Labor has enormous power to demand an end to Israel’s murderous assault on Gaza. The AFL-CIO’s call for a cease-fire is a huge step toward the entire labor movement using that power.

Protester carries a Palestinian flag at a demonstration in Boston. (MediaNews Group / Boston Herald via Getty Images)

The American Federation of Labor–Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), the largest labor organization in the United States, representing 12.5 million workers, called for a cease-fire in Gaza last Thursday. Condemning the October 7 Hamas attack, the federation called for a negotiated cease-fire, including the release of all hostages and provision of “desperately needed” food, shelter and medicine to the Palestinians in Gaza.

The statement has emerged from the nationwide movement for a cease-fire, which has galvanized many rank-and-file union members. It’s a desperately needed development — and one that the entire labor movement needs to build on, using its considerable political capital to advance.

Put in historical context, the AFL-CIO’s statement is a big deal because, to put it mildly, the federation has not always been on the side of peace.

At the beginning of World War II, the AFL (which merged with the CIO to form the AFL-CIO in 1955) leadership was more rabidly anti-Communist than the US government. While the United States made a strategic alliance with the Soviet Union to defeat the Nazis during the war, the AFL leaders — some of whom, like Jay Lovestone, were former Communist Party members turned anti-communist crusaders — viewed “Communism and Fascism as two sides of the same authoritarian coin,” as historian Edmund Wehrle wrote in 2001.

The AFL began organizing against communism internationally even before the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union was fully underway, working to create anti-communist alternatives to Communist unions in Europe — and in Vietnam. (Much of this history is chronicled in labor historian Jeff Schuhrke’s forthcoming book Blue Collar Empire: The Untold Story of US Labor’s Global Anticommunist Crusade.) In the ’50s, as conflict in Vietnam worsened, the federation feared that the US government would let the Communists take over Indochina; leadership aggressively pressured Dwight D. Eisenhower’s administration to send military aid to the anti-Communist South Vietnamese forces and deplored Eisenhower’s negotiations as appeasement to “the Red World.”

Indeed, the federation’s support for the election of John F. Kennedy was because of, not despite, the far more belligerent anti-communist orientation he brought to foreign policy, and the AFL-CIO’s relationship with Lyndon Johnson was even closer. In this period, the federation’s foreign policy was completely intertwined with US government efforts to promote American warfare.

By 1969, President Richard Nixon was referring to the AFL-CIO as the “last bastion” of American support for the war, and federation president George Meany led a thousand delegates in shouting down a lone dissenter at an AFL-CIO convention who had called for troop cuts and an end to the war. Said Meany, “That’s the kind of peace you get in the jailhouse,” propagandistically suggesting that the war was a struggle for American freedom.

The labor federation’s involvement in the war was morally depraved, implicating the American working class in the slaughter of millions of innocent Vietnamese, Laotians, and Cambodians. It also hurt the American labor movement. The AFL-CIO’s support for the Vietnam War was intensely divisive among the membership and alienated labor unions from the broader New Left movement.

As scholar Penny Lewis has shown, the myth of the “hardhat hawk” was a grotesque simplification of working-class politics in this period. Indeed, by the early ’70s, most working-class people opposed the war, and many joined the protests. Significant numbers of unions joined Labor Against the War. Wehrle, in his 2005 book, Between a River and a Mountain: The AFL-CIO and the Vietnam War, argues that by turning away members and allies, the AFL-CIO’s position weakened it politically, leaving the federation ill prepared for the anti-worker onslaught of the 1970s and 1980s.

This time, the AFL-CIO is not making that moral and strategic mistake. Just as the federation did in 2003 when it took a stand against the war in Iraq, the AFL-CIO is standing with its most vocal and principled members and people of conscience all over the world.

The AFL’s statement does not come out of the blue. Opposition to Israel’s war in Gaza has been increasingly visible in the labor movement. As a result of rank-and-file organizing on the issue, as well as more young people getting involved in their unions, a growing number of unions have taken a stand.

The Starbucks Workers United were among the earliest to denounce the war and have been fighting with their employer over rights to use the Starbucks logo in such speech. In October, United Electrical Workers and United Food and Commercial Workers Local 3000 organized a cease-fire statement that has now been signed by numerous labor groups, including the United Auto Workers (UAW). ( I am, full disclosure, an active member who pushed for the cease-fire resolution at the regional level). Other major unions who have called for a cease-fire include the American Federation of Teachers, the American Postal Workers Union, and 1199SEIU.

In a move that some members saw as a betrayal of its own cease-fire statement, the UAW endorsed President Joe Biden’s reelection last month. Some members protested during Biden’s speech to the UAW. It seems likely that this scenario will play out in other unions as well. The AFL-CIO, for its part, endorsed Biden last June, so that ship has sailed.

But there are many other ways for unions to build on the momentum of these cease-fire calls.  Manufacturing workers could refuse to make the weapons used to slaughter Palestinian children. Academic workers could refuse to conduct research that feeds the war machine, as a huge portion of research in universities does. Unions of all kinds can organize political education on the issue inside and outside of their membership and support protests.

Labor could also play a key role in lobbying politicians, especially congressional Democrats, to end the war, as well as use their money and political influence to defend the growing number of elected leaders who are standing with the Palestinian people — most of whom will face angry and monied opposition, especially from the American Israeli Political Action Committee (AIPAC). Not long ago, it would have seemed unlikely that major unions would have defected from the Democratic Party to support left, socialist antiwar candidates for Congress; now, Rashida Tlaib, Palestine’s strongest ally in Congress, has the endorsement of the Michigan AFL-CIO. Many other antiwar candidates are going to need similar support from the labor movement.

It’s good that the AFL and many unions aren’t repeating labor’s mistakes of the past. Standing against the war will help them develop into stronger working-class institutions, to everyone’s benefit. But for the sake of a safer, more peaceful world, it’s also essential that unions and their members do more than take a stand, taking their own power seriously and using it to stop the war.

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