By Dawn Stanger
Hello. I’m Dawn Stanger and I’m a Teamster. I work up at UPS in Williston. And I’m here representing folks from the Vermont Workers Center, and U.S. Labor Against the War – USLAW. The Workers’ Center is a coalition of trade unions, community groups, and individual workers pushing for economic justice. We are also Vermont’s only Jobs with Justice chapter. In January ’03 the Workers’ Center affiliated with USLAW, the union group opposed to attacking Iraq, and in September ’04, I’m proud to say that Vermont’s AFL-CIO joined millions of union workers across the U.S. in opposing the occupation. Over the last two years, major national unions and state labor federations have demanded the troops home now.
So USLAW has built ties with Iraqi trade unionists and some will tour the U.S. soon. Hopefully they’ll visit Vermont. Their labor movement has a proud history, including resistance to British occupation with strikes suppressed at gunpoint. Unions were outlawed then, and then again by the Baathists after a general strike in ’68. And Saddam executed union activists. Since Saddam’s overthrow, the Iraqis worked quickly, organizing unions in 12 industries. They organized a union of the unemployed, 150,000 strong, and marched and demonstrated for survival payments. They held a 45-day sit-in across from American headquarters. In Basra, Iraqis stopped working 2 days after British troops arrived, demanding the right to organize. Refinery workers struck demanding better wages. Leather factory workers stormed out of work and marched to the Labor Ministry. Though they’ve been imprisoned by the U.S, and tortured and killed by the resistance, Iraq’s union folks are the single most important force fighting for a democratic, multi-ethnic Iraq. In recent coverage of the Pope’s death, we saw how he helped Labor in Poland leading to the overthrow of a repressive government. Unions help create and maintain democracy. We condemn all attacks on Iraq’s trade unionists.
When WTO protestors like me look at the U.S. plan for Iraq, we see the same old free trade. There’s the privatization of public services, ownership rights for foreign firms, repatriation of profits, a 15% flat tax, opening banks to foreign control, structural adjustment programs, and national treatment for corporations. Trade barriers have been eliminated. Iraq will join the WTO and sign MEFTA , the Middle East Free Trade Area announced last May. But Saddam’s law that barred union membership and representation – that was not changed. War makes privatization easy. First you destroy society. Then you let corporations rebuild it. And we’re busy building and maintaining 14 military bases in Iraq with your hard-earned tax dollars.
On the home front, thousands of workers were de-unionized in creating the Department of Homeland Security; the Bush administration felt their unions a security threat. Now our president proposes new rules called the “National Security Personnel System” that would tear up union contracts and eliminate protections our federal workers have against political pressures. Whistle-blowers and critics could simply be transferred away. When the shipping firms locked out the Longshore Workers, the Attorney General declared commercial shipping a matter of national security, and got an injunction so the President could send troops to work the docks. Yet today, cargo containers are still uninspected. Three Republican governors have now negated their state workers’ right to bargain and 9 million dollars of the first 87 million for Iraq was used to arm police in Miami against free trade protestors, union folks, while U.S. chemical plants are still unsecured. Our nuclear plants are vulnerable. You just gotta ask “Who’s really being protected?”
Corporations squash our collective interests. Watching the fake Social Security crisis, it occurred to me that privatization and deregulation are most often not done at gunpoint. Here, after trumpeting decades how government is bloated and wasteful and how privatization and de-regulation work, corporate politicians have convinced many Americans that government programs are bad. This way Wall Street can sneak in and rob us of the safety net that our grandparents in the labor movement struggled years to build after economic downturns forced families to the breadlines. Workers’ Center folks are increasingly alarmed about our nation’s priorities. We live in a country where the top 1% has more income each year than the bottom 100 million people combined.
