Labor, the Antiwar Movement
and the Democratic Party

By Carole Seligman and Bonnie Weinstein

On October 17th antiwar demonstrations were held across the country marking the 9th year of Operation Enduring Freedom, the U.S. war on Afghanistan, which began October 7, 2001. The actions also marked the 40th anniversary of the 1969 Vietnam Moratorium, a huge national mobilization against the Vietnam War, which took place throughout the country. The 2009 demonstrations, modest in size, opposed the U.S. wars against Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the acts of war against Pakistan, the U.S. supported Israeli war against the Palestinians, and the U.S. war threats against Iran and North Korea. One thousand marched in Boston and San Francisco. Smaller demonstrations were held in many other cities and towns, including Detroit; Milwaukee; New Orleans; Newport, Kentucky; Norwich, Connecticut; Honolulu—more than 48 cites across the country.

The demonstrations were initiated by the National Assembly to End the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars and Occupations, a national network of peace activists attempting to forge unity in the antiwar movement. They were endorsed by a wide array of peace organizations, including many unions, labor councils, religious and peace groups, community organizations, veterans groups, and others.

In San Francisco, the October 17th Coalition was formed to plan a march and rally here. Act Now to Stop War and End Racism (ANSWER), United for Peace and Justice (UFPJ), Iraq Moratorium, Code Pink, The World Can’t Wait, Bay Area Labor Committee for Peace and Justice, U.S. Labor Against the War, all the socialist organizations (including this magazine) and many other groups joined the coalition and helped publicize the demonstration. The October 17th demonstration was eventually endorsed by the San Francisco Labor Council.

In addition to the antiwar demands of the coalition for U.S. Out Now and an end for U.S. support to the Israeli war and occupation against the Palestinians; the demonstrations also demanded government funding for jobs, pensions, education, healthcare and housing, not wars and corporate bailouts; self-determination for all oppressed nations and peoples; an end to war crimes including torture; and prosecution of the war criminals.

San Francisco Coalition reneges on anti-Pelosi protest

The first meeting of the San Francisco October 17th Coalition, held in August, set a good principled tone by beginning to organize the October demonstration, as well as make a decision to protest Speaker of the House, Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi’s appearance at a San Francisco Labor Day event on September 4th. The motion to protest Pelosi for her role in funding the wars, passed unanimously.

However, the day after the second Coalition meeting, the group’s co-coordinator, Jeff Mackler, sent out an announcement to the members of the coalition unilaterally canceling the protest!

The reasons stated for this unusual action were that the Pelosi breakfast was sponsored by the San Francisco Labor Council, “an organization that has consistently endorsed and supported the antiwar movement.” And, he stated that he hadn’t known at the meeting where the vote took place “that the event was to be a protest of the San Francisco Labor Council.” He stated in the letter that although Pelosi “continued [to] support the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the bailout for the banks,” this labor breakfast was not an “appropriate” event at which to protest Pelosi!

In this shameful letter, Mackler wrote, “Further, I request that all leaflets that were produced to advertise this event (approximately 200) be immediately destroyed.” And, “I will not be present at this protest. Neither will any of the leading organizations of the October 17 Antiwar Coalition.”

Mackler claimed that his decision was supported by all the “leaders” of the coalition, but that is hard to determine without a democratic debate. While this cancellation did indeed garner the support of many of the coalition groups, the authors of this article, both activists in the Coalition and in the Bay Area antiwar movement, strongly opposed this reversal. So did the original maker of the motion, Steve Zeltzer, as well as the Code Pink organization. At the meeting held November 1st to evaluate the October 17th action, others opposed the cancellation too.

The Labor Council itself was never the “object of protest” as Mackler’s letter said. It was clear from the beginning of the Coalition that the object of the protest was Nancy Pelosi because she is a leader in the government and the majority political party leading the country and carrying out the wars, the Democrats. What’s wrong about protesting Pelosi, when she was being honored by the San Francisco Labor Council—or, for that matter—any organization that would want to honor a warmonger? The other obvious question is, what if they were honoring Republican George W. Bush, as some labor unions have done? Would it be inappropriate to demonstrate in that case?

