Peace and Labor _
Can We Work Together?

Diane Swords

US Labor has a long history of pacifism and anti-war activism. In 1887, the American Federation of Labor adopted a resolution against the Spanish American War. It stated, "The demands of the working people will never be fully heard in all their strength and nobility of aspiration until the nations of the world mutually agree to refrain from the fratricidal strife that has so often brought misery and dislocation into millions of happy homes. The working class, the class that always has to bear the brunt of war, has the most profound interest in the establishment of peace."1

Similarly, many peace movement organizations supported worker issues. The National Council for the Prevention of War, founded in 1921, had a labor department. From roots in the textile strikes in Massachusetts in the 1920s, pacifist A.J. Muste consistently linked his work as director of Fellowship for Reconciliation with labor.

At the beginning of World War I, AFL president Samuel Gompers advocated for peace. But when President Woodrow Wilson put Gompers on his war planning staff, he changed his position. Debates of the time characterized labor's choice as either to ally with an international workers' movement against the capitalist war effort, or to ally with their national government and war industry against parallel alliances in other nations. Roosevelt used the same strategy prior to the Second World War, which again brought labor to the war effort, and convinced workers, business and government leaders that military spending was good for the economy.

This attitude was solidified during the Cold War, so it was not surprising that the AFL-CIO, under George Meany, supported the Viet Nam war. Union members who opposed it did so quietly. In the 1980s, many peace organizations worked to convert military industries to peace-time production. In some communities, this led to successful collaboration between peace and labor groups, while causing bitter conflicts between them in others. This history is detailed in the Fred Rose book cited above.

Most worker opposition to the "first" Gulf War was still without institutional support. Eleven years later, labor strongly supported the war on terrorism after September 11. When NYCLAW, New York City Labor Against the War, formed in the wake of September 11, it aroused a great deal of bitter criticism. Michael Letwin, who led this NY anti-war effort, lost his re-election bid as president of his Auto Workers local. But union distrust of G.W. Bush has grown since then, with the administration's attacks on organizing and civil liberties in the name of national security, and its unequivocal pro-business agenda.

Something is different about the current Labor response to war. Not only are members able to speak out against war more openly, but many unions have taken firm positions against a pre-emptive attack on Iraq. A mild statement, dated October 7, 2002, was made by AFL-CIO president John Sweeney. He called for reinforcing international law through the UN, and for defense of human rights. He said we must assure the sons and daughters of US working families, who will be asked to carry out war, that "war is the last option, not the first, used to resolve this conflict." This may have opened the way for others to make stronger statements. Many of us remember Marshall Blake's powerful statement reflecting the Service Employees Union's stance at the October 26 rally at Armory Square, Syracuse. On January 9, the Philadelphia Central Labor Council of the AFL-CIO passed a resolution "strenuously opposing the Bush Administration's march towards war with Iraq." The Chicago Teamsters' local also passed an anti-war resolution.

Still, many union leaders fear that opposing the war will divert scarce resources and divide their membership. Our local labor federation came close to offering a resolution, but has put it on hold because of such a concern. The CNY Labor-Religion Coalition, realizing that it may be able to take a position that would be more difficult for the labor federation, put forth our own resolution. Our consensus decision-making requires that all Steering Committee members concur or express willingness not to block agreement. The two members who had reservations did "stand aside", allowing the group to send out the following resolution:

The CNY Labor-Religion Coalition's Resolution Opposing Invasion of Iraq

The CNY Labor-Religion Coalition seeks to unite the moral voice of the religious community and the concern unions hold for worker justice in an effort for overall social and economic justice. A war in Iraq will not serve justice or morality. Nor will it provide security.

