Sweeney Ends AFL-CIO’s Tight Silence;
States Labor’s Concerns About Iraq War

By Harry Kelber

In a statement addressed to members of Congress, AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney said that it is “vital that the Administration present Americans with the evidence and considerations and make a sober judgment before our forces are sent to war.

“It is, after all, the sons and daughters of America’s working families who will be asked to carry out this mission. We must assure them that war is the last option, not the first, used to resolve this conflict before we ask them to put themselves in harmıs way to protect the rest of us.”

The Sweeney statement was issued October 7, just as Congress was debating whether to give President Bush broad authority to conduct a war against Iraq. This is the first time that any AFL-CIO leader has publicly commented on this issue. In fact, national union leaders and their publications have steadfastly ignored all aspects of the “war against terrorism,” ever since President Bush announced it one year ago. Sweeney opposes a unilateral, pre-emptive war. He says: “the stakes in this national debate reach well beyond the immediate issue of Iraq’s dictatorship. We must deal with Hussein’s lawlessness in a manner that enforces international law. We must treat his defiance of the United Nations in a manner that respects that crucial institution and all it stands for. We must counter the global threat that he poses in a manner that advances our efforts to eliminate those who launched last year’s attacks, and that cements our alliances with those throughout the world community who are threatened.”

The statement also questions the President’s political motives in the timing of his request for war powers. “It appears to many of our members that the sudden urgency for a decision about war and peace, an urgency which did not exist a month ago, has as much to do with the political calendar as with the situation in Iraq,” the statement reads.

The Sweeney statement is especially significant because it marks a U-turn from the AFL-CIO’s unwritten, but rigidly followed, rule by its affiliates to focus on purely domestic issues, while pretending that Afghanistan and Iraq simply don’t exist . The AFL-CIO Executive Council last Aug. 6-7 made no mention, favorable or critical, of President Bush’s foreign policy actions. The Sweeney statement appears on the AFL-CIO Web site (, but hardly anywhere else. It has been completely ignored by the AFL-CIO’s Oct. 19 National Day of Action, barely two weeks before the mid-term congressional elections.

Does Sweeney really mean what he says? If so, he must use his authority to call an emergency meeting of the Executive Council as quickly as possible. It would be unpardonable if he waited until Feb. 24, when the Council is scheduled to meet. In the next four months, life-and-death decisions affecting every American family will be made. Shouldn’t the Council, representing 13 million union men and women, have a voice in these decisions, since their members will be paying for them in blood and treasure?

The Council must reject its short-sighted policy of ignoring the issue of war and peace. Isn’t it clear that a U.S. invasion of Iraq will seriously impair labor’s legislative agenda?

Labor cannot blindly follow a President who can decide on his own when and where and against whom to wage war and on terms that he alone will decree. We should be especially wary of President Bush, who has repeatedly demonstrated his bias against unions.

Bush has promised us a long, open-ended war against terrorists and “rogue” states. It’s essential that the Council formulate labor’s own foreign policy. The Sweeney statement on Iraq is an excellent starting point.

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