The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

United States:
AFL-CIO Supports the Bosses' Wars
– against Iraq and at Home

Apr 20, 2003

March 20, 2003 – less than a day after the U.S. war on Iraq began – AFL-CIO president John Sweeney issued a statement in support of this war of conquest, justifying it with words that might as well have been taken directly out of Bush's speeches: "The Iraqi regime is a brutal dictatorship that is a threat to its neighbors and its own citizens. We support fully the goal of ridding Iraq of weapons of mass destruction."

"Weapons of mass destruction" in Iraq? Yes, there were, thousands of tons of them, and they were being used at the very moment Sweeney issued his statement – by the U.S., whose bombs and missiles were raining down on Iraq's cities and their civilian population. What could be more massive and destructive than the carnage right then being carried out by the U.S.? Sweeney apparently didn't notice.

Proving he's shameless, Sweeney added, "We sincerely hope this conflict will result in a more democratic and prosperous Iraq and a more peaceful and stable region, and that it will be resolved with little loss of life."

Democratic and prosperous! Weeks before the war started, the Bush administration had spelled out its intentions for Iraq's post-war regime, and it had nothing to do with democracy: Iraq is to be run by a military occupation force, which has already put Jay Garner, a retired U.S. general in charge as the "civilian administrator." And the U.S. has already begun to bring out of the closet the Iraqis whom it anointed as leaders-in-waiting. All this is to rest on the police powers of the old regime – the bulk of the army, the police and the torturers coming from Saddam Hussein's old regime. This, apparently, is Sweeney's idea of "democracy."

If George W. Bush had any "reconstruction" in mind for Iraq, it was only the reconstruction of oil exploitation and the infrastructure required to take it out – to the great benefit of U.S. corporations. For people like Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Perle and Wolfowitz, whose hands are on the tiller of this war, "reconstruction" is spelled p-r-o-f-i-t.

But the most cynical part of Sweeney's statement was the pious wish that the war "will be resolved with little loss of life."

Before the war started, the generals had been bragging about "shock and awe," the bombing campaign that was to make every other bombing campaign ever carried out look like child's play, including that of the first Gulf War. That first war led to the deaths of perhaps 150,000 civilians during the first 40 days of the bombing – followed by ten times that many people dying in subsequent years, in part as a result of what the bombing did to the cities, in part because of the embargo imposed by the U.S. In that war, just as in this one, the massacre of civilians was hidden behind the pretense that "precision" bombing was targeting only military targets. Apart from the complete asininity of such a claim when bombs are targeting densely populated cities, there is another more sinister aspect of the bombing: among the targets aimed at in both wars were the infrastructures of cities – electric power plants, water purification and sewage systems, means of communication – targets that can only mean that disease will run endemic through the population. The first to die will be the weakest, young babies and the elderly.

"Little loss of life"? The first war led to the so-called "Gulf War" syndrome – the neurological damage which has disabled unknown numbers of Iraqis, over a quarter of all U.S. troops who served in that war, and even many of their children born afterwards. They were not contaminated by Saddam Hussein's purported "weapons of mass destruction," but by depleted uranium, which the U.S. army uses to coat its warheads to make them tougher. The U.S. army brags that "only" 148 soldiers died in the Gulf War – restricting its reports to combat deaths in the few months of the "official" war. One hundred and forty eight is one hundred and forty eight too many, but over 10,000 Gulf War vets have died since, as the result of radiation and chemical poisoning dispersed through the dust from these warheads. And several hundred thousands more are severely disabled, many waiting to die.

None of this prevents Sweeney from dragging out the same old argument that the war-makers have used for years to overcome the population's opposition to their wars: "Now that a decision has been made, we are unequivocal in our support of our country and America's men and women on the front lines as well as their families here at home."

To pretend that support for this war is support for the troops – this is the biggest lie of all. The only support for these troops would have been forceful opposition to this war into which Bush sent them.

