(WI) Area Labor Continues to Challenge War Policies

by Barbara Smith


Amid general gloom at the close of 2011, there was one good news story: the pullout of U.S. troops from Iraq. But is the war over or, as the Onion says, is it just “not our problem anymore”? And, Iraq aside, what about the continuing economic and human devastation resulting from ongoing wars and military spending?

U.S. Labor against the War (USLAW) was founded in January 2003 during the run-up to the war in Iraq but it is not going out of business with the official end of the U.S. occupation there. Instead, USLAW continues its work: supporting struggling Iraqi trade unions, working to end the war in Afghanistan and opposing the bloated U.S. military budget.

Wisconsin has contributed disproportionately to USLAW’s growth and development over the years. In fact, labor unions that affiliated with USLAW in the Madison area form the highest per-capita density relative to any other area of the country.

United Faculty and Academic Staff (UFAS), AFT-W Local 223, is an example of a local union that affiliated early on with USLAW, and with virtual consensus of its members. “Our members have always seen a direct connection between expenditures on war and the military and the lack of funding for education,” said David Nack, professor at the UW School for Workers and member of UFAS.

While much of USLAW’s work highlights the economic impact of the war, moral concerns are not lost. “The main reason we affiliated was because we had war casualties that affected our local,” says Peter Nowicki. As President of AFSCME Local 145 a few years ago, he attended the funeral for a union sister’s son, who was a helicopter pilot shot down in Iraq. For some mourners, the military helicopter flyover was an unwelcome element that made the occasion even more painful. After that, Local 145’s Executive Board decided to affiliate with USLAW.

Nowicki pointed to the injustice of so much federal money being directed away from human needs and toward war.

While polls show that most Americans believe the Iraq War was a disaster, some national leaders continue to aggressively rehabilitate the war’s image. Nowicki notes that leading Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney criticized the U.S. government’s withdrawal from Iraq, believing the occupation there should continue. Unofficially it does continue, of course, with a U.S. embassy staff of 5,000 and a private security or mercenary force of 10,000. And as years go on, wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are joined by other U.S. interventions, such as the war in Libya and recent signs that a new U.S. war on Iran may be imminent.

USLAW’s Proud Record

Until recently, USLAW’s main role was to help galvanize labor opposition to the war in Iraq. One of its proudest moments was in 2005, when the national AFL-CIO passed a resolution calling for a rapid withdrawal of all U.S. troops from Iraq – the first time in its 50 year history that the federation took a position squarely in opposition to an ongoing war. The Wisconsin AFL-CIO had laid the groundwork for this by passing a Convention Resolution in 2004 calling for immediate withdrawal of US troops from Iraq and key Wisconsin participants in resolutions committees and floor speakers influenced the national AFL-CIO’s decision.

After some years of working exclusively on the Iraq War issue, USLAW adopted an official stance of opposition to the War in Afghanistan as well, noting that after a decade in Afghanistan, the U.S. carries on a war there with no clear purpose. Al-Qaeda is acknowledged to be a negligible presence by U.S. intelligence, but troop levels are at 100,000, and casualties continue. And, now new technologies like predator drones allow the U.S. to wage war much more broadly in Afghanistan and elsewhere.

In 2009, the Wisconsin AFL-CIO Executive Board broke with the Democratic Party leadership and passed a resolution calling for a rapid withdrawal from Afghanistan and redirection of military spending to human needs.

War Losses Real for Wisconsin

The issue of war and militarism sometimes can seem distant for most of us, and something over which we have no influence. Yet the losses are quite real for many in Wisconsin, and they just keep coming.

According to the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism (WCIJ), 731 Wisconsin service members have been wounded and 121 have been killed so far in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

About 10,000 Wisconsin National Guard troops have been deployed to combat zones during the last decade. In September we learned that another 180 troops from Milwaukee, Oconomowoc and West Bend were being deployed to Kosovo. And, just before the holidays, another 130 National Guard soldiers from an Oshkosh-based company were told that they will be deployed to Kuwait in early 2012.

According to WCIJ, 2,700 Wisconsinites under age 25 entered active military duty last year. And the state’s Department of Public Instruction reports that 3.2 percent of high school graduates in Wisconsin said they planned to enlist in the military.

Of course, losses for working people in Iraq are much more devastating. About 162,000 people, almost 80 per cent of them civilians, were killed in Iraq from the start of the 2003 invasion up to last year’s withdrawal of American forces, according to Iraq Body Count, a British NGO.

And, while we tend to focus on the “hot wars,” the U.S. economy continues to be weighed down by the costs of 1,000 military bases in foreign countries, and 350,000 U.S. troops deployed there. Not to mention the cost of all that expensive military hardware.

The U.S. is on track to spend $112 billion dollars on Afghanistan this year alone.

Connecting Dots

USLAW has worked in recent years to confront the wars in a less piecemeal fashion and to begin challenging military spending in general. Last year (correction: 2010), USLAW joined with some 80 other organizations, to launch the New Priorities Network

(NPN). The NPN goals are to create jobs, save services, tax the rich and corporations, end wars and cut Pentagon spending.

NPN highlights the link between waging wars in foreign countries and suffering austerity budgets domestically. “We’re being starved of resources for human needs,” according to David Newby, former president of the Wisconsin AFL-CIO and a founder of USLAW.

A local manifestation of this sentiment is the “Bring Our War Dollars Home” campaign of the Wisconsin Network for Peace and Justice (WNPJ).

One of the challenges facing activists who want to “connect the dots” between cuts at home and war spending abroad is that much of the current austerity program is imposed at the state and local levels, while military spending is traditionally considered a national issue. “Our view is that there should never be a school board or town council discussion of service cuts where someone from the community doesn’t raise the issue of military spending,” says Steve Burns,

WNPJ program director and member of a part-time faculty union, AFT-W Local 6100. “Local elected officials need to get over the idea that military spending is ‘none of our business.’”

Burns says WNPJ is launching its own “Bring Our War $ Home” campaign in the spring. “We will be calling on our statewide network of more than 160 member organizations and hundreds of individual members to press for ‘Bring Our War $ Home’ resolutions at town councils, school boards and county boards. Resolutions by union locals and labor organizations will be an essential part of this campaign.”

Barbara Smith is an activist with AFT-W Local 4848, a member of the USLAW national steering committee and a frequent contributor to Union Labor News.