With the drumbeat of war sounding once again, the first petition I was sent opposing US strikes on Syria came from United States Labor Against War.
The petition, co-sponsored by other peace and progressive groups, lays out clear rationales for its opposition to US military action: it will not solve the crisis nor make Syrians safer; it will likely inflame the situation in Syria; it makes further escalation from the US likely; it is illegal; better routes are available.
USLAW has been keeping labor’s name on the right side of questions of war and militarism since its founding ten years ago during the build-up to the US war in Iraq. Since then, it has accomplished important work for antiwar efforts, including helping to pass numerous antiwar resolutions in labor bodies; educating unionists and the public about Iraqi trade unionists and their struggles; creating materials and helping coordinate actions that highlight the costs of US military interventions, in both human lives and critical social resources squandered.
They’ve done this with much less active support from US unions and other working class organizations than they should get. Labor organizations in the US have not, by and large, committed themselves to any significant political action or educational engagement about war-making and its terrible consequences for working people, here and abroad.
Of course, it’s difficult to expect them to highlight these problems, given the near invisibility antiwar sentiment, the lack of an antiwar movement, and the trouble-filled plates unions currently hold. Many -likely most- Americans are skeptical, critical and weary of war, but almost no public figures, media outlets, or institutions are carrying antiwar banners. Why should labor, fighting its own battles on multiple fronts, take up geopolitics too, nearly alone of major civil society institutions?
But just as significant parts of the labor movement came to recognize during Vietnam, labor’s core demands, and labor’s visions for a better future, together hinge on questions of war and peace. Clear, bold positions about the price we pay for war and militarism should re-enter labor’s everyday lexicon, and help direct its solidarity efforts. Recent US wars have killed or maimed tens of thousands of soldiers and civilians, devastating their families and communities in the process. Working class youth are subjected to an economic draft, with service appearing to be the best option as decent jobs are destroyed and college is made unaffordable. US militarism, reliably supporting or creating repressive regimes, crushes independent union voices abroad. The militarized, security state we live in has repressed and tamped dissent at home. US military spending—nearing 1.5 trillion dollars since 2001—helps make austerity possible, robbing us of needed resources at a stunning, almost unimaginable scale.
These are labor issues. War and militarism help account for why state budgets are collapsing, why global labor solidarity is difficult to sustain, and why (and how) corporations have so much power. As Eugene Debs said in 1918:
“[T]he working class who fight all the battles, the working class who make the supreme sacrifices, the working class who freely shed their blood and furnish the corpses, have never yet had a voice in either declaring war or making peace. . . . If war is right let it be declared by the people. You who have your lives to lose, you certainly above all others have the right to decide the momentous issue of war or peace.”
On this Labor Day, as the US prepares yet another attack in another bloody theater, more US labor and working class organizations should recognize the need for deeper education about and organizing against military intervention. The AFL-CIO convention will give that significant center of the labor movement a chance to do just that: three resolutions calling for education and organizing about the costs of war await deliberation by the body. I hope the delegates there take this opportunity to extend labor’s antiwar efforts, and deepen their commitment to the work that USLAW and its partners have carried over this past decade of war after war after war.
Penny Lewis teaches labor studies at the Murphy Institute for Worker Education and Labor Studies, CUNY, and serves on the executive council of her union, PSC-CUNY. She is the author of Hardhats, Hippies and Hawks, the Vietnam Antiwar Movement as Myth and Memory (Cornell, 2013).