Monitor archives:
Copyrighted material

Global Labor Marches Against War

by David Bacon

on historic February 2003 demonstrations<
(PNS) -- Opinion polls and mass demonstrations worldwide have shown popular opposition to potential U.S. military action in Iraq. But recent anti-war moves by labor unions across the globe could pose more concrete obstacles to Bush administration war plans.

Recently, more than 200 unions on six continents, representing over 130 million members, released a joint statement rejecting war in Iraq. The unions declared that no convincing link exists between 9-11 and Iraq's Saddam Hussein, and saw no evidence of an immediate threat from weapons of mass destruction. War would be fought by the sons and daughters of workers, the declaration read, and war hysteria is being used as a "pretext for attacks on labor, civil, immigrant and human rights" and "serves as a cover and distraction for the sinking economy, corporate corruption, and layoffs."

The appeal ends by calling on labor to organize opposition in every country.

Such a call is unprecedented. During the Vietnam War, the majority of U.S. unions supported U.S. involvement until nearly the end of the conflict. Although unions in other countries voiced opposition, there was no common front. But the recent appeal was initiated by U.S. Labor Against the War, a growing coalition that includes three state labor federations and many locals and labor councils. At least five major national unions are involved, including the Farmworkers, the State, County and Municipal Employees, and the Communications Workers, whose executive vice-president, Larry Cohen, announced the declaration.

Grouped together in the appeal are unions that have already taken anti-war actions. In Britain, unions have squared off against Prime Minister Tony Blair's support for an Iraq invasion. On Jan. 9, two train engineers refused to pull a train from Glasgow to the Glen Douglas military base on Scotland's west coast, the largest weapons store in NATO.

The incident electrified British workers. The engineers were supported by their union, the Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen, and the union's general secretary even warned that such actions would multiply in the event of war.

"We do expect more refusals," predicted Mick Rix. He added that the bylaws of the British Trade Union Congress call for an immediate meeting in the event of war -- a provision dating from 1918, when many unions sought to prevent the entry of European countries into World War I. "The TUC must be convened, so that industrial action can be considered."

Already, five of Britain's largest unions have openly defied Blair. Some call for his ouster, even at the cost of the Labor Party's grip on power -- another sign of the growing gulf that now divides British unions from the party they created decades ago.

In Italy, where unions organized a turnout of more than 3 million people in the streets of Rome on Feb. 15, the left-wing General Confederation of Italian Workers (CGIL) declared its intention of calling a general strike in the event of hostilities.

Enzo Bernardo, director of CGIL's International Department, explained that "the big majority of Italians, not just workers, are against the war. We know terrorism in our country," he added, "and this war has nothing to do with resolving it. Our government does not speak for the Italian people."

Italy's unions are locked in bitter conflict with the right-wing government of media magnate Silvio Berlusconi, who has strongly supported the Bush war policy.

In Pakistan, Rubina Jamil, president of the All-Pakistan Trade Union Federation, joined the call. Her federation represents over 5 million Pakistani workers who, she emphasized, are already familiar with the cost of U.S. military action in Afghanistan, which they oppose.

"This war is only for oil," Jamil said, adding that her federation would organize mass demonstrations, including hunger strikes, in front of the U.S. embassy and consulates should an invasion begin. In Pakistan the United States depends on the increasingly unpopular regime of President Pervez Musharraf to support its continuing hunt for Taliban and al Qaeda militants.

Joining in the declaration of international labor opposition was Djeman Hacene, general secretary of the International Confederation of Arab Trade Unions.

Among supporters of the declaration, sentiment is sharpest in those countries whose governments have aligned themselves with the Bush administration. The trade union federation of Australia, where Prime Minister John Howard has been one of Bush's most vociferous supporters, declared it was "ashamed" of Howard's actions. "He has no mandate from our people," declared Sharron Burrows, the federation's president. She also threatened industrial action in the event of war.

After turning out 150,000 people in Montreal's march, Canadian Public Employees and Autoworkers announced they would step up pressure on Prime Minister Jean Cretian. Some unions are even going after other governments -- Mexico's Independent National Union of Workers announced it would seek to embarrass Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar, another Bush supporter, when he arrives in their capital next week.

As in Britain, where more than a third of the work force is unionized, many rejectionist labor federations can exact a price for political support. In the German elections, unions supported Gerhard Schroeder in his successful re-election bid, when he campaigned against Bush's military policy. Schroeder's victory indicates that other governments also may survive or fall based on their support for war. The political map of many countries could easily be redrawn by bitter labor battles breaking out in factories, ports and railway terminals at the start of an Iraq invasion.

Comments? Send a letter to the editor.

Albion Monitor February 18, 2003 (

All Rights Reserved.

Contact for permission to use in any format.