Shortly after the notice of cancellation of the Coalition’s support for the September 4th Pelosi protest, Tim Paulson, the Executive Director of the San Francisco Labor Council, issued a statement to its members which said, “We are also honored to be visited by Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, who has been fighting tirelessly for real healthcare reform and is taking time out of her busy schedule to break bread with her friends in the labor movement before she heads back to Washington, D.C.” [In fact, she has abandoned single-payer healthcare in favor of a very weak “public option” that amounts to nothing more than a guaranteed income for private insurance companies while abandoning dental, vision and hearing coverage for adults; and all health coverage for undocumented workers and their children.] This letter went on to assure its readers that “many progressive antiwar activists are emailing and calling the Labor Council to distance themselves” from the protest of Pelosi.

He wrote, “This missive is just to let our friends know that you might be met outside the hotel by some protesters, but that almost unilaterally the labor and antiwar movements condemn these efforts.” It also contained a strong condemnation of Steve Zeltzer, the labor activist who brought the original motion to the Oct. 17th Coalition.

It is important to note that Tim Paulson serves on the Executive Board of the California Democratic Party. The California Democrats play an active role trying to co-opt the antiwar movement into the Democratic Party fold, acting mainly through the labor bureaucrats running most of the unions.

The demonstration took place anyway. A small but respectable-sized group (for 7:30 A.M. on a Friday morning), including representatives from Code Pink, picketed the Pelosi Labor Council breakfast. A flyer was distributed which said:

“Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the House, is a leading policy maker in the administration of Barack Obama and a point person for the imperialist, profoundly anti-democratic and exploitative policies of the Democratic Party—a principal instrument of rapacious class rule in the United States.

“She represents the following: Escalating the war of brutal aggression in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and beyond; sustaining the murder of Iraq indefinitely;

“Expanding the use of torture, rendition and the implementation in the United States of the architecture of the fascist state.

“She is a major figure in the handing over to the banksters, to date, the sum of $23.7 trillion, as documented by Neil Barofsky in his testimony before Congress.

“Nancy Pelosi, like the Party and administration she represents, is an enemy of working people—of their economic survival, their right to organize and their political independence.

“It is matter of principle to protest her public appearances. A picket protesting the anti-working class and anti-democratic policies that she represents is not an attack upon labor, let alone upon the San Francisco Labor Council as an organization.

“The leadership that would foist upon the Labor Council and upon working people the policies of the Democratic Party is a misleadership that disarms labor and renders working people unable to fight in their own name and in their class interests. Every defender of the rights of working people will reject this hysteria and recognize that it seeks to cover a bending of the knee to a labor misleadership that undermines the future of working people in the United States.”

A letter was sent to Tim Paulson from Steve Zeltzer and signed by several individuals—including the authors of this article, stating in part:

“All defenders of workers’ rights understand that protests against those in government who vote for war funding are principled actions that deserve the support of the entire antiwar and labor movements. Your argument that it is unethical and politically ‘divisive’ to protest the reactionary policies of the Speaker of the House because she has been invited to a breakfast sponsored by the San Francisco Labor Council is wrong. What is divisive is for the leadership of the Council to impose a politician with a reprehensible anti-labor record on a Labor Day event.”

The letter called Paulson’s actions “a smear meant to intimidate any who oppose the policies of Pelosi, including the expansion of the wars in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq.”

It also reported that “One of the leaders of the San Francisco Labor Council actually elbowed Brother Zeltzer in front of the St. Francis Hotel and knocked flyers out of his hands as he and others were passing them out. Zeltzer’s letter to Paulson continues:

“Are these tactics that you condone, or is it your condemnation of dissent that encourages physical attacks of those on a picket line?

“The San Francisco labor movement has a long tradition of upholding the right of dissent, including the right to disagree with decisions of the leadership of the San Francisco Labor Council.

“Your letter is a breach of this tradition. It constitutes a warning to all San Francisco Labor Council delegates and to rank and file members of the labor movement that dissent is “disloyal” and not allowed under your regime.”

The letter called on Paulson to apologize to Zeltzer and to the San Francisco labor movement for such undemocratic and personal attacks.

