In a move that marks a historic shift in the stance of U.S. organized labor, the country's largest union federation in February declared its opposition to the impending war on Iraq. The executive council of the AFL-CIO ended its four-day annual meeting by unanimously endorsing a measure declaring that President Bush had failed to make a case for war.
AFL-CIO President John Sweeney said the resolution ended the meeting with a sense of unity in a time of mounting job losses, a poor economy, and a presidential administration that is hostile to labor unions.
The resolution had been pushed by U.S. Labor Against the War (USLAW), a new group formed in January. The group has been drawing attention to recent cuts in veterans health benefits and the selection of an anti-union firm, Stevedoring Services of America, to run the Iraqi port of Umm Qasr, which U.S. and British forces seized in March.
In February, USLAW organized a joint telephone press conference with labor leaders from around the world to voice opposition to the war. Labor leaders and unions from 53 countries, representing more than 4 million workers, signed on to an anti-war statement.
Labor delegations at U.S. peace marches have been huge, reaching 10,000 in New York City on March 22, according to veteran labor organizer Bob Muehlenkamp, one of the founders of USLAW, as well as of the peace coaltion Win Without War.
As the U.S. consolidates its control over Iraq, USLAW plans to draw attention to the links between war and the economy, says Muehlenkamp. The group held demonstrations outside post offices on April 15, passing out stickers that said, “Not with my taxes.”
Most European unions, including several British unions, have opposed the war. European labor opposition to the war has been strongest in Italy, where in February the Italian dock workers union refused to load or unload shipments of U.S. arms. The move came as anti-war protesters across Italy, aided by rail workers, blocked trains and airplanes carrying U.S. military equipment in the weeks leading to war.
The actions appeared to have slowed or disrupted the shipments, despite aggressive police action against the protests. Some loads had to be redirected through other countries, and other cargo had to be shipped at night.
In January, Scottish train drivers refused to operate the train between Glasgow and Europe's largest NATO weapons store, the Glen Douglas base on Scotland's west coast. According to The Guardian newspaper, it was the first such worker action in decades. The arms load was later moved by truck.
While international labor opposition to government policies has a long history, in the United States the solidarity with international labor against the war is new for the historically nationalist labor movement. “We all remember those images of guys in hard hats beating up Vietnam War protesters. Nothing like this [labor opposition to war] ever happened in the entire history of the labor movement in the 20th century,” Muehlenkamp said.