Labor Takes Its Stand Against Empire

It is just about the oldest plot cliché there is. As you eagerly anticipate the climax, the villain appears to have subdued everyone who ever thought of standing in his way and is on the precipice of triumph, when suddenly, from out of nowhere, his first victim who everyone forgot about ends up turning the tide. And so it now appears to be the case for the war party, for at just that moment when it appeared every significant political force in America had assented to the global democratic revolution, who should now pass a resolution calling for a rapid and unconditional withdrawal from Iraq but the AFL-CIO, which for over two generations was the closest thing existing to a grassroots war party, and which arguably played the leading role in conceptually devising the present democratist project.

The resolution [.pdf] reads in part,

“[Our soldiers] 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 lives and resources, undermine our nation’s security and weaken our military. …

“No foreign policy can be sustained without the informed consent of the American people. The American people were misinformed before the war began and have not been informed about the reality on the ground.”

This is the strongest antiwar statement by far issued by a leading American labor federation in over 100 years, and it could not come at a better time, when all other political voices have been silenced on this, the most vital issue of our day.

One must know the unfortunate foreign policy history of the labor movement to know just how significant this is. The founding father of the AFL, Samuel Gompers, was early on an avid supporter of the Anti-Imperialist League, which was formed to protest the Spanish-American War and was probably second only to the America First Committee among great antiwar organizations. Unfortunately, it went on to assent to America’s involvement in World War I. Even then, however, this was mostly the doing of a circle of pro-war socialists in the AFL leadership eerily portentous of the neocons, and it is now known that Gompers was a target of the Palmer Raids even as he was sitting on various war-planning boards.

The role of organized labor as the war party’s grassroots phalanx really began in the 1930s, as the CIO became dominated by the Communist Party, and the AFL by a circle of New York progressives instrumental in constructing the New Deal. After the CIO heroically expelled its Communist faction in 1949, the CIO was practically the only grassroots base of support for the Korean War, with blandishments bearing a strong resemblance to the modern war party a mainstay of the weekly tabloid CIO News in the early ’50s.

Labor became most infamously tied to the war party, of course, during Vietnam, when labor’s rugged Cold War spirit made it an avowed enemy of the New Left. Even then, however, the ill-fated dissident Alliance for Labor Action, anchored with the UAW and the Teamsters, made opposition to Vietnam a major point of its program, tragically thwarted from the possibility of galvanizing a serious and broad-based antiwar movement free of New Left folly. In the ’80s, while the AFL-CIO played a truly heroic role in supporting the Polish Solidarity movement and thus fostering the fall of communism, it did play a critical role in the founding of the National Endowment for Democracy, whose utter nefariousness has only recently come to full light with the boom of explicit political interventions over the past year.

Though it certainly arose for many other reasons, since the fall of communism, labor has outlived its usefulness to the state, and that is the central reality underlying the chronic problems of the American labor movement. It makes sense then that now labor is starting to revolt against the political establishment that entertained it for so long, and to take its stand against a war that has only been bad news for its historic constituencies. But it is also evident that this turn of events is by no means unrelated to the dissension and fracturing that has marked the national convention where the antiwar resolution was passed earlier this week.

In the first place, many of the actors are the same. The most vocally antiwar international president leading up to this convention, Terry O’Sullivan of the Laborers, has been a key figure in the dissident coalition, and his being one of only two presidents of the dissident unions even attending the convention is likely on account of his commitment to seeing through the antiwar resolution. Also, the founder of U.S. Labor Against War, the group that has valiantly taken up the antiwar banner since early 2002, is Gene Bruskin, a key political operative of the Teamsters, who are increasingly taking the lead role of the dissident coalition.

But most importantly, the key issue in the AFL-CIO’s present dissension is the question of political alignments and priorities, namely, of course, the dissidents wanting to severely limit if not sever their ties to the Democratic Party, and this issue is certainly tied very intimately to where labor should stand on questions of war and peace. Little-noticed with all of the fireworks coming out of the Chicago convention is the other major political gathering taking place this past week, the annual convention of the “centrist” and uber-hawkish Democratic Leadership Council (DLC). The leaders of the DLC demonstrated their utter detachment from reality when they announced as their major policy initiative a call to increase the size of the army by 100,000 troops. It was with this backdrop that Hillary Clinton gave the convention’s keynote, with a completely fawning response from all in attendance, and with all other 2008 prospects making explicitly and extraordinarily deferential statements on her and her candidacy.

Having been savvy enough to grow and strengthen their unions in the face of labor’s overall precipitous decline, the leaders of the Change to Win coalition certainly appear smart enough to jump off the Titanic, even if the current leaders of the AFL-CIO will not. They in fact remain ideologically committed to the popular-front idea of lockstep and reflexive commitment to the Democratic Party and its constituent “social movements,” that somehow such “all people’s unity” will beat back the Republicans and restore the managerial state that had once been kind to them. The last election proved what a dead end that idea is, and however incomplete their idea of a solution might be, the Change to Win leaders know that something new must be done.

Indeed, there is a critical irony here. It is the leadership in lockstep loyalty to the Democrats that professes “social movement unionism” as opposed to the Change to Win outlook, which is essentially what was once called “pure and simple unionism,” but it is the pure and simple unionists who are in touch with the actual grievances of their constituencies. We know well the consequences of such prioritizing or lack thereof, with the Left’s shameless betrayal of the antiwar movement to John Kerry, and its banner is now being reclaimed by those in the labor movement who have challenged them on their historic turf.

This new turn of the labor movement should be welcomed by all in the peace party because it is the birth of a new and true opposition movement that has broken with the duplicity of the Left to focus on what really matters. Even for those who harbor much bitterness toward the labor movement, this is the best domestic political news in an awfully long time.