MIA: History: ETOL: Newspapers & Periodicals: International Socialist Review: Issue 20

International Socialist Review, November–December 2001


War and the labor movement


From International Socialist Review, Issue 20, November–December 2001.
Downloaded with thanks from the ISR Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the ETOL.


THE U.S. labor movement was quick to endorse military action following the September 11 attacks. But soon afterward, unions were themselves the target of a concentrated attack. From tax breaks for corporations and the rich to mass layoffs and the abandonment of postal workers to anthrax, the war has already exposed the deep class divisions in the United States.

AFL-CIO President John Sweeney voiced support for military action immediately following the September 11 attacks. Six weeks later, he wrote a Washington Post op-ed column exposing the hypocrisy of those who praise workers’ roles in recovery and relief efforts while forcing them to pay the price for the crisis.

“For the past month, everybody in America has been a worker wannabe,” he wrote. “The painful irony is that the homage our nation pays is just lip service. While we’ve been singing the praises of workers, Congress is about the business of severing their lifelines.”

Not only did Congress repeatedly block $2.5 billion in additional unemployment and medical benefits to laid-off airline and aerospace workers, but the House pushed through Corporate America’s wish list packaged as an “economic stimulus bill.”

“Apart from its economic flaws, the measure is flat-out unfair,” the New York Times editorial admitted. “Of the $54 billion in accelerated tax cuts, every penny would go to the top 30 percent of taxpayers. Half would go to the top 5 percent. Eighty percent of the benefits from the capital gains tax cuts would go to the top 2 percent of households.”

IBM, for example, would get $1.4 billion under the repeal of the alternative minimum tax; General Motors would net $833,000; General Electric, $671,000.

By contrast, only $2.3 billion of the $100 billion in the White House’s plan would go to extended benefits for unemployed workers – if congressional Republicans allow it to become law, that is. And, as Sweeney pointed out, much of that money would come from raiding funds originally intended for health insurance for poor children.

Even if that aid goes through, federal and state labor laws restrict eligibility for unemployment compensation to just 39 percent of all employees. What is more, the recession is rapidly deepening, with corporations across the board seizing the war crisis to justify deep restructuring. Airlines topped the list.

“The [airline] industry is potentially headed toward its largest loss year ever, and there is absolutely no evidence of fundamental improvement on the horizon,” said Samuel Buttrick, an analyst at the investment firm UBS Warburg – the day before the September 11 air attacks. US Airways, for example, was already talking of bankruptcy. And American Airlines, after promising to avoid layoffs in its takeover of TWA, cut 20,000 jobs in the wake of the attacks.

As International Socialist Review went to press, a new wave of layoffs was announced from such leading companies as phone giant SBC, Goodrich, Sears, copper giant Phelps Dodge, and Kodak. The number of claims for unemployment benefits hit 504,000, the highest figure in nine years, with unemployment reaching 4.9 percent, well above the 3.9 percent recorded in early 2000.

Those who claim that the war will boost the U.S. economy should take a closer look at history. During the First and Second World Wars, the government reined in anti-union employers, grudgingly accepted union organizing, established war labor boards to hammer out agreements on wages and prices, and sharply raised taxes on businesses and the wealthy. The total war mobilization of the 1940s – based the need to produce enormous quantities of ships, tanks, planes, and guns and to field massive armies – reduced unemployment to practically nothing.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the Cold War provided an economic prop for the long boom and an era of “partnership” between what used to be called Big Business and Big Labor. A steady increase in working-class living standards and the expansion of the welfare state helped to ensure social peace and to sustain working-class support for the war in Vietnam for years under both Democratic (Kennedy and Johnson) and Republican (Nixon) administrations. The relative dominance of the U.S. economy meant that employers were willing to make some concessions – although never without a fight.

Eventually, rank-and-file rebellion and the Black Power movement pushed the United Auto Workers (UAW) and other unions into opposition to the war, though longtime AFL-CIO President George Meaney remained a hawk on Vietnam to the bitter end. The more conservative building trade unions backed him in this, culminating in the infamous “hard hat” demonstrations that targeted antiwar protesters. With the exception of some small socialist organizations, the anti–Vietnam War movement itself made little effort to relate to the working class.

