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On the afternoon of May 8, 1970, some 200 construction workers attacked a Wall Street rally against the Vietnam War. It became one of the searing images of the nation's wrenching internal debate on the conflict and helped draw a dividing line right through the middle of millions of American living rooms: flag-carrying hardhats pummeling longhaired protesters.
Organized labor, with only a handful of exceptions, was squarely in the pro-war camp then. Cigar-chomping AFL-CIO chief George Meany led the charge. Years later, after 58,000 body bags had come back from Indochina, Meany had second thoughts. "If I had known then what I know now, I would have acted differently about the war," he told an interviewer not long before he died in 1980.
That quote was included in a letter sent to current AFL-CIO president John Sweeney last October by Gene Bruskin, who now heads the AFL-CIO's food and allied services division. Bruskin is one of the leaders of an effort to get American unions to take a dramatically different stand on the looming war in Iraq. The effort has already borne remarkable results.
Leaders of more than 400 labor organizations, representing 4.5 million union members, have signed on to a tough resolution condemning the Bush administration's push toward war. The statement is an expression of the deepest mistrust about the administration's central claims.
"There is no convincing link between Iraq and Al Qaeda or the attacks on September 11," it states. "Neither the Bush administration nor the UN inspections have demonstrated that Iraq poses a real threat to Americans." The principal victims of a war, says the resolution, "will be the sons and daughters of working class families serving in the military" and "innocent Iraqi civilians."
The billions of dollars needed for the action will come from "schools, hospitals, housing, and social security," it states. The war push, the resolution proclaims, is already serving as a "pretext for attacks on labor, civil, immigrant and human rights at home" as well as a "distraction for the sinking economy, corporate corruption, and layoffs."
The resolution was initially adopted at a conference in Chicago last month, and even the locale of the meetingthe country's largest Teamsters trucking localwas an indication that anti-war sentiment is spread broadly among unions.
Among the signers are the national leaders of the communications workers, postal workers, state and municipal employees, as well as the central labor councils of Los Angeles; Philadelphia; Washington, D.C.; Cleveland; Sacramento; Albany; and northwest Indiana.
Local unions representing painters, carpenters, plumbers, teachers, and hotel and auto workers have also signed. Separately, several large labor bodies, including the giant Service Employees International Union, have sent their own messages of concern to the White House.
In New York, more than two dozen unions have signed on, led by health and hospitals workers union 1199/SEIU, now the state's largest union, which has given office space to anti-war protest organizers and bought radio time to advertise last Saturday's rally near the UN.
Even Sweeney of the AFL-CIO, who has to walk a delicate line between liberal and conservative member organizations, has issued two separate, carefully nuanced statements regarding the Iraq buildup. The most recent one was a late January joint letter from Sweeney and his British equivalent, Trades Union Congress chief John Monks, sent to President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair, urging them to "take every possible step to achieve the legitimate ends of disarming Iraq without recourse to war."
"It is the most skepticism expressed by organized labor since World War I," said Queens College professor of history Joshua Freeman. "Nothing like this happened with World War II or Korea. It is surprising how bold people have become."
In part, said Freeman, labor's misgivings about the White House's foreign policy are simply a reflection of the general public, which shares those doubts, according to polls. For unions, there is added suspicion of an administration that has steadily sought to curb their influence. Bush fought to bar unionization for agencies under the Homeland Security Department and for federalized airport screeners. "The administration has acted as though it was disloyal to be part of a union," said Freeman.
In fact, that is exactly what Bush ally and House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, the Texas Republican, said in a fundraising letter sent out on behalf of the anti-union National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation. "It is truly sickening that, at a time when we desperately need everyone in America to pull together, the big labor bosses are willing to harm freedom-loving workers, the war effort, and the economy to acquire more power," said DeLay in the six-page letter.
Teamsters union leader Jim Hoffa, Bush's closest labor ally, cried foul after that letter surfaced, and DeLay quickly moved to blame overzealous aides for having affixed his name to it. But the episode served to underscore how badly alienated labor has become from top Republican leaders.
Back in the 1960s and '70s, both the GOP and many Democrats shared the common ground of militant anti-Communism with big labor, a cause for which Meany, a former plumber from the Bronx, was a major exponent. Along with Meany, however, that ideology is gone.