Union forces seek points of unity

On Sept. 11 thousands said goodbye to their families and went to work. Thousands died that day, including 600 union members. Thousands continue to labor at Ground Zero, recovering the remains of the victims and clearing the smoldering rubble. Some 700,000 have lost their livelihoods as a result of the events of Sept. 11.

The labor and people’s movements face a recovery that is full of complicated questions. The search for solutions goes on in a world changed forever by acts of terrorism. The struggle to recover stretches from Ground Zero in New York City to Capitol Hill, which has become a second “Ground Zero” for working families.

Trade unionists across the country are grappling with the need to unify the labor movement to counter the right-wing Congressional agenda, while at the same time finding the ways to speak out for justice, economic and civil rights, and peace.

Amber Amundsen lost her husband, Craig, in the terrorist act at the Pentagon. “My anguish is compounded exponentially by fear that his death will be used to justify new violence against other innocent victims.”

Craig Amundsen, a 28-year-old father of two, proudly drove to work every day with a “Visualize World Peace” bumper sticker on his car. Amber is now on a peace walk that began in Washington, D.C. and is scheduled to end in New York City Dec. 2.

“I am not comforted by Afghani women losing their husbands,” she told the World. “Will it truly feel better to be a part of more [women] losing their family members?”

The expanding war is one aspect of a many-sided crisis. Labor activists organizing Peace and Justice Committees believe that finding the points of unity in the labor movement is the key to a unified response to the right-wing agenda, including the war.

Michael Letwin, president of United Auto Workers Local 2325 – Association of Legal Aid Attorneys and one of the co-convenors of the NYC Labor Committee Against the War, described the committee’s two-tiered approach toward working from points of unity. First, he said, the committee serves as a gathering point for those who oppose the war.

“At the same time, we want to work with people who don’t necessarily agree with us on the war, but who oppose the assault on civil liberties and the war profiteering that is going on,” he said. “We want to find common ground. That is why we are having a forum focusing on the attack against civil liberties. We think that issues are inherently connected to the war. We want to work with people on civil liberties, racism, immigrant rights, the economic fallout, regardless of their disagreement on the war itself.”

The NYC Labor Committee Against the War circulated a statement as a response to losing several hundred union brothers and sisters at Ground Zero with the aim of promoting a dialogue about both issues affecting working families at home and the meaning of the war in Afghanistan. They now have more than 700 signatures, and 13 area union local presidents and three union bodies have endorsed the statement.

Letwin said it is “a small but growing informal labor anti-war network, which includes local committees in San Francisco, Sacramento, Washington D.C., New York City and Albany, N.Y., as well as international contacts in the UK, France, Belgium, Canada and Spain.”

Labor’s response to racial profiling and attacks on the Arab community has been a point of unity for labor and community groups. The Sacramento Central Labor Council has opposed the use of the tragedy of Sept. 11 to bust unions and limit the Constitutional freedoms of residents of the United States by passing a resolution Oct. 16 calling for the defense of civil liberties.

The AFL-CIO Executive Council, meeting Nov. 8, said in a statement, “We can defend an open society only by extending justice, spreading democracy, empowering working people and defending human rights.”

Labor and the people’s movements are finding the ways to challenge the policy of an administration that now is taking the people’s concerns for security at home as a basis to extend its military operations to countries beyond Afghanistan. Though their statement comes out strongly in support of military force to fight terrorism, the executive council statement also called for other action, “Never has the call for global justice been more vital. The AFL-CIO will redouble our efforts to ensure that this nation and nations across the world address a global justice agenda that for too long has been ignored.”

The San Francisco Labor Council also responded to this aspect of the Sept. 11 crisis by passing a resolution on Sept. 24 that said, “No one, in this country or any other, should suffer the fate of the victims in these attacks. We demand that the perpetrators of these crimes be brought to justice … The tragic attacks of Sept. 11 should be treated as a heinous crime rather than an act of war.”

The statement continued, “As we mourn this tremendous loss of life, we declare our resistance to efforts to use this tragedy to engage in military actions that can lead only to more carnage and senseless loss of life.”

Though public opinion remains strong for the Bush administration’s war effort, many don’t like the idea of going off to war. “People don’t have short memories,” said Brenda Stokely, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Local 215. “They remember the Persian Gulf. The people who went were working people.”

Stokley, who got the executive boards of both her local and AFSCME District Council 1707 to endorse the NYC Labor Committee Against the War statement, noted that the human toll and the search to end the cycle of violence that Sept. 11 set in motion is often ignored in the media.

“A lot of these people are not polled, these voices are not in newspapers or on TV,” she said. “We in the labor movement have a commitment to get their voices heard. In my union we actually talked about what it really means to go to war. We would be the ones to carry the weight. Whose children will be coming back in body bags?”

For one widow, the solution to the complex problems does not include Bush’s expanding war. “Our national leaders must listen to the families of the victims to bring justice without violence,” said Amundsen. “I urge them to take up this challenge and respond to our nation’s and my personal tragedy with a new beginning that gives us hope for a peaceful global community.”

The author can be reached at jleblanc@pww.org