November 18th, 2004
Speech accepting the Max Steinbock Award
For “No Justice, No Peace – The Occupation’s War on Iraqi Workers”
Published in The ILWU Dispatcher, December, 2003
By David Bacon
Washington, DC, November 12, 2004
I want to thank ILCA for this award. It’s a very emotional moment for me, and I feel very strongly about what you’ve done, because it doesn’t just recognize me or this article but the issue that they represent – the importance of speaking out to end the war. You’ve done something very important in choosing this article, and this moment.
or “No Justice, No Peace – The Occupation’s War on Iraqi Workers”
by David Bacon
November 18th, 2004
Before I start, I also want to ask you to take a moment to think about the workers who have been locked out of the 14 hotels in San Francisco. I have a book of photographs which document the progess of this struggle, and I’m going to pass it around. They’re fighting for something that’s important to all of us – the ability of our unions to begin moving back towards an industry wide approach to negotiations, and maybe eventually master contracts. This could radically change the power and standard of living of workers in this country, especially in the service industries. The union is asking for contributions to help buy Thanksgiving dinners for the 4000 workers and their families. If you can do it, please put a contribution into the envelope I’ve taped to the book.
I want to talk about how the article on Iraqi workers and unions came to be written, and why I think it’s important. I went to Iraq with Clarence Thomas (we call him Clarence the Good – former secretary-treasurer of ILWU Local 10), not because of an individual decision on our part, but because of a decision by US Labor Against the War. Our labor movement here needed to know what was happening to Iraqi workers and their labor movement as a result of the occupation. We agreed to go to conduct an investigation, and report back what we found.
Steve Stallone, the editor of the Dispatcher, made a crucial decision at the very beginnning of this process. The ILWU had role to play, he decided. First, Clarence is an ILWU member, and he went to Iraq as a union activist and officer of his local. The union needed the infomation he and I were able to bring back. But in addition to the ILWU itself, the labor movement in general needed it. Steve decided that Dispatcher could play a role in getting this information, and then getting it out.
That decision took courage. There had been a big debate in the ILWU over Iraq, and there were clear differences of opinion. Some people were not going to be happy if the Dispatcher ran the article. But that’s why it was needed. It could help win over people who had questions about the war, but thought it was unpatriotic not to support the troops. It could help to reduce the fear of talking about it, by giving people a new perspective to see the problem – that of Iraqi workers.
The Dispatcher made a commitment to publish the article before we left. That made it possible for me to go. As a freelance writer, this is the way I have to operate to cover many stories – getting assignments that together can pay the expenses of covering a story like this. In this case, I had to put together funding or assignments from The Dispatcher, The Progressive, and the Vanguard Foundation. Without them and their support, the article could never have been written.
So Clarence and I came back, and I made the first report to ILCA in Orlando a year ago, even before USLAW’s national meeting in Chicago. So ILCA was also involved from the beginning.
What approach did we take? In talking to workers and union members and working communities, we took a class approach. Even when we were in Iraq, we tried to understand what was life like for workers. We investigated how people were organized, especially in unions, and what their demands were. We looked at the huge unemployment, and the conditions of their lives, at work and in their communities. We had to learn the history of Iraq’s labor movement, and it does have a long courageous one, going all the way back to the British occupation of the 1920s. In the Dispatcher, in addition to the general article on the prohibition of Iraqi unions, we ran another article on a veteran Iraqi union activist, Muhsin Mull Ali. We interviewed him, not just because he was a retired longshoreman, but because his life was a living embodiment of Iraqi labor history.
In writing and publishing these articles, we had a purpose. We assumed that if workers in the US could look at Iraq and see workers and human beings, they could understand better the economic purpose of occupation. They could see it is intended to implement privatization and the administration’s neoliberal agenda. That’s something many workers in the US already know about and understand. Seeing the occupation in that light, they could understand better why it was in our mutual interest, as Iraqis and Americans, to oppose the war. This article could be a vehicle for discussion, leading to the idea of starting to develop union to union, worker to worker connections. Clarence and I hoped that eventually the ILWU itself might establish such a link to longshore workers in Basra and Um Qasr.
After we came back, we took the article on the road. Clarence and I travelled together up the east coast. As individuals, we also went to Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, Seattle, Vancouver, San Diego, and Texas. We spoke to hundreds of workers and unions, to students and peace groups.
What did we find? People did recognize Iraqis as workers, in the same way we’ve grown to be able to see each other in across borders in many other countries. This process did help people to understand the intention of the bush war policy. And understanding that, it became easier to talk about the reasons why the labor movement should oppose the war.
In our small way, I think we did have an effect on the election. We helped galvanize the labor movement’s opposition to Bush, by giving our own members a way to see through his war policy – that patriotism has been used as a cover for economic self-interest and union-busting. We helped to provide information to those who wanted to change the position of their unions, and was an important part of the effort in which SEIU, CWA, AFSCME and the APWU adopted resolutions calling for bringing the troops home. Other unions, state labor federations and labor councils did likewise, and we played a part in this.
