Is a union "anti-war" if the members don't know it?

On U. S. Labor Against The War

by Mark, Detroit


. The U.S. imperialist conquest of Iraq is an accomplished fact. Hussein's tyranny has been replaced not by democracy, but by the military rule of the Bush administration. The war has ended, but not imperialism and militarism. Indeed, the U.S. victory in Iraq will only whet Bush's appetite for more wars of aggression. So the question of how to build the movement against war, militarism and imperialism remains as important as ever.

. In organizing against the Iraq war, one of the important issues that came up was how workers will be brought into the movement. Should activists rely on the class traitors who run the AFL-CIO to mobilize the workers? Or should activists concentrate their efforts on going directly to the rank-and-file workers, helping them to mobilize despite what stand the union hierarchy takes?

. One of the groups that has attracted some attention as regards organizing workers into the anti-war movement has been U.S. Labor Against the War (USLAW). This organization was founded in January at a meeting of about 100 people, mainly local trade union officials and left-wing activists of various types, who were displeased with the top AFL-CIO leaders' silence as the drumbeat toward war grew louder. USLAW has helped push through anti-war resolutions in a number of union locals and city or regional union bodies and has called on workers to participate in certain anti-war protests. Such things shows there's a broad basis for anti-war organizing among the workers.

. But it would be a mistake for the anti-war activists to have faith in USLAW's general views on mobilizing the workers. The USLAW leaders have been placing their hopes on the top trade union officials of the AFL-CIO to bring the workers into the movement. Before the war they got excited because the AFL-CIO executive board expressed some doubts about an immediate war, in favor of U.S. aggression with support from the UN and traditional U.S. allies. USLAW took this as a signal that the bulk of the AFL-CIO bureaucracy would become a force against the war. But when the war started, AFL-CIO president John Sweeney announced his "unequivocal support" for it. One would think this would cause a reevaluation of one's opinion of the top AFL-CIO leaders, but the USLAW web site has fallen silent on the issue.

. Such a strategy has little to do with creating a serious anti-war trend among the workers. The top AFL-CIO leaders are not champions of the workers, but cowardly sellouts who time and again betray the workers' struggles. They orient the workers to support the imperialist parties, primarily the Democrats, and their position on the war mimicked the Democrats.

. Before the war, insofar as the Democrats objected to Bush's war plans, it was mainly that the war should be multilateral, with the support of traditional allies and the UN. Once the war started, even this lame opposition collapsed as congressional Democrats overwhelmingly voted for a resolution in praise of Bush's war of imperial conquest.

. Likewise, before the war AFL-CIO president John Sweeney stated that war would be OK provided it was "a last resort, supported by both our allies and nations united" if Iraq failed to comply with UN inspections. And like the Democrats, as soon as the war began Sweeney jumped on Bush's war chariot. USLAW has remained opposed to the war despite Sweeney's reversal. But, unfortunately, so far it has been unable to distance itself from a critique of the war akin to the multilateralist imperialist views put forward by the Democrats and Sweeney before the war.

. The anti-war movement cannot progress if it does not go beyond the disputes between the two imperialist parties. And the workers cannot become a powerful force in the movement unless they break from this framework imposed upon them by the AFL-CIO bureaucracy. In order to start making inroads in this direction, activists need to organize independently of the union officialdom and go directly to the workplaces and working class neighborhoods and schools with an anti-imperialist message.

Anti-war resolutions tailored for pro-imperialist union officials

. At its founding, USLAW decided that the main thing was to quickly get anti-war resolutions adopted throughout the AFL-CIO. It was thought that the USLAW's own founding resolution could serve as a model. Thus, USLAW's founding resolution assumed special importance for them as it's propagation was to be their key practical work.

. The USLAW resolution correctly lists various bad things that will happen to the workers because of the war. It does not openly sing the praises of the Democrats or the UN or hail multilateralism as the antidote to Bush's unilateral warmongering, as, unfortunately, many resolutions that were passed by trade unions and city councils have. It expresses a general sentiment against the war and, for that reason, it is likely that many dedicated anti-war activists would find the resolution to be unobjectionable.

