2011.11.19: Interview: NY City anti-war union activist Michael Letwin (Labournet)


NY City anti-war union activist Michael Letwin
Interview: Greg Dropkin
Published: 19/11/01

Michael Letwin visited Britain as a representative of New York City Labor Against the War. He is also President of UAW Local 2325 representing legal aid attorneys in New York, but did not speak here in that capacity. Speech to Trafalgar Square (London) Rally 18 November 2001

Brothers and Sisters, I would like to be able to tell you today that I represent American trade unions, all of whom have come out against the war. But I can’t tell you that. That’s not the way it is, not yet.

The truth is that many of the American trade unions and in fact the AFL-CIO itself support the war. But what I can tell you is that unlike what you’re told in the press, and unlike what we’re told in the press in the United States, there are Americans and there are American trade unionists who are against the war. [cheering].

On October 7th, the day that the bombing began in Afghanistan, over 10,000 New Yorkers took to the streets to oppose the war. [cheering].

There are at least 3 small, but growing, trade union groups in the United States, one in New York, one in Washington D. C., and one in San Francisco, all of whom are organising trade union members against the war. [cheering].

And the committee that I represent in New York City, Labor Against the War, is circulating a statement among trade unionists, which has so far been signed by about 400 trade union members in New York City, and I’d like to just read briefly, some of what it says. This is a statement that was issued on September 27th, about 2 weeks after September 11th.

[see text at New York City Labor Statement]

We are proud to be American trade unionists against the war. [cheering]. And for that reason I’m proud to be here today with my brothers and sisters. Thank you. [cheering]

LabourNet caught up with Michael Letwin behind the podium, while John Pilger spoke and Ramadan was celebrated in Trafalgar Square. Before discussing the unions, Michael commented on the demo and the current mood in New York.

This is fantastic. The size, the spirit, the inter-racial and multi-national representation and diversity, the trade union representation. It’s just really heartening especially coming from the United States to see something like this.

What’s the feeling in New York now, two months after the Trade Center?

There’s a tremendous amount of trauma, fear, depression and anger. Beyond that there is a fairly significant anti-war sentiment. I think that’s something you might not have expected.

I was bowled over by it, and want to congratulate all of you for standing up, because 37 years ago very very few people did so at the comparable stage. So why is there some visible dissent now?

Well I don’t want to overstate it. It is still a small number. The largest demonstration against the war in the United States took place in New York on October 7th, that probably had a minimum of 10,000 people which is quite significant, although of course it’s a drop in the bucket.

Those of us who witnessed the attack on the World Trade Centers up close, and many of us saw it with our own eyes, take less lightly than other people might, the idea of inflicting that same terrorism on the people of Afghanistan. I’m sure there are many more people who want vengeance, to go bomb Afghanistan or anywhere else just to get it out of their system. But large numbers of people don’t, I think because they recognize that what happened on September 11th was a crime against humanity and that it’s a crime against humanity to inflict that on anyone else.

Are you saying that a lot of people in America had never really come to grips with what war is?

I guess that’s right and I think most of them still haven’t. But I think that it’s interesting and something I never would have predicted either, that in New York of all places a much greater response than I would have thought, is to have seen the criminality of it and not want to see it elsewhere.

Union Square is one of the main public spaces in New York City, labor, left wing and anti-war demonstrations have taken place there over more than 100 years. In the days and weeks after September 11th people brought candles and pictures, photos of those who had died, inscriptions, just gathered there as sort of a shrine to those victims.

The overwhelming sentiment expressed in those offerings was a kind of general prayer, not necessarily in a religious sense but a hope and a call for peace. It was very much a John Lennon type of place.

You might have thought there’d be all kinds of belligerance and warlike declarations, and there was some of that. But overwhelmingly it was a reflective, mourning and a general sense that the cycle of violence of which September 11th was a part, has to end by not inflicting terrorism whether it’s State terrorism or other terrorism on innocent people.

Has that feeling of doubt, or reflection, continued during the shooting war?

Well, with the caveat that it’s still among a very small minority, but I think for that minority, yes, there is overwhelming horror about what’s going on among the people who’ve come out against the war.

