By David Bacon (Portside, 19 February 2003)
After a weekend of demonstrations involving over 10 million people worldwide, protesting an impending US war on Iraq, opposition to the Bush plan in many countries is hardly a question. But US military action may have political costs that go far beyond rising unpopularity. Particularly among unions in many countries, opposition may take a much more concrete form.
On Wednesday, over 200 unions, on all five continents, representing over 130 million members, agreed on a joint statement rejecting a war in Iraq. That declaration questions the US rationale, saying no convincing link exists between the terrorist attacks of September 11 and Iraq's Saddam Hussein, nor evidence for immediate threats from weapons of mass destruction. Unions signing the statement point out that such a war would be fought overwhelmingly by the sons and daughters of workers, and they assert that war hysteria is being used as a pretext for attacks on labor, and to mask the effects of a sinking economy worldwide. The appeal ends by calling on labor to organize opposition in every country.
Such an appeal is unprecedented. During the Vietnam War, the majority of US unions supported involvement until it was almost over. While unions in other countries voiced opposition, there was no common front, much less one organized at the initiative of US labor. The appeal made Wednesday was initiated by US Labor Against the War, a growing coalition including at least five major national unions, three state labor federations, and many locals and labor councils.
That appeal is not simply a flowery statement, but groups together unions who have already taken action. In Britain, where opposition is sharpest, unions have squared off against the support of the Labor government of Tony Blair for an Iraq invasion. On January 9, two train engineers refused to climb into the cab of a locomotive and 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. Not only were the two supported by their union, the Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen, but the union's general secretary warned Wednesday that those 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 One. "The TUC must be convened, so that industrial action can be considered," Rix warned.
This isn't an idle threat. Already five of Britain's largest and most strategically placed unions have openly defied Blair, and some call for his ouster, even at the cost of the Labour Party's grip on power. It is just one sign of the growing gulf that now divides British unions, not just from the prime minister, but from the party they created decades ago.
In Italy, where unions organized a turnout of over three million people in the streets of Rome over the weekend (the largest demonstration since the end of World War Two), the leftwing General Confederation of Italian Workers (CGIL) made a similar threat. On Tuesday the union's executive council declared its intention of calling a general strike in the event of hostilities.
Italy's unions are locked in bitter conflict with the rightwing government of media magnate Silvio Berlusconi, who has strongly supported the Bush war policy. Enzo Bernardo, director of CGIL's International Department, explained Wednesday 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."
Pakistani trade union leader Rubina Jamil, President of the All-Pakistan Trade Union Federation joined the call Wednesday. Her federation represents over 5 million Pakistani workers who, she emphasized, are already familiar with the cost of US military action in Afghanistan, which they oppose. "This war is only for oil," she declared, and threatened that her federation would organize mass demonstrations, including hunger strikes, in front of the US embassy and consulates when any invasion begins. In Pakistan the US depends on the increasingly unpopular regime of President Pervez Musharraf to support its continuing hunt for Taliban and Al-Qaeda militants, and mass labor demonstrations against an Iraq war would create huge political problems. Joining in the declaration of international labor opposition was Djeman Hacene, general secretary of the International Confederation of Arab Trade Unions, who agreed with Jamil that the objective of intervention in Iraq was the pursuit of oil.
Among supporters of the international labor declaration, sentiment is sharpest in those countries where governments have aligned themselves with the Bush administration. The trade union federation of Australia, where Prime Minister Ron Howard has been one of Bush's most vociferous supporters, declared it was "ashamed" of his 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.
Many rejectionist labor federations represent a much greater percentage of workers in their countries than unions do in the US, and can exact a price for political support. In the German elections, unions supported Gerhard Schroeder in his successful reelection 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. In some of those countries, like Britain and Italy, industrial battles may provoke a political realignment, and support for Bush may cost those governments their hold on power.