MARCH 1991 - VOLUME 12 - NUMBER 3
L A B O R
Labor and the War
by Nadav Savio
In sharp contrast to its stand on the Vietnam War, the U.S. Iabor movement has displayed a willingness to challenge U.S. policy on the Persian Gulf War. Still, while a number of unions took public positions against the war even before the shooting started, the majority have remained silent, and even the more outspoken unions softened their messages or retreated from leadership roles after the air and ground wars got underway. Much of the movement's shifting behavior mirrored changing public opinion on the extremely popular war.
Now, as in the past, it is the grassroots of the labor movement which have offered the strongest statements against U.S. foreign policy, while the traditionally more conservative national AFL- CIO leadership has reacted to internal division and the war's popularity by remaining neutral. There has, however, been very little explicit support for U.S. aggression at any level of the labor movement.
The most significant union-level statement against armed conflict in the Persian Gulf was an advertisement which appeared in the January 10 Washington Post and other newspapers. The ad, which took the form of "An open letter to President Bush" urging him to "Let the Sanctions Work," was signed by the presidents of nine major unions, including the Communications Workers of America, the International Association of Machinists, the United Autoworkers, the Service Employee International Union and the National Education Association.
In the ad, the union presidents argued that "the economic sanctions--the strongest ever levied against a country in peacetime--must be given a chance to work. Because we support our troops, we emphatically oppose the initiation of offensive military action by the United States at this time."
The ad cited the large number of working people among the U.S. forces of Operation Desert Shield (now Desert Storm) as reason both for union opposition to the war and for the labor movement's responsibility to speak out publicly.
"Our belief was that we could have avoided going to war, that sanctions were working ... All the analysts agreed that it would be a long-term process, that it could take months or a year," commented a spokesperson for the Communications Workers of America (CWA) in February, after the military action had begun. "We condemned Iraq's invasion, but by the same token, felt that there were options that were not fully explored."
Some individual unions made even stronger statements against the war than the Washington Post advertisement.
In August 1990, for example, the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE) decried what it saw as the United States' "indecent haste" to militarize the conflict in the Middle East. In a January 4, 1991 letter to UE News, union president John Hovis added a condemnation of the country's "headlong rush towards war that runs roughshod over the U.S. Constitution and democratic principles." In addition, a number of union presidents have spoken out publicly against U.S. instigation of war, many of them prior to its eruption on January 16, 1991.
One of the strongest union positions has been taken by the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers International Union (OCAW), which also signed the January 10 ad. On January 14, one day before the United Nation's deadline for Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait, the OCAW's executive board released a statement strongly criticizing the U.S. military response to the crisis. "As representatives of working people, we have a special responsibility in calling for a peaceful resolution of the present Middle East crisis. It is our sons and daughters who will ultimately do the fighting and dying," it said. The statement argued against a war that it said would be fought on behalf of the oil industry and the economic competitors of the United States.
Many local unions and individual union officials have also strongly opposed the war. More than 200 local labor leaders signed an ad which appeared in the February 21 New York Times, calling for an immediate cease-fire. The ad, which ran two days before the ground war began, insisted that "It is not too late to stop this war." It cautioned against resignation to a military solution: "Now that war has begun, many say that patriotism requires that we set aside our differences and support the President. But it is precisely because of our deeply held patriotic beliefs, and support for our troops, that we oppose this war."
Forceful positions such as that of the February 21 ad contrast sharply with the subdued AFL-CIO official statement of "support of our country and of the men and women in our armed forces." Even more noticeable, is the difference between the AFL-CIO's current posture and its historic foreign policy positions.
In fact, the AFL-CIO's top-level restraint may be a major factor in unions' relative outspokenness in the conflict. Former New York Times labor correspondent William Serrin says he suspects that since "[AFL-CIO President Lane] Kirkland and [Vice- President Tom] Donahue have adopted a more hands-off attitude [on foreign policy issues] than the previous leadership, ... some of the other union presidents feel more free to speak out than they did a few years ago."
The Vietnam syndrome
During the Vietnam war, the leadership of the AFL-CIO was militantly in favor of U.S. foreign policy and staunchly pro- war. In 1970, for example, when there was already widespread domestic opposition to the Vietnam War, AFL-CIO President George Meaney insisted that then-President Richard Nixon, in his decision to invade Cambodia, "should have the full support of the American people. He certainly has ours." Later that year, the AFL-CIO's Executive Council warned against "the abandonment of South Vietnam and all Southeast Asia to Communist domination," saying it would strike "a grave blow to world peace and freedom."
The hawkish AFL-CIO set the tone for the entire labor movement. "Most unions ... were very slow to come to oppose the Vietnam War if they opposed it at all," says Jane Slaughter of Labor Notes, a Detroit-based monthly that reports on labor issues.
"On the Persian Gulf," Slaughter says, what "was so remarkable was that there was a [good] deal of antiwar sentiment present even before the shooting started." Labor's criticism of U.S. involvement in the Persian Gulf and calls for a peaceful resolution to the conflict petered out, however, as soon as the bombing of Baghdad began.
"There has been a lot of backsliding since the shooting started," comments Slaughter, "with people not being as willing to put their necks out ... or changing their minds."
While there has been no retraction of the Washington Post ad, many organizations whose presidents signed it have substantially softened their positions. Robert Kalaski of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers summed up the feelings of many unions: "Now that war has started ... we need to get it over with as soon as possible.... Now's not the time to debate whether we should be there or not--we're there--[we must] do whatever's necessary to bring this thing to a conclusion and get everybody home, and then debate how we don't get involved in something like this again."
While labor opposition to the war has subsided, there has been little outright support of the aggression. One notable exception is a January 17 statement by the AFL-CIO's Building and Construction Trades Department. The Department offered "unqualified support for Operation Desert Storm and the policy of President Bush." The statement, a vilification of Saddam Hussein and rejection of negotiations as a response to the crisis, made no mention of union members now fighting in the Gulf War, one of the chief concerns expressed by other unions.
On the homefront
Most unions believe the war is likely to have a negative impact on an already weak economy and may cost their members jobs. Despite the conventional wisdom that war is good for the economy, Michael Drapkin of the International Union of Electronic Workers explains, "it has been said about this conflict that, in the short term, it can't do any good because it's being fought out of inventory, and it can only hurt in the long term because of the cost."
The combined effects of the war and an economic downturn may weaken unions' bargaining positions. Slaughter points to the possibility that corporations will "use the war as an excuse" to re-open contracts. And Cindy Yeast, a spokesperson for the Association of Flight Attendants, says that "even if a healthy [company] is not affected [by the war], it affects management's attitude in bargaining. They say: 'look what happened to this [other company]. It we don't have concessions, we can't guarantee job security.'"
Some unions have also denounced the diversion of money that would have been spent on social programs to the war effort. "As a Union committed to worker equity and social justice," said the OCAW executive board statement, "we are insulted that the Bush Administration cites the budget deficit as reason to stand mute on the homeless; unconcerned about our sick; unmoved by our illiteracy; and uncommitted to our economic security. Yet this same administration can pour billions of dollars into the savings and loan bailout of their creation and billions to a war effort."
The labor movement's opposition to the war reflects the fact that working people are the ones most at risk on the battlefield and that they are also the ones who will pay the greatest price domestically for the war. This was the case with the Vietnam War; the difference is that now some unions are speaking out against it, however tentative or isolated they may be.