8-27-07, 12:00 pm
“Can we live in peace when more than a quarter of the world’s people live in poverty and all we can offer is increased war spending and more unwinnable wars?” – Jeremy Corbyn
This was the over arching question posed by British MP Jeremy Corbyn, one of the prominent international guests at the recent national meeting of United for Peace and Justice in Chicago. Corbyn and the other guests encouraged the delegates as they tackled tough issues of organization and strategy during three days of intensive work. He told them that their decisions and future actions would, in turn, encourage people around the world.
Corbyn continued, “What we do is very, very important. It matters to the people of Palestine; it matters to the people of Iraq,” to see that people in the US and Britain are actively opposing their government’s imperialist policies. Corbyn was joined on the stage that night by an array of distinguished visitors from Middle Eastern and Asian nations that have resisted or are resisting US foreign policy. These included two Iraq trade-union leaders as well as Dr. Mona al Farah, vice president of Gaza Red Crescent; Tran Xuan Thu and other plaintiffs in a lawsuit against Dow Chemical and 35 other corporations on behalf of millions of Vietnamese suffering from the use of chemical defoliants by the US during the Vietnam War; Gihad Ali, a young woman poet of Palestinian ancestry; and a group of Iranian cyclists who are touring the US to build friendship and understanding between our two countries.
The speakers at the Saturday evening public program were at once uplifting and sobering. Their message – the urgency of building a powerful US peace movement – resonated with the delegates. In plenary sessions and small group workshops they wrestled with the conference’s main challenge: reaching and mobilizing the 70 percent majority of the US population that opposes the Iraq war. The proceedings showed that they were well aware of the connections between peace and justice, at home and abroad. For example, at the Saturday morning plenary session, the delegates heard Michael McPherson of Veterans for Peace tell how his organization had made the link between FEMA’s lack of response to refugees from Hurricane Katrina and the resources being wasted on the Iraq war. He emphasized the importance of making a difference in people’s immediate lives in order to win “strategic victories” by, for example, participating in a rally against police brutality in an American city as well as a rally against prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib. In confronting US imperialism he said it was important “to fight the body as well as the tentacles.”
After hours of passionate but respectful discussion and debate, they set priorities and dates; they reached agreement on strategy and allowed for flexible tactics by local and regional organizations. They set October 27 as the target date for large regional demonstrations around the country for an end to the war and the occupation of Iraq. They elected a steering committee for the period ahead. UFPJ is, after all, a widely diverse coalition of organizations. Among its criteria are requirements that its various constituencies be represented on the steering committee: At least 50 percent women; at least 50 percent people of color; at least 20 percent youth and students; at least 15 percent LGBT identified persons. The steering committee is authorized to add groups in between national meetings if these minimums are not reached by the election process.
Among the key constituent groups at the meeting were delegates from the labor movement. John Cameron is political director of AFSCME in Illinois and an executive committee member of US Action. He told the delegates that US Action, after finding that the top issue with voters in the 2006 elections was the Iraq war, had refocused is activity and was working to bring in labor, African American and military leaders. His organization’s “Iraq summer” project has 100 organizers across the country in key districts to insure a super-majority in Congress in 2008. Labor’s contribution to building the antiwar movement was underscored by the appearance of two Iraqi union leaders at the Saturday evening international program. Hashmeya Mohsen al Hussein of the electrical utility workers, is the first woman to lead a national union in Iraq. Faleh Abood Umara is the general secretary of the Iraqi Federation of Oil Unions. Their appearance was part of a national speaking tour to inform Americans about the struggles of Iraq’s workers.
The labor delegates included some who had previously been active with US Labor Against the War (USLAW is a member organization of UFPJ) and those who were meeting that organization for the first time. Dorothea Wilson, past president of the retiree chapter of Philadelphia’s AFSCME District Council 47, an affiliate of USLAW, was a first time delegate to UFPJ. She told Political Affairs “We should send more people next time. All of us have to be a part of this to bring the troops home. If funds were cut off, we would get them back faster.” She also connected the gun violence ravaging American cities to the government’s war priorities. “We’ve lost brothers, cousins, husbands…. We could use that money we’ve sent over there for our schools in Philadelphia.”
Michael Zweig of SUNY’s faculty and professional staff union was at the conference representing the 32,000 members of AFT local 2190, also a USLAW affiliate. He felt that it was important for the peace movement to bring in organized labor, since it represents “a constituency that has not traditionally been in the house. Fifteen million people is a sizable group, and they are already organized and ready to use their power and experience.” An example of the unique contribution that labor can make, he pointed out, was bringing the Iraqi trade unionists, “our co-workers,” to the US. Their message made the link between the struggle for economic justice and peace. “They are protecting their jobs; they are also protecting the resources of their country. They are fighting the same corporations that we fight for contracts.”
Zweig said that the “mainstream” media represents Iraqis either as terrorists or as helpless victims, but that most Iraqis are ordinary workers, “as are most Americans.” Labor, which is “prepared to exercise power in a reasonable way… can show people that Iraqis can solve their own problems.” Zweig’s comments reminded this writer that both of us had heard the Iraqi unionists in Philadelphia a few days earlier. There, in a lively question and answer session, they had expanded on the theme of labor’s significance in Iraq and in working for peace. Hashmeya emphasized the multiethnic character of Iraq and its labor movement. She told the audience that she, a Shia, left her 7-year-old son in the care of a Sunni woman and that Faleh is Shia and his wife is Sunni.
Faleh told of the oil workers’ recent strike. When an Iraqi military commander refused a government order to arrest striking workers, saying “I will not arrest anyone who loves Iraq,” the government had to agree to establish a broad based committee to recommend solutions to the problem of control of the nation’s oil resources. And both leaders had ridiculed the notion that Iraqis needed the “protection” of the US Army, “Did we fight among ourselves before the occupation?” Hashmeya said she believes that one of the aims of the occupation is to make Iraqis lose hope in their own future and to force them to accept the privatization of their national resources.
The Chicago UFPJ conference was memorable both because of the successful formal proceedings and the decisions reached and because of the countless sidebar conversations and discussions that enriched everyone’s experience. Readers are urged to go to the Web sites of UFPJ and USLAW in order to get involved in what promises to be an active period in the struggle for both justice and peace. See: www.unitedforpeace.org and www.uslaboragainstwar.org.o
--Ben Sears is labor editor of Political Affairs. Send your letter to the editor to
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