BY DAVID BACON
SAN FRANCISCO In the wake of the massive global anti-war protests on February 14-16, opposition to a US war on Iraq among trade unions in many countries may take a much more tangible form.
More than 200 unions and 550 union leaders, from 53 countries representing 130 million workers, have signed an international labour statement initiated by US Labor Against the War (USLAW), a growing coalition that includes at least five major national US unions, three state labour federations and many local union branches and labour councils.
The declaration questions Washington's rationale for war, saying no convincing link exists between the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and Iraq's regime led by Saddam Hussein, nor has the US presented evidence that Iraq possess weapons of mass destruction.
The statement points out that a war would be fought overwhelmingly by the sons and daughters of workers, and asserts that war hysteria is being used as a pretext for attacks on trade unions' and workers' rights and to mask the effects of a sinking economy worldwide. The appeal ends by calling on the labour movement to organise opposition to the war in every country.
Such an appeal is unprecedented. During the Vietnam War in the 1960s and '70s, the majority of US unions supported US involvement until the war was almost over. While unions in other countries voiced opposition, there was no common front, much less one organised at the initiative of the US labour movement.
On February 19, USLAW convened an unprecedented global telephone press conference to brief the media about the declaration and its signatories.
In Britain, where opposition to war is sharpest, unions have squared up against the pro-war Labour government of Prime Minister Tony Blair. On January 9, two train engineers refused to drive a train loaded with war materiel from Glasgow to the Glen Douglas military base on Scotland's west coast, the largest weapons store in NATO.
The incident electrified British workers. The drivers were supported by their union, the Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen. ASLEF general secretary Mick Rix warned on February 19 that similar actions would multiply in the event of war.
"We do expect more refusals", predicted Rix. He added that the by-laws of Britain's Trade Union Congress call for an immediate meeting in the event of war, a provision dating from 1918, when many trade unions sought to prevent the entry of European countries into World War I. "The TUC must be convened, so that industrial action can be considered", Rix warned.
This isn't an idle threat. Already, five of Britain's largest and most strategically placed unions have openly defied Blair. Some have called for his ouster, even at the cost of the Labour Party's grip on government. It is just one sign of the growing gulf that now divides British unions, not just from the prime minister, but from the party that they created decades ago.
[At a February 10 Stop the War Coalition meeting, leaders of five of Britain's biggest unions warned the prime minister that there could be mass walkouts across the country on the day a war was launched. Paul Mackney, of the university lecturers' union, also warned of widespread industrial action if the Labour government went to war against the wishes of the people of Britain.
[Railway workers' union leader Bob Crow warned: "Look at what happened in Eastern Europe when [leaders] didn't listen." Billy Hayes, the leader of the Communication Workers' Union, and Mark Serwotka, of the civil servants' union, also attended the press conference. Mackney warned: "Unless Blair changes course, Blair will fall on this."]
In Italy, where unions helped organise a turnout of 3 million people in the streets of Rome on February 15 (the largest demonstration since the end of World War II), the executive council of the General Confederation of Italian Workers (CGIL) on February 18 declared its intention of calling a general strike in the event of a US attack on Iraq.
Italy's trade unions are locked in bitter conflict with the right-wing government of media magnate Silvio Berlusconi, who has strongly supported Bush's war threats. Enzo Bernardo, director of CGIL's international department, explained that "the big majority of Italians, not just workers, are against the war. We know terrorism in our country and this war has nothing to do with resolving it. Our government does not speak for the Italian people."
President of the All-Pakistan Trade Union Federation Rubina Jamil also supported the call. Her federation represents more than 5 million workers. Jamil noted that Pakistan's workers are familiar with the cost of US military action in Afghanistan, which they oppose.
"This war [on Iraq] is only for oil", Jamil declared. She threatened that her federation would organise mass demonstrations, including hunger strikes, in front of the US embassy and consulates when an invasion begins.
In Pakistan, the US depends on the increasingly unpopular military regime of President Pervez Musharraf to support its hunt for Taliban and al Qaeda remnants. Mass workers' demonstrations against an Iraq war would create huge political problems.
Also signing the declaration was Djeman Hacene, general secretary of the International Confederation of Arab Trade Unions, who agreed with Jamil that the objective of US intervention in Iraq was the pursuit of oil.
The Australian Council of Trade Unions also adopted international labour's anti-war declaration. Prime Minister John Howard has been one of Bush's most vociferous supporters. Declaring herself "ashamed" of Howard's actions, ACTU president Sharon Burrow stated that "he has no mandate from our people" to go to war. She threatened industrial action in the event of war.
The political map of many countries could easily be redrawn by bitter
labour battles breaking out in factories, ports and railway terminals at
the start of an Iraq invasion. In some of those countries, like Britain
and Italy, industrial battles may provoke a political realignment and support
for Bush may cost those governments their hold on power.
IRAQ: Global unions vow to oppose Iraq war
On the eve of a threatened war against Iraq, we, trade unionists from around the world, join with US Labor Against the War and the US unions, representing more than 4 million workers, who have opposed this war.
As trade unionists, we have the responsibility to inform all working people about issues that affect their lives, jobs and families and to be heard in the international debate on these issues.
We oppose a US led war against Iraq for many reasons.
There is no evident purpose for this war that we can support. There is no convincing link between Iraq and al Qaeda or the attacks on September 11, and neither the Bush administration nor the UN inspections have demonstrated that Iraq poses a real threat to Americans and other nations.
It is clear that military action in Iraq will increase the likelihood of retaliatory terrorist acts around the world against Western targets.
This action against Iraq by the US military and other nations that may join them, threatens the peaceful resolution of disputes among states, jeopardising the safety and security of the entire world.
We know that the principal victims of any military action in Iraq will be the sons and daughters of working-class families who serve in the military forces and innocent Iraqi civilians who have already suffered so much.
We have no quarrel with the ordinary working-class men, women and children of Iraq, or any other country.
We oppose the spending of billions of dollars to stage and execute this war when our nations need money for education, healthcare, housing and other basic needs.
We oppose the use of this war, and the threat of war, as pretext for attacks on labour, civil, immigrant and human rights in the United States and in other nations.
We believe US President George Bush's drive for war serves as a cover and distraction for the sinking US economy, corporate corruption, and layoffs.
As representatives of the labour movement around the world, we have long had an historic role in fighting for justice. We urge our members to actively protest this war. At the onset of the 21st century, we join with the vast majority of the people of the world who seek a better life and who yearn for a peaceful resolution to this and other international disputes.
From Green Left Weekly, March 5, 2003.
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