Philip S. Foner, US Labor and the Vietnam War
(NY: International Publishers) 1989
Part 2 of a review by Jacqueline R. Smetak
By the following year, there was a movement--the Trade Union Division of SANE, established 3 May 1966. Public revelations that year about AFL-CIO collaboration with the CIA led to an open break between UAW President Walter Reuther, who had been working with SANE for a long time, and George Meany. Organized efforts within unions against the Vietnam war were also increasing. In response, the AFL-CIO Executive Council issued a statement in August of 1966:
Clearly, it was going to be a long and ugly fight.
In 1968, candidate for president Richard Nixon took advantage of growing disagreements among normally Democratic voters to win the election by polarizing them. As Clark Dougan, Samuel Lipsman, et al. note:
Although the New Hampshire primaries did topple the president, it was a local phenomenon. The Labor Assembly for Peace, established in November of 1967, did hail Eugene McCarthy's victory but did not urge its chapters to work for him. As Foner states, "it was not easy to arouse labor interest in a Vietnam peace policy which, as they saw it, would affect wartime prosperity, bringing a reduction of billions in defense spending and a drop in manufacturing employment." (66) Besides, McCarthy was indifferent to labor issues.
But the next two years saw a dramatic increase in Labor involvement in the peace movement. Walter Reuther took the UAW out of the AFL-CIO and in June of 1969, the Teamsters and the Auto Workers formed the Alliance for Labor Action which called for an immediate end to the war, a far more militant stand than the call for negotiations issued by the Labor Assembly for Peace. Also in 1969, the newly formed New Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam made a concerted effort to include Labor. Radical students, realizing that their power was limited, joined workers on the picket lines--most notably in the 1969 strike against GE--to connect peace with economic issues. In brief, the supposedly unbridgeable gap between peace activists and Labor was being bridge. George Meany's response was that "those demanding withdrawal from Vietnam [were] creating obstacles to a negotiated settlement." (Foner: 88)
This would continue until the end of the war as more and more unions openly disagreed with the Executive Council. As of 1972, four million of the twenty-one million workers represented by unions were represented by dissenting unions, and in the presidential elections of that year, half of all union households voted for McGovern even though the AFL-CIO had refused to endorse him. Meany, at least on this issue, was losing control.
In essence, Foner is refuting several commonly held views regarding workers and their relationship to the war and the antiwar movement. The notion that workers overwhelmingly supported the war was refuted at the time by public opinion polls although the common perception, at the time, was that workers did support the war. Foner blames the media. He states:
And there was also the matter of "Bloody Friday," 9 May 1970, when some three hundred New York City construction workers attacked antiwar demonstrators protesting the Kent State killings. On 20 May, construction workers staged a massive pro-war rally in New York which Peter Brennan, president of the Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York, claimed was spontaneous. As it turned out, union officials and construction firms organized these events, paying workers who participated and docking the pay of those who refused.
"Bloody Friday" did make coalition-building between peace activists and Labor more difficult. Some analysts, Foner reports, "charged that the beating up of student war protesters was the inevitable result of years of indifference on the part of the antiwar movement, largely academic in composition, 'toward people who work with their hands for a living and its willingness... to go even further and alienate them completely.'" (109) But, although peace activists were intimidated, those who tried to make contact were often successful as with a 15 June effort in Chicago to distribute leaflets at construction sites. A reporter who went with the activists wrote that "90 percent of the men we talked to were against the war and almost all thought that beating up the students was just plain stupid." (Foner: 110, quoted from the People's Daily World, 19 June 1970). Rosenberg, Verba, and Converse, in their study, The Silent Majority: A Dove's Guide, may have been overstating their case. Both groups did distrust each other, but apparently, the way to alleviate this distrust was for peace activists to connect the war to the economy and for Labor to move away from strictly bread-and-butter issues. This Labor did when the UAW and the Teamsters--the latter union long epitomizing Labor's lack of concern about anything beyond wages and hours--established the Alliance for Labor Action which also gave peace activists the opportunity to engage economic problems. This move seemed to have had support among the rank and file who had, prior to the 1950s, a deep commitment to workplace democracy. Foner notes that workers "were tired, too, of an authoritarian, despotic union leadership that was indifferent to their needs, and they were demanding a more direct voice in the decisions affecting their welfare." (71) Workers, in the late 1960s, were expressing their discontent through what was called "the rejection syndrome," a growing tendency to reject contracts negotiated for them by their union officials.
In return, peace activists had to understand that for Labor, the rules had changed. Strikes, for example, were out of the question because the Taft-Hartley Act had made them virtually illegal. And given the rigidly hierarchical and undemocratic structure of most unions, working within unions without the approval of the top leadership was extremely difficult. Thus Halstead's contention that dissident labor leaders could have done more was not reasonable.
It was Foner's desire in writing this book to repair some of the damage done by AFL-CIO support for and collaboration with the U.S. government's Cold War policies. He would like to return Labor to what he sees as its traditional role. Quoting Thomas Quinn, business agent of UE Local 610: "Labor's role with respect to the war in Vietnam is twofold. First, to speak out in its traditional role for peace and against war and secondly, to defend the right to dissent." (47) Foner also notes the worry expressed by some that organized labor was alienating its traditional allies:
In the 1990s, with a disintegrating economy and the continuation of the Cold War after the collapse of Communism and in the marked absence of any enemy, it is not just Labor which is in need of allies. We all need all the help we can get. If Foner's book can patch up some of the old wounds and old misunderstandings, then he will have done us a service.
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