supported the Vietnam War, and while unions in other countries voiced opposition, there was no common front, much less one organized by U.S. labor. The February 17 appeal was initiated by U.S. Labor Against the War, a growing coalition including at least six major national unions—AFSCME, American Postal Workers, SEIU, United Farm Workers, United Electrical Workers and Communications Workers—three state labor federations, and many locals and labor councils.

In Britain, where opposition is sharpest, unions have squared off against the Labour government of Prime Minister Tony Blair, which supports an Iraq invasion. On January 9, two train engineers refused to climb into the cab of a locomotive and pull a train from Glasgow to the largest weapons storehouse in NATO, the Glen Douglas military base on Scotland’s western coast.

The incident electrified British workers. Not only were the two supported by their union, the Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen, but the union’s general secretary warned February 19 that such actions would multiply in the event of war.

This isn’t an idle threat. Already, five of Britain’s largest and most strategically placed unions have openly defied Blair, including railway workers and firefighters. Some call for Blair’s ouster, even at the cost of the Labour Party’s grip on power.

Other unions are following suit. In Italy, where more than 3 million people turned out in the streets of Rome the weekend of February 15 (the largest demonstration since the end of World War II), the left-wing General Confederation of Italian Workers made a similar threat. On February 20, the union’s executive council declared its intention of calling a general strike in the event of hostilities. Said Enzo Bernardo, director of the GCIL’s International Department: “We know terrorism in our country, and this war has nothing to do with resolving it. Our government does not speak for the Italian people.”

In Pakistan, the United States depends on the increasingly unpopular regime of President Pervez Musharraf to support its continuing hunt for Taliban and al-Qaeda militants, and mass labor demonstrations there against an Iraq war would create huge political problems. Yet joining in the February declaration were the International Confederation of Arab Trade Unions and the All-Pakistan Trade Union Federation, which declared that the objective of intervention in Iraq was the pursuit of oil.

Among supporters of the labor declaration, sentiment is sharpest in those countries where governments have aligned themselves with the Bush administration. The trade union federation of Australia, where Prime Minister John Howard has been one of Bush’s most vociferous supporters, declared it was “ashamed” of Howard’s actions. “He has no mandate from our people,” declared Sharron Burrows, the federation’s president.

After 150,000 people turned out in Montreal’s march, Canadian public employees and autoworkers announced they would step up pressure on Prime Minister Jean Chrétien.

Many anti-war labor federations represent a much greater percentage of workers in their countries than do unions in the United States and can exact a price for political support. In the German elections, unions supported Gerhard Schröder in his successful re-election bid, when he campaigned against Bush’s military policy. Schröder’s victory indicates that other governments may also survive or fall based on their support for war. In some of those countries, like Britain and Italy, support for Bush may cost those governments their hold on power.

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David Bacon is a writer, photographer and former union organizer. He is the author of The Right to Stay Home: How US Policy Drives Mexican Migration (2013), Illegal People: How Globalization Creates Migration and Criminalizes Immigrants (2008), Communities Without Borders (2006), and The Children of NAFTA: Labor Wars on the US/Mexico Border (2004). His website is at dbacon.igc.org.

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