2004.11.20: Introductory Comments to Labor Antiwar Organizing Conference

NYCLAW Conference – November 20, 2004
Introductory Comments by Michael Letwin

Many of us were in this room two years ago, for NYCLAW’s first organizing conference on October 19, 2002.

In those two years, the Bush administration — with full support from the Democratic Party — has inflicted terrible suffering, including the deaths of more than 100,000 thousand Afghans, Iraqis and U.S. G.Is. U.S. money and weapons have killed and maimed thousands of Palestinians. At home, the government has waged war on immigrant, civil and labor rights.

In conventional politics, few have spoken out in opposition. Indeed, George W. Bush and John Kerry each tried to show that he was the most pro-war candidate. So it’s no surprise that Bush was reelected, or that he celebrated with a murderous attack on Fallujah, which is nothing less than a war crime that rivals those at Guernica, the Warsaw Ghetto, My Lai or Jenin.

These realities often make it hard to be optimistic. Yet, we can draw hope from the fact that these same crimes have generated a growing “Resistance to Empire.”

Thus, the brutal devastation of Fallujah has clearly failed to break the Iraqi resistance. In fact, according to the New York Times, a secret Marine Corps intelligence report written last weekend warns that “if American troop levels in the Falluja area are significantly reduced during reconstruction there, as has been planned, insurgents in the region will rebound from their defeat. . . . They have further advised that despite taking heavy casualties in the weeklong battle, the insurgents will continue to grow in number, wage guerrilla attacks and try to foment unrest among Falluja’s returning residents, emphasizing that expectations for improved conditions have not been met.”

In the same way, The Israeli destruction of Jenin, Ramallah, Jabaliya and other cities — which is the model for brutal U.S. occupation of Iraq — hasn’t stopped the Intifada against Israeli apartheid and for the right to return to all of historic Palestine. Instead, Palestinian David’s armed with rocks and small arms still battle an Israeli Goliath armed with tanks, Apache helicopters and F‑16s – provided through U.S. tax dollars and U.S. union pension funds.

Moreover, despite the claims of media pundits, the presidential election was not a “mandate” for war.

Resistance has grown among veterans, military families, and G.I.s themselves have begun to resist, as reflected in the critical work of Vietnam Veterans Against the War, Military Families Speak Out, and Iraq Veterans Against the War. Just a month ago, an entire platoon of the 343rd Quartermaster Company from Rock Hill, South Carolina, refused to carry out orders for a suicidal convoy in Iraq – an act that foreshadows the kind of G.I. revolt which crippled the U.S. war machine in Vietnam. And at home, more than 2,000 of former soldiers have resisted call-up orders, including 733 who were ordered to report by Nov. 7.

In June of this year, the Washington Post reported that 52% of those surveyed said the war in Iraq was not worth fighting, and an incredible 42% wanted to bring the troops home immediately. These numbers – even before the U.S. war in Iraq looked as futile as it does today – say that Bush’s reelection represents not a pro-war mandate, but rather the utter futility of an equally pro-war John Kerry.

The labor antiwar movement is part of this worldwide resistance. And it’s come a long way since our last conference. Two years ago, there was no national labor antiwar coalition, and no international union had taken a stand against the war. Yet at that time we said that NYCLAW’s modest experience showed that, despite the obstacles, it was possible to organize workers against the war.

Within just a few months, work by groups like NYCLAW — and the war itself– laid the foundation for creation of USLAW in January 2003. This past summer, antiwar resolutions were adopted at the international conventions of AFSCME, APWU, CWA, NPMHU, and SEIU. Labor contingents have become a visible, vocal presence at mass protests like those on February 15, 2003 and August 29, 2004.

At the same time, we clearly have a long way to go. NYCLAW, USLAW, official union resolutions, and the Million Worker March are all critical. But with a few exceptions – such as in PSC-CUNY – the labor antiwar movement hasn’t been able to mobilize a significant number of workers — whether organized or unorganized. That’s why this is primarily an organizing conference. We’re not here to preach to the choir, but to grapple together with the challenge of reaching our fellow union members, our co-workers, our families and our communities.

And if the elections proved anything, it’s that there’s no shortcuts, but only the hard work of sending a clear and consistent message in ways that connect with the concerns of working people.

1. Bring the Troops Home Now! Not only from Iraq, but from Afghanistan, from the Philippines, from Colombia.

2. End U.S. government and trade union support for Israel, and support the Palestinian right to return. That’s the message of a new project jointly initiated by NYCLAW and Al-Awda: Labor for Palestine.

3. Defend immigrants, civil liberties and labor rights.

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