Domestic Fallout

Even if they support the war, many people have become concerned about some of the domestic fallout. For example, just days after September 11th the Bush Administration and Congress, Democrats and Republicans, gave the airline executives 15 billion dollars. And the same with executives from other companies, and now they’re about to pass legislation in Congress that will refund major corporations for taxes they’ve paid since the 1980’s.

Meanwhile 100,000 people in New York City alone have lost their jobs, perhaps half a million to a million have lost their jobs around the country. And there is no relief for them whatsoever, there’s nothing.

During and after September 11th firefighters, police officers, construction workers, people who died in the World Trade Center who were restaurant workers, hotel workers, a variety of other folks, had much more attention than is usually given to ordinary working people, some of whom have been praised for their heroism in rescue work. That’s important because it raises the question “well if these workers are so heroic and dedicated and they’ve done such good things, why is it that when they lose their jobs as a result of September 11th or the more general economic crisis, there’s no relief for them? Why is that we don’t pay people better who do that work?”

Just about a week or two ago the firefighters who had lost over 300 people in the World Trade Center, who had been working very hard to recover the bodies after finding no survivors, were attacked by the Mayor Giuliani administration and the police, because the Giuliani folks wanted to pull those firefighters out of the rescue site and just scoop up all the bodies like trash and throw them in the garbage. The firefighters were very offended by that and in fact got in a physical confrontation with the police officers, and the highest police officers at the instruction of the Giuliani administration, arrested a whole number of firefighters including their union leaders and charged them with criminal offences for this situation.

Now the administration’s had to back off on all of that as well. But the point really is, the firefighters undoubtedly are very pro-war, there’s probably very few of them that are anti-war. However, there are fissures beginning to develop between them, even them, and the powers that be over these very important collateral issues that come out of the war.

So there’s the economic impact and the fact that the Democrats and Republicans are using the war to implement essentially a Reaganite agenda, again. Trickle-down economics without the trickle-down.

Civil Liberties

Over here, September 11th has also been used as an excuse to ram through things they wanted to do anyway, and the civil liberties argument is very much about that.

Yes, I think more and more people are concerned with civil liberties in the States. Now we have Declarations and Executive Orders issued by the President and/or adopted by Congress, that increase detention without trial of immigrants or non-citizens. On the order of the Attorney-General alone without any judicial review, they can violate the Attorney-Client privilege, by listening in, snooping on privileged conversations in criminal cases. They can try non-citizens in secret military tribunals reminiscent of Stalinism in the 1930s or whatever, maybe the Taliban trials.

When I left New York City late last night, for the first time ever to my knowledge there were American troops with loaded M-16’s in the airports. None of these measures really have any relation to terrorism. They probably can’t detect terrorism at all. They’re really about setting an atmosphere of war, getting people behind that war and stifling dissent among people who don’t support war or who are the wrong color or the wrong nationality as far as the American government is concerned.

So it’s terribly frightening and I think that before most Americans or more people become anti-war, there will be growing numbers of people who at least are concerned with these economic and repressive issues. And we in the anti-war movement in the United States really have to find common ground with those people.

“We Won”?

This last week there’s been a tremendous triumphalism from the pro-war people and the media. How’s that played out in New York, have people felt “wow, we’ve won now. . .” or what?

It’s hard to say. Other than in the press of course and politicians, I don’t hear people going around congratulating each other about the war having been won. I think anybody who’s reading the papers, which is to say a very small minority in the United States, or who are really trying to go beyond the mass media, would not buy the idea that some great victory has been won here.

Even the New York Times, which is very hawkish on the war, report that things are a mess. They report the massacres committed by the Northern Alliance, the total fractiousness of the Northern Alliance not to mention all the other warlords in Kandahar and elsewhere. The return of the previous President who had been deposed by the Taliban, who has no credibility, the fact that the Northern Alliance is now saying that they don’t even want foreign troops in there, just so they can do whatever they’re going to do, whatever they’ve been doing, torturing, killing, without anybody watching.

Even if you just read the New York Times, and read it carefully, people who are prepared to think about it could not draw much of a conclusion about how wonderful things are.

