OPINION Organized labor is set to mark May Day International Workers’ Day with what could be the loudest and most forceful demand yet for rapid withdrawal of US forces from Iraq.
Members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) will lead the way by refusing to work their eight-hour morning shifts at ports in California, Oregon, and Washington. For them, it will be a "no peace, no work" holiday in effect, a strike against the war.
Like many other unions and labor organizations nationwide, the ILWU has long opposed the war in Iraq as an imperialist action in which the lives of young working-class Americans and Iraqi citizens are being needlessly wasted.
The ILWU hopes the dramatic act of shutting down West Coast ports will inspire Americans everywhere to oppose the war.
The coalition behind this movement, US Labor Against the War (USLAW), has been growing steadily since the invasion of Iraq. It’s now the largest organized antiwar group of any kind and is drawing important support, not only from unions but from a wide variety of socially-conscious activist groups outside the labor movement.
USLAW’s members, which represent millions of workers, significantly include the AFL-CIO and most of the federation’s 56 affiliated unions. No one can doubt USLAW’s ability to organize a massive protest like the one ILWU is hoping to lead: it was USLAW that put together the antiwar demonstration that drew half a million marchers to Washington, DC last year.
USLAW is demanding primarily that "our elected leaders stop funding the war, bring our troops home, and start meeting human needs here at home," notes Fred Mason, an AFL-CIO official in Maryland.
In the meantime, says Gerald McEntee, a key public employee union leader, "We are spreading violence in Iraq, not democracy." The Bush administration’s policies, says Musicians Union leader Tom Lee, "make us less secure, increase the threat of terrorism, and have put Iraq on a path of civil war."
ILWU President Robert McEllrath has urged unions and allied groups outside the United States to also mount protests "to honor labor history and express support for the troops by bringing them home safely."
The AFL-CIO’s role is particularly notable. It marks the first time the federation has ever opposed a war, whether the president was a pro-labor Democrat or, as now, an antilabor Republican.
The longshoremen’s union, which was not affiliated with the AFL-CIO at the time, was firmly opposed to the Vietnam and Persian Gulf wars. The ILWU also was a major opponent of dictatorial regimes in South and Central America and the apartheid regime in South Africa, its members often refusing to handle cargo coming from or going to those countries. Just recently, ILWU members in Tacoma, Wash., refused for conscientious reasons to load cargo headed for the Iraq war zone.
We can only hope and hope fervently that the union’s May Day show of strong opposition to the war in Iraq will help prompt millions of others to conclude that they, too, cannot in good conscience support that seemingly endless war.
Dick Meister is a San Franciscobased writer who has covered labor and political issues for a half-century as a reporter, editor, and commentator. Contact him through his Web site: www.dickmeister.com