Workers Against War

As entrails to ancient augurs, the water in toilets on upper floors of the Sears Tower presents to us signs, omens, the coded messages from which to coax the metaphors for our age. Lapping back and forth within the bowls, the water betrays the ceaseless stress and sway of America’s tallest building. “The whole thing is basically just a steel skeleton. Think of the steel as a wire”, my friend Marty Conlisk, a union electrician who has worked on just about every skyscraper in Chicago, suggested. “What happens when you put stress on a wire? It bends. Enough stress, over enough time, and it snaps.” Outside the Tower a banner exhorts passersby, “Stand Tall America”. Marty figures that “one day they’re going to have to take the building down, or it’s going to come down”.

I was in Chicago for a meeting on January 11 of about 100 union antiwar advocates or activists from across the country, gathered there to initiate a national labor organization against a war that, in its hottest phase, has yet to begin. The term “historic”, used throughout the day, was not misplaced. Among the group were Staughton Lynd from Youngstown, who’d chaired the first demonstration on Washington against the Vietnam War in April of 1965; Frank Emspak from Wisconsin, who’d chaired the National Coordinating Committee to End the War in Vietnam when it called the first mass days of protest in October 1965; and Jerry Tucker from St. Louis, who was present when unions formed a peace faction outside the ultra-hawkish AFL-CIO in 1971, by which time, as he notes, the Vietnamese had won the war. Something profoundly different is happening now, and while it’s unclear how broad labor opposition will become, its very existence, now given national expression, represents the deepest crack in the supposed consensus for war.

The working class, unions particularly, aren’t usually associated with antiwar sentiment. Immediately after 9.11, the Machinists famously bellowed for “vengeance not justice,” John Sweeney said the unions stood “shoulder to shoulder” with George Bush in the war on terror, and many labor leftists dove for cover, saying even raising a discussion on the prospect of endless war was too risky. There was a war at home the latter argued-the sinking economy, assaults on immigrants-and it could be neatly filleted from the war abroad.

At least as many people were killed in Afghanistan as died in New York, and in exchange for fealty to national security through slaughter, the Machinists at got layoffs at Boeing, layoffs in the airline industry, a concessionary contract at Lockheed Martin. Sweeney and Co. got to watch as Bush intervened against the West Coast longshore workers and threatened to strip dockworkers permanently of the right to strike, as civil servants first in the US Attorneys’ offices, then in the Office of Homeland Security lost collective bargaining rights, as immigrants were fired from their airport screening jobs and unions forbidden to organize, as 850,000 government jobs crept toward the privatizing block, as unemployment rose, benefits ran out, the rich got goodies and government workers, soldiers included, were stiffed on pay. For its part, the timorous left got more evidence than needed of the naivete of its argument. (It also has to be said that a few bold labor leftists have paid for their early stance against war with the loss of their elective offices, but they were never under illusions that principle comes without a price.)

Now enters US Labor Against the War. Its creation does not signal an about-face by top union leadership, though that is to be desired, but rather the convergence of an antiwar spirit first expressed in ad hoc labor organizations in New York, San Francisco and Washington, then in an increasing number of local labor bodies throughout the country. The AFL-CIO is still in the war column, though more reluctantly. The executive council of only one International union, AFSCME, has passed a resolution against war on Iraq. That one considers such an invasion a distraction from the war on terror and “a last resort”, assuming the UN gives the go-ahead, but it is interesting because at the union’s convention last June the leadership did all it could to silence and isolate antiwar delegates. Ultimately, it could not ignore what was percolating from below.

US Labor Against the War is the result of a similar process. Since 9.11 at least forty-two locals, fourteen district or regional councils, thirteen central labor councils, five state federations, four national labor organizations and twenty-two local committees have passed antiwar resolutions. These represent more than two million people, and that estimate is low, as many more labor bodies have gone on record than were counted in time for the Chicago meeting.

“We are having this meeting because our members demanded it”, Jerry Zero, secretary treasurer of Teamsters Local 705 in Chicago, which hosted the gathering, said at the outset. “Our membership is split 50-50. Fifty percent don’t believe a thing President Bush says, and 50 percent think he’s a liar.”

