US Labor Against The War convenor visits UK
Gene Bruskin is the co-convenor of US Labor Against the War (USLAW), a trade union-based anti-war campaign which since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein has been building solidarity with the new Iraqi workers' movement. He spoke to Martin Thomas and Sacha Ismail during his tour of the UK at the start of August.
USLAW began as an anti-war campaign in January 2003, a response to a surprising but wonderful wave of grassroots labour opposition to the war-drive. All of a sudden I'd find out through some network or other that a central labour council [equivalent to British trades councils] in Minnesota, in New York, elsewhere had passed a resolution against the war...
I knew none of these groups were talking to each other; in fact, they didn't even know about each other. I sat down with my friend Bob Muhlenkamp [now USLAW's other co-convenor] and we wondered if we could get in touch with every union in the country that we knew had passed something and get them to a meeting in Chicago. Then perhaps we could agree on a rough statement of aims and develop a network. It was a shot in the dark, but with the war upon us we were desperate.
We put the call out, got six or eight local activists who opposed the war to put their names to it, and to our surprise, we got 125 people at our meeting, from 75 different local unions. We stressed from the start that we weren't going to keep out individuals; but what we wanted was delegates who could represent their members, report back and be accountable.
At that first meeting, we had people from all different levels of the labour movement - senior staffers from the offices of international [national] unions, presidents from locals with 25 or 30,000 members and shop stewards from tiny locals in small towns. There were different political levels too: everyone was a left-winger of some sort, but some were self-defined Marxists, some were Democratic Party activists. And what was great was that we had a debate on foreign policy, something which is virtually unheard of in the US labour movement.
We passed a perfectly adequate resolution, and people went home and started organising around it. By the time the war actually happened, eight international unions and the AFL-CIO [American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organisations, the US's equivalent of the TUC] had passed anti-war resolutions. Now, it wasn't that USLAW did it; but our existence meant that there was an entity that provided cover for union activists who wanted to oppose the war. Our network meant we could tell people "Your international union passed this." or "A dozen of your locals have passed this", which made things a lot easier.
When the war started, we expected to collapse; there were plenty of demos against the first Gulf War, but five minutes after it started, there were yellow [pro-war] ribbons on every tree. We expected to be strung up on those yellow ribbons. We called a meeting of 25 or 30 key people in Chicago to decide whether we should continue. Again to our surprise, virtually everyone we asked came, and there was a unanimous consensus that we had to carry on. We agreed that to have legitimacy we needed to convene a larger body, and reopen the discussion about our mission, because with Bush talking about Iran and Syria it could obviously no longer be just "Stop the war".
We had the idea of the National Assembly for Peace, and this happened in October 2003. This time 200 people showed up, representing over 100 organisations; a new mission statement called for a democratic foreign policy. There was a huge debate, but we eventually hammered it out. We also launched a drive for affiliations; the only way to be a full member of USLAW is to go to your union body with the mission statement and make a decision to send a financial contribution.
We've tried to draw the links between Bush's foreign policy and what we've called his war at home. Did you know, for instance, that when it created the Department of Homeland Security, the government took thousands of union workers and told them that they could no longer organise since this would threaten national security? Or that of the $18 billion allegedly allocated for rebuilding Iraq, only 2% has been spent so far, and almost all of that on security and administration? While lay offs pile up in the US, they've created fewer than 20,000 jobs in Iraq, in a country where probably five million people are unemployed. We've tried to create a political space in which we can not only oppose this particular war, but argue for resources to be redirected from the military to jobs and healthcare and things people need.
How do you relate to the wider US anti-war movement?
Our decision has been to work mainly in the labour movement. Even in the US, there are 16 or 17 million unionised workers, so there's plenty for us to do! On the 19 August demonstration at this year's Republican Party convention, for instance, we'll be organising a specifically labour movement contingent, raising labour movement issues and concerns.
That said, we do want to be part of the broader peace movement. Where there's an action taking place, we'll try to make sure our members are plugged into it. We're part of United for Peace and Justice, which is one of the two main anti-war coalitions in the US. We chose UFPJ rather than ANSWER [Act Now to Stop War & End Racism, dominated by the ultra-Stalinist Workers World Party] because ANSWER is too far left for the labour movement, and very unprincipled and sectarian in the way it operates. In UFPJ there is more space for democratic discussion and debate.
How did USLAW shift towards supporting workers' struggles in Iraq?
In October 2003 we sent a delegation to Iraq - just before the British delegation, though stupidly we had no idea they were going, so we missed them by a day. Our guys came back and did a report - and people were astounded and delighted to find that there was a labour movement in Iraq. And it's a labour movement with a progressive history; a secular, democratic, radical force that we can actually support. We decided that we wanted to send a second delegation; but people from the first said look, the Iraqis need more than "Death to US imperialism", these guys need material support.
On 20 January, George Bush gave his State of the Union address, and I steeled myself to listen, to hear what he said about Iraq. He was saying "We will bring democracy to the Middle East. We will promote labour rights in Iraq and the Middle East". I nearly fell off my chair, because, I mean, this is George Bush. Three days later John Sweeney [head of the AFL-CIO] issued a statement supporting workers' rights in Iraq and pledging a campaign.
Now, there's an issue with the AFL-CIO. There's a history in the US of the National Endowment for Democracy using government funds to fund anti-left, anti-communist forces, with the AFL-CIO operating as its labour wing. We became very concerned that the NED would be giving the AFL-CIO $5 million to go to Iraq and say "Hey guys, here's a new union building - but you know that privatisation deal, keep quiet about it " We raised this and they said sorry, but realistically you couldn't get the money anywhere else.
