Unions Against the War

The labor movement grows more skeptical of Bush’s plans for Iraq

David Moberg

When members of a 21,000-member Teamsters local in Chicago proposed taking a stand against war in Iraq in mid-October, Local 705 Secretary-Treasurer Jerry Zero thought “it sounded like a good resolution we could have some debate over.”

But the results surprised even Zero, as Teamsters took the floor, many identifying themselves as veterans of wars from Vietnam to Desert Storm. “We had 400 members [at the meeting] and all of the debate was one-sided against the war,” Zero says. “There was only one vote against the resolution. I was amazed. I expected an even split.”

Zero himself argued that there’s no need for war. “We’re looking at the oil there,” he says. “Maybe Bush is using it as an excuse to cover up other shortcomings of the administration. We’re looking at an Iraq that has no ties I can see with bin Laden or other terrorist groups and letting other countries like Saudi Arabia, that do have ties, slide on by.”

All unions should take a stand, Zero says, since the prospect of war “affects your members, their families, their kids. They talk about this costing $200 billion, and who knows how long we’ll have to stay there and how many more billions. Where will they get that money? They just gave it away with tax cuts to wealthy people.”

Zero’s outspoken public stance is still rare in the labor movement. But privately many union leaders express deep reservations or personal opposition to a war in Iraq. Although there was initially strong labor support after the 9/11 attacks for the war on terrorism and bombing of Afghanistan, union distrust of Bush has grown dramatically with the administration’s relentless attacks on the labor movement and civil liberties under the guise of national security, as well as its use of the president’s wartime popularity to push an extremely pro-business legislative agenda.

However, many union leaders fear that opposing the war will divert scarce resources to an effort that may ultimately divide their members. Although some limited polling suggests that union members roughly mirror general public opinion on war against Iraq, there are also anecdotal indications—like Zero’s experience—that union members may be receptive to educational efforts against a unilateral U.S. war. But so far few labor unions have even taken the simple step of providing alternative views—the labor equivalent of campus teach-ins—that would help members better understand what’s at stake.


On October 7, as Congress was nearing a vote on Bush’s power to act militarily against Iraq, AFL-CIO President John Sweeney sent a letter to Congress that expressed concerns about Bush’s Iraq policy but did not urge a vote against the legislation. Sweeney argued that U.S. policies on Iraq should not distract from pursuit of al-Qaeda terrorists, and that they should reinforce international law, the United Nations and broader, multilateral alliances against terrorism. Sweeney also said that the fight against terrorism was not simply military, but required more global attention to basic human rights.

He criticized the politicization of the prospective war—such as Republican claims that Democrats were unpatriotic for trying to protect the rights of workers in the new Homeland Security department—and suggested that the timing of the campaign against Iraq was itself politically motivated. Urging a full debate about the possible costs and casualties, he concluded, “We must assure [the sons and daughters of working families] that war is the last option, not the first, used to resolve this conflict before we ask them to put themselves in harm’s way to protect the rest of us.”

Sweeney’s letter reflected support from the AFL-CIO Executive Council’s international affairs committee, which had invited former Clinton administration officials Sandy Berger and John Podesta to discuss national security and political issues related to Iraq. It circulated among the whole executive council, without dissent, before being sent to Congress. The AFL-CIO insists that it is not an “anti-war” position, even though it is a much more skeptical view of presidential war-making than the AFL-CIO has historically taken.

There has been almost no explicit labor support for war in Iraq, although Teamsters President James Hoffa did join the White House-orchestrated Committee for the Liberation of Iraq. “You cannot have a conversation with anyone inside the labor movement who thinks we should have a war,” says veteran union organizer Bob Muehlenkamp, who is trying to mobilize labor opposition. “Two things that come out particularly strong are the focus on economic consequences and whose kids fight this war.”

Despite their opposition to terrorism, he said, “people feel that Bush has not made a case” for invading Iraq. Muehlenkamp hopes that unions will feel comfortable joining with a newly formed Keep America Safe/Win Without War campaign, which includes the National Council of Churches, Business Leaders for Sensible Priorities, the Rainbow/Push Coalition and other groups.