Local 705 is the second-largest local in the Teamsters. Zero, who has long been identified with progressive causes, calls its members largely conservative. While there are members who dispute this, it’s fair to say that truck drivers in the Heartland do not fit any standard antiwar profile. Last October at a general meeting a member of the local introduced an antiwar resolution. His father fought in Vietnam and bears the psychic scars. The statement does not embrace or even mention the war on terror, the disarming of Saddam, UN inspections or international military coalitions. It simply states, “We value the lives of our sons and daughters, of our brothers and sisters more that Bush’s control of Middle East oil profits”, and “We have no quarrel with the ordinary working-class men, women and children of Iraq who will suffer the most in any war”. After noting the economic implications for the US working class, it resolves that “Teamsters Local 705 stands firmly against Bush’s drive for war”. Zero said he had expected vigorous disagreement and was stunned when, out of 403 members present, no one spoke in favor of war. The resolution passed 402 to 1. 705’s resolution became the template for the resolution ultimately adopted, with additions and alterations, as the statement of US Labor Against the War. (See below.) Here, though, there was lengthy, passionate debate. It’s worth reviewing that briefly for the larger lessons it holds.

First, disagreement needn’t lead to ruin. As Bob Muehlenkamp, a longtime labor organizer who coordinated the Chicago meeting, noted, the subject at hand was one of the most emotionally and politically charged issues humanity faces. It would have been bizarre, even troubling, if everyone present-from union staff to principal officers to radical rank and file-had moved in sheeplike agreement. People got excited, ideas were fought over, compromises reached; no one stormed out or tried to scuttle the project, and by the end of the day people who had been at opposite poles of the debate said they could work with the result. Second, a united front requires a confrontation on just what is unifying. Debate hinged on whether the new group should support the disarming of Iraq, containment of Iraq, UN multilateralism and inspections, or whether, like 705’s statement, it should stick to simple principles of national and international class interest and opposition to war. The whole morning had been spent setting the table for the group to adopt the former position. Muehlenkamp pointed out a series of internal union polls showing that people are more likely to oppose war if the US goes ahead without UN approval. David Cortwright of Keep America Safe/Win Without War, which he described as “a mainstream patriotic coalition of Americans who are concerned about Iraq but don’t want to go to war” and which includes the Sierra Club, Business Leaders for Sensible Priorities, the NAACP and religious groups, had been invited to speak. He went into copious detail about UN procedures-a subject guaranteed to encourage the average person to switch off-and explained how “we can win against Iraq, we can win the war on terrorism” without an invasion or other US unilateral action. It was all perfectly understandable.

Washington is crawling with labor officials, some International union presidents, who would like to take a stand against war but are scared. They might be emboldened behind the shield of the UN, shoulder to shoulder now with liberal business leaders. The problem is, at least half the people in the room believe that the war on terror, the threats to Iraq are part of a US imperial policy, that the US has and will manipulate the UN, that evidence against Iraq can always be manufactured or exaggerated for convenience sake, that solidarity with workers of the world places labor in natural opposition to a war agenda and that any talk about crises in the Middle East cannot ignore the question of Palestine. Bill Fletcher, formerly education director of the AFL-CIO, now the head of TransAfrica and a convener of the United for Peace and Justice coalition, spoke strongly on these issues and then warned, “We have to have a broad level of unity. If we make anti-imperialism the premise of our work then we’re building a sect, and I’m too old for that”.

