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November 2002 • Vol 2, No. 10 •

AFL-CIO’s Sweeney Facing Antiwar Opposition

By Charles Walker

At long last, the AFL-CIO has spoken out about the looming U.S. war against Iraq. In an October 7 letter to U.S. Senators and Representatives, AFL-CIO president John J. Sweeney concludes that “we” must assure the sons and daughters of America’s working families that “war is the last option, not the first, to resolve this conflict before we ask them to put themselves in harm’s way to protect the rest of us.” It’s not clear why Sweeney has lagged behind some union locals and wider union bodies that have taken positions on a war against Iraq. But what is clear is that Sweeney, at bottom, shares the bi-partisan premises that underlie the October congressional resolution that authorized all means, including force, to bring Iraq to heel.

Sweeney asserts that Iraq is a “global terrorist threat” and “America certainly has the right to act unilaterally if we need to do so to protect our national interests…” In the same sentence, Sweeney says those “national interests are better served by multinational action,” but he doesn’t say that the AFL-CIO insists on multinational support, with or without a fig leaf cover provided by the United Nations.

Sweeney does caution the administration and the congress on one vital point. He calls for a “fulsome public debate free of political inferences,” to insure that Americans “are fully informed and supportive” of the government’s war plans. Sweeney’s warning (or maybe its only a reminder) undoubtedly comes to his mind because he remembers the deep opposition the Vietnam War aroused.

Of course, Sweeney doesn’t have to wait for the government to organize such an unprecedented “fulsome debate.” Sweeney can try to ensure that workers, at least, are “fully informed,” if not supportive of an Iraq war, by organizing a nationwide debate, open to all workers, organized or not. Such an extensive debate couldn’t help but catch the attention of the entire population, and perhaps lead to the fully informed nation that Sweeney rightly calls for. Debates are useful in and of themselves, but an honest debate that included an honest straw vote couldn’t help but be even more useful; especially, if it, in turn, pressured the government to allow a national referendum on the war question, with all sides being given equal and uncensored access to the corporate media.

Of course the government is not going to organize a debate and a vote on an Iraq war. Sure, calling for a debate and referendum is unrealistic, but no more than Sweeny’s call for the government to ensure a fully informed populace. Is it likely that there will be a debate for workers sponsored and organized by the AFL-CIO? Sadly the answer is no, even though workers are not fully informed of their stake in an Iraq war, and the issue of right and wrong isn’t settled just because Sweeney set forth his position.

There’s a small but growing vocal labor opposition that just may be the visible tip of a larger labor opposition both to the bipartisan war resolution and Sweeney’s position that war is an option, even as a last option.

Some union locals and wider union organizations have adopted anti-war resolutions and new ones surface each week. One of the most recent signs of dissent is not a resolution, but an anti-war letter sent to Sweeney that unexpectedly originated from within the hierarchy of the AFL-CIO.

The respectful letter by Secretary-Treasurer Gene Bruskin of the Food & Allied Service Trades that has twelve affiliates, including the American Federation of Teachers, Operating Engineers, Hotel and Restaurant Workers, Retail Clerks and PACE calls upon Sweeney to promote broad discussion and action in the labor movement. “Labor councils around the country could be encouraged to continue to take up this issue. The pages of the AFL-CIO publications could be open to debate and education about the War on Iraq and Bush’s War policies. Our members could become a force in shaping this policy.”

Unlike Sweeney who gives uncritical backing to the administration’s so-called war on terrorism, Bruskin says that that policy and a pro-war policy “is a losing strategy for us…” Those policies, he holds, undercut civil liberties (“which will be used against unions), the rights of federal workers, the collective bargaining rights of West Coast dockworkers, the unions’ fight for immigrant rights, and the AFL-CIO’s “efforts for global justice.” Sweeney says that the “AFL-CIO and the American labor movement have stood firmly in support of President Bush in the war on terrorism.” Bruskin, on the contrary, tells his chief that Bush’s “War of (sic) Terror, and War on Iraq have little to do with promoting security for US citizenry. Rather, his foreign policy is designed to serve the same corporate interests that drive his domestic policy, making the world safe for U.S. multinationals. In the era of globalization the two cannot be separated.”

Bruskin’s letter to Sweeney only partly echoes the Washington State Labor Council’s resolution. That statement charges that “the AFL-CIO’s uncritical support for this profit-driven war has led to the callous withholding of solidarity from labor’s working class and poor allies in other countries who are suffering and dying as a result of this conflict…”

To date, most antiwar union resolutions and statements are silent about Middle East oil and its place in U.S. foreign affairs. A notable exception is the United Electrical Workers (UE) resolution adopted at its September convention. “The Bush Administration is cynically using inflated claims of Iraq’s threat to vastly increase the military budget [and] to help his friends in the oil business…” The resolution was carried without opposition. The delegate (a District president) who introduced the resolution was quoted as saying, “The history of the Iraq issue is based around oil and U.S. corporations’ need to control oil.”

The UE delegate’s conclusion finds support from expert opinion outside the labor movement. The well-known geopolitics expert and Amherst professor, Michael Klare, wrote in the March issue of Current History magazine, “If the real motives were made clear—that this is a grab for oil and an attempt to break the back of OPEC—it would make our motives look more predatory than exemplary.” Washington Post writers reported on Sept. 15, that, “American and foreign oil companies have already begun maneuvering for a stake in the country’s huge proven reserves of 112 billion barrels of crude oil, the largest in the world, outside Saudi Arabia.”

From Alaska to Colombia, and from Africa to Central Asia and beyond, the U.S. government and corporate America are relentlessly securing oil resources. But no area compares with the vast oil supplies that underlie the Middle East. And no part of the Middle East is as ripe for takeover as is Iraq. Despite the U.S. government’s tough talk about terrorism, and its declarations that a war against Iraq would be a battle between good and evil—that’s likely to be a tough sell in an honest debate. In any event, the view that a war against Iraq would be an oil war and of a piece with corporate America’s battle with its international competitors shows signs of increasing popularity judging by the growing number of “no war for oil” signs at anti-war rallies.





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