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November 2003 • Vol 3, No. 10 •

When Does Silence Become Complicity? When Does Ignorance Become Culpability?

By Bill Fletcher, Jr.

Bill Fletcher, former aide to AFL-CIO Pressident, John Sweeney, made this presentation to USLAW National Assembly, Chicago Illinois, October 25, 2003.

Good morning. On behalf of TransAfrica Forum and United for Peace and Justice, I wish to thank you very much for inviting me to speak before this Assembly today.

Let me pose two questions to you: When does silence become complicity? When does ignorance become culpability? These are two questions with which organized labor must today grapple because these two questions haunt our movement like an apparition in the night.

The U.S. trade union movement, as redefined and reorganized by Samuel Gompers in the late 19th century made a choice. The choice was both ideological and strategic. It essentially came down to a definition of trade unionism as being a movement to protect jobs. Despite A. Philip Randolph’s aphorism to the effect that the essence of trade unionism is social uplift and further that trade unionism is the voice of the dispossessed, that simply has not been a consistent truth in the USA.

The U.S. trade union movement, overall, defined itself in relationship to U.S. business and to the U.S. political state. It accepted the notion that there was a commonality of interests that could be summarized in a particular, indeed, in a peculiar notion of patriotism. Don’t get me wrong. There were criticisms of U.S. foreign policy that were offered by organized labor, but the U.S. trade union movement did not, by and large, see itself as having a role as a central critic of U.S. foreign policy. Nor did it place a premium on building solidarity with workers in other countries. Ironically, the fact of U.S. unions being termed “Internationals” was the result of their expansion from the USA into Canada, and later an attempt to expand into the Caribbean, an expansion to accompany U.S. imperial expansion. These unions, however, were not seen as a partnership with the workers of these countries, but seen as U.S.-based initiatives. A further irony of this, and I mention it as an anecdote, is that the efforts by several U.S. so-called Internationals to expand into Cuba—following the Spanish-American War—came to an end when the U.S.-based unions could not determine who, definitively, were black workers vs. who were white.

In World War I, the American Federation of Labor made a fateful decision to support the U.S. entry into what was in essence a war to redivide the world. The AFL saw possibilities for the growth of U.S. unions through an alliance with the U.S. government and supporting the war effort. Thus, the AFL was prepared to turn a blind eye to the causes and objectives of the war, but rather focused on which trade union institutional interests could be satisfied through support of U.S. entry into the war.

The U.S. trade union movement has allowed itself to be buffaloed time and again by calls to patriotism, which more often than not has meant withholding criticisms, differences, etc., and going forward silently with whatever the government happens to say. It has often meant that we lock arms with big business proclaiming that our interests are identical while workers on the ground are getting their clocks cleaned; while business is proceeding forward to enrich itself; and while soldiers and civilians are being killed if we happen to be in a time of war.

Particularly following World War II, organized labor in the USA allowed itself to be silenced, in large part through anti-communist repression, when it came to U.S. foreign policy. It was not just the trade union movement, however. In the African American movement great giants such as Paul Robeson and W.E.B. DuBois were driven to the margins of U.S. society, or driven out of the country entirely for daring to raise fundamental questions about U.S. foreign policy. Too many of these giants, as well as regular grass roots activists, had their lives ruined for posing concerns about the objectives of U.S. foreign policy; for raising their hands to advance a question; for disputing the notion that we should all walk lock step without answers being offered. And the trade union movement remained silent.

It was not enough, however, to remain silent. Union leaders wanted to dumb-down the members, discouraging them from raising questions, frustrating their ability to articulate different points of view. Union educational programs and institutions of note, such as the Highlander Center in Tennesee, were either isolated and/or destroyed. Outstanding union educators like Leo Huberman were driven out of the movement. Union education was reduced to skills training on limited subjects, or worse yet, a field to retire staff and/or leaders who were no longer of value.

Our movement, and U.S. workers generally, were more than prepared to settle into a cocoon of ignorance. Ask no questions, and we would get no lies, at least so we thought. It was actually more of “ask no questions, and challenge no lies.”

As the living standard of the U.S. worker improved, too many of us were prepared to accept this as a trade off for our silence, for our supposed ignorance.

It reminds me, all too unfortunately, of an incident related to me from the period immediately after World War II in Germany. A young German woman asked her elders why they had not spoken up about the concentration camps and the extermination of the Jews. Her elders held up their hands and pleaded that they really did not know that it was happening. The young German woman, with a level of insight far beyond her years, responded: “You knew as much as you wanted to know.”

