Growing grassroots opposition to President Bush’s drive to war with Iraq found expression in the leadership ranks of the labor movement earlier this month when AFL-CIO President John Sweeney told members of Congress that war should not be the first option in dealing with Iraq. (See related story page 14.)

In an Oct. 7 letter to both Houses of Congress, Sweeney warned, “We must assure that war is the last option, not the first” in resolving the Iraq question. His letter raised serious questions about the timing of President Bush’s demand that Congress act quickly to give him authority to take military action against Iraq and questioned the “sudden urgency” for a decision about war and peace. Sweeney said the timing of the Congressional action “had as much to do with the political calendar as with the situation in Iraq.” The letter was Sweeney’s first public comment on the Iraq crisis.

Although Sweeney’s carefully crafted letter neither endorsed nor opposed war against Iraq, he did say military action should come only after all possibilities of a peaceful settlement through the United Nations had been exhausted.

In his letter Sweeney said the country cannot engage in a conflict that involves a “clear potential for significant casualties” as well as social and economic costs, without a full public debate “free of political inferences.”

He pointed out that military force, alone, would not defeat terrorism, a task requiring a world commitment to basic human rights such as “freedom from starvation, from homelessness and from curable disease.”

Sweeney said the federation “fully concurred” with the need an unfettered inspection system so that any subsequent action is “predicated upon conclusive proof” about the extent and nature of an Iraqi threat.

In his call for the White House to “present Americans with the evidence” before sending U.S. forces to war, Sweeney said, “After all, it is the sons and daughters of America’s working families who will be asked to carry out this mission.”

Although Sweeney’s statement was the first time any AFL-CIO leader had publicly commented on Bush’s campaign for war, other AFL-CIO leaders have joined the growing labor chorus against war with Iraq.

Gene Bruskin, secretary-treasurer of the federation’s Food and Allied Trades Department, called Bush’s drive to war a Trojan Horse meant to hide his domestic and international agenda. In a letter to Sweeney, Bruskin said Bush’s foreign policy “is designed to serve the same corporate interests that drive his domestic policy, making the world safe for U.S. multinationals,” adding: “In the era of globalization the two cannot be separated.”

Bruskin said the labor movement must take the lead in opposing the Bush war policies if it is going to “succeed in advancing our own goals of improving the lives of the U.S. working class.” he added the AFL-CIO had been “naive at best” in fighting Bush’s domestic policies while remaining silent on the objectives of the administration’s foreign policies. He called the federation’s effort to fight the effects of Bush’s domestic policies while fully supporting the War on Terrorism, a “losing strategy” because such a strategy amounted to fighting the symptoms rather than the disease. “To support the war is to invite all the inevitable political and economic affects,” he said.

Like Sweeney, Burskin questioned the “urgency” of the Iraq situation, which, he said, had been concocted to give the Republicans the advantage in November. “But the labor movement hasn’t called him (Bush) on it, despite the substantial damage a Republican success in November would do to U.S. workers.”

“I believe we ignore this ominous trend at our peril,” Burskin continued, urging Sweeney “to speak out forcefully [and] to begin to publicly challenge Bush’s obsession with war. Your leadership could make a substantial difference on how we define war and peace as well as justice and progress in the 21st century.”

Burskin reminded Sweeney of George Meany’s remarks in an interview with David Frost. “‘If I had known then what I know now, I would have acted differently about the [Viet Nam] War,’” the crusty former AFL-CIO president said. “We all have much to learn from him in this regard,” Burskin concluded.

In a telephone interview from her Washington office, Gloria Johnson, national president of the Coalition of Labor Union Women, told the World Sweeney had addressed many of her concerns. She, too, questioned the rush to judgment: “I did not – and still do not – see any evidence that justifies a war with Iraq. And above all, I see no evidence justifying unilateral action.”

Bruce Raynor, president of the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees (UNITE), expressed a similar view in an interview with the World during the August meeting of the AFL-CIO Executive Council. “I can think of no sensible argument to justify an invasion of Iraq,” he said. “It does not serve the national interests of the United States. It sends the wrong message to the rest of the world. It’s the ultimate in Bush’s wrongheaded foreign policy.”

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Fred Gaboury
Fred Gaboury

Fred Gaboury was a member of the Editorial Board of the print edition of  People’s Weekly World/Nuestro Mundo and wrote frequently on economic, labor and political issues. Gaboury died in 2004. Here is a small selection of Fred’s significant writings: Eight days in May Birmingham and the struggle for civil rights; Remembering the Rev. James Orange; Memphis 1968: We remember; June 19, 1953: The murder of the Rosenbergs; World Bank and International Monetary Fund strangle economies of Third World countries