. Nevertheless, the USLAW resolution is insufficient. For one thing, it doesn't deal with the situation in the labor movement itself. It doesn't help the workers free themselves from the pro-capitalist labor leaders who support imperialism. Instead, it covers up the differences in the labor movement between militant rank-and-file actions and trends and the conciliatory AFL-CIO leadership, implying that the AFL-CIO leadership too has "had an historic role in fighting for justice." The resolution thus covers up the struggle inside the workers' movement over the issue of war and peace, and helps create illusions about what the AFL-CIO leadership is up to.

. But, it might be raised, there is a point to getting union resolutions. They help puncture the chauvinist atmosphere, and they might be used to increase political discussion among workers. And indeed, large numbers of workers were ready to vote for anti-war resolutions. But the problem was that, except perhaps in a few of the locals led by leftists, no such resolution would pass if it included criticism of the imperialist stands of the AFL-CIO leadership. A general resolution against the war might pass, but not if it spoke openly about the real situation in the workers movement and the unions. The reason for this is both that the overall union bureaucracy would come down hard to prevent any such resolution from even being considered at a union meeting, but also because, generally speaking, the mass of workers wasn't yet ready for this.

. Does this mean that USLAW's stand of prettifying the labor bureaucracy could be justified on the grounds that this was the only way to pass anti-war resolutions? Not at all. It is one thing to put forward a general resolution against the war that only went so far as could now be passed in various union locals, and another to restrict one's work to saying nothing that went beyond such a resolution. It is one thing to put forward such a resolution, and another to praise resolutions by top union bureaucrats that actually had an imperialist content. It is one thing to put forward such a resolution, and another to suck up to the labor bureaucracy for fear that they won't allow the locals to vote on any anti-war resolution at all.

. USLAW, if it was going to help move the labor movement forward on the issue of the war, had an obligation to speak openly about the real situation in the unions. It could have its own literature that spoke openly on this question to circulate among the workers. At the same time, it could have put forward anti-war resolutions adapted to the mass consciousness at union locals, but even such resolutions could have raised popular ways of doing anti-war agitation that weren't connected to the AFL-CIO officialdom. Such resolutions could at least implicitly help workers gain some independence from the pro-capitalist labor leaders. Thus, USLAW could have both encouraged workers who were beginning to see the need to oppose the pro-capitalist labor leaders to unite together, while putting forward broad resolutions which could be supported by wider masses of workers.

. Instead, USLAW not only didn't address the issue of the struggle inside the labor movement, but subordinated its work to the labor bureaucracy. It centered its work on getting its model resolution passed, and ignored the need to have literature and other work to help break the workers from the grip of the AFL-CIO bureaucracy. And even its model resolution was not adapted to mass consciousness, but to winning over the labor traitors.

. This resulted in the resolution being poor in its content on the war as well as ignoring the situation in the workers' movement. While it's possible to accept a number of things it does say about the war, it's what it doesn't say that is the main problem. It takes the cutting edge off every point that might annoy a pro-imperialist official. It fails to deal with precisely those issues which can help break the workers away from multilateralist agenda constantly pushed on the them by the Democratic Party politicians and the trade union bureaucrats. Thus, while the resolution may appeal to anti-war sentiments, it fails to move the discussion about the war beyond the debate between the unilateralist and multilateralist politicians over what is the best course to strengthen imperialism.

. Let's look at this resolution in a little more detail. One thing that's striking is that it doesn't even hint that the war has something to do with U.S. foreign policy. That takes some real dodging of the issues given that "no blood for oil" was one of the main rallying cries of the anti-war movement. Undoubtedly this slogan would be very popular among rank-and-file workers as well. So why hide that this was, in part, a war for oil? Recognizing this obvious fact doesn't necessarily make one anti-imperialist, but evidently even well-accepted hints at imperialist war motives are to be banned, because they would upset the pro-capitalist union officialdom.

. Along the same lines, it talks about how there's no proven link between September 11 and Iraq and how the war will make it more likely there will be terrorist attacks on the U.S. All this is true. But does the resolution give the slightest idea that Bush's "war on terrorism" is an excuse for more horrors perpetrated by the U.S. around the world? No. Similarly, the resolution hides the truth on other important issues. It attacks Bush for the war, but omits any mention of how the Democrats also paved the way for this war. It avoids mentioning the role of the UN which, while widely promoted as a force for peace, has never deterred the big powers from waging wars of aggression. In short, the USLAW model resolution avoids saying anything that would contradict multilateralist critics of the war.

