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PEP Dec-Jan 2012
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Public Employee Press

Labor movement and U.S. wars
Combat and protest

In October, after over 4,400 American soldiers had died there, President Obama announced that all U.S. combat forces would leave Iraq by year's end. Yet the United States is planning a major troop buildup in the Persian Gulf region and the war in Afghanistan goes on.

To offer some lessons from history, the New York Labor History Association held a forum Nov. 1 on "The Labor Movement and American Wars of the 20th Century."

Former City University History Professor Irwin Yellowitz spoke of the carnage of World War I. Like the general public, "Many unions opposed the war - until it was declared - but not after," he said.

Most of the labor movement worked with President Wilson to get improvements such as higher wages, but the Socialists, with 100,000 members, and the Industrial Workers of the World, continued to actively oppose the war.

"The master class has always declared the war. The subject class has all to lose," said Socialist labor leader Eugene Victor Debs, who was jailed for his anti-war agitation.

Historian Carolyn "Rusti" Eisenberg discussed working-class attitudes toward the war in Vietnam and toward the anti-war movement, which came to include DC 37, AFSCME and some other unions. She told vividly of the massive nationwide protests that met Nixon's 1970 invasion of Cambodia and the killing of unarmed student protesters by police and the National Guard at Ohio's Kent State University and Mississippi's Jackson State College.

"The working class was carrying the war far more than others. Without student deferments, their kids were forced to serve," she said. Construction workers who attacked anti-war demonstrations were motivated more by resentment than pro-war attitudes, she said.

The Rev. David Dyson spoke of the growing labor opposition to the role of the U.S. military in the civil wars in El Salvador and Nicaragua. As news spread of the assassination of Archbishop Romero and the rape and murder of nuns in El Salvador, "Committees in opposition sprang up," said Dyson, who helped create the National Labor Committee for Democracy and Human Rights in El Salvador.

"We organized trips to Central America so union people could get firsthand information. We learned that the first victims of the military were trade unionists," he said. Between 1981 and 1987, this work reversed labor support for U.S. military involvement. Some of this history is told in "The Revival of Labor Liberalism" by historian Andrew Battista, Dyson said.

PEP Associate Editor Jane LaTour chaired the NYLHA committee that planned the forum.

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