Labor, Breaking Tradition, Criticizes War Preparations

February 28, 2003

HOLLYWOOD, Fla., Feb. 27 -- After backing administrations in the Korean, Vietnam and Persian Gulf wars, the labor movement departed today from tradition and criticized President Bush's approach to a conflict with Iraq.

At its winter meeting, the A.F.L.-C.I.O. executive council unanimously approved a resolution urging Mr. Bush to embrace a broad multilateral approach to Iraq and criticizing the administration for dividing the world and insulting America's allies.

"The president has not fulfilled his responsibility to make a compelling and coherent explanation to the American people and the world as to the need for military action against Iraq at this time," the council, which represents 65 unions, said. "America has always been a peace-loving nation, slow to take up arms, and resolute in pursuit of diplomatic resolution to crises. This administration's actions are sadly eroding that reputation."

That language is a sharp contrast to organized labor's stance in the Vietnam War, when the federation, under its president, George Meany, strongly supported the war effort.

Several unions, as well as central labor councils in many cities, have approved resolutions denouncing the policy of pre-emptive strikes and threats to attack Iraq even without explicit United Nations approval. Within labor, differences go beyond nuance. Some unions, most notably the American Federation of Teachers, are more willing to accept a unilateral approach. A few liberal unions appear dead set against war.

The unions are unanimous in denouncing President Saddam Hussein of Iraq. The resolution called Mr. Hussein "a demagogue and a despot with an appalling human rights record" who "rules the Iraqi people through torture, murder and fear."

The federation said it supported efforts to disarm Iraq but added, "This is best achieved in concert with a broad international coalition of allies and with the sanction of the United Nations."

The federation faulted the administration for its diplomacy and failure to build a consensus, noting that there is far less unity in the United States and with allies than there was after the Sept. 11 attacks.

"Now, just a year and a half later, we have squandered much of that good will, managed to insult many of our strong allies and divided the world at a time when it should speak as one," the resolution said.

"We're saying that war should be an absolutely last resort, and in the strongest terms we're urging the administration to go through the U.N.," said the federation's international affairs director, Barbara Shailor. "We can't go around insulting our allies. In a world filled with terrorism, we need all the friends we can get."

Ms. Shailor said unions would overwhelmingly back a war if the Security Council gave a green light. The federation's international affairs committee drafted the resolution and invited two Clinton administration figures, Samuel R. Berger, national security adviser, and Dennis B. Ross, special Mideast envoy, to give detailed briefings on Iraq.

Union leaders gave several reasons for departing from the strong support in past wars. In the cold war, most union leaders were fervently anti-Communist, a major reason that labor backed the Vietnam War. Members often conducted counterdemonstrations at antiwar rallies.

With labor clashing with Mr. Bush over many issues, several leaders said they felt less inhibited about criticizing his foreign policy, even over an issue as serious as war.

Most unions backed President George Bush in the gulf war, although some leaders, echoing many Democratic lawmakers, urged him to wait longer before attacking. The president of the federation, Lane Kirkland, said, "The American labor movement stands in full support of our country" to "bring this conflict to an early and decisive conclusion."

Several leaders said the increased power and role of women and minorities in labor might have also made the movement more averse to war. The United Farm Workers, citing the teachings of its founder, Cesar Chavez, said, "President Bush has not offered convincing evidence to the American people that war is needed, because Iraq poses an imminent threat to the country. Such a use of U.S. military force would require thousands of young men and women, many of them people of color, to fight overseas."

In its resolution, the teachers' union said that military action "will only have the support of the American people if they believe that such action is only a last resort." The union added that it "recognizes that the U.S. may at times have to act unilaterally in defense of its national security."

Several unions said the administration was pushing for a war for political gain and to distract the public from economic troubles. The Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees, or Unite, approved a resolution saying, "This war is a cynical attempt to distract attention away from the real concerns of American citizens a faltering economy, declining education budgets, state and local fiscal crises, increasing unemployment."

The union president, Bruce Raynor, said:

"If our policy is to topple horrible regimes, I'm not sure if Saddam's in the top five. North Korea seems like a worse regime, and Myanmar may be even more repressive toward its people."

Many unions sought to make clear they supported American troops, regardless of the stand on war.

The Cleveland Central Labor Council, representing 100,000 workers, approved a resolution saying, "If our nation goes to war, absent demonstrably legitimate concerns about weapons of mass destruction, we will continue to express our opposition to that war, while finding meaningful ways to support our troops."
Last revised on March 15, 2003 by the Webmaster.