Socialism is the Best Medicine

Socialism is the Best Medicine

The Anti-War Movement And The Working Class

January 10, 2024

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On October 16, the Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions called for a two-part strategy to stop Israel’s ruthless war against Gaza: they appealed to the world’s workers to refuse to build and transport weapons for Israel; and they appealed to the general public to a) pressure their governments to stop all military trade and funding for Israel’s war, and b) “take action against complicit companies involved in implementing Israel’s brutal and illegal siege.”

To date, unions of workers in the Canadian and U.S. weapons industry have not mobilized their members to stop sending weapons to Israel. Why not?

The Unionized War Machine

More than two million workers in the U.S. produce over 80 percent of military exports to Israel. Many of these workers are unionized with the UAW (United Auto Workers) and the IAM (International Association of Machinists).

In late October, 1,300 IAM workers at Raytheon and 1,100 UAW workers at General Dynamics (two of the largest U.S. military contractors) ratified new contracts at the same time that both companies were equipping the Israeli genocide. Workers at General Dynamics had voted overwhelmingly to strike on October 22, after the Palestinian Unions published their appeal, but UAW officials made a last-minute deal to keep workers on the job.

Union officials claim they have a duty to protect workers’ jobs. However, far more jobs would be created by shifting Pentagon funding into medical care, education, infrastructure, and clean energy. What’s really going on?

Class War

During the 19th and early 20th centuries, workers formed unions to fight the bosses and their profit-driven system, to improve their economic conditions and their social conditions. Threatened by growing union power, the business class retaliated with physical force and racist, anti-communist attacks.

During the Cold War, employers forced workers to sign a pledge of loyalty to the U.S. government. Those who refused were investigated, then penalized or fired.

Workers had forced employers to accept their unions. To keep those unions weak, employers convinced union officials that they should work together to secure labor peace, meaning, a subservient workforce. Between 1949 and 1950, the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) expelled more than 10 percent of its total membership who were targeted as disloyal.

Having pushed social-justice fighters out of the unions, conservative union officials took social issues off the table. They limited bargaining to economic issues and directed workers to channel their social concerns through the electoral system.

In 1950, union and management cemented the separation of economic and social issues with the Treaty of Detroit. General Motors offered UAW workers a 5-year, generous wage and benefit package in exchange for surrendering the right to bargain over the production process. Over time, employers whittled away those economic benefits, leaving workers with no (legal) decision-making power on the job and no economic compensation for the loss.

We all want a say over our work and a say over our lives. That’s what real democracy means. The loss of our decision-making power at work has eroded our decision-making power in every other aspect of life and society.

The ruling class cannot allow real democracy. Who would choose to work all their lives to make others rich? So employers court union officials as partners in managing the workforce, which means depriving workers of their right to decide.

Today’s unions are institutions of class compromise that strive to balance the interests of workers and employers. This is an impossible task because the two classes have opposite interests.

To raise profits, employers push to increase output-per-worker. To preserve their lives, workers push back. The capitalist system is structured to favor the business class, so they get richer every year while workers lose ground. Union officials cannot change this social arrangement without challenging the right of the business class to dominate work and society.

Unions and the State

The State gives employers the exclusive legal right to decide what is produced, how it is produced, and who will benefit. And it traps workers in a contract-bargaining system that limits unions to negotiating the conditions under which workers will make bosses rich, not the wage system that forces them to do so.

Under the contract-bargaining system, union officials must restrict workers’ demands to what employers will accept. They are allowed to fight for their members only (when they fight at all) and not for the larger working class.

Effective strikes disrupt the flow of profit and create a social crisis that can only be solved by meeting workers’ demands. Labor laws prevent such crises by reducing class struggle to a series of isolated contract battles.

Legally blocked from calling all-out strikes that engage the larger working class, union officials call for time-limited or rotating strikes, agree to ‘cooling-off’ periods, interrupt strike actions to vote on tentative agreements, and end strikes before agreements are signed. Such tightly managed strikes serve to ‘let off steam’ while minimizing damage to the employer’s business. Workers have the experience of fighting back, but in ways that wear them down until they surrender.

