Beyond Resolutions:
Within Unions, Anti-War Forces Mobilize Opposition

by Chris Kutalik and William Johnson
Labor Notes (next issue)

In recent months a growing, if uneven, sense of momentum against an impending war in Iraq has been spreading in the labor movement in the United States and around the world.

Before the fall of 2002, trade union opposition to war plans was mostly isolated into pockets primarily organized in small ad hoc labor anti-war committees in the larger cities, such as New York City Labor Against War and the Labor Committee for Peace and Justice in the San Francisco Bay Area.

As the autumn unfolded an increasing number of anti-war resolutions came from U.S. labor groups. Starting with a few scattered locals, there were important breakthroughs in relatively larger bodies. Early resolutions from larger bodies such as the California Federation of Teachers, SEIU Local 1199, and Teamsters Local 705 opened space for more unions to sign onto calls. On January 11 2003, 100 representatives met to set up a national coordinating body, U.S. Labor Against the War (USLAW).

By March 2003 roughly 130 local unions, 45 central labor councils, 26 regional bodies, 11 national/international unions, and the AFL-CIO Executive Council had passed resolutions condemning the Bush Administration's actions around Iraq in varying degrees of criticism.

Opposition to war focused on the enormous toll-in workers' lives and tax dollars-and on fears that the Bush administration would use the war as a pretext for even more crackdowns on workers' rights. Public employee unions in particular warned of the inevitable budget cuts that will hurt both the public and their own members.

This tide of resolutions--while effective in creating political space for workers and unions to come out against the war--hasn't evenly translated into a strong mobilization of rank-and-file union members.

Ron Lare, a former officer in UAW Local 600 in Dearborn, Michigan, talks about the difficulties encountered in his local even after a resolution was passed: "In some locals, including my own, there has not been local-wide discussion or even local-wide publicity of leadership anti-war resolutions before or even after they are adopted. Is a local 'anti-war' if members don't know it is?"

In some locals, passing a resolution has prompted opposition after the fact, with some members arguing that it's not appropriate for the union to take a stand on a divisive issue; or that since war is bound to be declared, the country should unify behind our troops; or that the President is right about the need to remove Saddam Hussein.

Some local union presidents have said that their unions should not address the war question out of respect for the feelings of the local veterans' committee. It is not apparent, however, that veterans' committees in general are proactively moving to support war plans.

In the UAW's Region 1, in the Detroit area, the regional director called a meeting of local veterans' committees with former Congressman David Bonior, himself a veteran and a vigorous opponent of war in Iraq. The vets reportedly came away impressed with Bonior's arguments.

As war looms in mid-March a number of unions have started to move beyond simply calling for resolutions towards a gamut of more direct and organized expressions of anti-war sentiment.


Anti-war labor action has been far more militant outside of the U.S. On March 11, Italian dockworkers went on strike for the last hour of their shifts to protest the U.S. military's use of Italian ports. Near Livorno, Italy, dock and railway workers (with union support) have refused to transport and unload shipments of U.S. military supplies, while in Scotland, two train engineers refused to board or operate a locomotive bearing supplies bound for a military base on the country's west coast.

The British engineers' union, the Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen, pledged support to these workers, and also announced that more similar actions are likely. Five of Britain's largest unions have said there will be mass walkouts in the event of a war. CGIL, the largest union federation in Italy, has pledged a general strike immediately after war on Iraq is declared.

IG Metall, Germany's largest industrial union, has made a similar call, encouraging its 2.6 million members in the metal industries to engage in a 10-minute work stoppage against the war on March 14. This call was seconded by the ETUC (Europe's AFL-CIO), who have designated March 14 as a day for their members to participate in work stoppages across the continent.

Australia's Construction Forestry Mining and Energy Union has warned that up to 10,000 of their workers will participate in a strike on building sites the day that war on Iraq begins.

Meanwhile, in Pakistan, a country whose support for a U.S.-led war is seen as crucial, the All-Pakistan Trade Union Federation has voiced strong opposition. Rubina Jamil, president of the Federation (which represents more than five million Pakistani workers), has called for actions ranging from rallies to hunger strikes in front of U.S. embassies.


Labor activists in the United States have acted in much more modest ways to move beyond the call for resolutions.

USLAW, in a last-minute attempt to build more momentum in labor circles before a war, issued a call for a Labor Day of Peace on March 12. Actions on the day were intended to be locally-based protests and educational efforts at workplaces, with the handing out of leaflets, buttons, and bumper stickers. Lunchtime and union hall meetings and discussions were also encouraged. The day's activities were viewed as a springboard for building large-scale national demonstrations in Washington, D.C. and San Francisco on March 15.

Joe Fahey, president of Teamsters Local 916 and co-chair of Teamsters for a Democratic Union, participated in actions in the Monterey, California area on March 12. According to Fahey, labor activists in the area toured workplaces, schools, and a city council, talking to workers and political leaders about the need to oppose the war. While visiting the local teachers union hall, the delegation was surprised to find union members making up informational packets on the war. "People are taking much more independent initiative than we thought," says Fahey. "This is a great time for us in the labor movement to get out and talk to people."

While much of the activity on March 12 was confined to local events at workplaces, there was a higher level of coordination among groups nationally than had been seen in the months before. A week before March 12, representatives of U.S. central labor councils met to discuss plans for the day. A few international unions, such as the American Postal Workers Union and UNITE, picked up on the call and encouraged their members to participate.

According to USLAW organizers, the inspiration for a labor day against the war stemmed from a USLAW-sponsored international meeting on February 19 of union leaders interested in coordinating an international series of actions against the war.

Substantial labor contingents were planned for the big March 15 rallies. Members of the Washington Teachers Union, an AFT local, for example, were gathering under a union banner. Liz Davis, one of the organizers of this group, believes that "educators don't want this war because of the millions of lives that would be lost and the billions of dollars that would be drained from public education."

On March 16, USLAW backed a rally in Chicago to say "NO to War in Iraq [and] YES to spending for the needs of America's working families." The following weekend, South Bay Labor for Peace and Justice planned an anti-war teach-in, for workers and others to learn more about the impact a war would have on working Americans.

Educational work, from teach-ins to leafleting to open discussions within union locals, may be the key to effectively mobilizing U.S. workers. As Lare puts it: "Officers may not want to face rocky debate. Some pro-war motions get made. Some officers lose elections. But without democracy, resolutions don't build movements, and won't survive when the shooting starts."
Last revised on March 26, 2003 by the Webmaster.