Outside the UAW Local 600 hall in Dearborn is a pole flying three flags. On top is the Stars and Stripes. The local’s standard, gold and emblazoned with the black UAW insignia, is on the bottom. And in the middle is the stark black-and-white flag honoring soldiers missing in action, with the inscription, “We Will Not Forget.”
Nearby is a tombstone-like slab erected by union members who were veterans. The monument bears a fierce bald eagle and is etched with the names of the five wars this country fought in the last century, beginning with World War I and ending with Desert Storm.
On Saturday, about 200 members from a variety of unions braved a snowstorm to attend a meeting intended to help keep the name of yet another war from being etched into that stone, and to keep more soldiers from being lost to battle.
The event, sponsored by the Labor Committee for Peace and Justice, the Coalition of Labor Union Women, and the National Lawyers Guild / Sugar Law Center, featured seven labor leaders, all of whom had a telling asterisk following their names to indicate their affiliations were for identification only. While locals across the country are passing resolutions urging that the United States avoid war, most leading national and international unions have been reluctant to take a stand.
Al Benchich, president of UAW Local 909, offered some reasons why. “Some have said the war is not a union issue,” he explained. “Some are afraid they will be perceived as unpatriotic.”
“By and large,” he said, “most unions in Detroit have not begun discussing the most important issue of the day.”
But, as he and the other speakers contended, opposition to the pending war and the Bush administration promoting it should be at the top of labor’s agenda.
Millie Hall, president of the Detroit Chapter of the Coalition for Labor Union Women, pointed out that working-class families, whose members will be on the front lines, will most directly feel the pain of conflict. It will be a heavy price to pay, she said, arguing that the coming conflict is rooted more in a presidency seeking distraction from a failing U.S. economy than in actual threats posed by Saddam Hussein.
“The Bush administration’s smokescreen will ultimately bring our sons and daughters home in body bags,” said Hall.
Paul Felton, executive board member of an American Postal Workers Union local, warned that Bush will “keep labor and poor people on their heels” by making it “unpatriotic to stand up for your own rights at a time of war.”
Several speakers pointed out that Bush’s hostility to organized labor was made clear in the Homeland Security Act, which, as Michigan AFL-CIO President Mark Gaffney noted, “stripped bargaining rights from 140,000 federal workers.”
Gaffney also argued that, because of the role played by multinational corporations and foreign suppliers, this war will not spur America’s economy the way past conflicts have. Citing just one example, he predicted that “this will be the first war where steelworkers will not add new members.”
On top of that, a war that is predicted to cost $750 billion will drain the economy at a time when government at all levels is struggling to provide basic needs.
“It’s guns or butter,” he said. “You can’t have both.”
“This is a leadership issue,” said Bob King, an international vice president for the UAW. Dismayed because only a few hundred people turned out for the event and that only a few thousand had showed up to protests in Detroit the week before, King told the crowd that it is imperative that people opposed to this war stand up and be counted.
“We are not reaching our sisters and brothers,” he said. “We have a moral obligation to speak out against this war.”Curt Guyette is the Metro Times news editor. Call 313-202-8004 or e-mail [email protected]