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A Common Defense: Mobilizing Veterans in Labor

Photograph Source: Army Medicine – CC BY 2.0

During his 2016 presidential campaign, Donald Trump dissed a Gold Star family that lost a son in Iraq. He called Senator John McCain, America’s most famous prisoner of war, a “loser” for being captured in Vietnam. When asked about widespread sexual assault in today’s military, he dismissed it as a problem. He had to be publicly shamed into making a promised donation to veterans’ charities.

His opponent, Hillary Clinton, was backed by more than 100 former high-ranking officers. Trump was endorsed by only a few. Nevertheless, on election day four years ago, most military veterans ended up voting for a wealthy recipient of five draft deferments. Among former military personnel, Trump beat Clinton by a 26-point margin, a bigger percentage of the “vet vote” than McCain’s own share when he ran against Barack Obama in 2008.

A Pew Poll conducted last Fall showed that Trump remained popular among veterans, even as his ratings began to sink among other constituencies. U.S. military intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan — which Trump criticized as a candidate in 2016 and, again at West Point this year—is now viewed unfavorably by a majority of the vets surveyed. In blue collar communities in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin which suffered some of the highest post 9/11 combat-casualty rates, veterans and their neighbors helped Trump carry those decisive swing states four years ago.

To repeat that regional sweep next month and give Trump a second term, the Republican Party has again targeted the nation’s 20 million veterans as a key voting bloc. Among the groups trying to prevent the GOP from out-organizing the Democratic Party among veterans and military families are the Communications Workers of America (CWA) and Common Defense, a national organization of progressive veterans.

Veterans for Social Change    

CWA and Common Defense unveiled their joint initiative in the fall of 2019, when CWA President Chris Shelton, an Air Force veteran and former telephone worker, launched a “Veterans for Social Change Program.” Its purpose is to “develop and organize a broad base of CWA activists who are veterans and/or currently serving in the military.” As the union notes, veterans, active duty service members, and military families “are constantly exploited by politicians and others who seek to loot our economy, attack our communities, and divide our nation with racism and bigotry so they can consolidate more power amongst themselves.” CWA seeks to counter these Trump-era threats by encouraging veterans in its own ranks to engage in grassroots campaigns with community allies and increase awareness of veterans’ issues within CWA, like the need for a strong fully funded veterans’ healthcare system.

Last October, CWA local leaders who served in the military joined veterans from around the country at a Common Defense sponsored Veterans Organizing Institute (VOI). Previous weekend sessions of the VOI had helped train a network of hundreds of younger veterans to organize more effectively in their own communities, counter the influence of big money in politics, and make politicians more accountable to poor and working-class people. At the training conference attended by CWA members, union activists from swing states like Ohio, Arizona, North Carolina, and Texas shared organizing experiences and learned new skills useful in electoral campaigning and day-to-day advocacy for fellow workers and veterans.

“The VOI provides a great introduction to getting a grassroots movement started and getting veterans, labor, and the community all working together,” says John Blake, a Brick N.J. electrician  who attended the training. After Blake left active duty in 2004, he used the GI Bill to go to vocational school. His step-father is a union electrician so he also got strong family encouragement to join the apprenticeship program of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW). Blake is now a member of IBEW Local 400, where he chairs  veterans’ committees in his own local and the AFL-CIO central labor council (CLC) in his area.

 On the organization chart of the AFL-CIO, its national affiliates, and local CLCs, the dual identity of union members who served in the military has long been acknowledged via the existence of such committees. But their level of activity may be low unless an activist like Blake takes the lead in “making our union brand more appealing to vets coming out of the service.” His Local 400 does this by participating in local events like “Operation Ruck It,” an annual fundraising walk to raise awareness about veteran suicide,

Vet Organizations, Old and New

According to the Economic Policy Institute, about 16% of all veterans—1.2 million men and women–are covered by a union contracts (compared to 10.3% of all workers). They are most heavily represented in the American Federation of Government Employees and American Postal Workers, where veterans have a strong collective identity and internal union presence. On an individual basis, union members who are veterans may also belong to local posts of the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, or AMVETS. But these old-line groups tend to be conservative on military and foreign policy issues and not much engaged with issues affecting veterans as workers. Common Defense, in contrast, proclaims its commitment to “progressive values” and seeks partnerships with like-minded unions working for social and economic justice.

