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Union Yes, War No

The AFL-CIO charts a new course for labor by opposing an attack on Iraq

David Moberg

The unanimous decision by the AFL-CIO Executive Council to oppose the Bush administration’s Iraq policy reflects an historic watershed in the labor movement. The late February statement did not oppose a multilateral war against Iraq under all circumstances, nor did it reject unilateral military action “in defense of our national security.” But it represents a break in a long tradition of American unions backing the president on foreign military policy. And it marks a further step toward a more internationalist perspective by a labor movement that historically has been quite nationalist.

On one level, the call for international unity, restraint and cooperation with the disarmament inspectors in Iraq reflects a narrow and carefully hedged critique of the Bush administration that grew out of internal discussions among union leaders who had been briefed by a series of former high-level Clinton administration officials. It is a specific response by labor officialdom to a very specific possibility of war.

In other ways, however, the resolution was shaped by a changing labor movement facing an administration that is aggressively anti-union and brazenly in favor of a new American empire that actively undermines the welfare of most working people. The shift should not be overstated: If Al Gore were in the White House pushing for war in Iraq, labor might be much more accommodating. Nevertheless a major change has been in the making.

The end of the Cold War marked a dramatic divide. American labor had been much more militantly anti-communist and supportive of U.S. foreign policy than unions in most of the world, thus weakening the international labor movement. But the fall of the Berlin Wall eliminated the glue that bound unions to the government, especially at a time when employers and the government became less sympathetic to labor. After the fall of communism, employers and governments saw less need for political buffers such as the International Labor Organization, established in 1919 to provide protection for workers so they would be less attracted to the revolutionary politics of the new Soviet Union. U.S. government funding of labor’s international activities, intimately linked to Cold War politics, also rapidly declined.

More importantly, the rise of corporate globalization made many unions increasingly skeptical of government policies that did nothing about or even encouraged the flight of U.S. corporations overseas. Unions began to see multinational corporations and their apologists in government, both Republican and Democratic, as hostile to the interests of American workers. Consequently, U.S. unions started working more with unions in other countries to fight those multinational corporations, instead of fighting communism (or other leftists within the labor movement).


The first big break came in the mid ’80s, when the labor movement split over Ronald Reagan’s Central America policies. Some of the most ardent critics of Reagan and the AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland were leaders of unions, such as Textile Workers President Jack Sheinkman, that had suffered greatly from globalization and were beginning to develop a more internationalist strategy. Widening fights over globalization led many of these unions to increasingly support leftist unions overseas and to adopt an international strategy more focused on threats from multinational corporations.

Meanwhile, the labor movement itself was changing. As historian Nelson Lichtenstein, author of the recent book State of the Union, suggests, the upper ranks of union staff are increasingly filled with veterans of the ’60s. As New Left activists, many of them opposed the Vietnam War when only a handful of union leaders spoke out—belatedly and without much concrete action—against the war. As Jon Baker of the Machinists says of his fellow veterans of the ’60s anti-war actions, “We’re the hard-hats now, not the hippies.”

The change in labor movement staff was accelerated by the election of John Sweeney in 1995 as president of the AFL-CIO. Much of the old labor international operation was either swept aside or refocused with more progressive appointments. Also, the make-up of union membership has shifted—more minorities, more women, more new immigrants, and more workers for whom the old Cold War red-baiting is not even a distant memory.

Sweeney’s victory gave new impetus to the formation of broad coalitions with community, religious and other progressive groups. It also gave legitimacy to grassroots activity within the labor movement. Over the past few months, a growing number of individual unions have adopted anti-war resolutions. Representing about one-third of the AFL-CIO membership, those unions include AFSCME (public employees), UNITE (apparel and textile), the Service Employees, Communications Workers, Postal Workers and Farm Workers.

But even less progressive unions are beginning to question the war. Machinists President Tom Buffenbarger, who supports Bush’s missile defense plans and called for “vengeance” after 9/11, said after the recent Executive Council vote: “What are we fighting for? Are we fighting for Wall Street’s right to make a buck by destroying our community? And the answer we get from government—and it doesn’t matter if it’s Democratic or Republican—is that the more we engage in trade, trade can be a useful tool in bringing down dictatorial regimes. So why weren’t we doing that with Iraq or Korea? It’s all bull. I don’t mind asking for patience and prudence before we send some members off to help get oil or cheap labor in developing nations.”


Many of these tendencies came together with the formation of U.S. Labor Against the War, a coalition of dozens of local unions, district organizations and central labor councils from a wide range of unions. USLAW’s position is more fervently opposed to any war in Iraq than the AFL-CIO resolution, and its supporters have been active in protests, including its own March 12 day of workplace education about the war.

While leftists and veterans of the ’60s—including some actual veterans of the Vietnam War—were active in forming USLAW, they too have found unexpected allies. For example, in the Philadelphia Central Labor Council, John Braxton, co-president of a small teachers union local, discovered that the head of the building trades was not opposed to an anti-war resolution, but simply wanted to discuss it first with his board. At the next council meeting, when opponents questioned why unions should take a stand on Iraq when they hadn’t spoken out on other U.S. invasions, like Haiti, the building trades leader responded that labor should have spoken out then—and that’s why it must do so now.

The groundswell of labor movement opposition to Bush’s Iraq policy undoubtedly helped consolidate the unanimous AFL-CIO action. The passionate outcry against an invasion of Iraq by labor movements around the world may also have encouraged U.S. union leaders. Unions in Britain, Italy and Australia announced intentions to block movement of materials for war by striking. In February, union representatives in about a dozen countries joined with U.S. labor leaders and USLAW in a unique joint telephone press conference voicing opposition to the war.

But the hostility of the Bush administration toward unions—and its pursuit of a radical agenda favoring the rich, destroying key social programs and failing to deal effectively with the nation’s economic problems—also made unions much less willing to believe or support the president. “There is a sense that Bush is not our friend, and not being a friend, why should I trust him on the war?” says veteran labor leader Jerry Tucker, who was an active United Auto Workers opponent to Vietnam.

In past wars, administrations have offered concessions to labor to win support (and punished the Industrial Workers of the World after World War I, when it was alone in rejecting any pro-war deal). But Bush is leading the attack on unions while preparing for war. “This movement developed at the intersection of Bush’s domestic and foreign policies,” says Food and Allied Service Trades Secretary-Treasurer Gene Bruskin, a leader in USLAW.

Organized labor is still developing an independent foreign policy perspective based on a broad, progressive critique of both globalization and the drive for a new American empire. Eventually the shifts in organized labor’s foreign policy perspective may make their mark on the Democratic Party and American politics more broadly. Bush can take some of the credit for speeding that change along.

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David Moberg, a former senior editor of In These Times, was on staff with the magazine from when it began publishing in 1976 until his passing in July 2022. Before joining In These Times, he completed his work for a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago and worked for Newsweek. He received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy.

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