Inside the AFL-CIO
Issued Every Tuesday
Column #31 October 23, 2001

Unions React Cautiously
To Bush’s ‘War on Terrorism’

By Harry Kelber

More than a month after President Bush announced plans to mount a global war against terrorism, many union leaders are still wary about taking a public position on the Administration’s military response.

Of course, union leaders and members are of one mind about getting rid of Osama bin Laden and his network of terrorists, but there are disagreements about how to do it. Some would consider it a victory if the terrorists in Afghanistan were crushed and bin Laden was caught, dead or alive. Others favor assaults on countries that sponsor and harbor terrorists, such as Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, Libya, Indonesia, Somalia and the Philippines. Still others have qualms about using U.S. troops and weapons in an extended global conflict that could further inflame anti-American sentiment in Islamic countries and elsewhere.

There appears to be general agreement that a protracted war increases the probability that restrictions will be imposed upon unions in the name of national security — and that working families would likely bear a disproportionate share of the costs, both human and economic.

It’s troubling that there is no guidebook on fighting terrorists, and no one knows if the President’s goal of eradicating terrorism will ever be realized. But labor leaders are acutely aware that any criticism of the Bush team’s global strategy may be construed as disloyal to our troops fighting on the ground in Afghanistan.

Since this as-yet-undeclared war may, in time, become as controversial as the war in Vietnam, some union leaders say the AFL-CIO would be well advised not to take any position. As with abortion, gun control and other contentious matters, the federation can avoid needless friction and disunity within the “House of Labor” by remaining neutral.

Meanwhile, unions are still mourning hundreds of members who lost their lives in the Sept. 11 attacks. In addition to honoring their own heroes and contributing funds for victims’ families, they are proclaiming solidarity with Islamic and Arab-American members and others who have become the targets of bigotry and bias-related attacks.

At one memorial service Oct. 19 at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City, 24 porters, elevator operators, window cleaners and food service workers missing and presumed dead in the World Trade Center attack were memorialized by their union, Service Employees Local 32B-J. AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, a former president of the local, said: “The grief we feel is almost unbearable… These brothers and sisters were killed because of the values we share: the right to worship, the right to assembly and diversity in America.”

Three international unions that suffered a terrible toll on Sept. 11 have written to 20 of the largest U.S. banks, where their pension funds are invested, asking them to support legislation to detect and prevent “money laundering” transactions by terrorist groups. The unions are the International Assn. of Fire Fighters, which lost 344 members at the World Trade Center; the Service Employees, 64 members, and the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees, 47 members.

It has been estimated that more than 500,000 workers lost their jobs as a result of the terrorist attacks and the weakened economy — and their number will grow next year. The AFL-CIO has proposed an economic stimulus package that would mainly take the form of relief to laid-off workers. It would extend unemployment insurance benefits to 52 weeks and remove restrictions that now deny payments to more than 50% of the unemployed. Funds would be allocated for health insurance coverage and expanded job training opportunities. Many union leaders say now is the time to increase the federal minimum wage, since millions of low-wage workers have seen their incomes shrink dramatically since the last time Congress authorized a hike in 1996.

In contrast, the $75 billion stimulus package proposed by President Bush allots about two-thirds of that sum to tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy. Unemployment benefits would be extended by 13 weeks, but thousands of laid-off workers would still fail to qualify for any benefits at all.

The American Postal Workers Union and the National Assn. of Letter Carriers, in particular, are concerned that their 500,000 union members who handle and deliver the mail are properly protected from exposure to anthrax terror attacks. So far, the disease has been transmitted through the mail to individuals in Florida, New York, Nevada and Washington, D.C.

Postal workers complained that they were not tested for 10 days after a letter containing anthrax arrived at the offices of the American Media in Boca Raton, Fla. Three employees of the weekly tabloid publisher were infected and one died. “We’ve been after them (the Postal Service) for two weeks, but no one would come down and test the workers,” said Gil Santana of the Miami Postal Workers Union.

In New York City, postal union officials accused management of downplaying the risk of anthrax exposure in postal facilities. “They have been lying to the workers all along and have endangered workers by lying to them,” said William Smith, president of the Metro Area Postal Union, which represents 10,000 clerks, drivers and maintenance workers. “If this threat escalates and no real agenda is put forth by postal management to secure the lives of the workers, we will have to make our own provisions.”

Despite worries about the war and anthrax, many unions are functioning fairly well. In fact, for the week ending Oct. 15, AFL-CIO unions organized a total of 3,814 new members - among the largest weekly gains this year. That included 1,500 New Orleans city employees who joined Service Employees Local 100.

John W. Wilhelm, president of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees, wrote to his membership just two days after the terror attacks: “All of us need to redouble our efforts to organize. The fluctuations of our industry are beyond our control, but our focus on organizing is within our control.”

While national union leaders have had little to say thus far about the conduct of the war and the Administration’s policies, an informal survey showed that e-mail postings of union members are overwhelmingly critical. There were many messages similar to this one from AFSCME members in Chicago: “Bombing the main cities of Afghanistan is repeating the same savage disregard for innocent human lives as the perpetrators of the September 11th attacks.”

In San Francisco, the Central Labor Council approved a statement Sept. 24 that said: “The tragic attacks of Sept. 11 should be treated as a heinous crime rather than an act of war.” The council cautioned that labor’s enemies could “use a national crisis as an excuse to assault our civil and economic rights.”

A newly-formed group, New York City Labor Against War, has gathered endorsements from nearly 200 labor activists, including nine local union presidents, on a petition calling for an “independent international tribunal to impartially investigate, apprehend and try those responsible for the September 11 attack.”

A Washington, D.C. Labor Committee for Peace and Justice is circulating “An Open Letter to the Labor Movement” that calls for “justice, not vengeance” and states: “We should reject the crude calls for frontier ‘justice’ or ‘dead or alive.’ Instead, we should affirm the importance of international law and seek civilized justice through the international courts and multinational mediating bodies.”

Since Sept. 11, we’re living in a transformed world in which unions will have to rethink their economic priorities and political strategies. But unions also have new opportunities to become the champions of millions of unorganized and jobless workers who are confused and uneasy about what the future holds. When the members of the AFL-CIO Executive Council meet in Washington on Nov. 8, union members will be waiting anxiously to hear how they respond to the Sept. 11 tragedy and its aftermath.

“Inside the AFL-CIO” can be viewed at every Tuesday. Our “LaborTalk” column appears every Monday.

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