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Why trade unionists should oppose the war

by LEE SUSTAR | September 28, 2001 | Page 15

THE AIR attacks of September 11 and the U.S. drive to military action suddenly placed the issue of labor's role in wartime squarely in front of unions.

All the major unions have expressed their horror at the attacks. And in New York City, union members heroically risked--and too often lost--their lives in the rescue efforts.

At the same time, labor leaders have pledged to support U.S. military action. "We affirm our full support for American democratic values here and around the globe, and we believe that those responsible, in any way, for this heart-stopping horror must be dealt with," AFL-CIO President John Sweeney said the day after the attack. "We will fully support the appropriate American response."

Where Sweeney was vague, International Association of Machinists (IAM) President Thomas Buffenbarger called for a military onslaught. "[IAM] members will be prepping the planes that can just as easily carry troops to the farthest reaches of the earth," he wrote. "They will be building the F-15, F-16, F-18 and F-22s that will impose a new reality on those who have dared attack us. For it is not simply justice we seek. It is vengeance, pure and complete."

This warmongering is no surprise coming from Buffenbarger, who earlier this year launched a scare-mongering PR campaign to support Bush's Star Wars missile defense program.

But even union members who are critical of U.S. foreign policy and oppose Bush will argue that the coming war is justified because of the attack on the U.S.--and that it's time to "pull together as a nation."

Yet the employers wasted no time in showing just what "patriotism" and "sacrifice" means to them. First, Congress voted for a $15 billion airline industry bailout as the industry eliminated 100,000 jobs. At the same time, Congress poured tens of billions into defense programs that would not have prevented the September 11 attack.

And after years of insisting that the budget surplus couldn't be used on social spending, Congress poured tens of billions into military spending while declaring that Social Security would be cut.

Meanwhile, the potential for U.S. casualties--almost all of them working-class people--will raise the question of who really gains from U.S. wars.

Eugene V. Debs, the leading figure in the old Socialist Party founded a century ago, argued that patriotism was a tool used by employers to convince workers to kill--and be killed--in the interests of politicians and employers.

In a speech in Canton, Ohio, in 1918 in opposition to the First World War, Debs quoted the old saying that "patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrels."

"They are continually talking about your patriotic duty," Debs said of the employers, officials and the press. "It is not their but your patriotic duty that they are concerned about. There is a decided difference. Their patriotic duty never takes them to the firing line or chucks them into the trenches…

"In passing, I suggest that we stop a moment to think about the term 'landlord.' 'LANDLORD!' Lord of the Land! The lord of the land is indeed a superpatriot. This lord who practically owns the earth tells you that we are fighting this war to make the world safe for democracy--he who shuts out all humanity from his private domain; he who profiteers at the expense of the people who have been slain and mutilated by multiplied thousands, under pretense of being the great American patriot.

"It is he, this identical patriot who is in fact the arch-enemy of the people; it is he that you need to wipe from power. It is he who is a far greater menace to your liberty and your well-being than the Prussian Junkers [German aristocrats] on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean."

Debs spent nearly three years in federal prison for making that speech--as the result of a government crackdown on civil liberties during the war.

Those same issues face us today. And Debs' brilliant speech is just as relevant as ever.

The full text of Debs' speech is available on the Web at

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