And again, there’s the question of Osama Bin Laden, if in fact he’s the culprit at all they don’t know where he is, he’s somewhere in the mountains. Even if they kill him, so he’ll become a martyr and generate more terrorists.

But is that argument -“we’ve won” – being bought?

I don’t know for sure, but I would be surprised if people are thinking that it’s all over. The media themselves and the Bush Administration are stressing that this is not the end of the war. They’re saying “no, now we go into Somalia, now we go into maybe Iraq” – they talked about 50 countries the other day that they want to go and attack. Even people who were very supportive of the war are being told by their leaders that the war isn’t over. There certainly is not a sense yet that things are a disaster for the United States, but there is some indication that that in fact is what it is, and we’ll see how it plays out.

Inside the Unions

As you mentioned in your speech the AFL-CIO has supported the war. What kind of mandate did they have for that?

There is no organised mandate for it that I’m aware of, it’s not like they polled the members of the unions. On the other hand I think it is probably an accurate reflection of the way most union members feel, they undoubtedly support the war. That overwhelming support has to do with the immediate trauma of September the 11th, but also the American media is an unabashed propaganda arm of the United States government now more than ever. I think people’s knowledge is very limited, they are frightened and angry.

And for that reason there has not been an organised response beyond the very small committees, again now just in 3 or 4 cities in the United States that are trying to organise among trade unionists. I don’t want to overstate the size of those at all, we’re very small.

Nonetheless, the fact that those committees exist at all, and small but growing numbers of people are supporting them, I think reflects not a challenge yet in any meaningful sense to the AFL-CIO but a pole of opposition that is very important to build.

I thought a number of unions didn’t buy the war.

There’s a spectrum. The official AFL-CIO line is to support the war. And virtually all the unions say that, but they say it differently, even those unions that support the war. So for example the Machinists (IAM) are considered to be an example of some of the most virulent pro-war union people. They’ve called essentially for nuking Afghanistan. On the other hand, even some of the unions that officially support the war, are not necessarily taking that view. SEIU, the Service Employees International Union for example, certainly haven’t come out against the war but their emphasis has been more about opposing the victimisation and the racial targetting, racial backlash in the United States against Arabs and South Asians, against economic giveaway to corporations and so forth. So even among the official trade unions there is a diversity of opinion.

My own international union, the UAW for example, ran an article in its magazine “Solidarity” that goes to all of its members, this is a magazine that doesn’t typically have debate. But nonetheless they ran an article about September 11th in which I was quoted, including the fact that I opposed the war. I thought that was interesting and significant, that they would even print that, and clearly give, not backing to being against the war but backing to being able to say that you were against the war, if you’re in fact a UAW local President, as I am.

In my own union [i.e. the local], there is a small but vocal number of people who have attacked me for speaking out against the war, although far more have supported it and about 50 of the 700 members have joined me in New York City Labor Against the War. In response to a complaint from a disgruntled member about me taking this position, the International UAW wrote back to say that I hadn’t acted inappropriately in speaking as an individual, not on behalf of my union but identifying myself in my official capacity as a Union President, against the war.

So things are fluid. And then all the way over on the other side of the anti-war spectrum, there are a few unions that have spoken out against the war, mainly United Electrical Workers. UE is not a member of the AFL-CIO, but nonetheless it is a union and it is important that it spoke out. There is at least one Central Labor Council, these are the local city-by-city level of the AFL-CIO, and the one in San Francisco has actually issued an anti-war Statement [see San Francisco Labor Council Opposes War Drive] and that’s very important. And there’s been a few other smaller bodies. But most of the anti-war opposition in the trade union movement has been on the part of people speaking as individuals.

Our statement has about 13 New York City union Presidents on that list. Are they of the biggest unions in New York City? No. Are they speaking on behalf of their unions? No. But nonetheless it’s important and significant in terms of creating space, within labor, to speak against the war, that there are 13 union Presidents, myself included, who are willing to speak out and who are joined by 400 other New York City trade unionists in doing so.