How true, it seems, this is for us in the USA. It is not that the facts were entirely unavailable. True, there are many things that have come out over time that have further damned U.S. foreign policy, but even in the repressive 1950s information was coming out about atrocities being committed in our name overseas. The overthrow of the duly elected leader of Iran, Prime Minister Mossadegh and his replacement by the U.S. puppet, the Shah of Iran. The overthrow of the duly elected president of Guatemala, Arbenz, in a CIA operation along with mercenaries and unmarked airplanes.

We knew as much as we wanted to know. We knew as much as we were comfortable knowing. We knew as much as would not shatter our mythical world, where everyone was happy; everyone could make it if they tried; everyone except those populations both here in the USA and overseas who were deemed to be irrelevant, if not inferior.

The U.S. trade union movement refused to speak up when clear and unadulterated atrocities were being committed by our own government. Contrast the response to September 11, 2001, with the response to September 11, 1973. On September 11, 2001, we witnessed what seemed to be an unimaginable crime committed where over 3000 people were murdered, irrespective of their political or religious beliefs, or their ethnicity or gender; a crime for which there should never be any forgiveness. A crime that the U.S. trade union movement spoke up against, but often in the most bizarre manner.

Yet, on September 11, 1973, the U.S. trade union movement was directly complicit in a CIA-backed overthrow of the duly elected president of Chile, an overthrow that resulted in the deaths of somewhere between 10,000 – 25,000 Chileans. A coup that brought to power one of the most repressive, anti-worker, anti-people regimes of Latin America. Where was the outrage on the part of the U.S. trade union movement? Where was the furor about the crimes being committed? Where was the contempt for terrorism?

Silence by our leaders and feigned ignorance by too many of us. “Hey, we did not know” (as if this somehow relieves our guilt).

On September 12, 2001 we were told by the President of the USA that one is either with the USA or one is with the terrorists, a comment typical of someone brought up on John Wayne films. But where was the response of the trade union movement to such cowboy attitudes? Of course we are against the terrorists, but where was a trade union movement reminder to our members, and to the U.S. public that our government—yes, our government—in the name of fighting its enemies—communism, the Soviet Union and a China under Mao Ze dong—was prepared to support a massacre in Indonesia in 1965 of almost unparalleled proportions. 500,000 to 3 million people murdered by a right-wing, military regime overthrowing the recognized government of the country and eliminating all opposition. Somehow this massacre was acceptable to the U.S., acceptable to the U.S. trade union movement, and something about which most of us were prepared to remain silent.

As I have been asking, particularly since September 11, 2001; at what point does silence become complicity? At what point does ignorance become culpability? At what point can we ourselves be challenged for denigrating the lives, hopes and aspirations of millions of people around the world, upholding our own lives as somehow superior? At what point can we challenge the leaders of organized labor who claim to support international working class solidarity, but in the past have been prepared to either remain silent or participate in the subjugation of peoples who have followed a path different from that proposed by the White House, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank?

For this reason the work of USLAW is so critical, and more than timely. Through the leadership of USLAW, and the courage of its founders, supporters and sympathizers, I would suggest that you have opened up a new path for the U.S. trade union movement. You have opened up a path of redemption.

USLAW is different from, though built upon the work of, so many predecessor organizations. Union caucuses in workplaces around the U.S. that challenged the U.S. aggression in Indochina; committees, caucuses and networks that openly opposed U.S. intervention in Latin America; networks that rallied thousands to the cause of opposing Apartheid in South Africa, and U.S. complicity in that illegal regime. Most of these efforts, as important as they were, and as critical in shifting the politics of the U.S. trade union movement, made limited headway into the leadership of organized labor. USLAW, however, building upon this work, has gone broader and deeper. It is not a project of a particular political party or organization, though it is open to all constructive viewpoints. It is also resonating among leaders of locals, central labor councils, state federations, and yes, some national and international unions.

Yet there is a mighty challenge for USLAW. Yes, we came together to oppose the Bush administration’s pending aggression against Iraq. USLAW spoke out when many others were silent. But the job cannot stop there. It cannot even stop with the notion of opposing the U.S. occupation of Iraq. Don’t get me wrong. That is all very critical, but we must press on beyond that.

There are two main lines of thinking in U.S. ruling circles these days. One I call the “first among equals” view. This is articulated by people like Bill Clinton and, to some extent, Colin Powell. It is the velvet covered steel bat. It basically suggests that global capitalism is the only economic system and that U.S. should collaborate with other capitalist powers to make sure that it runs well. This view supports free trade; the limitations on or suppression of workers. rights; but all done nicely … smoothly.

