Labor and the Iraq War

If you find yourself hesitating, your mind’s eye imagining a smoke-filled room full of union toughs battling over issues that have no relevance to your life, believe me: this convention defied all stereotypes.

Predictably, the mainstream media would have you believe that the only thing that happened at the convention was negative: the much anticipated (and widely decried) walkout and disaffiliation, before the convention began, of two of the nation’s largest unions, the Service Employees International Union and the Teamsters. True, the defection cast a temporary pall over the AFL-CIO’s 50th anniversary celebration. But something else happened that caused the remaining 2,000 delegates to stand tall and walk with a spring in their step. For the first time in the history of the trade union movement, they voted nearly unanimously to break with the federal government over a foreign war while it was still being fought. They passed a strongly worded resolution against the war in Iraq, and demanded that American troops be brought home, not merely "as soon as possible," but "rapidly." And rapidly, according to one of the makers of the motion, was to be interpreted as "immediately."

"Our soldiers," the resolution read in part, "come from America’s working families. They are our sons and daughters, our sisters and brothers, our husbands and wives. They deserve to be properly equipped with protective body gear and up-armored vehicles. And they deserve leadership that fully values their courage and sacrifice. Most importantly, they deserve a commitment from our country’s leaders to bring them home rapidly. An unending military presence will waste lies and resources, undermine our nation’s security and weaken our military."

The mainstream press did not cover the resolution, even though the convention hall erupted with cheers and applause when it passed with resounding "ayes" and only one "no." I asked the New York Times reporter why he neglected it. "The AFL-CIO isn’t as important as it used to be," he replied smugly, then confessed, perhaps realizing that his comment belied why he was there at the convention, "and besides, my editors told me to focus on the split."

A telling comment. Even if America’s most powerful media are not all walking in lockstep behind the Bush Administration (the Times has been critical of the war), their owners tend to be dismissive of working people who make up the vast majority of Americans, especially unionized workers.

But this time, there had to have been more to the blackout than mere bias. Consider the impact of this resolution on the military’s recruitment efforts. Where would the troops come from if working families stopped sending them? No one, not even the New York Times, likes to be stigmatized for allegedly "unpatriotic behavior at a time of war." Cindy Sheehan, the "Peace Mom" who lost a son in Iraq and turned a one woman vigil into a cause celebre outside the President’s ranch at Crawford, Texas, seems unfazed by the "traitor" charge. But she would be in a stronger, more defensible position if it were widely known that she and her supporters are not in a minority, but rather, part of a swelling movement against the war involving Americans who are most affected by it: working families. Consider the impact on families in Vermont, whose children signed up for the National Guard so they could defend their country at home and get the opportunity to go to college, only to be deployed to Iraq in a war waged on a lie. The death toll of Vermont’s National Guardsmen just went up to 4, bringing the total number of Vermont soldiers dead in Iraq to 19 – among the highest per capita in the nation.

What if more Americans knew that Henry Nicholas, a member of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) of Pennsylvania, rose in favor of the anti-war resolution and explained that his son had been deployed to Iraq four times and was about to head out again. "In my 45 years in the labor movement," he said to crescendoing applause, "this is my proudest moment in being a union member, because it is the first time we had the courage to say ‘enough is enough."

Then there was Nancy Wohlforth, a leader of the Office and Professional Employees International Union, who expressed her solidarity with visiting Iraqi trade unionists who had all hoped for the freedom to organize unions following the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, and instead found themselves facing privatization, massive unemployment, and efforts to outlaw them anew. Some are getting death threats. One labor leader has been assassinated. Small wonder that the Iraqi trade unions, once hopeful that American troops would bring freedom and democracy to Iraq, are now calling for their withdrawal. "We have a duty to report this," Wolworth said to applause. "We are sick and tired of George Bush’s lies, and we are sick and tired of the massive deficit that is built up supporting this war while schools are going down the drain, while our working people are being laid off, and while so many other vital needs are not being dealt with."

One of the five visiting trade unionists was the female President of the Federation of Free Workers, Councils and Unions in Iraq. Falah Alwan explained that women in Iraq are worse off now than they were before American troops invaded their country. In Baghdad, she told the convention, women cannot go outdoors without fear of being targeted or kidnapped by religious extremists. "In April," Falah said, "I couldn’t find women on the streets. Now I need a bodyguard. I never needed that when I was growing up." Now, she went on, Islamist extremists are gaining ground, calling for women to go under the veil and insisting on Islamic Sharia law becoming part of the proposed new Iraqi constitution, which among other things allows for "stoning for sex outside of marriage."

The bottom line is this: Iraqi trade unionists and women’s groups are fighting a life and death struggle to prevent the imposition of theocratic rule in Iraq. Now the Bush Administration is in a quandary. It wants stability for oil, and a new constitution for stability. But at what price? It doesn’t look good when the Administration is seen hailing the freedoms for women in Afghanistan while allowing the repression of women in Iraq. Or championing freedom and democracy in Iraq while denying trade unionists the freedom to organize in Iraq – a freedom, incidentally, that’s also under assault in our own country.

I can’t predict how this will all end, but this much I know: There’s anger in the air, and a will to fight back. It started in Iraq, and it is spilling over into this country. When the nation’s largest labor federation turns against the war, that’s news and word will get out. And when working families say enough is enough and stop sending their children into this war, that means George W. Bush is in big trouble. If you don’t believe me, just ask a worker.

Charlotte Dennett is writing a book on the origins of U.S. involvement in the Middle East, and is a proud member of the National Writers Union. You can contact her at