UAW Local 600’s Opposition to War

There is dramatic progress in anti-war sentiment at historic United Auto Workers (UAW) Local 600, which represents 30,000 active and retired members at the Ford Rouge and other plants and employers. In a Nov. 2002 CounterPunch posting, I told how top local officers had “9/11-baited” union election rivals who opposed the Afghanistan war, but I noted officers’ recent statements against war on Iraq.

On Feb. 3, 2003, Local 600’s General Council meeting voted unanimously for an Engine & Fuel Tank Unit delegate’s motion simply saying the Local opposes war on Iraq. Judy Wraight from the Tool & Die Unit proposed signing the “U.S. Labor against the War” (USLAW) resolution by local officers of several unions (see Workers Against War by JoAnn Wypijewski). President Sullivan supported the original motion, but he opposed signing onto USLAW, counter proposing the UAW International Executive Board (IEB) as a possible anti-war labor leadership. Still, the resolution from historic Local 600 is itself a big step forward.


On Feb. 22, Local 600 hosted a forum sponsored by the Detroit Labor Committee for Peace & Justice, the Detroit Chapter of the Coalition of Labor Union Women (CLUW) and the National Lawyers Guild/Sugar Law Center. The latter’s Julie Hurwitz chaired the forum and said over 120 local unions have passed resolutions against the war, including UAW 1700, 600, and 909. Local 600 Financial Secretary Russ Leone welcomed the forum with his own anti-war statement.

Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees (UNITE) Vice Pres. and Labor Party leader Noel Beasley said the U.S. is “the only country on earth to use weapons of mass destruction” at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Detroit CLUW president and Office & Professional Employees’ International Union (OPEIU) officer Millie Hall announced a demonstration at a local armory at the start of the war. Greens activist and American Postal Workers Union (APWU) 480-481 steward and newsletter editor Paul Felton said politicians, “want us to stand with our hands on our hearts saying the pledge of allegiance while they pick our pockets.” UAW Local 909 president Al Benchich warned against making “America the new Rome” . Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU-UFCW) Local 1064’s Elena Herrada tied the war drive to “third world” conditions in Detroit and answered a written question from the audience by saying UN approval for war should not slow anti-war organizing. At an open mic, a UAW-DaimlerChrysler-Jeep member described management’s use of war atmosphere to justify forced overtime. A young woman described anti-war outreach by student labor solidarity activists at University of Michigan. UAW Region 1A Director and African-American community leader Jimmy Settles, and UAW-Dearborn Assembly Plant President Gary Walkowicz were notable by their presence. Detroit City Council member Maryann Mahaffey spoke briefly from the floor.

The main speakers urged over 200 present to pressure union officers to oppose the war. UAW President Ron Gettelfinger and some other UAW International Executive Board (IEB) members need that pressure. After the IEB failed to act, IEB officers Elizabeth Bunn, Richard Shoemaker and Bob King appeared at the Feb. 15 Detroit anti-war events and Bunn spoke to the rally.


The best-know Feb. 22 speakers at Local 600 were International UAW Vice Pres. for Organizing, Bob King, and Michigan AFL-CIO President Mark Gaffney. Gaffney said “the drumbeat for war is part of an anti-union movement” that will remove union rights for 140,000 federal employees in the name of “homeland security.” King said Bush talks of “democratizing the Middle East while they’re destroying democracy here.” King’s presence moved the anti-war movement in the UAW a big step forward.

King asked why Detroit labor couldn’t turn out more members for anti-war events. But I once heard him answer that question at a Martin Luther King memorial at Local 600: “It’s been a long time since we ‘fought the power.'” “Progressives” now in UAW leadership haven’t dealt with the reasons why Walter Reuther’s brother, Victor, quit the UAW’s ruling Administration Caucus in the 1980’s to co-found the national UAW opposition “New Directions Movement.” Here’s what those trying to mobilize UAW members are up against. The UAW backs “joint company-union” programs that sap its fight-back. Increasingly, UAW reps are appointees committed to re-electing the old-guard local presidents who appoint them. UAW members are infuriated when officers’ kids are hired first. The UAW settles auto parts-supplier organizing strikes without winning the right to strike enjoyed by UAW-Big 3 members. The UAW hasn’t organized “foreign” auto assembly “transplants”. The UAW abandoned its striking Local 2036 for rejecting contracts, while the UAW sits on a $800,000,000 strike fund. Some UAW locals or units cede the role of publicizing civil rights to hypocritical company pronouncements. Unless it regains its fighting reputation, the UAW won’t mobilize much for anything. Among shop-floor UAW reform activists who fight the bureaucracy over these issues, e-mail discussion has been running against the war. A fighting, progressive leadership is possible.

King could have also asked, “Located in the nation’s largest concentration of Arab-Americans, can’t Local 600 turn out more Arab-American Ford workers, most of whom are against the war?” (The other side is mobilizing: as I write, U.S. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz is in town courting Iraqi-American support for a war.) 10% of the Feb. 22 audience was African-American. This does not reflect the composition of Detroit labor or the black community’s anti-war activism. As the only U.S. integrated, mass movement, labor is key to unity against the war. But labor activism returns only with activist union leadership committing resources. Union officers must go to plant gates to campaign face-to-face to mobilize their members on social issues as vigorously as they run for re-election. Officers at Local 600 and elsewhere should thoroughly publicize their positions on the war to their memberships, risking a rocky debate to build solid support.


APWU’S Felton pointed out that the main Feb. 22 speakers included Greens, Democrats and Labor Party members. He said the Democrats should be ashamed of their national party’s lack of a position against war. Detroit AFL-CIO’s Gaffney replied that the Democrats can be changed, especially at election time. What is at stake in this debate?

The left of the union bureaucracy in effect says, “Bush has made war THE issue. To fight Bush at all, the Democrats must fight against his war policy.” Some local and state Democratic Party bodies oppose the war for now. But I think the top national Democrats aim cynically to use union opposition to just this one war to promote the opposite of an anti-war party. The top Democrats want to win back their historic role as the bosses’ favorite “Party of War”, better able to sell “sensible” wars to workers than is the Republican “Party of Depression.” The Democratic Party chiefs hope their capitalist masters will look at the mobilization against war under Bush and say to themselves, “It would be easier to get a war on if Al Gore were president, because he’d pick smarter wars and get more support for them from the unions.”

The anti-Vietnam-War movement failed to build an alternative to the Democrats. Bush may be defeated by a Democrat who leads us into war on North Korea or Columbia, as Kennedy and Johnson led us into Vietnam. The international anti-war movement has given the labor movement enough room seriously to debate the war. We need a labor party that opposes war even when troops are under fire, in wars approved by the UN.


Labor should reach out to the “Seattle movement” that opened the door for union activists against the war by marching for global justice even after the AFL-CIO withdrew support following Sept. 11. The Seattle movement, in turn, needs labor. Perhaps Jobs with Justice can bridge the gap between unions and the global justice movement.

When U.S. unions support imperialist wars, they can’t build many international labor links. Labor internationalism would pay off by getting “foreign” unions’ help in organizing auto assembly “transplants” in the U.S., and by helping organize independent parts suppliers and keep them in the U.S. as wages abroad rose. (Declining organization of auto parts suppliers in the U.S. has cost more UAW memberships than have moved abroad.) Latin-American, Canadian and U.S. unions could strike jointly against the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas (FTAA) as well as strike against wars. Threats of industrial action and general strikes against the war in Britain, Scotland, Australia and Italy point the way forward.

RON LARE, former UAW Local 600 executive board member,