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December 2003 • Vol 3, No. 11 •

National Labor Assembly for Peace: A Big Step Forward

By Jerry Gordon

The National Labor Assembly for Peace, organized by United States Labor Against the War (USLAW) and held in Chicago October 24-25, 2003, was, in the opinion of this participant, a remarkable success, due both to the program of the conference and the manner in which it was conducted. The Assembly was convened to transform USLAW into an ongoing labor antiwar coalition, and that is what it did.

USLAW was born in the fight to prevent the threatened U.S. war against Iraq. Following the invasion, USLAW moved immediately to oppose the occupation. It has also been spearheading a solidarity campaign in support of Iraqi workers. The October conference left no doubt that Iraq will continue to be in the forefront of USLAW’s work, at least in the period ahead.

In the aftermath of the conventional phase of the war, there was a widespread tendency among many peace activists to move on to other peace and justice issues. This was graphically demonstrated at the June conference of United for Peace and Justice when the 500 attendees were asked to prioritize their concerns. Ending the U.S. occupation of Iraq ranked no higher than ninth.

While there are hot spots all over the world resulting from the expansionist and aggressive empire building policies pursued by the U.S. government, there is no question but that Iraq, at this juncture, is at the very center of world politics. It is here that the vulnerability of the vaunted U.S. military machine, the most powerful in the history of the world, is being exposed. Iraq has become a killing ground for U.S. military forces and the government is powerless to prevent it. The Iraqi resistance is everywhere and it is inflicting terrible damage on the occupiers. U.S. public opinion is turning steadily against the war and the occupation, and the Bush administration finds itself trapped in a nightmare of its own making. It has pledged to continue the occupation, but the cost of staying in Iraq is becoming increasingly intolerable. And the more that the U.S. public sours on the Iraq fiasco, the harder it will be for the U.S. to win support for future wars of invasion and conquest. Iraq has become the warmakers’ Achilles heel.

In view of this, it was eminently correct for the delegates to the Assembly (by a 91-70 vote) to reject the proposal to change USLAW’s name to “U.S. Labor United for Peace, Jobs, Justice and Prosperity.” While the projected change of name would not necessarily have resulted in a change of orientation toward a more generalized peace and justice formation, it would have sent the wrong message, obscuring USLAW’s primary focus on Iraq.

At the same time, as the Assembly made clear, opposing “the” war does not mean just the war on Iraq but also the administration’s permanent war strategy and the war on workers at home.

Iraqi Labor Rights Campaign

A touchstone of USLAW’s work is and has been developing solidarity with the emerging Iraqi trade union movement. This campaign has enormous possibilities and warrants all the attention the Assembly gave it—and more.

One of the best received speakers at the Assembly was Clarence Thomas, Executive Board member and former Secretary-Treasurer of International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) Local 10, based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Brother Thomas was one of a five-member USLAW delegation, which visited Iraq for a week. He reported that in 1987 Saddam Hussein issued a decree making public sector unions illegal and banning strikes. This decree remains on the books, unchanged by potentate Bremer or the puppet Iraqi Governing Council. Moreover, it was the occupation authority, under Bremer, which issued a Draconian edict on June 16 prohibiting strikes and threatening that any worker who encourages strike activity will be held as a prisoner of war.

As part of its Iraqi Labor Rights Campaign, USLAW has published a “Profile Of U.S. Corporations Awarded Contracts in U.S./British-Occupied Iraq.” This report, in the words of its Executive Summary, “profiles eighteen of the most prominent U.S. corporations to which the Bush administration has given large, highly profitable contracts to operate in Iraq.” The document declares that “U.S. Labor Against the War will enthusiastically support a campaign to secure for Iraqi workers the labor rights necessary for a decent and dignified existence and as the foundation for a truly democratic society.” Toward this end, it is working with the International Liaison Committee (ILC), which is rendering considerable support for the campaign. A representative of the ILC, Daniel Gluckstein, was among the speakers at the Assembly.

There are at least three major reasons why USLAW’s Iraqi Labor Rights Campaign is so important. The first is that it fulfills a basic responsibility that workers in an imperialist country have toward workers of a conquered country living under colonial occupation.

Second, it exposes the sham and hypocrisy of the claim that the U.S. war against Iraq was waged to bring democracy and justice to the people of that nation. It lays bare the fact that the standards of the UN’s International Labor Organization (ILO), which set forth basic rights of workers and their unions, are being flouted by the occupying authorities.

