2003.04.01: Growth of Labor Anti-War Action Tied to Bush’s Anti-Worker Moves

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Labor Notes, April 2003

Growth of Labor Anti-War Action Tied to Bush’s Anti-Worker Moves

by Michael Letwin

On February 28 a CNN headline reported that the AFL-CIO Executive Council had unanimously voted to “oppose . . . war with Iraq.”

At first glance, the federation’s February 27 resolution looks more pro-war than anti-war. It lauds the 1991 Gulf War, when “the United States organized a broad coalition of our allies to stand united against this aggression” and “call[s] upon the administration to pursue a broad global consensus to apply the maximum pressure on Iraq, ensuring that war [will be] supported by both our allies and nations united.”

Given official labor’s unbroken support for U.S. wars prior to, during, and since Vietnam, this language is not surprising. What is surprising is the resolution’s acknowledgment that “people are taking to the streets to speak out against a war in Iraq” and its conclusion that “the president has not fulfilled his responsibility to make a compelling and coherent explanation to the American people and the world about the need for military action against Iraq at this time.”

Though the resolution fails to note that hundreds of labor bodies are among those who have protested the war, in dissenting from Bush’s war plans it marks a landmark break with the administration and from the federation’s own past.

This break reflects both anti-war efforts that began within the labor movement immediately after 9/11 and the administration’s increasingly obvious use of 9/11 as a pretext for both war abroad and attacks on labor at home.


In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, the AFL-CIO and virtually all of its member unions endorsed the Bush administration’s war on terror, including the invasion and bombing of Afghanistan. On October 8, President John Sweeney announced, “We support the aggressive, considered military action ordered by President Bush” in Afghanistan. At best, international unions remained silent about the war abroad, while expressing concern about civil liberties and labor and immigrant rights. Only a handful of regular labor bodies opposed the war in Afghanistan: San Francisco’s Labor Council, Washington State Jobs with Justice, and New York City’s AFSCME DC 1707 and

In response to official labor’s overwhelming support for the war, unionists in several cities established ad hoc, local, cross-union antiwar groups. On September 27, 2001, one such group, New York City Labor Against the War
(NYCLAW), issued a statement, initially signed by eight local union presidents and 130 other unionists, that condemned the World Trade Center attack as a “crime against humanity” and condemned the war both abroad and at home. Within a few weeks, “Labor Committees for Peace and Justice” were established in the San Francisco Bay Area, Washington, D.C., and Albany, New York.

These committees and those that followed elsewhere were relatively small and were virtually ignored by the media. But during the time when nearly all of official labor was either prowar or silent, these groups served as both anti-war poles within labor and as representatives of labor within the broader anti-war movement.

Meanwhile, the administration launched a fierce attack on immigrant rights and civil liberties. It withdrew collective bargaining rights from thousands of Department of Homeland Security workers, made plans to privatize half the federal workforce, and imposed Taft-Hartley against the longshore workers.

The administration also responded to Enron-type scandals by enacting new tax cuts for the rich. And they found the hundreds of billions to attack Iraq by callously slashing domestic programs and demanding austerity of public employees.

In these circumstances, more labor activists began to find it easier to oppose Bush’s war plans and to convince other union members that war abroad could not be separated from the war on labor at home. In fall 2002, this growing sentiment resulted in a spate of anti-war resolutions passed by locals, central labor councils, and larger bodies and in the founding, on January 11, 2003, of U.S. Labor Against the War.

By the time of the huge worldwide antiwar protests on February 15, USLAW’s efforts had helped generate anti-war resolutions from labor bodies representing five million union members–one-third of organized labor in the U.S.–among them the international unions of AFSCME, APWU, CWA, SEIU, UE, UFW, and UNITE. Less than two weeks later, the AFL-CIO adopted its resolution against immediate war on Iraq.


By the time this article appears, the United States may well have launched an all-out war, with or without UN approval. Railway workers in Scotland and Italy have already refused to move materials for war on Iraq, and unions in Britain, France, Italy, Australia, and elsewhere have vowed massive anti-war strikes.

If such strikes were to happen on a big scale in this country, could they bring the war–at home and abroad–to a halt? Such strikes are unlikely any time soon, but USLAW called for more modest activity–a March 12 day of action at the workplace. Much more leadership and action are needed from the labor movement, linked to the immediate battles against the war at home.

[Michael Letwin is a co-convenor of NYC Labor Against the War and on the Continuations Committee of USLAW.]

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