For the past 50 years, the leadership of the American Federation of Labor – Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) has loyally supported the US government through all its wars and military adventures. Yet on February 27, the AFL-CIO Executive Council voted unanimously to oppose unilateral military action in Iraq.
The extremely weak anti-war resolution, even with its acceptance of a United Nations-endorsed war, was the first time the entire union federation opposed a US war.
The resolution reflected the pressure of the growing opposition to Bush’s war among wide sections of the union movement and working class. Organizations like US Labor Against the War had formed and organized conferences, while anti-war resolutions were being passed by hundreds of local, city, and state union bodies across the country, representing over 5 million union members.
After the war started, however, the AFL-CIO leadership, echoing the Democrats, abandoned its position and supported Bush’s war in the name of “supporting the troops.” This was a shameful about-face by the union leadership, who speak of “international solidarity” but end up supporting a war against the people of Iraq that will only benefit US big business.
Due to their bureaucratic conservatism and support for the Democrats and capitalism, the current AFL-CIO leadership is incapable of providing a way forward for either the labor or anti-war movements. In fact, their failed strategies are causing a crisis in the federation, as union membership continues to decline – from 13.4% in 2001 to 13.2% in 2002.
In response, the AFL-CIO’s 54-member Executive Council voted to create a new 17-member executive committee at its February 27 meeting. The committee is composed mostly of leaders of the 10 largest unions comprising 2/3 of the total AFL-CIO membership, who will now have more say about the AFL-CIO’s direction. Their members are overwhelmingly lower-paid service sector workers and many are young women of color, precisely the sections of the working class most opposed to the war in the polls.
Significantly, many in the student anti-war movement are linking the economic concerns of working class people with Bush’s war drive, indicating a changing mood in society. Slogans such as “Money For Jobs and Education, not War” and “Living Wages, Health Care, and Pensions for Janitors” are common on college campuses. New Jersey college students commemorating Martin Luther King Day held a rally with all campus unions present, showing how King’s labor and anti-war organizing went hand in hand.
For unions to overcome their crisis and attract the newly radicalized young people in the anti-war movement, the unions must be transformed into fighting, democratic organizations that stand up for the interests of all workers – at home and abroad. The struggle against war must be linked with a program to fight against budget cuts and layoffs, and to take industrial and political action against Bush and the bosses. Bush’s corporate attacks on workers will create new opportunities in the next period for rank-and-file opposition movements to transform the labor movement along these lines.