Like wars before, once in the war, they find themselves ordered to kill everyone in sight, which often means civilians – men, women and children – sometimes even their fellow soldiers. The impact of this on a new generation of troops is not the least important danger they confront. An "embedded" photographer for the New York Times reported: "With my own eyes I saw about fifteen civilians killed in two days. I've gone through enough wars to know that it's always dirty, that civilians are always the first victims. But the way it was happening here was insane.... Distraught [U.S.] soldiers were saying, `I ain't prepared for this, I didn't come here to shoot civilians.'" A Los Angeles Times reporter recounted what an Army tank commander answered when he was asked why he was taking pictures of dead civilians: "If my son says he wants to join the Army, I'll show him this and tell him this is what the Army does."

Supporting this filthy war is not support for the troops – it is an attack on them.

Laying the Groundwork to Support the War

Three weeks before the war started, the AFL-CIO Executive Council had passed a resolution, the main axis of which was a long denunciation of Saddam Hussein. Starting with the assertion, "America's working families and their unions fully support the efforts to disarm the dictatorial regime of Saddam Hussein," the statement echoed Bush's pretexts for war: weapons of mass destruction, brutal dictatorship, Iraq's threat to world peace, etc. And although the AFL-CIO reproached Bush for not having made "a compelling and coherent explanation to the American people and the world about the need for military action against Iraq" – to which it added the key words "at this time" – it was ready to repeat every point that Bush made, challenging not a single one of them.

This statement was loaded with pious wishes that the Bush administration should "pursue a broad global consensus to apply the maximum pressure on Iraq" – in order, as the AFL-CIO concluded, to ensure "that war, if it comes, will truly be a last resort, supported by both our allies and nations united."

The AFL-CIO was probably responding to the high level of opposition to and suspicion about the war then being expressed in the working class, but if so, it certainly wasn't giving voice to the workers' feelings. Just the opposite. It was giving voice to the propaganda the Bush administration had been making for months in preparation for this war.

So, of course, when the war started, Sweeney rushed to throw the AFL-CIO's support to still one more war carried out for imperialist aims – just as the AFL-CIO had always done. No one should pretend that the March 20 statement was only a personal statement by Sweeney – or that he was overthrowing what the council had done. Not another member of the AFL-CIO's Executive Board challenged the statement. The council in focusing its earlier resolution on Saddam Hussein's crimes had simply laid the groundwork for Sweeney's statement in support of the war.

The "Coalition of the Willing" Included Most Top Union Leaders

What Sweeney and the AFL-CIO Council did was repeated in great measure by the national leaders of many other unions, who before the war indicted Saddam Hussein, while criticizing Bush's "unilateralism" and urging co-operation with the U.N. But, as with Sweeney, when the war came, without authorization by the U.N., they forgot all about it. "The decision has been made" – thus, according to Sweeney and the others there is nothing left to do except support their country – right or wrong, as the saying goes.

A few unions like the Service Employees International Union took carefully ambiguous stands. The SEIU wrote an open letter to Bush at the end of January. It was somewhat pacifist in tone, laying out four vague "tests" that Bush should meet if he were to decide on war, including the standard, "war ... must be the last option, not the first." When this open letter was sent to SEIU locals, it was accompanied by the instructions that if war came, the SEIU would "support the troops" – that is, the war.

Some unions were really overt in their support for the war. James Hoffa of the Teamsters was one of the heads of a "Committee for the Liberation of Iraq," established to drum up support for the war. He was joined in this effort by Newt Gingrich and Richard Perle – the same Richard Perle who has been one of the main behind-the-scene architects of this war.

In January, the American Federation of Teachers had passed a resolution which effectively called on Bush to go to war. The AFT, according to an article in its magazine, "recognized the threat of Saddam Hussein to the region and the world and the need for action to force him to give up his weapons of mass destruction." Its main criticism of Bush was that he was "pursuing a deeply partisan domestic agenda at a time of prospective war" – at a time when national unity was needed to carry out a war – and it added that it would be "strongly preferable" that action against Iraq be taken "in concert either with an international coalition of allies or the United Nations." Bush, of course, had already announced he was going to war with a "coalition of the willing" – to which might be added the name of the AFT, which proved itself very willing to support the war, going so far as to pay for regular ads on nationwide radio and TV denouncing Saddam Hussein.

