Discover more from How Things Work
Labor Against War
What it would take to stop the weapons.
War is good for business. With the caveat, of course, that said business is not destroyed in the war. Whether war is good for labor is a question whose answer depends mostly on what you think “labor” means. By one metric, the answer is yes: it was World War 2, and the widespread worker dissatisfaction in its aftermath, that propelled unions to the peak of their strength in American history. But that clean measurement depends on leaving out everyone who was a casualty of the war. From the perspective of the people who become the targets for all the moneymaking munitions, war is a scam, and the profits that business accrues are only further proof of that truth. World War 1 turned a lot of men in trenches into Communists. If labor means only the workers at the military contractor factories, an ocean away from the consequences of what they build, then sure, war is a great bonus. If labor means the Workers of The World, then war is something to loathe. The worker who makes the bomb will never get paid enough to make up for what the worker who gets the bomb dropped on him loses.
In his prime time address to the nation yesterday, Joe Biden made the case for an enormous public investment in arms for Israel and Ukraine. As part of his sales pitch, he appealed to war’s economic bounty. “Patriot missiles for air defense batteries, made in Arizona. Artillery shells manufactured in 12 states across the country, in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Texas. And so much more,” he said. “Just as in World War II, today patriotic American workers are building the arsenal of democracy and serving the cause of freedom.”
How Things Work is a reader-supported publication. If you like it, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
This, from Pro-Union Joe, is an unvarnished attempt to win labor’s support for the task of enabling wars. (It must be said up front that the attempt to cast Ukraine, a weaker nation engaged in self-defense against a stronger nation that invaded it, and Israel, a strong nation determined to wage a war of choice against a weaker one that will kill a horrific number of civilians, as moral equals is a farce.) It’s time for unions to make a choice. The dollars are on the table now. To just carry on as usual is to effectively endorse the idea that American workers are happy to build the arsenal of democracy, and to have that arsenal of democracy used to murder a whole lot of children in Gaza. That is not a choice that we should all make silently. We should, at the very least, look that choice full in the face.
Labor unions have a huge amount of latent power, because they represent the work that is necessary to make everything run. But bringing that power to bear on what are perceived as purely political issues—as opposed to what are perceived as issues of direct self-interest—is a tricky thing. There is a slice of the labor movement that consists of people with fully formed political views and who do the admirable work of trying to use their unions as democratic platforms for the greater good. In the weeks since the October 7 Hamas attack on Israel and the subsequent bombardment of Gaza, radical unions like UE have stepped up to call for a ceasefire, and a coalition of other union members have come together to circulate a letter calling on labor leaders to push for a ceasefire and stand in solidarity with Palestine. Trade unions in Palestine have issued a public call for unions around the world to refuse to build and transport weapons for Israel, and to pressure their governments to stop funding Israel’s war. The efforts within organized labor thus far have broadly been of politically minded union members trying in good faith to rally support for that cause.
There are more than 14 million union members in America. Within that group are many activists with good politics. Also within that group are many people with not good politics, and many more people who probably don’t think about politics much. The strength of the labor movement lies in its unique ability to bring together this large group of different people in different places with different demographics and beliefs and rally them for a common cause. The same unparalleled diversity of membership in organized labor also makes it extremely hard to pull in a unified direction. I believe that the labor movement has a moral duty to lend the power of its solidarity to workers in need wherever they are, because the barriers that divide us are illusory. Many other people in the labor movement, like the people who are behind the actions in the previous paragraph, believe this as well. And many other people in the labor movement do not believe this, and many other people besides those people have never given it much thought.
You can put the labor movement’s exercise of power into two main buckets. One is “withholding our labor,” and the other is “everything else.” When a union makes a public statement or passes a resolution or lobbies a politician or makes a financial donation, those things are all meaningful, and they are all valid tools in our toolbox, but none of those things rise to level of importance of The Strike. The Strike! The Strike is the fundamental source of labor power. Even the most cutthroat variety of capitalism has never figured out how to rob the strike of its potency, because capitalism’s profits require workers doing work. Without the work there are no profits. There are issues that unions care about and work for and fight for in myriad ways, and then there are issues that unions will strike over. Those are the things that really, really matter. That is the gold standard. That is the act of labor playing its ace card. That is the act of workers putting themselves on the line for something.
