Viewpoint: Unity Is Achieved by Confronting Differences, Not Avoiding Them

[This article was published in "Viewpoint" column]

While we certainly agree that labor must continue our coalition work on globalization, we have concerns with some of the views in Russ Davis’s April Viewpoint.

It was clear at the time of the anti-WTO demonstrations in Seattle in 1999 that many labor and environmental activists were committed to working together, but that the commitment was by no means universal.

In the Northwest, unions like the Steelworkers and the ILWU have continued to strengthen ties with grassroots environmentalists. We have joined not only on anti-globalization issues, but also on mobilization for both labor and environmental concerns. We’ve worked through coalitions like Jobs with Justice and the Alliance for Sustainable Jobs and the Environment, initially formed by the Steelworkers and Earth First!

Our progress has come by confronting potential conflicts among allies and seeking ways to work together. (We would point out that “labor” does not have a position on either ANWR or auto emissions standards. Like our friends in the environmental movement, we have diverse views.) Carpenters and forest activists clearly don’t have consensus on timber issues, but we can find common ground to deal with at least some of those issues.

Forest activists have found, for example, that many in labor can support an end to harvesting of old-growth timber on federal lands, without agreeing on more extensive restrictions. Working together on such limited proposals has helped to develop greater understanding among groups, and has led to deeper solidarity.

COURAGE, NOT SUICIDE

Similarly, labor and our allies can and must work together on issues of war and peace. As with environmental concerns, we may not find consensus on every facet, but can unite around many aspects of the struggle.

The steering committee of Washington State Jobs with Justice, composed of representatives from each of our more than 90 member organizations, voted to focus our work in 2002 on “worker organizing during war and recession.” We must view the right to organize, global justice, budget crises, health care, and other issues affecting working people in the context of ongoing war.

We are troubled by the assertion that an anti-war stance is “political suicide at this point for elected labor leaders in the US.” Certainly the political climate varies throughout the country. But labor must not remain silent about actions that directly impact our economy, basic democratic rights, the right to organize and strike, essential social services-in short, everything that labor stands for.

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There was a time when many U.S. unions excluded African-Americans. It was doubtless politically difficult for elected leaders to confront racism then, but it was necessary. When the Equal Rights Amendment was first put forward, many in labor were opposed. Principled elected leaders fought for what they believed, even when it meant confronting sexism in their ranks.

And we remember that early in the last major U.S. war, in Vietnam, only a handful of unions, such as ILWU, UE, 1199, and District 65, opposed the war. In other unions, courageous leaders worked to raise the implications of the war for workers, and gradually brought about change.

CONSENSUS ON SEPTEMBER 11

On September 22, our steering committee unanimously adopted a statement on the vicious attacks of September 11 which was adapted by several other labor organizations. Reaching consensus began with talking to as many steering committee members as possible, to understand the varied concerns among our constituents.

Further modification at the steering committee meeting enabled a group that included a Vietnam-era Marine and a Vietnam-era draft resister to identify the points on which we could agree-and to frame a statement that expressed fundamental shared concerns, without destroying our unity.

We recognized that militarization leads to attacks on civil liberties and workers’ rights, and to increased hostility to immigrants. We opposed punishing entire nations for the actions of a few, and demanded foreign policy based on “global justice, and not on an endless cycle of civilian slaughter.”

We stressed that “while we may oppose specific war policies, we insist on adequate support for the working men and women in the armed services.” Veterans who remember Agent Orange and Gulf War Syndrome needed to know that we insist on the safety of the working men and women who make up the armed forces; others felt it important that we not specifically attack the President or other political leaders by name. But all agreed on the need to seek peace.

Numerous elected officials from various unions support that statement. We sent copies to all member organizations, and highlighted it at our successful fundraising dinner. We’ve experienced no loss of support. On the contrary, Jobs with Justice has grown significantly since then, both in membership and financial support.

Coalition building requires confronting and dealing with issues of contention, not ignoring them. Labor must address the question of war and how it affects us. That clearly does not mean that all in labor will agree, or that any in labor will agree completely with our coalition partners. But just as Carpenters and logging-port Longshoremen can find common ground on timber issues with forest activists, labor and our allies in the social justice movement can surely find common ground in seeking peace.

Paul Bigman is a long-time labor organizer and co-chair of the Labor Party Seattle Chapter. Lynne Dodson is President of Seattle Community Colleges Federation of Teachers and Vice-President of Washington Federation of Teachers. Mary Ann Schroeder is a member of UFCW Local 81. Lonnie Nelson is Secretary-Treasurer of Mothers for Police Accountability and a retired member of SEIU.