As a result, union officials regularly settle for less than workers demand. To get more, they would have to seriously disrupt the employer’s business, and the State would retaliate with strike-breaking legislation backed by the threat of massive fines, criminal charges, and union decertification.

The combined impact of anti-union attacks and compromising union officials has caused a steep decline in the unionized workforce and the loss of important labor gains achieved over the previous century.

Anti-Worker Partners

Just as local union officials partner with employers to keep companies profitable, top union officials partner with their States to protect corporate profits at home and abroad.

The AFL-CIO (American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations) sits atop the U.S. union hierarchy in the same way that the CLC (Canadian Labour Congress) sits atop Canada’s union hierarchy.

The AFL-CIO supports the profitability of U.S. corporations in other lands by helping the U.S. government overthrow democratically-elected governments, prop up anti-union dictators, and support right-wing unions — all without the awareness or consent of their members. The CLC plays a similar role in partnership with the Canadian government.

Regardless of what they might say, both union federations fully support their governments’ drive to war and the anti-worker policies required to pay for it. The AFL-CIO regularly overrules labor councils that oppose U.S. foreign policy and has overturned pro-Palestinian resolutions passed by affiliated unions.

The AFL-CIO and its member unions have mimicked the US government in remaining staunch supporters of Israel — even as Palestinian workers face extreme economic exploitation because of the occupation, Palestinian trade unionists endure harassment and repression by Israeli forces, and a growing chorus of human rights groups label Israel an apartheid state.

Union support for Israel

U.S. unions have been, and continue to be, major political and financial supporters of Israel.

After the Nakba, which turned 750,000 Palestinians into permanent refugees, U.S. unions donated millions of dollars for the construction of public facilities in Israel including: the Walter Reuther Youth Center in Holon, George Meany Stadium in Nazareth, Philip Murray Memorial Center in Elath, William Green Cultural Center in Haifa, James R. Hoffa Children’s Home in Ayn Karim, and ILGWU Hospital in Beersheba.

Although U.S. unions hold billions of dollars in Israel bonds (purchased with members’ dues), the long-standing alliance between U.S. unions and the Zionist state has never been rock-solid.

Some major unions and organizations of anti-war union activists have long-opposed the Israeli occupation of Palestine. Most are independent of the AFL-CIO. By advancing the labour principles of international worker solidarity and “An injury to one is an injury to all,” they have increased union-member support for the Palestinian cause.

In 2004, anti-war unionists in New York partnered with a Palestinian-led community group to form Labor for Palestine. Other pro-Palestinian labor groups and anti-war unions are gaining support from workers who oppose union support for genocide.

Building union-member support for Palestine, in opposition to U.S. foreign policy, is critical to break the stranglehold of the union bureaucracy and reconnect the labor movement with its original mission of freeing humanity from exploitation, oppression, and war.

The Anti-War Movement and the Working Class

Pressure from union members is pushing more unions to pass ceasefire resolutions. These resolutions do not bind the union to any action. In December, the UAW was praised as the largest U.S. union to pass a ceasefire resolution, even as its members continue to build and transport weapons for Israel.

Ceasefire resolutions and mass demonstrations have failed to stop or even slow the flow of weapons to Israel. Israel’s war against the Palestinians continues and threatens to expand to Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Iran.

During the buildup to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, anti-war resolutions and mass mobilizations shifted public opinion against the war, yet failed to stop it. When the business class are committed to war, only one thing can stop them — a workers’ rebellion that challenges their ability to wage war.

The global war machine cannot function without workers producing, transporting, and deploying military equipment. Because workers are essential to wage war, an effective anti-war movement must be rooted in the workplace. The business class understand this and do everything in their power to block workers from laying down tools and refusing to produce for war. Workers who engage in anti-war activities outside of work are not a threat.

Outsiders can blockade ports and munitions plants. However, such actions are limited to how many people can participate and for how long. When they cause more than a temporary disruption, employers appeal to the State to physically remove demonstrators, criminalize them, and ban or bankrupt their organizations.

Mass demonstrations, ceasefire resolutions, and public opinion matter a great deal. No union would dare strike against the war unless it had broad public support. However, an anti-war movement that fails to mobilize workplace action will be limited to displays of moral outrage that authorities feel free to ignore.