The debate within USLAW

. This resolution is not designed to move the workers to a consistent opposition to war. Rather it was apparently designed to meet approval from the bulk of the AFL-CIO bureaucracy. A supporter of the USLAW reports that at its founding, there was a "practical discussion of how to take our positions into the rest of the labor movement" in which "the first priority is to get as many union bodies as possible in the next few weeks to adopt resolutions and contribute money to the new organization. "(1) The union bodies, however, are overwhelmingly in the hands of hacks who work to channel their members into voting fodder for the pro-imperialist Democratic Party. Under these circumstances, there's no way the AFL-CIO will fund USLAW and support its resolutions if USLAW exposes their pro-imperialist positions.

. Thus, at the USLAW's founding meeting, all suggestions that would at least begin to depart from the liberal imperialist politicians and union bureaucrats were defeated. This can be seen in the account of a participant in the meeting, Joann Wyplijewski, who wrote about this in a January 17 article for Counterpunch. Wyplijewski favored the USLAW resolution precisely because it hid the differences between those who were critical of multilateralism and those who supported the multilateralist stand of the Democrats and the top AFL-CIO leaders. According to her, a section of the organizers pushed for the founding resolution to explicitly support "UN multilateralism" and "the war on terrorism". This was accompanied by opposition to "anti-imperialism" by Bill Fletcher, former education director of the AFL-CIO, and now the head of TransAfrica and a co-chair of the United for Peace and Justice coalition.

. However, she also acknowledges that it was impossible to garner enough support for an overtly multilateralist resolution since "at least half the people in the room believe .  .  . the threats to Iraq are part of U. S. imperial policy," that the UN might be used as a fig leaf for war, that there should be solidarity with the Palestinian people, etc. In the end the issue was resolved by a resolution which avoided any hint of opposition to imperialism while not openly supporting multilateral war and the UN. Wyplijewski thought this compromise was great and ridicules those who rose "to denounce labor bureaucrats [and] the Democratic Party". But in fact this compromise shows that the price of placing hopes in the union bureaucracy is to keep the rank and file in the dark on the pressing issues facing the anti-war movement. It means hiding from the workers that the basis of militarism is not just Bush's inner circle, but the bourgeoisie as a class, both unilateralist and multilateralist.

. True, anti-imperialist activists have to find ways to work with and mobilize sections of the masses who do not yet fully accept their views. But for left-wing activists to abandon any critique of multilateralism for the sake of not upsetting the timid AFL-CIO officials is shameful. This does not mean that radical activists are to be condemned merely because they participate in USLAW or other groups with similar weaknesses. It does mean that independent anti-imperialist work is necessary, that the erroneous views of USLAW must be resolutely opposed, and that no illusions are created about USLAW, given the path it is taking. What is harmful is the idea of sweeping under the rug the differences between anti-imperialism and the politics of the trade union bureaucrats.

. The unwillingness of USLAW to build a trend truly independent of the bureaucrats reflects in large part the general approach to work in the labor unions that, unfortunately, is common among certain left trends. Many reformists and Trotskyists believe that with a little nudge, the pro-capitalist labor traitors will become determined class fighters. Hence, they portray every demagogic phrase by the bureaucrats as a historic new turn towards struggle. Some other Trotskyist trends often sharply criticize the labor bureaucrats. But in the main these groups will also find some excuse to place hopes in these same bureaucrats. When they support certain posturing by the bureaucrats though, they insist they are still opposed to, and independent from, them. Allegedly they are only supporting the workers going into battle, which evidently they assume follows from the posturing of the bureaucrats. Thus, while the Trotskyists may divide among themselves on when to trail the bureaucrats, or while some of them may even be upset with how USLAW sucks up to the AFL-CIO officialdom, they are used to the general idea of doing so.

Sitting on the fence proves impossible

. While supposedly USLAW has neither a multilateralist or an anti-imperialist position, the practice of USLAW shows that such fence-sitting is impossible to maintain. Take, for example, the USLAW statement issued when the Iraq war broke out entitled "Response to war on Iraq. " This statement echoes the main multilateralist themes. Here, USLAW continues to oppose the war, but reserves the right for the U.S. to blast away provided "that war [must] be a last resort. " Instead of dodging the question of whether to place hopes in the UN, the USLAW statement proclaims "that we must respect and strengthen -- not weaken -- international law and the bodies that enforce that law as an alternative to war".