Anyone who has participated in political activism knows that it always brings out mockery. Who the hell do you think you are? You think your little petition will do anything? You think your little protest will change the world? Get real. People who adopt this cynical attitude are fools. They fail to understand how small movements can snowball into big ones. I have always believed that even small acts of political bravery are meaningful. You never know who might be inspired. Sometimes it is important just to show the world that someone somewhere believes something outside of the conventional wisdom. Protest is vital. It is an honorable activity that should be respected. It can lead to much bigger changes than you could ever predict.
At the same time, I am a realist. Just as it is foolish to dismiss the power of protest out of hand, it is also foolish to dreamily assume that once we go out and make our voices heard, our task is done. I walked in a lot of very big protest marches that did not put an end to the Iraq War, just as my parents walked in big protest marches that did not put an end to the Vietnam War. (The Weathermen blowing up police station bathrooms did not put an end to the war either, for what it’s worth.) When we take action, we should do it because we want to win.
So let me, for a moment, put on my coldhearted analyst hat. What would the American labor movement have to do to actually have a tangible, positive effect on what is happening in Israel and Gaza right now? It would have to strike. Specifically, the workers who are engaged in building the weapons and transporting the weapons to Israel would have to strike. Refusing to do the tasks that need to be done in order to facilitate the war would genuinely harm the war effort. This is not some far-fetched dream; unionized longshoremen in Oakland refused to unload an Israeli ship in solidarity with Palestine just two years ago. These things can be done. But they are a very different organizing task than, say, pushing a petition. To make these things happen, specific and entire groups of workers must be convinced of the righteousness of the cause, they must be willing to make a personal sacrifice, and they must be led by people who have the visionary belief in a universal version of human solidarity.
The existing labor movement does have spots where this could happen—there are radical locals with radical leaders willing to act, and there are some smaller radical unions like UE that are willing to act, at least in certain places, and there are groups like the Starbucks Workers who are younger and heavily politicized, and it is very possible that there are certain factories in America with certain charismatic shop floor leaders who have strong beliefs who could bring their coworkers along with them. Pulling back with a wide lens and looking at the largest institutions in the union world, though—coalitions like the AFL-CIO, and large international unions with hundreds of thousands or millions of members—it is very difficult for me to see where any real top-down policy to oppose the unfolding war machine would come from. The institutional stasis in most big unions is very, very strong. The analyst in me doubts that any major union will put itself on the line institutionally to do anything that would have an immediate, real impact on the pipeline of weapons to Israel that are to be dropped on the heads of Palestinians very soon.
I don’t say this to be negative. I say it for only two reasons: One, to reinforce the fact that in fraught moments like this, uprisings will almost always have to come from the grassroots, because the same qualities that got the leaders of large institutions their positions in the first place will prevent them from straying too far outside of the comfortable confines of what they see as the mainstream. Second, and more importantly, a crisis like this is a sharp reminder to all of us who care about these things to ask ourselves: How do we make our institutions suck less? Rather than always raising our voices as a minority within unions, a profitable use of time is to take over unions. To get elected to the board. To run your local. To build a caucus to gain a real measure of influence in your international. To position yourself to make the decision next time, rather than having to ask someone who doesn’t care to do something that is hard.
If you are able to help spread a petition, that is important and noble work. If you are in a position to directly clamp down on the labor that makes the weapons move, that is real power. The beautiful, bewitching thing about unions is that they create great latent power simply by uniting regular people; the frustrating thing about unions is that they very often squander their power by defining their self interest in the narrowest of terms. There are no easy solutions to this. But there are hard solutions, which involve organizing enough to change whose hand is on the “Off” switch. To build a union is a wonderful thing. To stop a bomb from being dropped is a blessing. To do both? Nothing better in the world.
I apologize for taking a long time since my last post here. I have spent the past week on the road reporting a feature on UFCW 3000, a union that ended up being one of the only ones in America to sponsor the call for a ceasefire this week. (That was purely a coincidence of timing, but it gives some sense of the political nature of the leadership here that drew my interest in the first place.) This story will be in In These Times magazine some time later this year, a magazine that you should subscribe to if you don’t already. It only costs twenty bucks a year.
I have a piece in the new issue of Columbia Journalism Review about AI, journalism, and unions, a topic that I have written about on this very site before, and will probably keep on writing about, because it’s important. You can read that CJR piece here.
To everyone who has subscribed to How Things Work in the past five months: Thank you. This little experiment in independent journalism is thriving because of you. If you like what you read here—or maybe I should just say, “if you read stuff here'“—I strongly urge you to consider becoming a paid subscriber. I need money to survive! That’s how I can keep writing stuff! Every paid subscriber is a small treasure. I appreciate you all.