Workers against the war

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Fri Jan 17 11:49:03 MST 2003

Counterpunch, January 17, 2003

Workers Against War

"Our members are split 50/50 on Bush. Fifty don't believe a word he
says. Fifty think he's a liar."

As entrails to ancient augurs, the water in toilets on upper floors of
the Sears Tower presents to us signs, omens, the coded messages from
which to coax the metaphors for our age. Lapping back and forth within
the bowls, the water betrays the ceaseless stress and sway of America's
tallest building. "The whole thing is basically just a steel skeleton.
Think of the steel as a wire", my friend Marty Conlisk, a union
electrician who has worked on just about every skyscraper in Chicago,
suggested. "What happens when you put stress on a wire? It bends. Enough
stress, over enough time, and it snaps." Outside the Tower a banner
exhorts passersby, "Stand Tall America". Marty figures that "one day
they're going to have to take the building down, or it's going to come

I was in Chicago for a meeting on January 11 of about 100 union antiwar
advocates or activists from across the country, gathered there to
initiate a national labor organization against a war that, in its
hottest phase, has yet to begin. The term "historic", used throughout
the day, was not misplaced. Among the group were Staughton Lynd from
Youngstown, who'd chaired the first demonstration on Washington against
the Vietnam War in April of 1965; Frank Emspak from Wisconsin, who'd
chaired the National Coordinating Committee to End the War in Vietnam
when it called the first mass days of protest in October 1965; and Jerry
Tucker from St. Louis, who was present when unions formed a peace
faction outside the ultra-hawkish AFL-CIO in 1971, by which time, as he
notes, the Vietnamese had won the war. Something profoundly different is
happening now, and while it's unclear how broad labor opposition will
become, its very existence, now given national expression, represents
the deepest crack in the supposed consensus for war.

The working class, unions particularly, aren't usually associated with
antiwar sentiment. Immediately after 9.11, the Machinists famously
bellowed for "vengeance not justice," John Sweeney said the unions stood
"shoulder to shoulder" with George Bush in the war on terror, and many
labor leftists dove for cover, saying even raising a discussion on the
prospect of endless war was too risky. There was a war at home the
latter argued-the sinking economy, assaults on immigrants-and it could
be neatly filleted from the war abroad.

At least as many people were killed in Afghanistan as died in New York,
and in exchange for fealty to national security through slaughter, the
Machinists at got layoffs at Boeing, layoffs in the airline industry, a
concessionary contract at Lockheed Martin. Sweeney and Co. got to watch
as Bush intervened against the West Coast longshore workers and
threatened to strip dockworkers permanently of the right to strike, as
civil servants first in the US Attorneys' offices, then in the Office of
Homeland Security lost collective bargaining rights, as immigrants were
fired from their airport screening jobs and unions forbidden to
organize, as 850,000 government jobs crept toward the privatizing block,
as unemployment rose, benefits ran out, the rich got goodies and
government workers, soldiers included, were stiffed on pay. For its
part, the timorous left got more evidence than needed of the naivete of
its argument. (It also has to be said that a few bold labor leftists
have paid for their early stance against war with the loss of their
elective offices, but they were never under illusions that principle
comes without a price.)

Now enters US Labor Against the War. Its creation does not signal an
about-face by top union leadership, though that is to be desired, but
rather the convergence of an antiwar spirit first expressed in ad hoc
labor organizations in New York, San Francisco and Washington, then in
an increasing number of local labor bodies throughout the country. The
AFL-CIO is still in the war column, though more reluctantly. The
executive council of only one International union, AFSCME, has passed a
resolution against war on Iraq. That one considers such an invasion a
distraction from the war on terror and "a last resort", assuming the UN
gives the go-ahead, but it is interesting because at the union's
convention last June the leadership did all it could to silence and
isolate antiwar delegates. Ultimately, it could not ignore what was
percolating from below.



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