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AFL-CIO CONVENTION CALLS FOR TROOP WITHDRAWAL FROM IRAQ
By David Bacon
CHICAGO, IL (7/26/05) - On the second day of its convention inChicago, the AFL-CIO took an historic step, calling for the rapid withdrawal of US troops from Iraq, and an end to the country's occupation. Public attention has focused largely on the split in US labor, and the decision by two of the federation's largest unions to leave. Yet the impact of this call will reverberate for years, with asprofound effect on the future of US workers and their unions.
Brooks Sunkett, vice-president of the Communications Workers of America(CWA), started a train of passionate speeches on the convention floor,saying that the government had lied to him when it sent him to war inVietnam three decades ago. "We have to stop it from lying to a newgeneration now," he implored. Henry Nicholas, a hospital union leaderin the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees,told delegates that his son, who has served four tours of duty in Iraq,is now threatened with yet another.
Speaker after speaker rose to condemn the war and occupation, and todemand the return of the troops. No one dared defend a policy that hascaused revulsion throughout US unions. Watching from the visitors' gallery was a handful of Iraqi unionleaders. One of them had traveled to the US two months ago, with fiveother union activists, to plead the case of Iraqi workers. For 16 daysthey traveled to more than 50 cities, often speaking before hundreds ofangry workers, demanding an end to the occupation. The Iraqis urgedtheir US union counterparts to take action.
The resolution at the convention was the answer to this call. It wasthe culmination as well of an upsurge that has swept through US unionssince before the war started two years ago. From the point when itbecame clear that the Bush administration intended to invade Iraq,union activists began organizing a national network to oppose it, USLabor Against the War. What started as a collection of small groups,in a handful of unions, has today to become a coalition of unionsrepresenting over a million members.
The network organized the tour of the Iraqi unionists, to provide thema chance to speak directly to US workers. "We believed strongly thatif unions in our country could hear their Iraqi brothers and sistersasking for the withdrawal of US troops, they would respond in a spiritof solidarity and human sympathy," said Gene Bruskin, one of USLAW'snational coordinators. "We were right."
Resolutions calling for troop withdrawal poured in from unions, laborcouncils, and state labor federations across the country. But as theconvention began, AFL-CIO national staff tried to substitute anotherresolution that called for ending the occupation "as soon aspossible." This was the same position as that put forward by the Bushadministration.
Delegates at the convention, who belong to the USLAW network thencalled for using instead the phrase "rapid withdrawal" of the troops. At a strategy-planning session attended by over 150 delegates, US andIraqi unionists joined together to plan a fight on the convention floorto win that language. Before it could take place, however, CWAVice-president Larry Cohen went to the AFL-CIO executive council, thefederation's ruling body, and asked them to accept the change.
Knowing that a fight was in store, and suddenly unsure of their abilityto win it, the council agreed.
The resolution was put on the floor of the convention Tuesday afternoon, two days before the scheduled debate on Iraq. When the proposal for rapid withdrawal was introduced by Fred Mason, head of theAFL-CIO in Maryland, it was obvious what he meant by the words. Hiscall to "get out now" became a chorus thundering from speaker afterspeaker. The new language was adopted with the votes of an overwhelming majority.
The resolution marks a watershed moment in modern US labor history. It is the product of grassroots action at the bottom of the US labormovement, not a directive from top leaders. The call for bringing thetroops home echoes the sentiments of thousands of ordinary workers andrank-and-file union members, whose children and family have been calledon to fight the war. A growing number, who now form a majority in US unions, believe the best way to protect them is to bring them home.
The resolution represents a deeper understanding that is making its wayinto thousands of discussions in workplaces and union halls. The warin Iraq never had much credibility as an effort to find weapons of massdestruction, since none were ever found. The administration's claimthat it is fighting to bring democracy to Iraqi people inspired asimilar disbelief. After five years of administration attacks on USworkers and unions, none but the most diehard of its supporters havemuch faith left in its pro-democracy pronouncements.
Over the last year, however, the Iraqis themselves have provided a newunderstanding of the occupation's anti-democratic impact. Americanmilitary authorities, they told US union members, have banned labororganization in oil fields, factories and other Iraqi publicenterprises. Meanwhile, Bush political operatives have begun toengineer the sell off of those enterprises to foreign corporations,with a potential loss of thousands of jobs and the income needed torebuild the country.
"This is not liberation. It is occupation," said Ghasib Hassan, aleader of the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions, one of the unions thatsent its members to speak in the US. "At the beginning of the 21stcentury, we thought we'd seen the end of colonies, but now we'reentering a new era of colonization."
In the many meetings and discussions that finally led to the resolution, union members understood the purpose of the occupation in anew way - as the imposition, at gunpoint, of Bush administration freemarket policies on Iraq. After the resolution's passage, the Iraqiscalled on delegates to act on that understanding, and asked the AFL-CIOto bring its members out to coming national demonstrations against thewar.
Rapid withdrawal means more than just bringing US soldiers home. Calling for it puts American workers on the side of Iraqis, as theyresist the transformation of their country for the benefit of a wealthy global elite. Brooks Sunkett, Vietnam vet turned union leader, spokepowerfully for this renewed unwillingness to wage wars based on liesand greed. His call for rapid withdrawal breathes new life into theVietnam syndrome - so feared by US administrations intent on militaryintervention to defend their free market policies around the world.