The other view is the cowboy orientation of the current administration. This view holds that the U.S. must shape the process of the restructuring of global capitalism. There is no velvet cover to the steel bat because their explicit orientation is global domination by the U.S., and within that, by the multi-national corporations. Their current piracy of Iraq is a basic example of the cynical objectives that they have. They seek the affirmation of the U.S. Empire, in no uncertain terms.

USLAW cannot remain agnostic about what the ruling circles seek to achieve. Our immediate challenge is one of confronting these cowboys, these terminators for global capitalism. At the same time we can afford no illusions about the objectives of the “first among equals” crew. Their interests are not our interests. They may invite us in for tea or to feel our pain, but their objectives are diametrically opposed to our own. How many times do we have to be kicked in the rear in order to understand that simple point?

Sisters and brothers, we must find a way to speak with our members about what is underway. This is not about passing one more resolution. This is about speaking with our members, and with those not in unions, about what is taking place. We must put in context what Bush is doing. This is not the first, illegal invasion the U.S. has undertaken, and it will probably not be the last. But it must be the one that signals a change in the attitude and voice of organized labor.

Organized labor needs its own foreign policy proposals, proposals that begin with the notion of the promotion of democracy, human rights and self-determination. Not the U.S. imposition on other peoples of our version of democracy, but rather supporting countries in determining their [own] political and economic systems. We should be advancing proposals for a foreign policy that supports the rights of workers to organize; of small farmers to flourish; of women to be respected in all aspects of society; of countries to buy or produce generic pharmaceuticals to confront HIV/AIDS, malaria and TB. We should be in opposition to war as the means of resolving international conflict, and instead we should be advancing the role of democratic, international institutions.

We cannot sit back, as a trade union movement, hoping that some existing political leader or candidate for elected office will come up with these ideas. It is up to organizations such as USLAW to insist that this should be the foundation of labor’s platform.

One of the most difficult tasks confronting U.S. is to speak with rank and file workers about in whose interests U.S. foreign policy is being advanced. We must speak candidly about the charlatans who use the word “patriotism” in order to hide their myriad of sins. We must point out how, in the name of patriotism we are witnessing the Jolly Roger emerge as the true flag of the United States, flying high as we plunge further and further into a world of chaos; a world of ruin.

It will be difficult for many of our constituents, and even for many of our friends to accept that the manner in which the term “patriotism” is used in the USA by corporate elites and the political right is aimed at not only enlisting our support in their campaigns for global domination, but as well in suppressing ourselves. As my parents would say time and again about the impact of racism on white people in the USA, “…if you want to keep someone in the sewer you must stay there with them to make sure that they do not escape.”

How many times do we have to be reminded of this? After dutifully serving and supporting the U.S. government in World War I, the labor movement fell prey to an offensive by employers and abandonment by the government. African Americans, encouraged to move North during the war to work in factories, or to serve in the military, found themselves victims of mass pogroms or race riots, such as the infamous Chicago Riot of 1919.

After accepting a no strike pledge in the interest of national security in World War II, organized labor came under vicious assault through the Taft-Hartley Act, and the anti-communist witch-hunting mentioned above. Black workers and women were cast out of industry, despite their dedication during the war.

Do I need to cite any more examples? Even in the aftermath of the September 11th horror, organized labor pledged its support for Bush’s alleged war against terrorism. What was the response? Barely had the World Trade Center collapsed than corporate America manipulated the situation to rid itself of thousands of workers. And, to add insult to injury, the Bush administration [rammed] through Congress its infamous USA Patriot Act, allegedly to fight terrorism, but instead representing one of the greatest threats to civil liberties we have seen since the McCarthy era.

We are told to be patriotic and at the same time the corporate elite and their political allies are patriotic only to the U.S. dollar! U.S. troops are being killed in Iraq; Iraqi civilians are euphemistically referenced as collateral damage, and one U.S. corporation after another gets an outrageous contract to pillage Mesopotamia. Tell me what this has to do with patriotism! Tell me what this has to do with human rights!

Silence and ignorance are no longer acceptable, if they ever were. For it is now, in growing murmurs turning into cries that we hear from the world’s peoples these questions: Are you, the people of the United States, stupid, or have you made a decision to tolerate, if not support, atrocities committed in your name? If you are not stupid, they ask, then at what point will you halt this global criminality?

The actions of organizations such as USLAW, along with the growing anti-war/anti-occupation movement may be one step in the right direction. But that step must now turn into a quick and forceful charge against the forces of injustice. Anything else, any other course of action will have our own children asking us: why did you not do anything about the atrocities committed in your name? We will be unable to answer: sorry, we did not know. 





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