Once the war started, some union leaders in New York City – following the same tack as Clear Channel Radio – organized what they called a "support the troops demonstration." This was nothing more than a support-for-the-war demonstration, masquerading under a concern for all the young men and women who have been "put in harm's way." (And what put the troops "in harm's way, if not this war?) This demonstration, held at the site of the World Trade Center in the middle of a Friday, was composed of a number of union officials, stewards, business agents, etc. – and workers whose bosses were happy to give them extra time off to go to the demonstration.

Then there were those unions who carefully evaded the question, seeming not to notice that a war was approaching. The UAW, for example, didn't even issue a formal statement to the press or post one on its website as the war approached. Solidarity, the monthly magazine for UAW members, contained pages of condemnation of Bush for his domestic policies, but not a word was said about the war. In reading it, you would have had no idea that war was imminent. And while the top leadership did not seem to rein in Bob King, its one vice-president who openly campaigned against this war; neither did the top leadership rein in UAW officials who campaigned for the war. Maybe the UAW leadership was leaving the way open to take a position against it later on, if things went badly – just as it did very late in the Viet Nam war, long after polls showed that a big majority of American workers opposed the war. But this hands-off policy was nothing but a way to give Bush an open field for his propaganda and lies in the days leading up to and during the worst devastation of Iraq – that is, when it counted.

U.S. Labor Against the War: A Crack in the Solid Front of Union Support for the War

There were some unions that did take a stand against the war, most notably those locals and a few central labor councils that in January formed U.S. Labor Against the War (USLAW). Its aim was to build opposition inside the labor movement to the war, and it issued a statement strongly condemning the U.S. move toward war. By the time the war started, its statement had been adopted by a hundred and some locals and a smaller number of area or regional bodies.

The statement may have expressed a pacifist illusion about the possibility of "peaceful resolution of disputes among states" – which has never existed when the disputes affected the basic interests of the major imperialist powers. But what was important about the USLAW statement was that it opposed the war, without qualifications. And it put the blame for the war on the U.S., not on Iraq. Not only did it not give any credence to Bush's arguments for going to war, it disputed them: "there is no convincing link between Iraq and Al Qaeda or the attacks on September 11, and neither the Bush administration nor the U.N. inspection team have demonstrated that Iraq poses a real threat to Americans." Nor did it ask for the U.S. to first get U.N. support before it went to war. It opposed the war. And it had the merit of drawing attention to the fact that both U.S. troops and Iraqi civilians would be the victims of this war, while it denounced the way the Bush administration would use the war as a pretext for attacks on the working class.

A few national officers of some national unions added their names to USLAW. Others campaigned on a simple pacifist basis against the war, or on the undemocratic way the decision to go to war had been made. And other locals took positions that less clearly put the responsibility for the war only in the U.S.'s corner, even while opposing the possibility of any war.

Most of this opposition went no further than passing resolutions, although some of the unionists involved tried to bring out union contingents for the demonstrations, organize protest meetings or raise the issue inside their workplaces, at least through leaflets or articles in union papers.

In any case, there has been more opposition from unionists to this war than there was in the early stages of the Viet Nam war... BUT it still remains a small minority of organized labor. Overall, the union bureaucracies and the top leaders of the AFL-CIO followed behind Bush, supporting this war.

When it was necessary to speak out against the lies of the administration, the top union bureaucracy instead repeated them, helping Bush out in his vast attempt to brainwash the population for this war – or stayed quiet, pretending there was no war, or at least that it was of no importance to the working class. With the government's propaganda so widespread and unremitting and shamelessly repeated by the media, those who pretend to be the leaders of the working class had the obligation to take a clear-cut and firm stand, challenging the lies and the arrogant show of strength by the bourgeoisie's government. It was the duty of working class organizations to call on the workers to massively express their opposition, to show that this war was not being carried out in their name. The AFL-CIO did the reverse, helping to sow confusion in the working class.