A quarter of a century later, the situation is very different. A more competitive world economy compelled U.S. employers to undertake an offensive from the Carter through the Clinton administrations. As a result, powerful unions such as the UAW and the United Steelworkers of America have been cut in half.

However, class polarization has led to a growth in working-class consciousness and pro-union sentiment. Strikes in recent years at big companies such as UPS and Verizon have shown that labor can fight and win. In addition, organized labor has developed real, if uneven, relationships with a new left based in the movement against corporate globalization.

In the months before the “war on terrorism,” Bush approached labor with a good cop/bad cop routine. First, he pushed a series of attacks – scrapping health and safety regulations, threatening to ban airline strikes, pushing through a tax break for the rich. Next came the offer of collaboration. With the recession beginning to bite and membership declining, labor accepted the offer. The Teamsters and the AFL-CIO announced support for Alaska oil drilling, while the UAW backed the Big Three automakers’ successful bid to block improvements of SUV fuel-efficiency standards. International Association of Machinists (IAM) president Thomas Buffenbarger embraced Bush’s national missile defense plan, producing a special union magazine and video, apparently in the hope that layoffs in the Boeing commercial airline division would be counteracted by new defense industry jobs to build the missile shield.

The overwhelming support for the war by labor leaders seemed at first to indicate another round of collaboration with Bush. Most vociferous was Buffenbarger, who declared that IAM members “will be building the F-15, F-16, F-18 and F-22’s that will impose a new reality on those who have dared attack us. For it is not simply justice we seek. It is vengeance, pure and complete.”

The reward for this patriotism, however, was the layoff of 30,000 workers in Boeing’s commercial airline group – an acceleration of the downsizing plan that Boeing had been pursuing for years. The picture is similar in other industries. Already, auto industry analysts on Wall Street are demanding that the Big Three automakers use the crisis to reopen contracts with the UAW in order to close plants.

In short, we will not see a replay of the wartime boom economies of the past century. And, despite Bush’s maneuvers, there won’t be much room for labor in the Republican White House. Half a century ago, the employers had to contend with a working class that was one-third unionized – with a far higher percentage than that in heavy industry. With fewer than one-tenth of private-sector workers in unions today, employers don’t feel the pressure to make concessions to labor. Any “partnership” will be on highly unequal terms. What is more, the “war on terrorism” won’t provide anything like the full employment of the 1940s war economy, when auto factories, for example, ceased to produce cars in favor of tanks and planes.

The employers and their allies in Washington have, on the contrary, repackaged their anti-union, anti-labor program as patriotism – and are pushing it harder than ever. As House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas) put it: “The model of thought here, and quite frankly, the model of thought that says we need to go out and extend unemployment benefits and health insurance benefits and so forth, is not one that is commensurate with the American spirit here.”

For his part, Bush used the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit to link his war in Afghanistan to his push for fast-track trade negotiating authority. He asserted the U.S. commitment to “opening the doors of trade and opportunity and therefore [improving] the lives of its citizens, versus the terror network, which has a dark view, an oppressive view, and no regard for human life.” Besides a new push on trade, employers are certain to try to use the new rollback of civil liberties to restrict union rights.

Thus for all of the popular backing for the war at its beginning, the dynamics of recession and the employers’ offensive will undermine working-class support for the war. Instead of full employment, there will be mass layoffs and rising unemployment. In the place of the 90 percent income tax rate on the superrich seen in the 1940s, we will see a giveaway of tens of billions to the wealthy. Rather than an expansion of welfare, there will be further cuts in the remnants of the social safety net, which could threaten millions of workers with hunger and homelessness on a scale unseen since the Great Depression of the 1930s, even if the recession itself is much less severe.

Already, the contradictions of this war have compelled Sweeney to make statements that would have been unimaginable from Meaney in wartime. And some important groups of workers – from state employees in Minnesota to tank makers at General Dynamics plants in Michigan and Ohio – have shown the courage to strike to defend their interests.

All of this will strengthen our ability to make the case that this war is not in the interest of working people in the U.S. – and that organized labor should oppose it. Already, organizations of union officials and members against the war have been established in San Francisco and New York on a scale that took several years to achieve during the Vietnam War.

By exacerbating the already enormous class polarization in the U.S., a war that is popular today can contribute to radicalization on a much bigger scale tomorrow – and with roots in the organized working class.

Last updated on 8 August 2022