Since last summer there has been steady growth in labor opposition to a war from local unions, central labor councils, state federations and other groups, and a few high-ranking labor leaders have also spoken out individually. “Personally, I’m extremely disturbed about it,” says Hotel and Restaurant Employees (HERE) President John Wilhelm. “I thought that post-9/11, the focus was on terrorism and al-Qaeda. I don’t know where this Iraq venture came from. I’m also very concerned about what I think will be a real disaster for our members, just in terms of their jobs.”

Gloria Johnson, president of the Coalition of Labor Union Women and a member of the AFL-CIO Executive Council, shares skepticism about the abrupt shift from terrorism to Iraq. “I have not read or seen anything that in my opinion at this point justifies the war,” she says. “I sincerely hope that reports that come out from Iraq with the searching going on will demonstrate that a war will not be needed. I’m concerned about the loss of lives of our kids. I’m concerned about the tremendous focus of money, especially since we’re going pretty much alone.”

“We think the rush to attack Iraq is a mistake,” adds Bruce Raynor, president of UNITE, the union of apparel and textile workers. “I think the president ought to grab a gun and lead the charge if he wants to do that. But he’s proposing to send our kids. But Saddam Hussein is a bad guy. If the United Nations supports an intervention against Saddam because he has weapons of mass destruction, we would be supportive of that.”

Shortly after Sweeney’s letter to Congress, Local 1199, the 220,000-member New York health care union, took out a full-page ad in the New York Times opposing war in Iraq. California SEIU Local 250 launched an extensive educational campaign among its 85,000 members after coming out against war. “I think it’s our fundamental responsibility to take a stand and lead on it,” says Local 250 President Sal Roselli. “Some people see it as a risk, but risk is how we accomplish change and justice for workers.”


Union members and leaders often see Bush’s war strategies as linked to his “war on labor.” Gene Bruskin, secretary-treasurer of the Food and Allied Service Trades division of the AFL-CIO, wrote to Sweeney in October that Bush’s policies were “a Trojan horse for his pro-corporate domestic and international agenda.” Both his domestic and foreign policy are designed, Bruskin argued, to make “the world safe for U.S. multinationals,” and “the labor movement must take the lead in opposing Bush’s war policies if we are going to succeed at advancing our own goals.”

Similarly, after the Seattle Central Labor Council voted to join October demonstrations against the war, Secretary-Treasurer Steve Williamson received broad support for his comments linking Bush’s war plans to anti-worker policies, from intervening against the West Coast dockworkers in their contract negotiations and taking away the rights of Homeland Security workers to planning to privatize half of the federal work force and cutting taxes for the rich. “My premise was very simple,” says Williamson, a former bricklayer. “Bush has two unilateral wars he’s embarking on. One is war on Iraq. The other is war on working families.”

So far, service and white-collar workers have taken the lead, but the opposition to war comes from many quarters. There are active anti-war labor groups in New York, Washington, San Francisco, Detroit, Seattle, Portland and other cities, some of which opposed the war in Afghanistan as well—a minority view that cost New York City anti-war labor leader Michael Letwin re-election as president of an Autoworkers local this fall.

But opposition to the Iraq war has drawn more mainstream labor backing, including the Washington State Labor Council, United Electrical Workers, New York state nurses, the Wisconsin SEIU, the California Federation of Teachers, Pride at Work (the AFL-CIO gay workers organization), New Mexico carpenters, and central labor councils from such cities as San Francisco, San Jose and Oakland, California; Albany, Troy and Rochester, New York; and Duluth, Minnesota.

But most labor leaders, despite their own misgivings or opposition, remain cautious—preoccupied with other issues, seeking careful internal deliberations, fearful of dividing the labor movement, deferential to timid Democratic leaders, and reluctant to get far ahead of their members. They are also waiting to see what happens with inspections in Iraq and at the U.N. Security Council. Although labor movements in Europe are forcefully opposing war against Iraq, “the AFL-CIO is not going to get deeply involved in either the peace or war side because the divisions are too deep,” one insider predicts.

But by raising doubts, encouraging debate and providing education about alternative strategies, the AFL-CIO could at least deny Bush some of his national security cover for the war at home and open the door for unions and leaders who want to more vigorously oppose the looming war in Iraq.

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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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