UNITED STATES: Union opposes Iraq occupation

November 17, 1993

David Bacon, Los Angeles

On June 22, the national convention of the Service Employees International Union — with 1.7 million members, the largest union in the US — voted unanimously to oppose the occupation of Iraq.

A few days later, a similar resolution was passed by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, and another by the California Labor Federation.

The SEIU resolution called for "a just foreign policy based on international law and global justice ... an end to the US occupation of Iraq, redirecting the nation's resources from inflated military spending to meeting the needs of working families ... supporting our troops and their families by bringing our troops home safely ... protecting workers rights, civil rights, civil liberties and the rights of immigrants ... and solidarity with workers around the world.

I interviewed SEIU executive vice-president Eliseo Medina about the resolution for Wartimes (). While the resolution represents SEIU's official policy, Medina discussed his own views about labour and the war.

Why did SEIU members support the resolution so strongly?

Workers are extremely concerned about our foreign policy. Their kids are being sent to fight and die, especially the children of immigrants. We need to deal with this issue.

The administration [led by President George Bush] sold the war with allegations of weapons of mass destruction [being held by Saddam Hussein], but there were none, and our delegates knew this. Bush said that Saddam Hussein was connected to the attacks of 9/11, but there was no connection and our delegates knew this too. The administration assured people that the troops would waltz in and waltz out, and that certainly wasn't the case either.

They were especially concerned about the increasing isolation of the US. They want the US to be seen as a country based on democratic values, and worry that it's being seen now as a bully. Some delegates spoke out and said this was a war for oil, not for democracy, and that this was not a valid reason for waging it. They were very suspicious of the motivation of the Bush administration.

Did the resolution cause much discussion?

Delegates spoke from their hearts. Our union went through a thorough debate on the war before the resolution came up, including discussion in local unions. Our members have a natural tendency to want to stand behind the troops and their country. Many of them have children or relatives in Iraq, and felt that we had to support them. But the more the discussion went on, the more people said they felt misled, that they were being made patsies. It was very clear they felt this was the wrong war, being fought for the wrong reasons.

Our members are not a collection of left-wing radicals. They're a cross section of the US — blue-collar workers, professionals in hospitals, janitors. We have a large immigrant membership, there's a professional class of doctors, attorneys and social workers and a big section of public workers.

The war is draining resources needed at home, leaving a huge deficit and leading to the loss of jobs in the public sector. I often hear members say they deeply resent the way the administration announces services it says it will make available in Iraq, while cutting the same services here at home. They're very aware that the war doesn't benefit them.

What effect did the resolution have on other unions?

The California state labour federation adopted a similar resolution almost unanimously, and that's not just SEIU. It includes building-trades unions and manufacturing workers as well. I hope other unions will now add their voices too.

I can't speak for the whole labour movement, but many people tell me they feel we were misled and that the whole war was a huge mistake. There's a lot of concern about the way it's been waged, and the fact that there's no plan to achieve peace.

What about the [national trade-union coalition] AFL-CIO — do you expect it to take a position against the war?

The AFL is a collection of international [Canadian and US] unions, and what it does depends on its constituents. The AFL has been very critical of Bush, and [AFL-CIO president] John Sweeney condemned Bush's unilateral action without UN support before the war started. As more unions speak out, it will create the consensus necessary for the AFL itself to take a position. If the momentum keeps up, I'm sure it will happen, and I hope before the election.

Six months ago, many Democratic Party and labour election strategists said that opposing the war would lead to losing the election to Bush. Do you agree?

It's wrong to think that speaking out on the war is the kiss of death in November. At the July Democratic Convention I heard many people say they thought we were heading in the wrong direction, and that we need to do something about it. The war is one of Bush's many failures. It's had huge repercussions on the budget deficits, which are overwhelmingly due to two causes — his tax cuts and the war.

If Kerry is elected, do you think he'll pull US troops out?

The American people will expect him to get us out, and they will hold him to it too. After all, it's their children coming home in body bags. He says he has a plan, and we have to hold him to it.

Even with the handover, it's still our war. There no real responsibility passing to the interim government, and US soldiers are still doing the fighting. The Iraqi people just want to have their country back. It's time to bring the troops home.

From Green Left Weekly, August 11, 2004.
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