Third, it provides an opening to bring the issue of the occupation of Iraq to the AFL-CIO. The AFL-CIO has many times declared its readiness to assist unions around the world struggling for basic rights. Many U.S. trade unionists contend that the federation has sometimes abused this mission by intervening in support of company unions working in concert with the bosses, a case in point being the recent assistance extended by the AFL-CIO to the misleaders of Venezuela’s oil union. Be that as it may, Iraq presents an opportunity to get it right by coming to the aid of Iraq’s beleaguered workers, whose rights are being flagrantly abused.

The War at Home

The astronomical cost to the U.S. population of the Iraqi and Afghanistan wars and occupations was driven home at the Assembly by frequent references to the $87 billion appropriation request submitted to Congress [and subsequent to the Assembly approved by Congress]. This at a time when unemployment exceeds well over nine million, the cost of health care is spiraling, schools are starving for needed funds, tuition for higher education continues to soar, the U.S. infrastructure is crumbling, homelessness is sharply increasing, cities and states face critical budgetary deficits resulting in layoffs and cutbacks in essential services, and environmental protections are further eroding. All of these problems are taking a terrific toll, especially on communities of color.

For years the government has attempted to justify its unwillingness to address these problems on the ground that the money is just not there—even as gigantic tax cuts are enacted for the super rich. Then along comes Iraq and the sky is the limit for funding the destruction of much of that country and then awarding bid-free lucrative contracts for reconstructing it.

From its inception, USLAW has sought to draw the connection between the war abroad and the war at home. From day one, its leadership has understood that key to winning the U.S. working class to the antiwar cause is helping workers understand that spending for war and militarization undermines their living standards and drains dollars away from urgently needed social programs.

This USLAW message resonates much more forcefully than was the case for the Vietnam antiwar movement. The question of guns or butter was also posed then but lacked the traction it has today. The reason is that vast changes have taken place in the economy since Vietnam. Johnson, for example, in prosecuting the Vietnam war, funded the burgeoning military expenditures and also his “Great Society” program by a string of budget deficits, including raiding the social security trust fund. But this was easier to do, then, because in Johnson’s era the U.S. was the world’s largest creditor nation. Now, with indebted private, household, corporate and government sectors, the U.S. is the world’s largest debtor economy. [Note: The nation’s debt today exceeds $6.8 trillion and is increasing at an astounding $1.58 billion a day.]

Bush lacks the advantages U.S. presidents had when waging the Vietnam war. By expanding the government’s ballooning deficits in order to implement his preemptive war strategy, he risks collapse of the dollar. Add to this the costs of a still sinking economy (despite the latest surge) and it’s obvious that the crisis confronting the government could soon reach catastrophic proportions. With public opposition to the war also rising, it is no wonder that much of the Big Business media is expressing growing anxiety over the direction of U.S. foreign policy.

Non-Partisan and Non-Electoral

At a time when the U.S. labor movement is making the defeat of George Bush in the 2004 election its overriding objective, USLAW was under tremendous pressure to get on board in terms of its own program and perspective. Here, USLAW made an unfortunate accommodation by inserting in the Call to the Assembly the following language: “Bush’s defeat in the 2004 election is of paramount urgency.” To be sure, this statement was followed by one cautioning: “However, in seeking his defeat, we must assure the defeat of the policies he has promoted so that no matter who is elected, it will be politically impossible to pursue them.” But the partisan note that had been struck was not negated by the words, which came after.

The issue here is not whether anyone disagrees with the menace posed by the Bush administration to the working class and to people around the world. Rather, it is whether to rely on Democratic Party politicians to deliver us from that menace. There is no way to interpret the statement that Bush’s defeat in 2004 is of “paramount urgency” other than as a call to elect the Democratic nominee for president—whoever that may be—because [as the USLAW Statement had argued] realistically, at this point, electing that individual is the only way to defeat Bush. If there were a mass labor party in the field running on an antiwar program, the statement might have been appropriate. In absence of such a party, the statement feeds illusions that the election of a Democratic administration will bring peace, an end to occupations, and a fundamental change in U.S. foreign policy, none of which is supported by the record of past Democratic administrations.

When the proposed Mission Statement was issued, it was reassuring to see that it contained no reference similar to the one objected to in the Call.

