AFL-CIO Convention calls for troop withdrawal from Iraq

Monday 1 August 2005, by David BACON

CHICAGO, IL (7/26/05) - On the second day of its
convention in Chicago, the AFL-CIO took an historic
step, calling for the rapid withdrawal of US troops
from Iraq, and an end to the country’s occupation.

Public attention has focused largely on the split in US
labor, and the decision by two of the federation’s
largest unions to leave. Yet the impact of this call
will reverberate for years, with as profound effect on
the future of US workers and their unions.

Brooks Sunkett, vice-president of the Communications
Workers of America (CWA), started a train of passionate
speeches on the convention floor, saying that the
government had lied to him when it sent him to war in
Vietnam three decades ago. "We have to stop it from
lying to a new generation now," he implored. Henry
Nicholas, a hospital union leader in the American
Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees,
told delegates that his son, who has served four tours
of duty in Iraq, is now threatened with yet another.

Speaker after speaker rose to condemn the war and
occupation, and to demand the return of the troops. No
one dared defend a policy that has caused revulsion
throughout US unions.

Watching from the visitors’ gallery was a handful of
Iraqi union leaders. One of them had traveled to the
US two months ago, with five other union activists, to
plead the case of Iraqi workers. For 16 days they
traveled to more than 50 cities, often speaking before
hundreds of angry workers, demanding an end to the
occupation. The Iraqis urged their US union
counterparts to take action.

The resolution at the convention was the answer to this
call. It was the culmination as well of an upsurge that
has swept through US unions since before the war
started two years ago. From the point when it became
clear that the Bush administration intended to invade
Iraq, union activists began organizing a national
network to oppose it, US Labor Against the War. What
started as a collection of small groups, in a handful
of unions, has today to become a coalition of unions
representing over a million members.

The network organized the tour of the Iraqi unionists,
to provide them a chance to speak directly to US
workers. "We believed strongly that if unions in our
country could hear their Iraqi brothers and sisters
asking for the withdrawal of US troops, they would
respond in a spirit of solidarity and human sympathy,"
said Gene Bruskin, one of USLAW’s national
coordinators. "We were right."

Resolutions calling for troop withdrawal poured in from
unions, labor councils, and state labor federations
across the country. But as the convention began, AFL-
CIO national staff tried to substitute another
resolution that called for ending the occupation "as
soon as possible." This was the same position as that
put forward by the Bush administration.

Delegates at the convention, who belong to the USLAW
network then called for using instead the phrase "rapid
withdrawal" of the troops. At a strategy-planning
session attended by over 150 delegates, US an Iraqi
unionists joined together to plan a fight on the
convention floor to win that language. Before it could
take place, however, CWA Vice-president Larry Cohen
went to the AFL-CIO executive council, the federation’s
ruling body, and asked them to accept the change.
Knowing that a fight was in store, and suddenly unsure
of their ability to win it, the council agreed.

The resolution was put on the floor of the convention
Tuesday afternoon, two days before the scheduled debate
on Iraq. When the proposal for rapid withdrawal was
introduced by Fred Mason, head of the AFL-CIO in
Maryland, it was obvious what he meant by the words.

His call to "get out now" became a chorus thundering
from speaker after speaker. The new language was
adopted with the votes of an overwhelming majority.

The resolution marks a watershed moment in modern US
labor history. It is the product of grassroots action
at the bottom of the US labor movement, not a directive
from top leaders. The call for bringing the troops
home echoes the sentiments of thousands of ordinary
workers and rank-and-file union members, whose children
and family have been called on to fight the war. A
growing number, who now form a majority in US unions,
believe the best way to protect them is to bring them

The resolution represents a deeper understanding that
is making its way into thousands of discussions in
workplaces and union halls. The war in Iraq never had
much credibility as an effort to find weapons of mass
destruction, since none were ever found. The
administration’s claim that it is fighting to bring
democracy to Iraqi people inspired a similar disbelief.

After five years of administration attacks on US workers and unions, none but the most diehard of its
supporters have much faith left in its pro-democracy

Over the last year, however, the Iraqis themselves have
provided a new understanding of the occupation’s anti-
democratic impact. American military authorities, they
told US union members, have banned labor organization
in oil fields, factories and other Iraqi public
enterprises. Meanwhile, Bush political operatives have
begun to engineer the sell off of those enterprises to
foreign corporations, with a potential loss of
thousands of jobs and the income needed to rebuild the

"This is not liberation. It is occupation," said
Ghasib Hassan, a leader of the Iraqi Federation of
Trade Unions, one of the unions that sent its members
to speak in the US. "At the beginning of the 21st
century, we thought we’d seen the end of colonies, but
now we’re entering a new era of colonization."

In the many meetings and discussions that finally led
to the resolution, union members understood the purpose
of the occupation in a new way - as the imposition, at
gunpoint, of Bush administration free market policies
on Iraq. After the resolution’s passage, the Iraqis
called on delegates to act on that understanding, and
asked the AFL-CIO to bring its members out to coming
national demonstrations against the war.

Rapid withdrawal means more than just bringing US
soldiers home. Calling for it puts American workers on
the side of Iraqis, as they resist the transformation
of their country for the benefit of a wealthy global
elite. Brooks Sunkett, Vietnam vet turned union
leader, spoke powerfully for this renewed unwillingness
to wage wars based on lies and greed. His call for
rapid withdrawal breathes new life into the Vietnam
syndrome - so feared by US administrations intent on
military intervention to defend their free market
policies around the world.

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