A successful anti-war movement will infect the working class with a spirit of rebellion and belief in their collective power to stop war.

Militant Lobbying

Anti-war demonstrations are a form of militant lobbying. Even radical direct action and civil disobedience aim to convince power-holders to do something different. This faith in government is misplaced.

If public pleas were enough to change government policies, we would have a fully funded public medical system; affordable housing; decent wages; paid sick leave; safe and accessible abortion; and an end to fossil fuel extraction.

We have none of these things because governments do not serve ‘the people;’ they serve the business class. In every social crisis, from COVID to climate change, politicians prioritize profit over human need. Despite the terrible cost to human life and the environment, war is profitable in the short-term and, over the long term, secures more profit through control over land, labor, and markets.

Politicians don’t care if we threaten not to vote for them. They know that the better-funded candidate wins more than 90 percent of the time, and they can only get that kind of funding by serving corporate needs. In the case of Israel,

Congress members who were more supportive of Israel at the start of the Gaza war received over $100,000 more on average from pro-Israel donors during their last election than those who most supported Palestine.

To end war, the anti-war movement must partner with the only force that can deliver a socially just society, the organized working class.

Workers Pay for War

People, who desire not weapons but bread, who struggle to make ends meet and desire only peace, have no idea how many public funds are being spent on arms. Yet that is something they ought to know! It should be talked about and written about, so as to bring to light the interests and the profits that move the puppet strings of war. – Pope Francis

Currently, every industrial nation is building its military forces to prepare for a global war between the U.S. and China. By 2021, before the wars in Ukraine and Palestine, world military spending had reached a record $2.1 trillion.

Canada, the United States, and Australia have all announced plans for new military expenditures, and dozens of European states have pledged more than a combined $209 billion in new military funding. In 2022, Canada’s Chief of Defense Staff argued,

Given the deteriorating world situation, we need the defense industry to go into a wartime footing and increase their production lines… There’s a huge demand out there.

What’s not being said is that the Great Global Rearmament is being financed by a corresponding global war against the working class, regardless of which political party holds office.

The Cost of War

War is profitable for military contractors, the victors of war, and the contractors who rebuild when wars end. However, those who profit from war do not pay its costs. They make workers pay.

Instead of solving pressing problems such as poverty, homelessness, and premature death, billions of public dollars are being transferred from social programs to the military. Billions more are sent as aid to warring nations that use that money to purchase weapons from the donor nations, in effect, an indirect transfer of tax dollars to the domestic war industry.

Between 1946 and 2022, the U.S. gave Israel $318 billion in foreign aid. Not only are public dollars not being invested in hospitals, housing, and schools that are desperately needed at home, they are funding the destruction of hospitals, housing, and schools in other lands.

Canada is financing its growing military budget by limiting medical and social transfer payments to the provinces, and the provinces have responded by cutting and privatizing social programs.

The gross under-funding of Canada’s medical system has creating a lack of access to care, a failure to provide timely care, and a crisis of overwork among medical staff. Fewer jobs in the public sector increase demands on the workers who remain and place a greater burden on families to provide what society no longer will.

Most workers today are overwhelmed with economic concerns: how to keep a roof over their heads and food on the table; how to pay for childcare and medical/dental treatments; how to care for the frail, sick, and disabled; and how to manage crushing debt. Economic distress is driving a rise in homelessness, overdose deaths, and falling life spans in some of the world’s richest nations. In 2022, more than 200,000 people in the U.S. died from alcohol, drugs or suicide, equivalent to a Boeing 747 crashing every single day with no survivors.

In every affected nation, workers have demonstrated and struck against the loss of public services, the crisis of overwork, and the increased cost of living. And in every case, the union establishment have blocked angry workers from using their class power to challenge the root cause of their distress, the drive for profit and the push to war.

Building Workplace Action

Anti-war activists need to be clear; building support for working-class demands is anti-war activity. The more society invests in raising living standards, the less it invests in war.

