Organized labor shows increasing distaste for war in Iraq

BY PHILIP DINE St. Louis Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau
01/14/2003 09:22 PM

WASHINGTON - Signs of anti-war sentiment are mounting in the American labor movement, as the administration gears up for a possible attack on Iraq.

From discussions in local union halls to public protests, from petitions to speak-outs to resolutions, workers are expressing concern or even outright opposition to U.S. plans for military action.

"In the Vietnam era, by comparison, the labor movement was broadly very hawkish," said Bob Bruno, who teaches labor and politics at the University of Illinois. "This time around, there is a lot of sentiment that this war is not necessary, and a considerable amount of suspicion as to the real agenda behind the push for war."

Among the most recent efforts was a gathering over the weekend in Chicago, spearheaded by the city's biggest Teamsters local, at which 110 officers from labor unions around the country tried to put organization and money behind what have been mostly spontaneous, grass-roots activities.

The meeting was hosted by the 20,500-member Teamsters Local 705, whose leader, Jerry Zero, said he acted because of overwhelming opposition among his members to a war against Iraq.

"We're not exactly a real liberal union," Zero said. "We've got a lot of truck drivers, UPS employees, freight drivers. I'd say it's a pretty conservative union. Yet they feel pretty strongly against the war."

The Teamsters have been far friendlier in recent decades to Republicans than have most labor unions. Current Teamsters President James Hoffa has strongly backed President George W. Bush on several issues, such as drilling for oil in Alaska.

At the Chicago session, union contingents from California, Seattle, New York, Washington and Florida, as well as labor activists from St. Louis and other cities raised $30,000 to set up a group called U.S. Labor Against War. They passed a resolution against an "unprovoked war with Iraq," and they plan to send protesters to anti-war marches Saturday in Washington and San Francisco. They also hope to enlist the support of 200 local unions in the next few weeks.

"If they contact us and ask us to do something, we'll endeavor to get people together to join some kind of concerted effort," said Herb Johnson, secretary-treasurer of the 260,000- member Missouri AFL-CIO.

"It's going to be an unprecedented thing for the United States to go and initiate an armed conflict," Johnson said. "We're all red-blooded Americans, but I have not read any evidence that this lousy fellow over there (in Iraq) is the one who attacked us on September 11."

Johnson said the Missouri federation agrees with the cautions cited by AFL-CIO President John Sweeney in a letter he sent in the fall to Congress. Sweeney urged that the White House exhaust all diplomatic channels, gain wide international support and make the case to Congress and the American people before any military action.

Sweeney's letter contrasts with the position taken by the AFL-CIO during the Persian Gulf War in 1991, when the two statements issued by then-President Lane Kirkland focused solely on expressing support for U.S. forces.

In its last two polls, the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found less support for war among union households that nonunion households, although most in both groups supported military force.

About 100 labor union locals around the country have passed resolutions expressing reservations about a war with Iraq, often citing concerns that money would be diverted from social, health and educational needs to the conflict. And the 1.3 million-member American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees issued a resolution last month "condemning war on Iraq."

Several factors appear to account for the difference in labor's stance this time around:

The clear lines of the Cold War, when the United States and Soviet Union battled around the world for supremacy, have given way to a more complex world with shadowy and shifting foes.

Labor leaders schooled in the Cold War outlook, such as Kirkland, have been replaced by younger leaders who grew up during the Vietnam War and tend to be more skeptical toward government.

Union leaders and many workers tend to be particularly suspicious of Bush and his administration, contending that it favors business interests and the well-to-do.

The sagging economy is hurting workers, who fear that issue could take a back seat to war.

Bob Kelley, president of the St. Louis Labor Council, says he has seen no organized war opposition among his members, but also no enthusiasm for war.

"Little by little, you're seeing more people question this," he said. "There needs to be a debate about it. . . . The level of concern is rising.

"We have blamed the attack on the World Trade Center on al-Qaida, but unless I've missed it, we haven't really blamed a particular sovereignty. If George Bush walked out today and said we have proof that Saddam Hussein knew of the attack, that he gave support to the groups that did it, everybody would say, 'Go get them.' But so far, they haven't made that case."

The Chicago meeting was prompted by an anti-war petition presented to Zero in late November by a member of Local 705, accusing the administration of being motivated by oil interests. Zero raised it at the local's next regular monthly meeting.

The vote for the resolution was 402-1.

"That shocked me," Zero said.

Members posted the resolution in their truck barns and on the Internet. A former Teamsters organizer asked if Zero could host a meeting in Chicago.

"I think it's quite unusual," he said. "It's early, it's very early, no military action has started yet, and people are really organizing against this thing. People don't trust politicians as much as they used to. We've been saying we know they have this stuff - weapons of mass destruction - yet we won't direct the inspectors to it. . . . And we have supported Iraq in the past against Iran. It's hard to explain to a factory worker how that is."