FW: Bill Fletcher's keynote address to USLAW
rfidler at cyberus.ca
Sun Nov 9 09:21:50 MST 2003
A powerful critique of the international policy of the AFL-CIO, and its
negative ramifications for American working people, by a leading Black
trade unionist in the United States, originally published on the
Portside list I believe.
Two caveats, however. Fletcher's analysis of "two main lines of thinking
in US ruling circles", unaccompanied by any real analysis of the
Republican-Democratic bipartisan nature of Washington's foreign policy,
and his statement that "Our immedidate challenge is one of confronting
these cowboys" (the Bush regime), leave open the option of supporting
"antiwar" Democrats and thus perpetuating U.S. labor's subordination to
imperialist foreign policy. Also, Fletcher's statement that an
independent foreign policy for U.S. labor must begin with "the promotion
of democracy, human rights and self-determination," although qualified
to indicate he does not mean imposing the U.S. version of "democracy",
would in my opinion be stronger if he limited the goal to support for
"self-determination" of nations, in order to differentiate labor's
position from the human rights and democracy rhetoric of imperialism.
However, the speech can be an effective organizing tool for antiwar and
anticapitalist activists in the labor movement.
KEYNOTE ADDRESS TO US LABOR AGAINST THE WAR (USLAW) NATIONAL ASSEMBLY
CHICAGO, ILLINOIS, 10-25-2003
By Bill Fletcher, Jr.
(Bill Fletcher, Jr. is President of TransAfrica Forum, previously
Education Director of the AFL-CIO and Assistant to its President John
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 US 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 US trade union movement, overall, defined itself in relationship to
US business and to the US 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 US foreign policy that were offered by
organized labor, but the US trade union movement did not, by and large,
see itself as having a role as a central critic of US foreign policy.
Nor did it place a premium on building solidarity with workers in other
countries. Ironically, the fact of US 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 US imperial expansion. These unions, however, were not seen
as a partnership with the workers of these countries, but seen as
US-based initiatives. A further irony of this, and I mention it as an
anecdote, is that the efforts by several US so-called Internationals to
expand into Cuba - following the Spanish- American War - came to an end
when the US-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 US entry into what was in essence a war to redivide the
world. The AFL saw possibilities for the growth of US unions through an
alliance with the US 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 US entry into the war.
The US 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 US 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 US society,
or driven out of the country entirely for daring to raise fundamental
questions about US 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 US 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 TN, 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 US 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 US worker improved, too many of us were
prepared to accept this as a trade off for our silence, for our supposed
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, that 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 US 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 US
puppet, the Shah of Iran. The overthrow of the duly elected president of
Guatemala, Arbenz, in a CIA operation along with mercenaries and
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 US 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 US trade union movement spoke up against, but often in
the most bizarre manner.
Yet, on September 11, 1973, the US 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 US trade union movement? Where was the
furor about the crimes being committed? Where was the contempt for
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 US 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 US, acceptable to the US
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 US trade union movement. You have opened up a path of
USLAW is different from, though built upon the work of so many
predecessor organizations. Union caucuses in workplaces around the US
that challenged the US aggression in Indochina; committees, caucuses and
networks that openly opposed US intervention in Latin America; networks
that rallied thousands to the cause of opposing apartheid in South
Africa, and US complicity in that illegal regime. Most of these efforts,
as important as they were, and as critical in shifting the politics of
the US 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 US 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 US 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 US 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 US 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 US, 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 US 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
US 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
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 US imposition on other peoples of our
version of democracy, but rather supporting countries in determining
their 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 us is to speak with rank and
file workers about in whose interests US 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 US 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
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 that corporate America manipulated the
situation to rid itself of thousands of workers. And, to add insult to
injury, the Bush administration bogarded through Congress its infamous
USAPatriot Act, allegedly to fight terrorism, but instead representing
one of the greatest threats to civil liberties we have seen since the
We are told to be patriotic and at the same time the corporate elite and
their political allies are patriotic only to the US dollar! US troops
are being killed in Iraq; Iraqi civilians are euphemistically referenced
as collateral damage, and one US 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 people 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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