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Connecting the eras of antiwar struggle

September 14, 2007 | Page 13

LEE SUSTAR and JOE ALLEN pay tribute to Vietnam Veterans Against the War leader Bill Davis.

WE WERE shocked and saddened to learn of the untimely passing September 4 of our friend Bill Davis, a longstanding fighter against war and imperialism and a leading figure in the Chicago labor movement.

For 37 years, Bill had been a member of Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW), joining while still an active-duty soldier. Born in 1948, Bill served in the Air Force from 1966 to 1970, ultimately becoming a staff sergeant. He spent 1968 in Vietnam and 1969 in Thailand, where he worked as a mechanic on U.S. warplanes.

Bill was among those who helped build VVAW into a major force in the antiwar movement in the early 1970s, a period in which he also became a socialist. Several of his articles about those struggles can be found on the Web site.

After the war, Bill was among a much smaller number who kept the organization going, demanding benefits for veterans and educating new generations of activists on the grim reality behind the military recruiters' sales pitch.

What you can do

The Vietnam Veterans Against the War Web site has posted a picture gallery in tribute of Bill. Check here for plans for memorial meetings.


He served more than once as a VVAW national coordinator, and was a key organizer of the group's annual Veterans' Day demonstration in Chicago, where the VVAW highlighted the truth about the cost of U.S. wars--not just on American soldiers, but the millions of victims in Southeast Asia, the Middle East and beyond.

He worked with his VVAW comrades on what he told high school administrators was "pre-enlistment counseling"--that is, counter-recruitment. Warm, approachable and unfailingly generous with his time, Bill helped countless young people to see through the recruiters' lies.

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DURING THE buildup to the Iraq war, Bill helped launch Chicago Labor Against the War and became a frequent speaker at antiwar events. One of the largest was a panel of veterans and trade unionists at the Teamster City union hall in January 2003 on the eve of the founding meeting of U.S. Labor Against the War.

"The military is, and always has been, a microcosm of our society," Bill said that night. "Unfortunately, it focuses the worst elements of our society. In essence, it's the sewer that runs through our society. It's fueled by racism, sexism and homophobia. It encourages excessive use of drugs and alcohol. This is a place that we don't want to send our friends and our children.

"It's the most dangerous job in the world. There's no OSHA overlooking what goes on, and there's no EPA.

"In fact, there's not really any justice at all. The Uniform Code of Military Justice is neither uniform, nor just. There's no appeal in the courts. Once something's happened to you in the military, it goes on and on. There are people who are in Fort Leavenworth from the Vietnam War for fragging officers and a variety of other things, and they'll spend their lives in this military prison.

"We used to say that spending your time in the military was like being a living beverage bottle--once they were finished with you, they just toss you out, no deposit, no return.

"There's a lot of discussion about veterans' benefits. Veterans' benefits have always been given out with an eyedropper and taken away with a steam shovel. Every year, they get slimmer and slimmer, and it has nothing to do with whether it's a Republican or a Democratic government. Year after year, administration after administration, those benefits are shredded and cut to nothing. Benefits that were given to World War II veterans would be a substantial way of life now for a lot of veterans."

He continued: "This bunch that are in power now want to do for foreign policy and the future of this nation far beyond what the Dulles brothers accomplished in the 1950s. Any devious and outlandish sort of thing that's possible will be done. They're going to do whatever they want to do, unless people in this country say they can't."

Bill spoke to nearly 200 people that night and was a featured speaker before thousands at the emergency rally the day the U.S. invasion of Iraq began a few weeks later.

Yet Bill worked just as hard at antiwar meetings that only drew half a dozen. In one small meeting, held around the time of George W. Bush's "Mission Accomplished" speech, Bill predicted today's crisis in the military, anticipating the strains on troops, the fall in recruitment, the exodus of non-commissioned officers and the shake-up in the officer corps.

Few could match Bill's knowledge of the social dynamics of the U.S. armed forces. Unlike academic military sociologists, Bill's analysis was always grounded in both personal experience and working-class politics.

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THAT COMMITMENT to the working class was also manifested in Bill's activism in International Association of Machinist Local 701, which represents 7,000 auto and heavy equipment mechanics in the Chicago area. A longtime mechanic at UPS, Bill kept building the union even after his recent retirement, serving as both president of Local 701 and the local's lead organizer.

Achieving those positions came the hard way, following a long struggle for union democracy that unfolded even as Bill stepped up his antiwar activism.

When Local 701 members rejected a proposed contract at UPS, the IAM International retaliated and placed Local 701 into trusteeship in 2003. But when union elections were held the following year, Bill was elected president, and Local 701 became one of the most effective locals in the IAM in organizing new members.

At a time when labor is in retreat and many on the left despair at the low level of working-class struggle, Bill never doubted the capacity of workers to fight for their own interests, and sought to revive the militant traditions of the labor movement in his own union local and beyond. While active in the labor wing of Democratic politics, he remained a socialist whose focus was always on fighting back.

Bill remained highly active despite enduring a terrible personal tragedy--the loss of his son Josh several years ago. Rather than withdraw, Bill, if anything, deepened his commitment to the struggle for justice.

Our last contact with Bill found him in the midst of that fight. This past May Day, he was part of a labor delegation, beaming at the sight of hundreds of thousands of immigrant workers marching for their rights. A few weeks later, he was driving a vanload of Vietnamese people from the Vietnam Agent Orange Relief and Responsibility Campaign to demand justice for the 3 million suffering from the effects of the defoliant used by the U.S. during the war.

Even after Bill became seriously ill in recent months with the respiratory disease that took his life, he found a way to stay involved, and was involved in planning labor participation in this fall's antiwar demonstrations.

When he learned about the nonunion Mexican immigrant workers on strike at Chicago's Cygnus Corp. in August, Bill immediately dispatched a Spanish-speaking representative of his local to assist another section of the IAM to help organize them. It didn't matter that the workers wouldn't be members of his local. "If I see a worker I helped to organize on the street, and they smile at me, that's enough," he said.

Bill is survived by his wife, Joan, and daughter, Becky. Our hearts are with them, as they have lost a husband and father far too soon. Those of us who knew Bill through his activism will miss him terribly. But his contributions to the antiwar and labor movements will endure.

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