Peace March: Largest Labor Contingent Ever?

It was a jubilant festival of resistance that spilled down Broadway on Saturday, as anti-war marchers once again pulled out the stops with colorful costumes and chants to demand an immediate withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq.

Some of the most vociferous chanting came from the labor unions--including UNITE HERE, CWA, 1199 SEIU, and the transit workers and teachers unions--who mobilized 7,500 to 10,000 of their own in what organizers said was probably the biggest anti-war labor contingent ever.

Citing Saturday's turnout and the strong support from unions expected at Monday's immigrant rights demonstrations across the country, John Wilhelm, president of the restaurant and hotel workers division of UNITE HERE, declared: "There is something profound and powerful taking shape in this country, and not a minute too late."

He and other speakers told of how the war abroad had become a war on workers at home, as spiraling military costs siphon monies from pensions, health benefits, education, and public works, and National Guard soldiers, who are very often union members, come home maimed or in body bags.

"What they promised, that the gas prices would go down and that there would be oil revenues from Iraq, has never happened," charged Steve Kramer, vice president of the healthcare workers union 1199 SEIU. "Now we see gas prices at $3, and you don't see them talking about taking the windfall profits they've given Halliburton and Exxon Mobil.

Concern over immigrant "reform" measures circulating in Congress is also galvanizing organized labor. Unions see the proposed "guest-worker" provisions as simply institutionalizing the ability of employers to exploit people. Not only would guest workers get paid less, depressing wage scales across the board, they say, but if a guest worker gets fired, that's grounds for deportation--which means immigrants would have little recourse to challenge their employers for mistreatment and abuse.

At the same time, organizers say the disastrous occupation of Iraq is prompting many union members to rethink stereotypes of immigrants as people who simply come here to profit off the U.S. "Union members are connecting how Iraq is part of a larger foreign policy that destabilizes people's countries and economies and forces people to immigrate to survive," says Michael Eisenscher, national coordinator of U.S. Labor Against the War.

The war and the attack on immigrant rights are creating a powerful synergy.

Last July, the AFL-CIO passed a resolution calling for the "rapid" return of all U.S. troops from Iraq, and that's emboldened many unions--including those in the construction trades which have traditionally been reluctant to take on "foreign" policy issues.

It's not just the war's mounting costs but the sense that the situation in Iraq is unwinnable and endangering American security by provoking more terror and unrest.

"We used to hear after Vietnam, if only they had let the military fight the whole way, we could have won that war," Bill Henning, vice president of Local 1180 of CWA, which represents administrative workers in New York City. "But now people are saying with Iraq, this is a war that we don't even deserve to win. We made a mistake, it's not in our interest, and we should just get out. It's destroying the infrastructure here and in Iraq, and we should not fight it any more."


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