Somehow along the way, though, the UN position got defined as the neutral one. A draft resolution was presented reflecting that, to which a group of delegates counterpoised a modified version of 705’s resolution. Thus began the debate. (Interest declared: I attended the meeting as a delegate from New York City Labor Against the War, which was formed soon after September 11, and this substitute draft resolution was initiated by two of our group’s conveners, Michael Letwin and Brenda Stokely.) There were flared tempers, even moments of redbaiting. It seems some people had so prepared themselves for a sectarian hijacking of the proceedings that they were responding to some imagined revolutionary manifesto rather than to the plainspoken prose of a Chicago truck driver. And of course other people stood to denounce labor bureaucrats, the Democratic Party, or sometimes just to hear themselves talk. Out of this wrangle came a basic understanding: unity demands simplicity and allows for differences. The final resolution has elements of both proposed drafts and includes neither patriotism nor Palestine; it makes no rhetorical flourish on the nature of fundamentalism or capitalism; it neither embraces the UN nor denounces American imperialism. It therefore allows all of those subjects and many more to be freely explored and debated in discussion and organization among workers, which is, or should be, the whole point.

Third, no one has a monopoly on representing workers’ view of the world. It’s not true that workers are all conservative flag-wavers any more than it’s true that they’re all organic anticapitalists waiting to be turned loose against the system. One of the problems with drafting resolutions that are meant to reflect what workers think or what workers will be comfortable with is that the process can so easily tip into essentialism. In Chicago there were moments when it seemed all of organized labor was being characterized as obsessed with terrorism and national security, scared to death, inclined to support military action though movable depending on the details. Yet again and again delegates would tell of how the workers had surprised them: how they voted unanimously against war, how discussion was heartfelt and strangely one-sided, how the head of the local building trades council, against all expectation, took an antiwar stand. Many things determine the picture: race, sex, age, income, experience-and sometimes nothing anyone could have predicted. What can probably be said without fear of contradiction is that a lot of people are confused and their information is bad, and that even if they have misgivings about war they don’t think it’s a subject for the union to take up. That last is a legacy of decades in which unions either recused themselves from discussion on the most compelling political issues of the day or were complicit with government policy and thus developed no independent analysis. Given how anxious union leaders are said to be about sticking their necks out on the war question, maybe the most valuable thing they could do is to initiate open forums, where information could be shared and issues engaged in freewheeling fashion. As at Local 705, their members might surprise them. Similarly, those labor bodies that have taken a stand might further the discussions they’ve already had. If they’ve passed resolutions supporting UN but not US intervention in Iraq, what if the UN gives America its fig leaf and the sons and daughters of the working class go into battle? What if the go-ahead is bought with US bribes and threats? If labor bodies have passed straight-up antiwar resolutions, what happens if a war on Iraq begins and is answered by terrorist attacks in the United States? The debates are far from exhausted, and this is a time to talk with people, not at them.

In this spirit, on the night before the Chicago meeting, Local 705 co-sponsored, with local labor antiwar activists, a panel discussion the likes of which ought to be replicated in union halls, schools, community centers, veterans groups, anywhere that people open to experience and to the strong, true voice of the heart may gather. It was billed as “Labor Voices and Veteran Voices Against War” but that hardly captures it. Bill Davis, an early joiner of Vietnam Veterans Against the War and the chief steward of a UPS Machinists local in Chicago, called it “a dream come true”, merging his labor and antiwar identities. And his talk, about the nature of the military and its recruitment, the economic draft, the plight of veterans, the history of the American Legion as a home for strikebreakers, vigilantes, Klansmen and warmongers, put the class angle of militarism up front, inescapably.

Loretta Byrd, recording secretary of Teamsters Local 738 in Chicago, talked about family and home, the twin threats of war and joblessness, and proved there are more compelling ways to say no to war than through union resolutions, prompting the audience, “We’ve all heard that song ‘War-What is it good for?”” and then, shaking her finger, “‘Absolutely nothing.'” I imagined that through everyone’s head might have been running “It ain’t nothing but a heartbreaker/friend only to the undertaker…induction, then destruction, who wants to die?”

