Kathy Black spoke for US Labor Against War (USLAW) at a meeting at Melbourne Trade on 12 March. Riki Lane summarises her speech.
USLAW is a rank and file initiative, not an official wing of the AFL-CIO. Its achievements are quite historic.
It now has almost 200 affiliates, representing three million workers. They have managed to avoid the “hardhats versus hippies” syndrome of the anti-Vietnam war movement, and to turn out a contingent of 4,000 unionists to a major anti war demonstration.
They have affiliates in both the AFL-CIO and the split off “Change to Win” federation; they have managed strong resolutions through national union leaderships and the AFL-CIO convention, and are seen as a legitimate voice in the labour movement.
At the heart of USLAW, their “reason for being”, is direct personal links with Iraqi unions. This is unique in the US anti-war movement — nobody else has that access to raw, unfiltered information from inside the civil resistance to the occupation and sectarian militias.
USLAW sent two US unionists to Iraq in 2003, when it was still relatively safe, then toured them around the US. They have conducted two tours to the US by Iraqi union leaders. Personal contact with Iraqi unionists, hearing of their immense bravery in face of huge difficulties, really brings home the message to US unionists.
Saddam’s anti-union laws remain in force under the occupation and the Iraqi government, making it illegal to organise in the public sector. There have been hundreds of raids or assaults on union offices and leaders by sectarian militias, death squads and the occupation forces. At least twelve union leaders have died — all but one at the hands of squads and militias, and one by a US soldier in an apparent accident.
Despite the immense hardships — lack of water, electricity and food, and the constant threat of bombings etc — Iraqi unionists are amazingly optimistic about the possibilities of a positive future.
USLAW has raised significant amounts of money to assist Iraqi unions through supporting organisers and providing computers etc.
The biggest appeal from the Iraqi unions is for overseas supporters to help end the occupation immediately. None of the unions they work with (FCWUI, GFIW, Oil Workers) now see any benefit in the occupying forces staying on in Iraq. None of the unions supported Saddam, and would say “thanks for getting rid of him, but you need to leave.”
The other major issue is to help oppose privatisation, especially of the oil industry. The media in the US and Australia give virtually no coverage to Bush’s 18 “Benchmark laws”, which are his prerequisites for troop withdrawal. The Benchmark Oil law has been approved by the Iraqi cabinet [for over 12 months], its been sent to the Parliament, but they have not yet acted on it. When the media do mention this law, it is always framed as a positive modernisation, but it is never mentioned that it gives foreign corporations control of exploration and development for decades.
Looking at US politics, an important force in the anti-war movement is Iraq Veterans Against the War, which now has 42 chapters, including on US military bases, and even has several chapters in Iraq. They are holding “Winter soldier hearings” in Washington DC for the 5th anniversary of the war — March 13-16 — and have managed to convince all other groups in the peace movement to have no competing nationally organised activities at that time.
Given the extended tours of duty for US soldiers — some have had up to four deployments of a year — it is increasingly hard for the US Army to recruit. They have lowered their requirements — increasing the age limit, the range of acceptable medical conditions and the numbers of immigrants who are not US citizens.
The focus for the anti-war and labour movements is now is on the elections. There is a campaign to get Congress members to sign up to a no vote for any money not connected to withdrawal of US troops — almost 100 have done so. USLAW managed to get their anti-war material included in an AFL-CIO election slideshow.
The war has receded as a central issue in recent months as the number of US deaths has declined, the mortgage crisis has spread, and the economy has got worse — people are losing their homes and their jobs, which also means their health insurance. The labour movement is very motivated in this election to get rid of Bush and the Republicans — its powerful machine is in full swing to get Democrats elected. US labor is split on Barack Obama or Hilary Clinton — neither is perfect, but either would be much better than McCain.
The main message: anti war activists need to make direct links with Iraqi unionists. USLAW will help broker those relationships with Australian activist and unions.
Taking up this message in Melbourne, AWL activists are looking to work with an existing workers’ solidarity campaign, Australia Asia Worker Links, which has recently expanded its area of coverage to include the Middle East and Iraq.