Look at the bankruptcy bill if you want a nutshell of our system. The credit companies made 30 billion last year, charging people outrageous interest rates to compensate for their risk. And 90% of bankruptcies were caused by lost jobs, death in the family, divorce, or medical bills. But no longer will a judge be allowed to look at your case and say, ah, oh yes, we’ll forgive your debt because you were forced into this by your kid’s diabetes or your husband’s death. No way. This bill makes judges ignore your circumstances and set payments, creating debtors for life, doing at home what the World Bank has done overseas for years. Yes, the corporate politicians will teach us responsibility ’til it hurts. Media deceives, but workers can’t miss the connections over time.
In the wealthiest country in the world, huge tax cuts combined with military expenses make debt for our grandchildren and cuts in our services. But we have needs. We need retirement security; half our grandparents would live in poverty otherwise. We need insurance so if we get killed and can’t work, our children are protected. We need medical care that keeps folks healthy, separate from jobs and paid for collectively and progressively. If we had proper preventive care in Vermont, we wouldn’t have a third of our soldiers returned home for medical reasons. We need our government to help solve real collective crises like childcare costs, healthcare, and fossil fuels, but political donations cannot be the deciding factor. This is supposed to be a democracy. And taxing the rich is never discussed. We’re the ones who sacrifice. It’s a neo-con game.
And neo-cons are not working for democracy, either here or in Iraq. Unions increase democracy. Unions indicate how well workers are doing overall, and unions are now down to 11% here. This means American families are hurting. In 1953, President Dwight D. Eisenhower said, “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities. It is two electric power plantsâ€¦ It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals. It is some 50 miles of concrete pavement. We pay for a single fighter plane with a half million bushels of wheat. We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 â€¦ This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.”
Eisenhower got it. But in 1945, corporations paid 1/3 of all taxes collected. By 2003, their share was down to 7%. 3/5ths of corporations paid no taxes between ’96 and 2000. Given huge tax cuts, they free-traded our manufacturing away. Huge tax cuts given while real wages dropped since the 70’s and families could only keep up by working ridiculous hours. Huge tax cuts to the rich, and they dare to come back to us now to pay for their war. The military consumes 50% of our taxes and corporations and the rich pay even less now. The wealthiest country in the world and we are continually trying to stave off cuts. And we know what rending our social fabric means. It means less food stamp eligibility, less FDA inspections, less highway improvements, less health care, less small business assistance, less for veterans, less foster care, less Medicaid, less Medicare, less for poverty, less for farmers, seniors, students, cops, veterans, the homeless, and the hungry. All so the rich can have more money.
Vermont’s soldiers are our co-workers, neighbors, friends, relatives, and our children. Yes, they’re volunteers, but most are economic draftees looking for a better life. Turned down at Wal Mart, Jessica Lynch went to Iraq. This war betrayed soldiers’ faith that their government wouldn’t deceive them. This was not defensive. Vermont’s soldiers signed up to protect people, not corporations. And to those who say this is not a local issue, I say this; we pay for the war here. We’re buried here, and we’ll all live here with Vermont vets and any ghosts they bring home. At the Workers’ Center we’re urging workers to stand and fight. The workers who build the wealth are under attack. The Iraqis struck at gunpoint. Who dies in wars? We do. Who pays? We do. Who mourns? We do. Who profits? Not us. This folks, is class war and it’s fought locally, with wages, taxes, jobs, retirement, healthcare. Our working class soldiers are fighting for a system that is stacked high against them, there and here. We stand here today demanding justice, a society of our priorities, not those pushed down from the 5% at the top of the economic ladder. “Never have so few taken so much from so many for so long.”
Our troops should not be sacrificed to make the world safe for corporations, or to distract us from economic disaster brewing at home. Resources should be redirected from the military to things workers really need, while providing adjustment assistance for those displaced. In the end, the best way to support troops is to make sure they don’t fight wars that shouldn’t be fought, wars for oil and empire, wars that don’t serve working class interests here or elsewhere. We must repudiate bullying foreign policies, dismantle our worldwide military bases, and renounce offensive wars. Otherwise we will only send more loved ones to die for no good reason in a world made more dangerous by the arrogance of our government. We want our benefits and we want our troops home now.
Dawn Stanger is a Teamster and Vice-President of the Vermont Workers’ Center