Trent Willis of ILWU Local 10 out of Oakland described the heavy weather for longshore workers. Brenda Stokely, who is also president of AFSCME District Council 1707 in New York, reminded people that “the things that are worth fighting for always take a lot of nerve” and then challenged the crowd, in words applicable far beyond that room: “If you cannot talk to your relatives about your politics, your politics are irrelevant. If you cannot talk to your neighbors about your politics, your politics are irrelevant. If you cannot talk to your co-workers about your politics, your politics ain’t worth having.” Dan Lane, who trade unionists across the country know from his galvanizing role in the Staley struggle of the early 1990s in Decatur, spoke of growing up in a boys’ home and entering the Marine Corps at 17 because “it was just a natural progression” from the boot-camp style home and Saturday afternoons spent watching Hollywood war movies. He did two tours of duty in Vietnam, saw more carnage than a soul is meant to handle, beat up an officer, was demoted from sergeant, collapsed, came home and went through twenty-two jobs in four years. He recalled that during the Staley struggle Illinois was called “The War Zone” because of all the strikes or lockouts there at the time. “There is a war that is continually being waged against workers”, he said. “That is the way of life. It’s a war where people don’t usually come out and have strikes. It’s a war where someone is just forced to sign a piece of paper. Because that’s what most people deal with going into negotiations every day. It’s not about negotiations; it’s about them telling you what you’re supposed to accept. And most of the time, people accept; you don’t hear about them.” The war abroad had come home. It just took a while to realize it had always been home.

Rather than spend gobs of money on ads in The New York Times that nobody reads, antiwar groups, particularly those like US Labor Against the War, ought to take this kind of talk on the road. There isn’t so much support for the war program that some real soul-to-soul and pressure in the right places can’t turn it around. During question time an 18-year-old from DePaul University who is trying to rouse students against the war said he thought the veterans should come to his school. After all, he said, he has only 18 years of knowledge and experience, “and that’s not a lot”.

Footnote: US Labor Against the War has as its immediate objective building the largest possible labor participation in the January 18 demonstrations in Washington and San Francisco. Workers, friends and family are urged to assemble in DC, with union colors and banners ablaze, at 12 PM at 4th and Jefferson Dr. SW (at the northeast corner – 2 blocks south and west of 3rd & Constitution). In San Francisco, they are asked to meet at 11 AM at Drumm and Market Streets, in front of the Hyatt Hotel. Another aim is to get as many unions and labor bodies to adopt or endorse the founding resolution. For more information, contact, or


WHEREAS, over 100 trade unionists from 76 local, regional and national unions, central labor councils and other labor organizations representing over 2 million members gathered in Chicago for an unprecedented meeting to discuss our concerns about the Bush administration’s threat of war; and

WHEREAS, union members and leaders have the responsibility to inform all working people about issues that affect their lives, jobs and families, and to be heard in the national debate on these issues; and

WHEREAS, the principal victims of any military action in Iraq will be the sons and daughters of working class families serving in the military who will be put in harm’s way, and innocent Iraqi civilians who have already suffered so much; and

Whereas, we have no quarrel with the ordinary working class men, women and children of Iraq, or any other country; and

Whereas, the billions of dollars spent to stage and execute this war are being taken away from our schools, hospitals, housing and Social Security; and

Whereas, the war is a pretext for attacks on labor, civil, immigrant and human rights at home; and

Whereas, Bush’s drive for war serves as a cover and distraction for the sinking economy, corporate corruption and layoffs; and

Whereas, such military action is predicted actually to increase the likelihood of retaliatory terrorist acts; and

Whereas, there is no convincing link between Iraq and Al Qaeda or the attacks on Sept. 11, and neither the Bush administration nor the UN inspections have demonstrated that Iraq poses a real threat to Americans; and

Whereas, U.S. military action against Iraq threatens the peaceful resolution of disputes among states, jeopardizing the safety and security of the entire world, including Americans; and

Whereas, labor has had an historic role in fighting for justice; therefore

We hereby establish the “U.S. Labor Against the War’ (USLAW)”; and

Resolve that U.S. Labor Against the War stands firmly against Bush’s war drive; and

Further resolve that U.S. Labor Against the War will publicize this statement, and promote union, labor and community antiwar activity.

Adopted January 11, 2003 in Chicago, IL.

JOANN WYPIJEWSKI, a journalist in New York, is a member of the National Writers Union/UAW 1981 and New York City Labor Against the War. She can be reached at:


JoAnn Wypijewski is the author of What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About #MeToo: Essays on Sex, Authority & the Mess of Life.