During the war against Vietnam, it was not until 1970 that the US union movement took protest action in an organised manner. And even then, it was a pro-war demonstration called by New York's Building Trades Council in support of President Richard Nixon. However anti-war unions responded to that demonstration — held on May 20 and drawing 50,000 workers (many of them paid to attend) — with a protest of their own. While it only drew half as many people, it was a significant milestone — it was the first time that US unions formally organised an anti-war demonstration.
May 1970 marked the end of the united front on the war by US unions, which had either remained silent on the issue or vocally supported it. It is in this tradition of anti-war dissent with the political establishment that US Labor Against the War was formed. Kathy Black, a USLAW leader who is conducting a speaking tour of Australia in the lead-up to Palm Sunday protests against the Iraq war, explained how "late in 2002 or early 2003, a handful of progressive labour leaders, old friends and veterans of the anti-Vietnam War campaigns, began talking together about what seemed to be the inevitable march to war and what could be done within the labour movement to stop it".
Bill Onasch, a Kansas City unionist, noted in an October 2003 ZNet article: "By the time the invasion of Iraq was actually launched on March 20, labor organizations representing almost one-third of all organized workers in the US were on record opposed to the war."
Black told GLW that the idea of a unionist-based anti-war network "caught fire". In late October 2003, 154 delegates — representing, according to a ZNet account by Kim Scipes, half a million unionists — met in Chicago for USLAW's first national assembly. A mission statement adopted at the assembly committed the organisation to "advocate, educate and mobilize in the US labor movement" around the principles of "a just foreign policy"; an end to US occupation of other countries; the redirection of US resources away from military spending towards meeting the "needs of working families"; "Supporting our troops and their families by bringing the troops home now"; "protecting workers' rights, civil rights, civil liberties and the rights of immigrants"; and building solidarity with workers and unions around the world.
At the national assembly Black was elected to USLAW's steering committee, representing the Philadelphia Chapter of the Coalition of Labor Union Women (a group affiliated to the AFL-CIO union federation). In February 2007 she was elected as a USLAW co-convener.
Black told GLW that the two highest priorities of USLAW were to build the anti-war movement within the labour movement, and "become an effective member of the broader anti-war movement" and to "develop strong connections with the Iraqi labour movement, help promote their message in the US, and build support for their demands here and internationally".
"Overall", she added, "I would say we have made tremendous progress in both areas, especially considering how tiny our staff is, and how busy all our leaders are". USLAW now has almost 200 affiliates, including state and regional labour councils, large local unions from every sector and a "diverse array of constituency groups, labour anti-war committees, worker centres, and others".
"We have mounted major labour contingents in every national march and mobilisation against the war … We were the driving force behind the adoption of an anti-war resolution by the national AFL-CIO in 2005 ['the first time in 50 years that the AFL-CIO publicly opposed any US military action in a foreign country'] … Hundreds of unions and labour bodies have adopted similar resolutions, many of them stronger than the national version."
USLAW has organised US unionists to tour parts of Iraq and report on their experiences, and for members of the Iraqi labour movement to tour the US. "We maintain regular communications with them and many other labour groups in Iraq, and we have provided considerable material support to their unions", Black explained.
The Bush administration's wars have had an impact on the US working class. The massive cost of the wars has meant "the truncating of funds for many needed social and education programs in the US that largely benefit the working class/working poor … The war economy has provided huge no-bid contracts to corporations, adding to the debt, contributing to the demoralisation of our military, and fitting neatly into the Bush doctrine of globalisation and 'free trade' agreements.
"These policies exploit workers in other countries, allow corporations to control vast natural resources, and destroy jobs and communities in the US. As our mission statement says, 'War has become a strategy for advancing the interests of US corporations in international markets'."
The Bush regime has also sought "to reverse decades of workers' rights, environmental rights, civil liberties and limits on corporate power" by exploiting fears of terrorism.
Loathing of the Bush administration among organised labour has aided USLAW's recruitment. George Bush "was already viewed as anti-worker and anti-union, and the fear of what he would do in office was already so palpable that it was not so difficult to convince organised labour that the war was part of his plan to hurt working people and reward corporate interests". In addition, USLAW's "concrete connection to the Iraqi labour movement" gave the organisation "enormous credibility". Hearing from Iraqi union leaders firsthand during USLAW-organised speaking tours of the US had a "powerful impact".
In regards to the 2008 presidential election, USLAW is asking its affiliates to "push candidates to explain their positions on the war, plan and timetable for getting troops and contractors out, dismantling of US military bases, etc." and publicise their responses, and to present a slide-show presentation, The Costs of War, wherever possible to illustrate the connection between "the huge costs of war and the unmet needs of families and communities". "Our goal is to keep the war as front and centre as possible in all union endorsement decisions, campaign support and voter education."
Black said that "all of us in the labour movement will be working feverishly to elect Democrats at the Congressional and presidential levels" but USLAW members "have few illusions that electing a Democratic president will mean an immediate end to the war and a withdrawal of all troops".
One of USLAW's priorities for this year is exploring the possibility of a global campaign to defend Iraqis' labour rights. Black said that Iraqi trade unionists need support in the fight for basic labour rights and against an oil law "that would transfer control of Iraq's oil resources to multinational oil corporations". On February 22-23, USLAW and the British Stop the War Coalition will hold public actions in opposition to the oil law.
"We hope that later in the year, we will be able to work with labour organisations around the world for some form of coordinated solidarity effort", Black added. "One way in which the Australian labour movement can be helpful is by adopting resolutions in support of the Iraqi unions and urging their organisations to work within international labour bodies to move the global labour movement on this issue." Another way is by raising funds to support Iraqi unions.
"Throughout history", Black told GLW, "it has been the sons and daughters of the working class who have fought and died in wars, and it is the working class who make the greatest sacrifices. This is true in the US, Iraq and any other country at war." As Eugene V. Debs, leader of the US Socialist Party and a firm friend of labour, noted in his famous Canton, Ohio, speech, delivered on June 16, 90 years ago: "They have always taught and trained you to believe it to be your patriotic duty to go to war and to have yourselves slaughtered at their command. But in all the history of the world you, the people, have never had a voice in declaring war, and strange as it certainly appears, no war by any nation in any age has ever been declared by the people."