Why is the impending war a union issue?


A growing number of labor organizations have come out in opposition to the planned invasion of Iraq.

At the international level the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Communications Workers of America, Service Employees International Union, Electronic Workers, International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) and the Postal Workers have all passed anti-war resolutions - as have labor councils in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Cleveland and the Washington State AFL-CIO. Many local unions that generally avoid taking political positions - including locals of the Teamsters, Machinists, Flight Attendants, Farm Workers, United Food and Commercial Workers, Teachers, Auto Workers and others - have made an exception to issue statements against the war.

Yet many people still wonder: Why is the war a union issue?

First, I believe this is a union issue because if there is a war, it is working peoples' kids whose lives will be put on the line. Servicemen and women have made a decision - out of patriotism, and out of honor - that they are willing to put their lives on the line to defend this country. The government must repay this honor by guaranteeing that our kids' lives will only be risked if it is absolutely necessary.

On this basis, the Bush Administration has failed. It is clear that Iraq's government is a vicious one. But there is no evidence that it poses a "clear and present danger" to our country. Even if Iraq has chemical or biological weapons, there is no reason to believe that it would use them against us. It has never used them against America or any of our allies - because they know that using them would bring swift retaliation.

The decision to go to war - especially a pre-emptive war - must be taken with the greatest seriousness. The evidence to take a step like this should be so strong that anyone who sees it is convinced. The Bush Administration keeps saying "trust us - we have information we can't share with the public." The problem is that even the people they do share it with are not convinced. Among those saying that there's not enough evidence is Gulf War General Norman Schwarzkopf. The Federal Bureau of Investigation and Central Intelligence Agency have publicly disagreed with the Administration's claim of a link between Iraq and al-Qaeda.

Most importantly, members of the House and Senate Intelligence Committees - who are given closed-door briefings on the most secret information - are saying they have not been shown convincing evidence of the need to go to war.

If the war is not really about a nuclear or biological threat from Iraq, what is it about? The Bush Administration wants to put the children of working families in harm's way for a much more cynical goal - to make oil companies rich. Iraq has the second-largest oil reserves in the world. Bush has gotten a pledge that, if Saddam is overthrown, the oil contracts will go only to those countries who help kick him out - meaning that French and Russian oil companies will be kicked out of the country and ExxonMobil will be free to take over. It is hard to imagine something more cynical, more barbaric, and less patriotic, than sending American men and women to die for oil shareholders - the same people who have been gouging us at the pump for decades. So the first thing that makes this a union issue is our duty to protect the lives and honor of our family members from being treated cheaply and cynically.

The second reason why this is a union issue is because the Administration has been using the "war on terrorism" as an excuse for attacking the labor movement. For the past two years, every anti-union move of the Administration has been justified by the war. In Congress, "fast track" legislation was passed - opening the door to more job-destroying North American Free Trade Agreements - by claiming that a vote against the bill would be undermining our president in a time of war.

Similarly, a month after the World Trade Center attack, Republicans voted to deny collective bargaining rights to firefighters in 22 right-to-work states. Not only did the Senate punish firefighters in this way, but they had the gall to use Sept. 11 as the reason for doing so. If firefighters were allowed to unionize, some Republicans argued, they might go on strike during a terrorist attack.

Last month, President Bush used the war as an excuse to deny 60,000 baggage screeners the right to organize on the grounds that unions aren't "flexible" enough for national security. Bush cannot point to any specific clause in a potential union contract that would be a problem. But, even without any evidence, he used the excuse of the war to deny union rights to 60,000 Americans.

The Administration has also encouraged private employers to use the war as a time for union-bashing. When transit workers in New York City almost went on strike, politicians called the union "terrorists" and accused union leaders of conducting a "jihad" against the public.

On the West Coast, the shipping companies used the war as an excuse for undermining the quality of longshore jobs. The ILWU was engaged in the most patriotic type of struggle - not fighting for themselves, but for the right of future workers to make a decent living. But the Pacific Maritime Association accused workers of not "putting the national interest first." Bush sided with the bosses' - helping give big corporations the right to turn future jobs into low-wage and possibly non-American jobs - and did all this in the name of "national security."

Finally, the cost of the war itself is estimated at $200 billion. To spend this money on a war for oil, at a time when we're already suffering through huge budget cuts, is to put the interests of rich shareholders above the health of the nation.

This is, simply, an attempt to steal our democracy. A government of the rich, by the rich and for the rich are using their power to grab as much as they can for themselves at the expense of the majority of Americans. In peacetime, this kind of theft would not be tolerated. All of this is being done now, in the hope that no one is watching, or no one will have the guts to protest, because we're all supposed to pull together to fight Saddam Hussein. As one poster said at a recent anti-war demonstration, "Saddam Hussein Didn't Steal My 401(K)."

It's our responsibility, as union members and as Americans, to insist that we are watching and that we won't be silent. That we won't let our kids be put at risk to enrich oil companies. That we won't let the commitment that those in the service have shown their country be dishonored by rich men who are stealing the country blind. That we won't let the war be used as an excuse to attack the livelihood of the vast majority of working Americans. And that we will insist on a true meaning of "national security," which serves all of us instead of cheating the majority in order to increase the power of those already at the top.

This is the true meaning of democracy and of solidarity and we in the labor movement have a duty to stand up for it.

(Editor's Note: Gordon Lafer is an associate professor at the Labor Education and Research Center of the University of Oregon. He is a member of Communications Workers of America Local 189.)

February 21, 2003 issue

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