By JoAnn Wypijewski
And now for some bits of good news. Historic news. On Tuesday, July 26, the AFL-CIO convention did something organized labor had never done before: it opposed a war during wartime, and called for the withdrawal of American troops. The resolution opposing the war in Iraq was not the best or the most fluent. Cobbled from 18 resolutions that had been offered for consideration, it read as if it were written by at least as many hands. The remarkable thing about those resolutions? Not one that had been submitted for the convention's consideration supported the war. Not one was solely a simple statement supporting the troops. All called for withdrawal, the only difference being over timing. All came from Central Labor Councils.
The resolution that was slated to make it to the floor called for withdrawal "as soon as possible". This angered the driving forces within institutional labor against the war, US Labor Against the War and Pride at Work, who argued that it was essentially the Bush position. After a flurry of organized interventions they got the final resolution to be introduced calling for American troops to be withdrawn "rapidly". It seemed a small thing, this semantic victory, until you consider the historic magnitude. From the floor, no one spoke against the resolution: not the building trades; not Tom Buffenbarger of the Machinists, who after 9/11 called for "vengeance", not justice; not the American Federation of Teachers, which has typically held high the flame of intervention. Speaking for the resolution, Henry Nicholas, president of AFSCME's 1199P, told the story of his son, who has been deployed to Iraq four times already.
"My son is a nervous wreck right now, but he's on the list to go back. We need to say that America's sons and daughters have to come home now", he said. And then concluded: "In my 45 years in the labor movement, this is my proudest moment being a union member, because this is the first time we had the courage to stand up and say, Enough is enough."
Later that evening in question time during a panel discussion with Iraqi trade unionists, a sturdy anti-imperialist, Fred Hirsch, vice president of Plumbers and Fitters Local 393 out of San Jose, California, informed the Iraqis that there is to be a national march against the war in Washington on September 24. Did they think, he wondered, that it would be appropriate for organized labor to send contingents to that march in light of the resolution just passed? Yes, they replied. And would they as Iraqi trade unionists write a letter to the union presidents of America urging such participation? Yes, again, certainly. In that moment the organizing potential of the resolution was made plain. One can almost hear the cringe of union presidents who let it sail through. The next thing you know someone will be asking them to defend the civil rights of gay people, the logical outcome of another surprising resolution that the convention passed, opposing the federal marriage amendment.
JoAnn Wypijewski writes on labor and politics for CounterPunch. Read her previous dispatches from Chicago: Is This Really an "Insurgency" to Shake Up the Labor Movement? and Fission and Fizzle in Chicago: SEIU and Teamsters Quit the AFL. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org