. Another example is the USLAW's "Urgent Action" call "To end the war and bring the troops home." This is a call to support the Kennedy/DeFazio House Joint Resolution 20 which would have repealed the war authorization previously granted by Congress. Here the USLAW urges AFL-CIO president Sweeney to get behind the legislation by quoting approvingly from the timid February 27 anti-war resolution of the AFL-CIO Executive Council. The quote from the Executive Board cited by USLAW includes the following:

"We believe there may be times when we must stand alone and act unilaterally in defense of our national security. But, in the context of the global war on terrorism, the threat posed by Saddam Hussein deserves multilateral resolve, not unilateral action. .  .  . We call upon the administration to pursue a broad global consensus to apply the maximum pressure on Iraq, ensuring that war, if it comes, will truly be a last resort, supported by both our allies and nations united. .  .  ".

So when push comes to shove, it turns out USLAW appeals to Sweeney not on the basis of their own resolution, but on the basis of Sweeney's own pro-imperialist views. USLAW's own multilateralist stands expose the idea that they could somehow avoid taking a stand either for or against multilateralism.

. Likewise, the compromise wording of the USLAW founding resolution has not preventing it from prettifying the AFL-CIO leaders' own positions. We have already mentioned USLAW's silence when AFL-CIO president Sweeney took an openly pro-war stance. Indeed, as of this writing they continue to promote Sweeney and the rest of the AFL-CIO executive board's previous meek anti-war stance as if nothing had changed.

. In the same way, USLAW promotes the anti-war resolutions of various unions even if they pledge loyalty to the current imperialist campaigns. Take, for instance, the resolution passed by the AFSCME (American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees) international executive board. The USLAW promotes that this is one of the few national unions that has come out against the war. But the AFSCME resolution, while expressing some worry about Bush's unilateralism, backs all the pretexts and slogans under which the U. S. is stepping up its aggression around the world. It boasts that AFSCME has "firmly supported President Bush in the war on terrorism. " Moreover, it not only supports war in Iraq provided it's a "last resort". It even promotes the October 11 Congressional resolution authorizing Bush to go to war if Bush couldn't get UN approval. It considers the October 11 resolution as in line with their conception of working with the UN toward a multilateral solution. (2) So the national AFSCME leaders support Congress giving Bush a free hand to invade Iraq and hail the U. S. -backed terrorism of Bush's "war on terrorism". The USLAW's own resolution doesn't mention the war on terrorism or promote the pro-war Congress as anti-war, but that doesn't prevent USLAW from hailing resolutions that do.

AFL-CIO resolutions and worker mobilization

. There is also the question of whether getting resolutions passed by various unions means the rank and file will be activated for protests. In truth, even a watered-down resolution doesn't insure this. In most cases, the union bureaucracy treats resolutions of this type as a mere formality rather than using them to stir the workers into motion. It's not as if the bulk of the AFL-CIO bureaucracy will go into action if only the USLAW suggests to them a meek enough anti-war resolution. The union machinery is used for what the bureaucrats consider important, such as getting Democratic Party candidates elected. Seldom is it used for bringing workers into the streets.

. An example of this problem appears in an article in the April 2003 issue of Labor Notes entitled "Beyond resolutions: Within unions, anti-war forces mobilize opposition." Generally this article tries hard to find a few examples of the AFL-CIO leaders in some fashion mobilizing the rank and file. It also hails the anti-war resolutions passed by various official union bodies, ignoring their miserable content. Even so, this article is forced to concede that passing resolutions "hasn't evenly translated into a strong mobilization of rank-and-file union members. " It goes on to quote a trade union and anti-war activist and former union official of United Auto Workers Local 600 in Dearborn, Michigan. According to this activist,

. "In some locals, including my own, there has not been local-wide discussion or even local-wide publicity of leadership anti-war resolutions before or even after they are adopted. Is a local 'anti-war' if members don't know it is?"

. Thus, not only do the labor traitors fail to mobilize the workers, in many cases the workers aren't even informed about anti-war resolutions. It needs to be added that reluctance to mobilize the workers is not some odd quirk of this or that local, but a general malady of an entrenched bureaucracy throughout the AFL-CIO.

