Unions challenge Bush on war, civil liberties, economy

DEARBORN, Mich. – Almost 200 union activists filled United Auto Workers (UAW) Local 600’s hall to hear union leaders speak out against Bush’s war on Iraq. The panel included many leaders of union locals, leaders of the Michigan labor movement and leaders of international unions. It was moderated by Julie Hurwitz of the National Lawyers’ Guild.

Four themes emerged from the talks given by the panel members: organizing and educating union members to understand what Bush’s war is really all about, defending civil liberties and rights, the war is a smokescreen for Bush’s right-wing attack on working people, and understanding that opposition to war is not unpatriotic.

Noel Beasley, international vice president of Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees, linked organizing opposition to Bush’s war to building a more powerful union movement. Beasley urged members to remind co-workers that “this is a war that will put working men and women on the front lines to get killed” – and to kill Iraqi men and women. “The real issue is the economy. It’s Bush’s fault and we’ve got to put the focus where it belongs,” he said.

Al Benchich, president of UAW Local 909, stated bluntly “We won’t be able to stop [this war] unless labor raises its mighty voice to stop it.” Benchich also emphasized the significance of being able to dialogue with those who may differ, especially with veterans. He indicated the tremendous support he felt personally from veterans in his local and around the city for his opposition to Bush’s war drive.

“We firmly stand in opposition to Bush’s smokescreen,” concurred Millie Hall, president of the Detroit Chapter of Coalition of Labor Union Women, “that will end up in our sons and daughters being brought home in body bags.”

Hurwitz outlined some significant consequences of the USA PATRIOT Act and its proposed sequel, the Domestic Security Enhancement Act of 2003. This law will broaden power of the authorities, reduce the ability of the public to oversea or challenge their power, redefine terrorism to include some action of union organizing, provide authorities with unprecedented power of domestic spying and wiretapping without judicial oversight, and define as terrorism any attempt to mobilize opposition to influence the government’s policies.

Following this chilling account, Mich. State AFL-CIO President Mark Gaffney added the Homeland Security Act stripped the collective bargaining rights of over 140,000 workers. “The drumbeat for war is a drumbeat for war on unions,” he said.

“If we go to war we won’t be able to fund Social Security adequately in the near future,” or health care or public schools, he added. “War will mortgage our future and our children’s future.”

Gaffney told members not to be fooled about the affect war will have on the economy. “it will not benefit workers here – only multinational corporations.”

“Michigan labor,” he stated, “is in a majority way against this war. We are against unilateral action.”

Elena Herrada, a cafeteria worker’s union leader, emphasized the drastic effects the Bush policies have had on Detroit’s public services. Schools are too much underfunded, clinics have been closed, water has been turned off for thousands of residents, and childcare services have been eliminated. War won’t end these problems, she argued, because “local issues are the direct effects of the policies coming out of Washington D.C.”

“We have a moral obligation to speak out against this war,” UAW International Vice President Bob King stated. To succeed in building an effective movement, he said, “We have to engage others in dialogue and really try to understand where they are coming from.” Education is key. Disarmament “should be done through UN inspections,” he said. “It’s not a single war [the Bush administration] wants to lead,” King said, but a whole series of wars and actions to gain control of the Middle East’s resources.

The author can be reached at jwendland@politicalaffairs.net