Yet delegates still objected to the fact that Bush’s name was cited three times in the Mission Statement with nothing in that Statement holding the Democrats accountable for their complicity in launching the war against Iraq. As a result of a number of comments from the floor, the Statement was revised, limiting the personal references to Bush and clarifying who bore responsibility for the war by declaring, “The foreign policy of the Bush Administration, with the consent of Congress, is based on military aggression, and the threat of force.” (Emphasis added) This rewrite satisfied the delegates and the Mission Statement was overwhelmingly approved.

(Incidentally, the manner in which the Mission Statement was changed—with delegates encouraged to propose amendments from the floor, which were duly voted upon—is testament to the high level of participation and democratic decision-making at the Assembly. Delegates had a meaningful voice and they were heard.)

When it comes to electoral politics and the need to build an antiwar movement which unites people from different political parties while remaining independent of all of them, it is perhaps instructive to recall the Vietnam-era experience of the National Peace Action Coalition (NPAC). In 1972 NPAC was the main center nationally of the antiwar movement. It had been formed two years previously as a nonpartisan coalition with a policy barring electoral involvement. That policy was challenged by supporters of George McGovern who argued that NPAC should defer demonstrations until after the 1972 presidential election and concentrate on encouraging its followers to ring doorbells for their candidate in order to defeat Nixon. The issue was referred to NPAC’s July 1972 convention in Los Angeles. After full discussion and debate, the nearly 1,000 activists present voted overwhelmingly to maintain the coalition’s non-partisan stance. NPAC resolved to continue building demonstrations in the streets before, during and after the November election. The rest, as they say, is history. Despite the unpopularity of the Vietnam war and the Watergate scandal which was unraveling the presidency, Nixon crushed McGovern in the election, winning every state except Massachusetts.

In the current situation, at a time when USLAW stands squarely for an immediate end to the occupation of Iraq, all of the leading contenders for the Democratic Party presidential nomination call for continuing the occupation, in fact some of them urge sending in additional U.S. troops. So how could USLAW, consistent with its program, give any consideration whatever to throwing its support to the Democrats?


Thanks to the work done prior to and at the Assembly itself, USLAW has positioned itself to win increasing support for its policies and programs from the labor movement. Its prospects are much brighter than those which faced antiwar trade unionists in the early period of the Vietnam War.

During the Vietnam years, the top leadership of the U.S. labor movement was lined up solidly behind the war. AFL-CIO president George Meany dismissed out of hand the argument that the U.S. labor movement had no business supporting a war to prop up a military dictatorship 8,000 miles from home. On May 3, 1965, he told the AFL-CIO Building and Construction Trades Department, “It is up to all of us, on affairs outside of this nation to have one policy. We can disagree in here, but we cannot disagree outside the boundaries of the nation, and have an effective foreign policy. So I urge you in your own communities to follow the AFL-CIO position, to back up the commander-in-chief.”

Fast forward to this year. Prior to the outbreak of war against Iraq, the AFL-CIO Executive Council did take a position calling for alternatives to using military force, which it said should only be employed as a last resort. But when the invasion was launched, that position yielded to one calling for support for the troops, the war and the commander-in-chief. Shades of Meany.

Nonetheless, opposition to the war and occupation runs much deeper among U.S. workers today than was true after a comparable period of the Vietnam war. And the domestic consequences are far more apparent.

By virtue of its solid work, USLAW has positioned itself to get a hearing within the AFL-CIO and the labor movement as a whole. The carefully chosen language in USLAW’s Mission Statement, the Iraqi Labor Rights Campaign, the effective linking of the war abroad to the war at home, and the policy of reaching out to labor leaders at all levels while at the same time making it possible for rank-and-file trade unionists to participate, have all helped USLAW lay the foundations for significant growth and development. At the same time, USLAW’s program and the non-sectarian manner in which it functions to win support for that program make it difficult for any trade union supporters of current U.S. foreign policies to marginalize it.

The emergence of USLAW is a truly historic development, one that deserves the active support of all concerned trade unionists. The need today is to build USLAW in every way possible, for it is the most promising vehicle on the scene for involving large numbers of workers in this country in the ongoing fight for peace, justice and the defense of labor’s rights throughout the world.

Jerry Gordon is a long-time antiwar activist and trade union officer.





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