Moral outrage against Israel’s genocidal war will move many workers to join anti-war demonstrations. Organizing anti-war action in the workplace is a bigger challenge. To build supportive relationships with workers at their place of work, anti-war activists must:

• Connect workers’ pressing economic concerns with the drive to war
• Support workers to reclaim workplace control of their unions
• Support workplace actions that build workers’ confidence in their collective power to end war

War and Revolution

We are in a prolonged social crisis. Society is collapsing, environmental systems are collapsing, and capitalism has no solution. The failure to stop global warming proves that competing nation-states cannot solve the most urgent problems.

The U.S. is using the war in Ukraine and the Israeli war to prepare for a wider global war with China to determine which nation will dominate the world economy. The U.S. relies on Israel to serve its interests in the strategic and resource-rich Middle East and, along with its NATO partners, fully supports the genocide of Palestinians required to consolidate the Israeli State.

War signals the failure of society to solve its problems cooperatively, deepens social crises, and opens the door to revolutionary social transformation.

There could be no better time: The current anti-war movement exploded immediately as the war began, while it took decades to build the 1960s anti-war movement. The anti-war movement has grown rapidly in nations with no fighting forces in the region. It didn’t take plane-loads of body bags coming home to turn people against the Israeli genocide. The hypocrisy of supporting Ukrainian independence from Russia while opposing Palestinian independence from Israel proves that there is no rules-based order, no democratic right to protest, and no value attached to human lives.

A Volatile Situation

Our rulers can no longer rule in the old way. The more they invest in war and push anti-worker policies to pay for it, the more working people rebel, and the more dictatorial methods, even fascism, are needed to maintain social control.

The ruled refuse to be ruled in the old way. They’ve lost confidence in an electoral system where every established political party supports the war and criminalizes dissent. They don’t see a future under the existing social order. They want a different society, one that values human life and meets human needs, including the need for a sustainable environment.

The current anti-war movement is the largest global protest movement since the 1960s. It enjoys broad support from those suffering decades of attacks on their living standards, a global pandemic where governments failed to protect human lives, and unprecedented social inequality.

Half of all Americans under age 35 think the October 7 Hamas attack was ‘justified by Palestinian grievances.’ An entire generation is being radicalized in favor of the Palestinian cause, and they are making connections between the desperate plight of Palestinians, racist oppression in their own nations, and the failure of capitalism to offer a livable future.

As with opponents of the US war in Vietnam, supporters of Palestine are being pushed to question the ruling-class parties that defend Zionism, and the capitalist-imperialist system they represent.

The COVID lock-downs proved that society can change overnight. To change it in our favour, we must be clear what we are up against and resist the pull of ineffective strategies.

We need to fight for democracy at work. Those who do the work and understand the work are in the best position to manage how the work is done. Work is central to life and society, and the key to changing both. By reclaiming our collective right to decide what happens at work, we can end war and the profit-driven system that demands it.

6 Comments

6 Comments

  1. Once again Susan Rosenthal’s forensic analysis and incisive writing style cuts to the core of what’s needed to stop the wars once and for all: the growth of the organised working class within the global anti war movement. Read this article en route to London for tomorrow’s national demonstration for immediate and unconditional ceasefire in Gaza. #FreePalestineEverywhere

    Reply
  2. Thank you, Ms Rosenthal. I read your posts regularly and find them very informative.

    You are correct about local union resolutions not having much effect. I’m now retired but was an AFSCME member and officer at the beginning of the USA invasions of Iraq. At the local level, we passed an anti-war resolution. We did not follow that up w/ direct action.

    Though I was active in the anti-Vietnam war movement as a college student, I give most of the credit for the ending of that war to the Vietnamese resistance. I feel the same about Afghanistan and Iraq. Unfortunately, the people of those countries suffered tremendously to achieve at least a semblance of independence.

    Still the speed and breadth of the anti-genocide movement throughout the world is reason for hope.

    Reply
  3. Thanks, Susan. On the dot. Agree our faith in gov is misplaced. We are signing petitions galore, even hitting the street: No pasa nada (it makes us feel bett’a “that we did/are doing something”).

    Reply
  4. Thank you Susan for this analysis. Workplace action is where it’s at and where we should place our emphasis. Other forms of mobilization are also useful.

    Reply
  5. Thank you very much indeed, Susan, for another most inspiring article.

    Reply

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