The Iraq War & the Economy

[by Andrew Pollack]

The New York Times report on 5th-anniversary antiwar protests claimed that “while the banners and bullhorn rhetoric were strident, the mood among some was pessimistic. ‘The war is not going to end,’ said Bob McGee. ‘It doesn’t matter who wins the election. The only thing that’s going to stop it is the destruction of the economy.'”

While The Times used his quote to try to mock the movement, Brother McGee expresses a truth that shows the movement will likely have the last laugh. Throughout history when workers have had enough of paying for war in their own blood and money, they have found ways to put a stop to it—and often gone on to rebel against a system that makes both war and exploitation possible.

During Vietnam, young rank-and-file autoworkers, from the ghettoes of Detroit to the suburbs of Lordstown, began to rebel against the backbreaking, alienating nature of their work. They also began to draw links with the plight of oppressed nationalities rebelling against “Great Society” domestic programs, which were merely a sop to their demands and were further constrained by the huge amounts diverted to Washington’s war.

Today’s economic crisis is already forcing people to draw the links. You couldn’t go to an antiwar demonstration this spring without having people in the crowd tell you about the connection between the war and the economy. You see the link made frequently as well by dissident United Auto Worker members—with an added dose of outrage at high-paid, job and wage cutting executives.

We won’t repeat here the contrast made so well and often between spending on war and on social needs. The disparity between the trillions spent on war, and the massive cuts to housing, education, and health care, exacerbated by disappearing jobs and soaring prices, have been outlined by numerous authors and organizations.

What we want to home in on is why our society’s priorities are skewed this way, and who can change it. Presidential candidates Clinton and Obama talk about the link between war spending and domestic cuts, but neither has the least intention of doing anything about it. They see the connection from the other side of the class line: the need to maintain power for the ruling class at home and abroad. That’s why Congressional Democrats vote every single time for Bush’s war budgets.

Revolutionary Marxists know that only the class upon whose labor this system depends have both the interest and the power to end it, starting with halting wars designed to prop it up. That’s why we push for broad, mass demonstrations, so workers can see each other in action and draw renewed inspiration for struggles at work and in society at large.

Workers have this power not just because they, like the poor and middle class, suffer economic deprivation. More fundamentally it’s because their exploitation at the point of production is the key to capitalists’ wealth and to the surplus value siphoned off by the government for wars protecting capital’s rule.

What’s more, veterans of the class struggle have always been the most effective organizers in the military, because the training and skills learned and political conclusions drawn in the struggle at home make them natural leaders of resistance within the ranks—as well as in renewing the struggle against exploitation once demobilized. As discontent in the ranks deepens, workers in uniform—i.e., soldiers—increasingly realize that their subjection to officers mirrors abuse by bosses back home.

Such parallels were usefully depicted by US Labor Against War leader Michael Zweig in his article, “The War and the Working Class,” published in The Nation. Writes Zweig: “The government treats its soldiers the way corporations treat their workforce—as an invisible, disrespected, disposable means to an end. Members of the armed forces come mainly from the working-class and small-town and rural America, where opportunities are hard to come by.”

Among the parallels drawn by Zweig:

• “Stop-loss” orders and mandatory overtime.

• Bogus commitments made by military recruiters, and subsidies and tax breaks to corporations claiming to provide jobs.

• Resistance by military officers and corporate bosses to paying for injuries and disabilities suffered in battle and at work respectively.

• Bosses in and out of uniform use union-busting laws and repression to quash organizing against these abuses, by soldiers in Iraq and by U.S. and Iraqi workers.

And Zweig compares the attempt to give U.S. companies control over Iraqi oil with the privatizations and increasing corporate power that workers face back home.

His group, USLAW, is well placed to help educate and organize workers around these connections. One recent example is an April 5 workshop held by its New York chapter to discuss how union activists could raise the war-economy connection with coworkers. After the workshop, attendees picketed JP Morgan Chase, which not only got billions in taxpayer money to gobble up Bear Stearns, but, says an USLAW flyer, gets taxpayer money to lead the bank controlling Iraq’s trade with the rest of the world.

USLAW recently established a network for union members who are military veterans, on active duty or in the National Guard or Reserves, or who have a member of their family currently in the military. “Union members in these situations face special problems and challenges, and have a special role to play in the movement to end the occupation of Iraq.”

The network will help unions with contract bargaining around vets’ and GIs’ special needs, and will coordinate activities with Iraq Veterans Against the War, Veterans for Peace and Military Families Speak Out.

Such a Network can make concrete in action the connections being made verbally. Starting with taking the lead in protesting the deeper cuts in soldiers’ and vets’ services and benefits that are inevitable as the economic crisis deepens, it could potentially be at the center of a broader, union-based movement fighting for workers’ rights both at home and abroad.

Such a movement will be even more necessary as Washington’s efforts to maintain its shaky hold on global dominance in the midst of this crisis increases the chance of new wars, which in turn will demand even more massive war spending and attacks on workers’, soldiers’, and vets’ jobs and benefits to pay for them.

In the article in this issue on the latest stage of the economic crisis, we quote from relevant parts of Trotsky’s Transitional Program. Here we mention demands in the Program useful for workers fighting against militarism.

Trotsky writes: “To the reformist slogan, a tax on military profit, we counterpose the confiscation of military profit and expropriation of war industries.” To those calling for token spending shifts, he counters: “Not one man, not one penny for the bourgeois government! Not an arms program but a program of useful public works!”

As the economic crisis deepens, and more and more workers make the connection with the war, such slogans will find a growing hearing. That’s why the announcement by the International Longshore and Warehouse Union that it would stop work at West Coast ports on May 1 to demand “an immediate end to the war and occupation in Iraq and Afghanistan and the withdrawal of US troops from the Middle East” is so important.

It should be noted that the ILWU action is part of a special contract provision allowing “stop-work” union meetings once a month on the second shift, and on the busier day shift when the bosses agree. Such actions have previously been organized around the case of Mumia Abu-Jamal, South Africa, El Salvador, and other issues.

The San Francisco Labor Council passed a resolution hailing the ILWU’s vote and urging others to take workplace actions, noting the vote of Branch 214 of the National Association of Letter Carriers to observe two minutes of silence on May Day.

The 7000-member N.Y. Metro Area Postal Union also voted to observe two-minute periods of silence against the war and occupation on each shift and against threats to attack Iran and Syria. It urged members to “wear a button, ribbon, badge or other symbol in
protest on May Day.”

At Hunter College, the Professional Staff Congress chapter is holding a mid-day teach-in. It’s not clear how many more unions will respond.

As the economy sinks lower and lower, unionists beyond the ILWU will be discussing whether work stoppages might be useful both to stop the war and to protest the cuts being imposed on us by a ruling class trying to solve its crisis on our backs.

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