SECRETARY-TREASURER, OPEIU; CO-CONVENER, U.S. LABOR AGAINST THE WAR
TRANSCRIBED PANEL PRESENTATION AT THE DEPARTMENT FOR PROFESSIONAL EMPLOYEES,
AFL-CIO LUNCH & LEARN,
FEBRUARY 23, 2006
I am here speaking on behalf of a group that I am very proud to be part of — and Brooks Sunkett is part of it, too — U.S. Labor Against the War. I’d like to tell you a little bit about us, and talk about what’s happening to public health as a result of the war: what’s happening to people, from the vets and their families here in the United States, to the destruction in Iraq of their entire infrastructure.
We all are aware of this, even though I agree with what Brooks said, that the devastation of the war is very hidden compared to during Vietnam. This is a very conscious decision. We don’t see the body bags coming back like we used to. We don’t see what is really going on in terms of the total destruction of the country, no electricity, and so on.
But one thing that is different from Vietnam is that we have a movement that everyone in this room, and everyone who works in this building, should be a part of. We have U.S. labor for the first time in its history standing up and saying we are opposed to something that the United States government is doing. And believe me, I am talking about any of the interventions that the U.S. government has done over the last 100 years. I think labor has supported them all. Now we are fighting what this government is doing both to the Iraqi people and to the American working people, to our children, and our working families in this country. We are the forces that have to change what is going on.
We know the facts, we hear them here and there, but we have to go out of these rooms and into the streets to stop this war. That is why we formed U.S. Labor Against the War. In fact, we formed it before the invasion. We had a smaller meeting than has been held in other times. We finally got some real labor folks into a room in January 2003, before the actual March invasion, and we decided to form U.S. Labor Against the War and try to take this issue into the trade union movement.
We had no illusions that this was going to be simple, easy, or whatever. What Brooks said is absolutely true: You’re called a traitor. In fact, I was actually called a terrorist because I supported a resolution against a mass bombing of Afghanistan. We knew we were going to have that problem, but it didn’t stop us from forging ahead. What we did was to bring some Iraqi trade union people here, because our feeling was that if American working families could hear what the people who are working in Iraq have to say — and we get so much propaganda that, “Oh, Saddam Hussein’s regime is so awful.” I’m sure it was. But as Barry Levy said, women were certainly treated better than they will be under a secular regime and a theocracy. We said, we have got to stop that propaganda. So we brought these Iraqi trade unionists here and we asked them one question amongst many: “What do you want?” The demand instantly and overwhelmingly from every one of them was: U.S. occupation out, stop the building of any bases there, and give us back the public control of our economy: stop the privatization that is going on. Another thing that they said was it would be damned nice if the United States government would overthrow the one law of Saddam Hussein’s that they kept, which is the law that says you cannot unionize. They said it would be very nice if we could do that. Well, we did that and we brought them here as a plea leading up to the AFL-CIO convention.
Unfortunately, some of our developments were a little overshadowed because there was a split in the labor movement, and the press for once really went gung-ho, playing up the labor movement. They paid no attention to us for 50 years, but suddenly because there is a big difference, we’re on TV; we’re every place. We didn’t let that stop us. We said: “We are here for one reason. We’re here to make the American labor movement go on record and say we have to end this war and bring our troops home now.” And, “We are not going to listen to this garbage that we are anti-American or against our troops if we don’t support the war.” How in God’s name can you say that we are against our troops when we want them home with two arms, two legs, etc.? We don’t want them home with post-traumatic stress syndrome.
Now I’m getting a little old — I’ve been around since Vietnam myself, like Brooks — but I was a college student protesting the war, and I remember them telling me I should go back to where I came from. I came from Wisconsin, so I couldn’t quite figure that out. The thing is they tried to pit us against the returning vets. They were successful at the very beginning, but they weren’t at the end. Like Brooks said, when the vets and the college students and working families and working people and many unions — not the AFL-CIO, but many individual unions — came together and participated and millions and millions hit the Mall, and the Pentagon, and so on. That, I contend, is why the war stopped. It is nice to have resolutions — Congress could be doing something besides arguing about whatever it is they argue about every day, and sitting on their butts doing nothing to stop this war — but I don’t think they are going to end it, and I don’t think they are going to take any of us seriously until we have thousands and millions in the street. That is why I really was excited and happy that the Department for Professional Employees was putting on this program today, because while I am now on the Executive Council of the AFL-CIO, we know we have got to bring millions into the street.
U.S. Labor Against the War, together with many, many other forces including the Iraq Veterans Against the War and Military Families Speak Out, is calling for a national demonstration. The leaflets are on the back table, and I would like everybody to pick one up and talk to your loved ones, talk to your families, and see if you can turn out on Saturday April 29 in New York City to demonstrate against the war and to turn our country around. It is not in Washington, DC this time because usually demonstrations are, so we felt, let’s take it to a different venue, looking at the Statute of Liberty and the land of the free and the home of the brave, and say, “Okay, stand up and really show that this is a free country; that we are not living under a “Patriot Act” that is trying to silence us every minute, and that we are going to practice democracy at home, as we say we are fighting for abroad.”
The other thing that we have is a movie that is about the tour that the Iraqi trade unionists did in 26 cities around the country. It also shows the AFL-CIO resolution fight. Believe me, that wasn’t an easy thing to get done. It took much behind-the-scenes maneuvering because there were a lot of unions who quietly opposed the war. To get up on the floor at a convention of 3,000 people — most of whom who are not your normal rank-and-file people, but are leadership-picked people — is a frightening thing for many people. People are afraid that they are going to lose their jobs or get beaten up by their boss. It took a lot of maneuvering behind the scenes and it took people like Brooks and other people who have children fighting in Iraq to stand up. We had one gentleman whose son was back for his fifth tour and at that point there was no way anyone in that room was going to come back to us and say, “You’re wrong. We are not going to pass this resolution.”
However, since then, not very much has happened. It is our objective to continue the fight inside the trade union movement, double our membership in the next nine months, and have a mass protest. On September 24, for the very first time, we had a demonstration of trade unionists that was able to assemble here at the AFL-CIO, inside the House of Labor, not outside with picket signs. We hope to have a much bigger demonstration of labor people on April 29. We vow that we will continue to have whatever it takes: demonstrations, Congressional lobbying, resolutions, whatever we can do as trade unionists, linking up with our brothers and sisters who are returning from Iraq who need our support and need our help, and with our military family friends who have loved ones who are fighting and dying for a war based on a lie. Whatever we can do, U.S. Labor Against the War will be there. And we will continue this fight until the troops are home safely and they have decent jobs and benefits when they come home.