War on Iraq will not increase domestic or world security

George W. Bush has not presented convincing evidence that Iraq is an imminent threat to the US or to other nations in the Middle East, nor has he substantiated claims that Iraq possesses weapons of mass destruction. Even many in Mr. Bush's own party and military establishment warn that an invasion is not in our interest, that it will be extremely costly, require a long occupation, and place large numbers of US military personnel _ the sons and daughters of working people _ in a hostile environment. Our allies, with the exception of the British government, oppose these war plans. Even the CIA predicts that a war on Iraq will heighten the risk of domestic terrorism. We are seriously concerned that war on Iraq will likely harm, rather than improve security, both domestic and international, by igniting a wider war; causing widespread political destabilization; increasing worldwide hostility to the United States; and providing more fertile ground for terrorist recruitment and action.

War is unjust to workers

A war on Iraq is not in the interest of workers. It further inflates an already bloated military budget and subsidizes corporate welfare. In doing so, it will cut funds from economically distressed states and vital government programs which tend to generate more jobs than military contracts.While our economy falters, schools crumble, and many people have no health care, we are being asked to spend our blood and resources to make the world safe for multinational corporations. This war will boost the oil interests and prop up the electoral fortunes of our pro-corporate administration, but working people will pay with our lives, with the lives of our children, and with our tax money.

War derails efforts for worker rights

By focusing on war, the Bush administration allows the pressing needs of our economy, our health care system, and our schools to fade into the background. At the same time, "national security" becomes the all purpose justification for measures that deprive federal workers of their union rights, that allows immigrants to be rounded up and spirited away for interrogation, incarceration, and deportation, and gives the government sweeping power to spy on every citizen in pursuit of "total information awareness."

War Only Serves the Interests of Multinational Corporations

Underlying the administration's push toward war is corporate globalization. Conquest of Iraq would restore control of Iraq's immense oil reserves to the western oil companies. A "successful" war in Iraq would demonstrate to the world US willingness to unilaterally use military power to pursue its interests: a global economy freely accessible for multinational penetration. While citizens here and abroad fight and die, certain corporations reap the benefits.

Weapons of mass destruction must be eliminated through international law

It is imperative that the world address the issue of weapons of mass destruction. But threatening their use against a country will not cause it to disarm. If the US violates international law through unilateral, pre-emptive war, it becomes less likely that others will follow the law. The labor movement understands that promoting global economic justice and human rights through international law is the best way to fight terrorism.

Many unions, religious bodies, city councils and others oppose war

We are in the company of many unions and religious bodies in opposing this war. The number of unions, labor councils, labor-affiliated organizations, and religious organizations denouncing the war is national in scope and continues to grow. In addition, many city governments, including the Syracuse Common Council, have passed anti-war resolutions.

Therefore, be it resolved

That the CNY Labor-Religion Coalition:

• opposes the Bush administration's war plans against Iraq, and calls on all conscientious citizens to join local efforts that call for international law and diplomacy.

• believes that the US and the international community must continue to deal with Iraq and other nations in a manner that reinforces international law, rather than erodes it. The United Nations must be fully supported and respected.

• recognizes and acknowledges the difficult job members of the armed forces have placing their lives on the line in the service of their country. Therefore, we honor, respect and support those in the military even though we may disagree with the policies of the Bush administration. Further, we believe the best way to demonstrate that support is to help keep the men and women of the armed services out of harm's way.

• urges Congress and the Administration to provide funds for massive needs on the home front. These include helping the nation's cities and states through fiscal crisis, meeting the health care needs of millions of Americans, bringing the working poor out of poverty by paying a living wage, and strengthening our education system. Congress and the Administration must not use Iraq as a reason to neglect the crisis at home.


If labor is more willing than in the recent past to consider anti-war positions, how can the peace movement help to unite our voices? Like any coalition effort, this will require trust-building and mutual attention to one anothers' agendas. Shall we begin?


1Fred Rose (2000). Coalitions Across the Class Divide: Lessons from the Labor, Peace, and Environmental Movements. Ithaca, NY, Cornell University Press.

Diane is the coordinator of the CNY Labor-Religion Coalition, and a long-time peace activist.