No working class organization should have participated in this confusion. Unfortunately, some in the left did just that. Labor Notes, for example, in its April 2003 issue, heralded the February AFL-CIO resolution as one of a number of union resolutions opposed to the war. Of course, it hedged a bit, explaining that these resolutions "condemned the Bush Administration's actions around Iraq in varying degrees of criticism." This could only confuse the issue, since the supposed AFL-CIO criticism of the war was indistinguishable from support for the war! The Communist Party greeted the same AFL-CIO resolution with this statement: "AFL-CIO says `no rush to war' in historic resolution." As a matter of fact, Bush did "rush to war" and the AFL-CIO "rushed" to support him and his war. There was nothing "historic" about that.

Overall the leadership of organized labor threw their weight behind the juggernaut to war – whether openly, implicitly or simply by abstaining – leaving the road open for Bush, instead of trying to counterpose the weight of the unions to him.

Working Class Opposition to the War, Despite the Unions

Sweeney and the AFL-CIO leadership may have pretended to speak for the working class in the build-up to this war. But their hypocritical statements which implicitly gave support to Bush and his war did not reflect the sentiments in the working class. At the point that the AFL-CIO issued its February statement, the polls, for example, still showed that nearly one half of the overall population was opposed to going into this war. And whenever the respondents to those polls were broken down by income, the opposition increased as income decreased.

Of course, there has always been a sizeable fraction of the working class which simply disbelieves anything that comes out of the White House or other seats of U.S. power. But for everyone else, it wasn't so easy to pierce through all the propaganda. We were living in a bellicose hothouse, bombarded on every side by lying arguments for going to war.

Despite that – or maybe even because of it, given the real cynicism expressed daily by Bush and his entourage – demonstrations against the war grew in size in the months coming up to the war. And they took place in almost every city and town and even little villages, attracting numbers of ordinary working people and not only students.

They were certainly not there because the unions called on them to turn out – since few unions even mentioned the demonstrations. Most commonly, it was the churches that issued the call, but even here this varied a great deal by city. In Detroit for example, both the Catholic church and the Baptist Ministers Association organized protests against the war, while in New York and Boston, the Catholic church was notably silent. In any case, the fact that the churches played as dominant a role as they did certainly contributed to the kind of pacifist tone that many of the demonstrations had. And it also led to attempts to isolate or push aside the most important left organization which had played an important role in the build-up of this movement, Workers World.

The failure of the union apparatus to take on the task of opposing this war was highlighted by the fact that the churches, as reactionary as they are, often appeared more radical than the unions.

Taking Bush's Side in the War, Just as They Take the Bosses' Side at Home

The unions did not defend the interests of the working class confronting Bush's policy on the international scene – no more than they stand for the necessity of the working class to confront the policy of the government and the bosses at home.

At this very moment, when state governments around the country are demanding that workers must give up jobs and/or wages and benefits under the pretext of a severe budget crisis, the unions reinforce the idea that there is a budget crisis which limits the state's ability to provide jobs, decent wages and benefits, as well as the needed social and public services and education. They ask the workers simply to choose which should be cut. Nowhere have the top leaders of the unions proposed that all subsidies to the corporations be immediately stopped, that all tax breaks for the corporations be rescinded. In fact, they usually push to get those subsidies and tax breaks for "their own" capitalists.

At the very moment, the airlines one after the other are demanding enormous concessions from their workers, using the threat of bankruptcy or actual bankruptcy in order to convince the workers they have no choice except to give what the companies want; the steel companies are using the bankruptcy courts to junk pensions. Nowhere are the top leaders of the unions suggesting that the workers refuse to go along with this blackmail. Nowhere do they pose the issue from the workers' standpoint, that is, proposing that any company that can't continue to provide wages, benefits and jobs should be expropriated from its owners.

Nowhere do the top union leaders have an answer to propose to the situation that pushes so many young people to join the army because they can't find a decent paying job here at home – nowhere do they make any attempt to explain that it is the very organization of capitalist society itself that is pulling us down this road that looks at the young generation only as cannon fodder.

That is, nowhere do they begin to prepare the working class for the fights it will have to make.

The working class movement is in no state today to play the role that is needed. It's necessary to rebuild it. But if only a fraction of those who are revolted by this war can draw the necessary conclusions, becoming conscious of the necessity of combating the capitalist organization of society in the name of the working class, the workers' movement can be rebuilt. And that would be a positive thing coming out of this infamous war.