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November 2002 • Vol 2, No. 10 •

An Open Letter to AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney

From Gene L. Bruskin, Secretary-Treasurer Food and Allied Services Trades, AFL-CIO

[The Editorial Board of Socialist Viewpoint regularly states that the authors of signed articles are the ones responsible for their views and usually that is sufficient. This letter, however, deserves a note because it indicates the general movement of officials of organized labor as they respond to rank and file pressure. We welcome Gene Bruskin’s initiative but it is a serious mistake to talk about the Democrats and Republicans as though one gang were better or worse than the other and there is a long, sad history to prove it. We hope Gene Bruskin and so many like him take note. —ed.]

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I am taking this unusual step of writing to you because these are unusual times. I am referring both to the challenges the labor movement faces and the political climate created by the War on Terrorism and the threat of war with Iraq.

In many ways, the labor movement is at a turning point in our ability to organize new members, to win strong contracts and to affect social policy. This is the result of the economic downturn, the evolving high tech economy, the vehement employer resistance to unions and, importantly, the hostile or at best indifferent political leadership at all levels of government.

These and other factors have partly stymied the bold initiatives that have characterized your leadership, including raising labor’s political profile, championing immigrant rights, expanding organizing and mobilizing our members in support of pro-worker legislative initiatives.

Since 9/11 an even more dangerous and powerful dynamic has taken over the public and political discourse of our country, the War on Terror. This is a War described by the Bush Administration as a 30-40 year effort. The promise of a Peace Dividend with the end of the Cold War has disappeared. In fact, Bush’s War policies appear to be a long-term Cold War-type strategy on steroids, moving into high gear with all out war in Iraq.

There is no doubt that the U.S. faces a serious challenge following the horrific acts of 9/11. We clearly need heightened security at home and a concerted international effort abroad to find and arrest those intending to commit future terrorist acts.

I do not believe, however, that Bush’s war policies are designed to increase domestic security. They are, rather, a Trojan Horse for his pro-corporate domestic and international agenda. His War on Terror and War on Iraq have little to do with promoting security for the U.S. 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.

I believe that the Labor movement must take the lead in opposing Bush’s War policies if we are going to succeed at advancing our own goals of improving the lives of the U.S. working class. Here we will have to set the pace for the Democratic Party who in large measure fear to challenge the President’s security-related initiatives.

Labor has been clear and vocal about the dangers of Bush’s domestic policies, but we have been naïve at best about the objectives of his foreign policy. We have attempted to fully support an anti-worker President’s War on Terrorism while fighting the effects of the War on our members.

I believe it is a losing strategy for us because we are fighting the symptoms and not the disease. The War on Terrorism (and Iraq) and the domestic effects of the War are of one piece. To support the War is to invite all the inevitable political and economic effects. We see our civil liberties shrinking through the U.S. Patriot Act (which will be used against unions), Federal government workers losing their union rights, the ILWU being threatened with Bush’s intervention, our immigrant rights campaign seriously setback, our efforts for global justice waning and more—all in the name of national security.

Iraq is the most blatant example of the ill-intended Bush policy of preemption. Saddam is clearly a dictator who may possess or wish to possess dangerous weapons. But the timing of this version of Bush’s War and the extremely aggressive posture of the U.S. against Iraq are largely unjustified by the threat. Already the drums of War have succeeded in dramatically “wagging the dog,” changing the stories on the front pages of our nations’ papers from the failure of the Bush administration to halt the economic decline and end corporate corruption, to the President’s bold leadership in protecting the U.S. and the world from the imminent threat of an Evil Monster.

The whole world can see that the timing was done to give the Republicans the advantage in November, and it appears the strategy is working. But the labor movement hasn’t called him on it, despite the substantial damage Republican success in November would do to U.S. workers. There is considerable suspicion among our members and much of the world, that this is very much a war for oil, a favorite commodity for the Bush-Cheney crowd. Multilateralism has been reduced to threats, bribes and bullying, undermining the role of the UN.

The potential downsides of this war are breathtaking. The Administration has estimated that “Regime Change” in Iraq could cost up to $200 billion, aggravating the deficit and removing any chance of labor’s current domestic priorities being implemented. In fact, the massive increases in War related spending already underway would make policies such as broad health care reform impossible. This will inevitably result in shrinking state budgets, with dramatic implications for local health programs and government services that so many Republicans would love to cut.

It is highly likely that some and perhaps many U.S. soldiers will die, for Saddam may have hesitated to release his weapons, fearing U.S. retaliation, but if he is going down, he will have nothing else to lose. In addition, many thousands of Iraqi civilians will inevitably become the collateral damage of this war. Beyond the damage in Iraq itself, by bombing Arabs we will surely create a flood of Bin Laden supporters in the Islamic world and very possibly cause other dangerous and destabilizing effects.

I believe that we ignore this ominous trend at our peril. I urge you to speak out forcefully, to begin to publicly challenge Bush’s obsession with war. We in the labor movement understand that promoting global justice and human rights is the best way to fight hatred and terrorism. I applaud you for beginning to discuss these issues in the Executive Council and communicating your concerns to Congress. Now that you have stepped forward on this issue, I hope you will promote broad discussion and action in the labor movement. Labor councils around the country could be encouraged to continue to take up this issue. (see the attached statement from the Washington State Labor Council). 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.

Your leadership could make a substantial difference in how we define war and peace as well as justice and progress in the 21st century. In an interview shortly before his death, George Meany told David Frost, “If I had known then what I know now, I would have acted differently about the (Vietnam) war.” We all have much to learn from him in this regard.

The outcome of Bush’s policies is not inevitable. There are some voices that will be listened to. Yours is among them. Thank you very much for considering my thoughts.


Gene L Bruskin

Food and Allied Service Trades, AFL-CIO
1925 K Street, N.W., Suite 400
Washington, DC 20006-1132





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