So we decided to show them that you could collect money from the members; we set up the Iraq Labor Solidarity Fund and raised $13,000 or $14,000 from union members, factory workers, hospital workers and teachers and so on; sometimes a union executive board might donate a couple of hundred dollars. Whenever someone put their name to our statement, we'd ask them for a couple of dollars, and explain that this would fund a couple of days work for a union organiser in Iraq. $14,000 isn't that much, but it took a lot of work.
Did you find that you were able to reach out to some trade unionists who perhaps weren't sure about the war?
Absolutely. It may be that people were all over the place on the war; but when you talk about supporting trade unionists over there, particularly in someone's own sector, that makes sense to people. You talk to people and they say "Whether or not we were right to go in there, I hear what you're saying about the unions. Saddam's labour laws are still on the books, are you kidding me?" It means that we can draw people into a debate; then you can have a broader debate about the character of the occupation, when the coalition forces arrest trade unionists and so on. I've been to a lot of locals to talk about workers' rights in Iraq, whereas if I just wanted to talk about the war, I often wouldn't have got through the door.
This is an angle that you're not going to get anywhere else - not in the New York Times, not in the Washington Post. I had a leading American journalist call me from Iraq and ask about how to get in touch with the unemployed unions; I gave him a whole raft of phone numbers and e-mails, names and so on and told him to call back any time. That guy wrote a whole bunch of articles about Iraq, but not a single one on workers' struggles.
Aside from the workers' movement, there aren't any other ideological tendencies in Iraq we can get excited about; I'm anti-Bush but that doesn't mean I'm for the Ba'thists, it doesn't mean I'm pro-Sadr or pro-Sistani. The unions are an organised movement that's secular, that's progressive - it's even feminist. With both the [Worker-Communist Party led] Federation of Workers' Councils and the [Communist Party-led] Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions, their programmes are very clear about the importance of women's equality. I got a 15-minute lecture from the leaders of the Workers' Councils about the importance of women's participation in the labour movement; I wish they could come to the US and explain that to some of our leaders!
How do you balance between the different trade union groups in Iraq? We've found that a real problem here.
Our position is very clear: we have no right to pick and choose, we support all legitimate workers' organisations. There are two union federations, and while individual activists may have their opinions, as USLAW we support both of them. We've supported the complaint by the Federation of Workers' Councils that the Interim Government has recognised only the IFTU; we think that limiting workers' right to choose their own union violates ILO conventions. The AFL-CIO regards the IFTU as the union federation in Iraq; we've tried to dispute that narrow view. Beyond that, there are remnants of the old Ba'thist unions; there may be some places where they're okay, but it seems doubtful.
What's the situation in the AFL-CIO? What is the relationship between the AFL-CIO and USLAW?
The AFL-CIO took a position on the war, at the end of February 2003, which was essentially pro-UN, multilateral, don't rush into anything. The resolution included a long list of hosannas qualifying its criticism of Bush - but much as they tried to get out of it, what the next day's newspaper headlines said was "AFL-CIO opposes war". That was a massive boost for us: we could go to local labour councils and say the AFL-CIO is with us, so get on board.
The AFL-CIO makes its decisions by a bizarre logic; in this electoral season, which started a year ago, they have decided that they will not mention the war. This is despite the fact that according to every poll George Bush is vulnerable on Iraq; despite the fact that Congress is discussing the war, Fox News is discussing the war, even John Kerry has to discuss it every day. The AFL-CIO doesn't want to embarrass Kerry, and they're afraid that most workers are at best silent and at worst patriotic and pro-war. They're tailing what they think is the sentiment among their members, and yet when we've gone out on the floor of the major union conventions, it's been the rank-and-file that are most anti-war, so they're making a big mistake.
The business about the National Endowment for Democracy is typical of the American labour tradition of getting behind the government and not critiquing foreign policy; there is no real discussion in the AFL-CIO of this question, so we've had to raise it out in the field. For example, the Californian AFL-CIO, which represents 25% of our entire labour movement, has passed a resolution saying we should take no money from NED.
USLAW has a basic position that we won't attack the AFL-CIO directly, even where we disagree with it; we focus on doing our own thing and educating union members from the bottom up. For instance, we've established a Veterans and Military Families committee to deal with the fact that many workers feel drawn to support the troops, because in the US at the moment we effectively have economic conscription, where it's the working class that goes to fight in wars.
In Britain, the debate is polarised between those who put their faith in the United Nations and those who back the Ba'thist-Islamist "resistance". We have a struggle just to get the working class seen as an independent factor in the debate.
Despite all the problems, the Iraqi unions now have a space to operate in; no one is coming and shooting them in the head, or torturing them or driving them into exile. It's almost as if there's so much going on that the occupation can't get to them, much as they would probably like to, because the other guy is shooting at them; they have bigger fish to fry. The unions have a chance to develop as strong a consciousness and build as wide a base among the working class as they can, as quickly as they can, knowing it won't last forever. There are opportunities for the working class in Iraq that haven't existed since the early 1960s, but they may not last. Look at Allawi - tomorrow this guy could be a Saddam Hussein junior.
We have an obligation to be not only anti-war, not only anti-Bush, but pro-labour, because the extent to which the Iraqi unions succeed will determine what Iraq looks like in five or 10 years time from now.