“While this war was on, you appropriated billions for the war. How much are you willing to appropriate for peace and for jobs?” When Michael Rosenberg challenged U.S. government priorities in 1919 before two thousand workers at Hartford’s Grand Theater, he focused on a controversy that divided the labor movement throughout the 20th century. Rosenberg, a World War I veteran and an organizer for the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), was speaking out against a policy he believed had led the United States to ignore poverty and unemployment at home while building an empire abroad.
Rosenberg and many other union activists opposed a belligerent American foreign policy, but the labor movement’s official leaders never met a war they didn’t like. The Labor Standard, a Hartford-based union newspaper, charged in 1918 that the attitude of trade unionists “must be one of unqualified loyalty to their country.” Echoing politicians of the current day, the editorial insisted that “Either we are whole-heartedly with our country and its allies in this great battle for freedom against the forces of evil and darkness or we are against them.” Any such traitors should be reported to the authorities, the Labor Standard wrote.
Samuel Gompers, a cigar maker who became the first president of the American Federation of Labor (AFL), supported the Spanish American War which ultimately extended American economic and political interests to Puerto Rico, Cuba and the Philippines. And when war was declared in Europe in 1914, Gompers organized the War Committee on Labor and was named as an advisor to the Council of National Defense. George Meany, who ran the AFL-CIO from 1955 to 1970, was an unrepentant Cold Warrior whose international activities supported CIA operations in Europe, Latin America and Asia. Meany was also head cheerleader for Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon’s prosecution of the Vietnam War. In 1965 Meany stated that the AFL-CIO would support the war “no matter what the academic do-gooders may say, no matter what the apostles of appeasement may say.” Meany’s replacement Lane Kirkland continued the tradition with fierce support for U.S. intervention in El Salvador and Nicaragua. For conservative labor leaders like Gompers, Meany and Kirkland, war meant more jobs for American workers and, not coincidentally, defense against the same kind of international radicalism that they individually faced within the labor movement.
But there has always been a significant sector of the American labor movement which has spoken out against war. Mary Harris “Mother” Jones was among the first and most famous dissenters. At the end of the Spanish American War, native Filipinos decided that U.S. domination was as bad as control by Spain. From 1899 to 1902 they fought for independence and 4,000 American soldiers died. Two hundred thousand Filipino people also died, mostly of starvation. Mother Jones exhorted crowds of miners not to join the war in the Pacific. “Don’t go off to fight for freedom in a foreign land” she once told young workers, “there is plenty of fighting to do at home.”
During World War I, there was harsh government reaction to anti-war organizing by union activists. Eugene Debs, founder of the American Railway Union, was convicted and sentenced to ten years in prison under the Espionage Act just for giving a speech in Canton, Ohio that questioned government war policies. Kate Richards O’Hare, a machinist by trade who, like Debs, was a Socialist, was sentenced in 1917 to five years in a federal penitentiary for asserting that “it will be the women who will pay again when war has run its bloody course.” IWW leader William “Big Bill” Haywood, a frequent target of government prosecutors, was convicted in 1918 for calling a strike during war-time. Anarchist Emma Goldman (who started her working career as a Bridgeport garment worker) not only criticized the war but the AFL’s Gompers as well. “Gompers was never able to swim against the tide,” she wrote. “Hence he made common cause with the war lords and delivered the membership of the AFL to be slaughtered in war” For her anti-war stand and other subversive ideas, she was deported.
After the war, progressive trade unionists in Connecticut looked for a political vehicle that could meet the needs of working people and their desire for a stable peacetime economy. On February 23, 1919 the American Labor Party formed its state affiliate in Meriden with delegates from the state’s major cities on the basis that there should be “no subject nations, subject races, subject colonies, subject classes, or a subject sex.” The organization called for federal job support for returning soldiers and war industry workers. The party’s platform also called for the end to compulsory military training and a plank that stated “No war shall be declared by the government prior to a referendum vote of all voters of the country.”
When it comes to modern-day workers and the question of war, the “hard hat” is one of the most enduring stereotypes. At Electric Boat in the 1960’s, workers attacked peace activists who opposed the building of Polaris submarines. In May of 1970, New York City construction workers first beat up peace demonstrators and then continued with almost an entire month of pro-war and pro-Nixon rallies.
The myth of Archie Bunker versus long-haired students was born, but the reality was much more complex. Polls of American workers at the time showed that a minority of white working class males considered themselves “hawks” on Vietnam. Though there was little working class participation in the peace movement, a number of unions took a stand against the war despite George Meany. The most active unions were the New York hospital workers in 1199, public workers in AFSCME District Council 37, the United Electrical (UE) workers and the west coast International Longshore and Warehouse workers. The short-lived Labor Assembly for Peace, led in part by Walter Reuther of the United Auto Workers, was also a symbol of division within what had been the solid pro-war face of Labor. By 1972, the most progressive unions were supporting peace candidate George McGovern over Richard Nixon, while Meany stayed neutral.
Today, thousands of union workers have joined protests against the war in Iraq, most recently on August 29th just before the Republican National Convention. This is the culmination of work that pre-dates the invasion, and is the result of the hard questions that unions have to ask themselves about national priorities. In January, 2003, several hundred health care workers from District 1199 of the New England Health Care Employees Union/SEIU debated the impending invasion at a delegate assembly in Hartford. These union activists were veterans and conscientious objectors, family members of active duty soldiers and mental health workers who had dealt with the aftermath of previous wars. In the end, they overwhelmingly approved a resolution opposing unilateral or preemptive war against Iraq, and warning against any action that would endanger “the sons and daughters of working families serving in the military” while billions of dollars were being “taken away from our schools, hospitals, housing and Social Security.” Unions such as 1199 have since formed U.S. Labor Against the War, a coalition of more than 80 national and local labor organizations. This watershed event came on the heels of a 2002 letter to Congress questioning the rush to war from the current AFL-CIO leader John Sweeney. In many ways, Sweeney’s statement signals what may be a permanent break with the ghosts of Gompers and Meany.
While the “hard hat” drama was playing out on the streets of New York in 1970, one small event exposed a crack in the myth of jingoist workers and the gulf between them and the peace movement. A young truck driver had just finished making a delivery when he found the street blocked by an anti-war demonstration a few days after the killings at Kent State University by the National Guard. Told by a police officer to move, the driver said “I won’t start this truck up to run people down. They have a right to protest in the street and not get killed.” The cop gave him a ticket. The protestors took up a collection and handed him $100 in dollar bills.