Last year, Will Attig, who leads the AFL-CIO’s Union Veterans Council, invited both Common Defense and VoteVets, an advocacy group more closely aligned with the Democratic Party, to discuss their work at a meeting of national union political directors. Attig is a combat veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, who joined a southern Illinois local of the Plumbers and Pipefitters after he left the military. He did legislative/political work for his own union and then the Illinois state fed before moving to AFL-CIO headquarters in Washington. After the presentations he helped arrange, both CWA and the IBEW contacted Common Defense about sending members to VOI training.

Common Defense grew out of anti-Trump organizing in 2016. Co-founders of the group first met during protests over Trump’s failure to donate money to veterans’ charities, as promised during a campaign event in Iowa. One of the protestors was ex-Marine Alex McCoy, then attending Columbia University on the GI Bill. He and a group of like-minded vets “felt really strongly about Trump was constantly using veterans as props while running a campaign that was so founded in hate and division.” During Trump’s first term, Common Defense rallied its 20,000 supporters to call for his impeachment. The group endorsed Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren for president, during the 2020 Democratic Presidential primaries, after both helped solicit other Congressional signers of a pledge to end “forever wars” in the Middle East. One particular target of Common Defense lobbying is military veterans now serving on Capitol Hill after mid-term election victories that gave Democrats control of the House in 2018.

Veterans Organizing Institute trainings, conducted by Common Defense staff members like McCoy, are designed to hone the political skills of veterans involved in unions, community organizations, and electoral campaigns.  Four months after his VOI training, Frank J. Cota, a Marine Corps veteran and vice-president of CWA Local 7026 in Tucson was in Washington, DC., as part of a group of CWA veterans urging Congress to pass the PRO Act, legislation that would strengthen private sector organizing and bargaining rights. McCoy believes that Common Defense can play a key support role in workplace organizing, particularly at firms like Amazon and Wal-Mart which brand themselves as “veteran friendly” and hire tens of thousands of former military personnel, while pursuing “anti-worker policies,” which often violate federal labor law.

For Racial Justice

When nationwide protests developed last June, after the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd, Common Defense leaders vigorously opposed military deployments in Washington, DC and other cities. Kyle Bibby, a former Marine Corps infantry officer and graduate of Annapolis, urged fellow veterans to stand against “Trump’s authoritarian plan to use the military as his personal storm troopers to suppress dissent.” A co-founder of the Black Veterans Project, Bibby condemned the “use of force by uniformed police and a culture of violence that seeks to dominate communities rather than serve and heal them.” Recalling his own past interactions with law enforcement, in and out of uniform, Bibby declared that “the police don’t care that I’ve gone to war to protect this country — I could be the next George Floyd solely due to the color of my skin.”

Common Defense activists, including Bibby, launched a new campaign, called “No War On Our Streets,” against police department use of $7 billion worth of hardware obtained from the Pentagon. “It was our equipment first,” says Bibby, who served in Afghanistan. “We understand it better than the police do … It’s important that we have veterans ready to stand up and say: ‘These weapons need to go.’”

The educational efforts of veterans’ advocates allied with labor, like Common Defense and VoteVets, appear to be paying off. Not only is Trump faring poorly in presidential preference polls conducted among all likely voters. His stock is dropping among military personnel who helped him gain office in 2016.  Forty-one percent of the active duty personnel surveyed by Military Times said they were voting for Biden, while 37 percent still favored Trump.  In 2017, 46 percent of the troops polled by the same publicationhad a favorable opinion of the president.  Three years later, half of the respondents (49.9 percent) now held an unfavorable view of him, compared to just 38 percent who still liked him.  Among officers, the disapproval rate was even higher—59%–with more than half expressing strong disapproval. Nearly ¾ of those surveyed—officers and enlisted personnel—opposed Trump’s threatened use of the military to help police American cities during their civil unrest.

Progressives wooing the “vet vote” saw a similar shift in political sentiment in other states As Nov. 3 neared, the Biden campaign was clearly making inroads among post 9/11 veterans who are younger, female, and non-white, while ex-soldiers who are older, white males living in longtime Republican strongholds remained a harder bloc to crack. Angel Wells, an African-American Army veteran who works for AT&T in Arizona and belongs to CWA Local 7050, was among those union members protesting White House efforts to suppress voter turn-out by discrediting mail ballots and undermining Postal Service capacity to deliver them. As she pointed out, in an election year when 800,000 service members and their families stationed abroad were scheduled to vote that way, “mail in ballots for veterans is not that foreign a concept.” With a pandemic still raging, the economy cratering, and millions of workers, including veterans, finding their jobs, unions, or health care at risk, there were many reasons for voters who served in the military to choose a new commander in chief.

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