WHEN PEACE demonstrators staged mass rallies on both coasts this month, there were new faces in the crowd and on the speakers' platforms. For the first time since the Bush administration launched its ''war on terrorism,'' a significant number of protesters were union members, reflecting growing labor concern about the pending US invasion of Iraq.
In a little-noted development, local, state, and national organizations representing 13 million workers around the country have recently adopted resolutions criticizing military intervention in the Middle East. Among those challenging the White House are some of the largest affiliates of AFL-CIO, including the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, the Service Employees International Union, and the Communications Workers of America.
Locally, two AFL-CIO regional bodies composed of unions in southeastern Massachusetts and north of Boston, have joined the antiwar movement. After lively internal debate, the Lynn-based North Shore Central Labor Council declared that America's ''real aim in this war is to control Iraq's oil, increasing corporate profits at the expense of millions of working people.''
Delegates urged that the billions of dollars now being devoted to ''armaments, domestic repression, and bailouts'' be spent instead on ''retraining and jobs for the 800,000 workers who lost their jobs after Sept. 11 and to plug the $50 billion deficit in state and local budgets that has resulted in major cuts in essential services.''
Such labor criticism of foreign policy and domestic priorities was slow to develop in the wake of 9/11. Like most Americans, trade unionists responded to appeals for national unity after terrorists leveled the World Trade Center towers 18 months ago. Members of various New York City unions performed emergency work during or after that disaster. Many died and were hailed for their heroism. Back then, most of organized labor had little to say about the resulting government crackdown on immigrants and threats to civil liberties posed by the USA Patriot Act.
Few questioned US military intervention in Afghanistan to pursue Al Qaeda and the Taliban, and some union leaders seemed ready to lead the charge. ''It's not simply justice we seek,'' declared Tom Buffenbarger, president of the International Association of Machinists. ''It is vengeance, pure and simple.''
Union attitudes began to change when it became clear that there was going to be a war on labor at home as well as on enemies abroad. In the aftermath of 9/11, for example, President Bush sought little or no aid for displaced workers as part of his airline industry bail-out package. Next, the White House won congressional approval for ''fast track'' votes on future free trade deals that threaten manufacturing jobs while putting federal action on extended unemployment benefits on the slow track.
The president then persuaded Congress to create a Homeland Security Department staffed by 170,000 federal employees who won't have normal union rights or civil service protection. According to Bush, collective bargaining - by workers like the Homeland Security Department's newly hired airport screeners - would interfere with the ''war on terrorism.''
Seeking additional ''flexibility,'' the president now wants to privatize 700,000 other federal jobs. In Washington, Bush has stacked the National Labor Relations Board and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration with appointees hostile to workers' rights.
Despite a $70 billion boost in military spending over the past two years, he is offering little aid to state and local governments facing massive cuts in their health care programs and other social services. Even workers in New York City, who were exposed to toxic chemicals at Ground Zero, are having great difficulty getting the follow-up screening and medical treatment they were originally promised.
Labor's challenge to these distorted priorities emerged from the grass roots, not the union hierarchy. Local ad hoc committees around the country began membership education and debate about the Bush military build-up and its domestic consequences more than a year ago.
As administration saber-rattling escalated this winter, labor-based peace campaigners met in Chicago to form US Labor Against the War, or USLAW, which is promoting union participation in the antiwar movement, here and abroad. After much USLAW lobbying, the AFL-CIO executive council declared on Thursday that the president had failed to make the case ''for military action at this time.''
Not all of American labor agrees with this position. Some unions - like the Carpenters - have been heavily wooed by the White House, and Teamsters Union president Jimmy Hoffa is leading the pro-administration ''Committee for the Liberation of Iraq.'' If and when the shooting starts, other trade unionists may be reluctant to question government policy for fear of endangering troops in the field.
But most labor dissenters are likely to stick to their position that peace is patriotic, too. In the long run, the domestic fallout of invading Iraq will only make working-class life in the United States increasingly difficult, forcing more unions to become foreign policy critics sooner or later.
Steve Early is a Boston-based International Representative for the Communications Workers of America
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company