Labor and the Democratic Party

At the root of this dispute is the Labor leadership’s partnership with the Democratic Party. It is the only way to explain the huge contradiction between the San Francisco Labor Council’s passing of numerous antiwar resolutions and its breakfast honoring a major war supporter such as Pelosi.

What message is the invitation honoring Pelosi sending to workers? At the most basic level, it says that when push comes to shove, the labor “leaders” will ally with the Democratic Party, in spite of the ongoing assault it is carrying out against working people—including the escalation of the wars responsible for rising death tolls on both sides of the battlefields—wars that are eating up staggering amounts of funds and resources.

From the peasants growing poppies in the fields of Afghanistan to the economic draft of U.S. youth, it’s the poor and working class who are dying while the wealthy are profiting!

San Francisco workers are under a tremendous assault to their living standards, as are all working people today. The Democratic Party, in alliance with the Republicans, is leading the assault! The Democratic Party is bailing out the banks; the Democratic Party is adding to the Pentagon budget and to the military industrial complex. The Democratic Party is privatizing our schools and turning public education into military recruitment grounds or detention camps—pushing students towards either the military or prison. Both the Democrats and the Republicans work for the very same people and take money from the very same people who are making trillions on Wall Street off the backs of working people.

Any party that works for the commanders of capital and supports their economic system of exploitation of working people is anti-labor and should be opposed by working people.

Labor Councils and all labor organizations, in cooperation with unorganized workers and the unemployed, should be organizing a political party based upon satisfying the needs and human rights of working people; a party that will put human needs before profits; a party that will demand an immediate end to the wars; that will fight for jobs, housing, and healthcare for all; for funding quality education and rebuilding the country’s infrastructure; and repairing the destruction to the environment caused by the quest for profits above all else. This party will demand, “Bail out working people, not the corporations and banks. Tax the rich and corporate profits, not the poor.”

The antiwar movement has the obligation to protest the warmakers. Not to do so is to give President Obama and the Democrats a long honeymoon in which his imperial policies—a continuation of the basic policies of the Bush administration—go unrefuted. It is futile to expect those who profit from the U.S. war industry that supplies the U.S. military—larger than all the militaries of the rest of the world combined—or their paid government lackeys, to regulate themselves or bring an end to the wars that fill their coffers.

A second opportunity to confront the warmakers was presented to the October 17th Coalition right before the Saturday demonstration. President Obama came to San Francisco to attend an October 15th fundraiser dinner for the Democratic National Committee and Organizing for America (the successor organization to Obama for America). At the meeting of the October 17th Coalition held on October 11th, another unanimous vote was held to protest Obama’s warmaking. When Jeff Mackler sent out the minutes of the meeting, he neglected to include the vote and information about the Obama protest. Coming as this did on the heels of the cancellation of the Pelosi protest, we cannot help but conclude that Mackler, and other leaders of the Oct. 17th Coalition did not want to confront the Democratic Party allies of the labor bureaucrats and those in the antiwar movement who look to the labor bureaucrats as their most valuable allies.

Needless to say, there was no Labor Council participation in an otherwise impressive demonstration of President Obama on October 15th. Most of the protestors were demanding a single-payer, Medicare-for-all, national health program. Code Pink, ANSWER, and others came out to protest the war. The October 17th Coalition was not visibly present.

It will take a massive, working-class based antiwar movement, independent of the war parties to bring an end to the wars and to bring justice to the working class. Workers must take the struggles for their interests into their own hands. In the meantime the antiwar movement must not to allow itself to be co-opted by the Democratic Party. That is the danger represented by the actions of the leaders of the October 17th Coalition in San Francisco.

On the democratic process

Finally, the movements based upon the defense of working people must be democratically run.

The regular practice of democracy in all workers’ organizations—including the antiwar movement—will help to prepare workers to run their own struggles and organizations. Eventually, they will run the government.

What happened in the San Francisco October 17 Coalition regarding these two protests should be discussed in an open and democratic manner. These same issues will confront the movement in the months ahead and in preparations for the Spring demonstrations on the anniversary of the Iraq war. The independence of the antiwar movement must be jealously guarded and defended in a time when the United States imperial machine, supported and administered by a bi-partisan alliance of the ruling class political parties, carries out multiple, simultaneous wars of aggression. This is a challenge we must not be afraid to meet.