Take anti-imperialist politics directly to the workers

. The organizing of workers against war and militarism cannot be left in the hands of the AFL-CIO bosses. Thus, to link up with unionized workers, as well as to reach the workers who are outside the unions, activists must instead go directly to the workers. Direct links with the workers can be established via a variety of means. Leafletting of workplaces and working class communities and schools is very important. Protests of various types should be organized in the working class neighborhoods. Efforts should be made to draw workers into new militant forms of organization which really represent their interests, whether, for example, they be anti-war groups outside the workplace or rank-and-file groups based in the workplaces or within the trade unions.

. Going directly to the working class neighborhoods also helps build ties with the black, Latino, and other minorities suffering racial discrimination, which are overwhelmingly working class and poor. There are also largely working class immigrant communities, many of whom have experienced the heavy hand of the U. S. world empire in their homelands as well as discrimination in the U.S.

. The extent to which a militant anti-war trend is built up among the workers depends on their degree of political clarity. Just as the union bureaucrats' disinterest in mobilizing workers is tied to their support for Democratic Party-style liberal politics and the bourgeois establishment institutions, so creating a strong anti-war trend among the workers depends on developing an anti-imperialist outlook.

. Workers must see that war is not just a product of some zealots advising Bush, but a bipartisan policy of Republicans and Democrats alike. They must learn that bullying and war are not a mere policy mistake, but the necessary outcome of a system whose existence is inseparable from the American bourgeoisie not only exploiting the masses around the world but also insuring no rival tyrants impede their efforts to do so. They must understand that just as the U.S. government is controlled by "our" capitalists, so the international governing agency, the UN is dominated by the big powers, and that therefore it can never be a reliable force for peace. They must learn that the only force they can rely upon is their own class organization and support for the working people abroad in struggle against their own ruling classes and imperialist domination.

. This requires patient, systematic work. The establishment political trends have a giant propaganda machine to deceive the masses. But at the same time the conditions of life of the workers means they are continually subject to one or another outrage of the rich. So it is with the war. Young people from the working class are the ones who were killed, wounded or had their lives jeopardized by the Iraqi adventure. They were ordered to slaughter thousands of poor working people, both civilians and those press-ganged into Hussein's military. And for what purpose? This was not to liberate Iraq, but to help those who exploit the workers here to further enrich themselves by dominating the world. Meanwhile, workers in the U.S. will continue to bear the burden of the Iraq adventure with budget cuts for social programs and higher taxes, while Bush plans giant tax relief for the wealthy. Anti-imperialism can take root among the working masses because it shows the connections between war and the system of class oppression that continually victimizes them.

. This doesn't mean that anti-imperialism will immediately lead to a spectacular upsurge. Such magic doesn't exist. But the more anti-imperialist consciousness is spread, the more the links between each new atrocity of imperialism will be understood. This means the mass energy generated from each struggle can be used to build up a resolute trend that can increasingly build its strength and influence in each new battle. The stronger the anti-imperialist trend, the more militant each new outbreak of struggle will be. In this way the anti-militarist struggles will also be taking steps toward developing a new revolutionary politics that targets not just this or that atrocity, but the root cause, the capitalist system itself. <>


(1) See the report of Bill Onasch entitled "Trade unionists launch 'U.S. Labor Against the War' posted at the Labor Advocate web site at < www. kclabor. org/labor_advocate >. (Return to text)

(2) The AFSCME resolution presenting the Congressional resolution of October 11 supporting Bush's right to unilateral war as an anti-war stand begins: "Whereas, despite a sustained drumbeat for unilateral action, on October 11, the U.S. Congress passed a joint resolution on Iraq authorizing President Bush to use war as a last resort -- if diplomacy fails to accomplish the U. S. 's national goals. " Please note that the October 11 is supposedly "despite" calls for unilateral action though in fact it authorizes war without UN approval!

. As if this is not bad enough, later on the resolution says ".  .  . AFSCME and the American labor movement have firmly supported President Bush in the war on terrorism. " Shamefully this is true, if by "labor movement" we understand not the sentiments of the rank and file but the position of the imperialist-minded sellouts entrenched in the leadership. (Text)

Back to main page, CV #31, write us!

Last modified: May 25, 2003.