So I think that will continue to grow, especially as this domestic fallout continues to become clearer, especially as things unravel further in Afghanistan. If there’s further American terrorism against Somalia or the Sudan, whoever, I think there will be more anti-war activity. So it is small but I think it will be growing.

What happened in Minnesota?

Right around September 11th, the State workers, the public employees in Minnesota, were without a contract and were about to go out on strike. This was AFSCME, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. That’s one of the major public employee unions in the United States. I don’t know exactly what position they have on the war but I’m sure it’s not an anti-war position. And as September 11th was happening, these workers were told essentially by politicians that it would be unpatriotic for them to go on strike. They held off for a brief period, a week or two, in deference to the mourning, and not wanting to go on strike which is difficult enough in the best of times, at a time when they would be so roundly attacked for doing so.

But several weeks later they did go on strike, and they refused to buckle to the attacks of various government officials and anti-union people who were saying this was unpatriotic, and they in fact won that battle after a week or two, and basically said we’re not going to bow to that kind of blackmail here. They threw back the President’s words at him, Bush having said “let’s get back to normal, let’s go about our daily business“ and as they pointed out, part of the business of American workers was their union, and they needed to get what was fair for them.

I heard Gov. Ventura threatened to use the national guard to scab on the strike.

I don’t know the details of that but I will tell you that there are National Guard everywhere now. When I was going to the airport yesterday there were National Guard directing traffic at the tunnels and in the airports, and again they probably wouldn’t know a terrorist in a million years. I mean who would? How do you know who that is? But it’s all about creating this sense that America is at war, and everybody has to line up behind the war, and giving it that kind of hype.

I felt that was the purpose of releasing the transcript of the cockpit to ground controller conversation this week. There was no reason to release this 2 months after the event other than to whip people up into supporting something, in case support was waning.

Right, and while at the same time directly telling the American media not to have too much if anything about victims of the American bombing. And if they do have it at all, like the memo telling CNN employees that whenever they mention victims of the American bombing they have to in the same breath say that it’s Osama Bin Laden’s fault and remember the people who died on September 11th. There’s really no pretense whatsoever that the press in America is neutral or objective. It’s strictly an organ of the Bush administration and they say as much.

Is it going to take years for the economic conflict and civil liberties issues to work their way through to a rank and file revolt? Do you think it’s going to take a lot of dead American soldiers coming home in body bags, or do you think it could happen faster than in the ‘60s?

Well again I think on the important collateral issues, the economics, the civil liberties, I think those things will happen much more quickly. Although the American economy was hurt by the Vietnam war, it was still a much stronger economy than it is today. And there was sort of an ability for a period of time to have both Butter and Guns as far as a lot of people were concerned. That’s clearly not the case now.

Traditionally, war will divert a union or worker revolt against Government policies. Milosevic played this trick, and of course Bush is capable of playing it. To what extent has he got away with that?

Oh I think so far they have gotten away with it quite well.

So people are moderating their union demands?

Yes, sure. And although the AFL-CIO certainly opposes these giveaways to corporations, there’s no mobilisation, there’s no effort to do anything about it very much, except perhaps for some lobbying which is important, but not enough.

But I think that will begin at some point to unravel. It has not really unravelled much yet, but I think it will. I think the related issues will come first, and the war will come next. It probably will take body bags before the war itself is contested as much as these related issues will be.

What are you doing over the next couple days?

We’re doing at least two meetings, Media Workers Against the War, and then Trade Unionists Against the War. I’m doing a BBC radio show early tomorrow morning. I talked with a lot of media today. We did a CNN interview, a BBC TV interview, The Independent. . . So the bottom line is, I’m trying to talk to as many people in the media here as possible and as many people in the anti-war movement, again to say that not all Americans support the war. The idea that you’re being anti-American worker if you’re against the war is wrong, and that some of us American workers at least appeal for you to support us in opposing the war.

The Government want British people to stand shoulder to shoulder with America. Well, which Americans?

Right, and that’s why the contacts between trade unionists, between the people in the anti-war movement in the various countries are so important because if we rely on the mainstream media to tell us what each other are thinking and feeling and experiencing, we’re never going to find out.

Thanks Michael.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s