But it’s also important to see the limitations of what we were able to accomplish. The readership of the media outlets which carried articles about Iraqi labor is still small. Put together, the circulation of the Dispatcher, The Progresssive, The Nation, and the others is less than half a million. That’s about 1% of the votes against Bush. We also couldn’t break the story into the mainstream media, which continued to ignore it (except for an oped piece in the LA Times). This is part of the problem of the way the mainstream press ignores labor generally. But of all the unpublishable stories, this year’s story of the growing opposition to the war in unions and among workers was the most unpublishable of all. And finally, despite our hopes, we didn’t change the position of the AFL-CIO itself. As a result, the federation’s election campaign still didn’t use the war as an issue to mobilize our own members. Ten million members of union households listed the war in Iraq as the main issue for them, and the campaign did not speak to them, either to those who voted for Kerry, or more important, those who voted for Bush.
Nevertheless, this experience has lessons for the future. Most important, it tells us that the labor media can break a story of national importance. What does it take to do that? It takes courage. As Dispatcher editor, Steve Stallone took political risks by taking a position of conscience on a controversial issue. And of course, Clarence and I had to get ourselves over there. It took planning. We had to know the story we werre looking for, and plan coverage in advance. It didn’t just drop into our laps. It took resources. To cover this kind of story, we have to use what we have available to us – members like Clarencce, writers and photographers like me, the money that members contribute.
But the payoff is substantial. If we try to do this kind of story, we can use our media to promote discussion of national issues beyond just the bread and butter ones we’re used to writing about. Cultivating this ability is important because the future of labor media is unsure. We are in an era where we have to redefine our role. This experience tells me that our media can be a mobilizer on a complex and controversial political issue, not just helping members to understand it, but to take action based on their understanding. And in covering the big political issues of our day, we can use our media to promote an alternative political vision.
The weak links in this picture include distribution. We have to get the publication that carries the story into hands first of of our own members, and then move outside the membership itself. We have to come up with a strategy for using this coverage to push our issues in the mainstream press. Speaking truthfully, even our own members didn’t respond in this case. My own union newspaper, the Guild Reporter, also carried a piece on the banning of unions in Iraq. Yet our Guild members, working as reporters in the mainstream press, didn’t pick up on it. We need to ask why? Did they not trust what they were reading? Were they afraid to write about it?
Fallujah is burning as we speak. If you’re a union on the ground in Iraq, your choices are horrible. You confront an occupation killing people at a huge rate, which is provoking and consolidating the armed resistance. The economic agenda of the continued US presence still spells disaster for workers – unemployment, privatization, poverty and war. But in the eyes of Iraqi unions, the resistance is also hostile to their interests. Unions remember what Saddam and the Baathists did to unions and the left, murdering hundreds and driving them underground. Religious fundamentalist states are no less hostile. Iraqi unions remember also what happened in Iran after 1978, with persecutions and show trials. Iraqi unions and workers need peace and political space in which to organize civil society. These are the people who could govern Iraq and make it a democratic and progressive country – unions, womens organizations, and left wing political parties.
The occupation (and let’s call things by their real names – we appointed this government, and it does what Bush wants it to) and new military actions are closing that space, creating more insurgents, making a civil society less and less possible. Iraqi unions are not supporters of the armed resistance, but they need the occupation to end, with guarantees for their safety and security. What this means on the ground is not an easy question to answer.
So the place to start is by listening to them, and supporting the solution that makes sense to them. That makes establishing connections between workers and unions here and in Iraq a crucial question. How else can we hear what they have to say? We can’t depend on the mainstream press to get their voices – we have to do this for ourselves.
But we also have our own reasons for opposing this brutal war. It’s our children who are dying. Where are the articles in our papers about this? Where are the photos of our members and their kids who are wounded or killed? We cannot, by our silence, present a picture of a war without horrible human costs to our own families. The war also has an economic cost we have to talk about – its effect on jobs, public spending, and education.
But most important, the national security state is going to become our greatest political problem for the next four years. We already saw it in the ILWU lockout, used it to justify attacking us and preventing us from using our power in the workplace. National security was used it to justify firing 40,000 innocent workers, about whom we said next to nothing, to our great shame. How can they look at us as their defenders when we stood silent as they were railroaded out of the airports. And then the administration used the same national security rationale to prohibit unions for their replacements. And again – where were the national demonstrations on the capitol mall?
If we run scared before the national security state, and allow the hysteria of the war on terrorism to be used against us, if we don’t organize and mobilize our members to understand and then actively oppose it, we will suffer greater and greater attacks.
So let’s ask ourselves a question – does the labor press have a role to play here? To make a difference, we will need courage – we’ll have to stand up and oppose the administration. We will have to use our resources to reach our own members and talk to them about difficult and controversial issues. And then, we will have to go beyond our own members, and fight for the conscience of millions of workers outside our ranks.
I believe we can do this, and if we do, we will rescue ourselves. We will become an indispensible part of our unions’ activity, helping our own movement to grow and recover our power. We will beat the mainstream press to the most important poltical stories, and become the pride of our profession. And we will become the conscience of our class.