By Dawn Stanger
I’m Dawn Stanger. I’m a Teamster who works up at United Parcel Service in Williston. I’m also vice president of the Vermont Workers’ Center. My fellow activists and I hope you will join our struggle, and there are sign up sheets on our table. The Workers’ Center and affiliated unions and community groups joined the national group US Labor Against the War-USLAW, in 2003 and the Vermont State AFL joined us, creating Vermont LAW and we organized this leg of the tour. Without financial help from the Champlain Valley Labor Council, it was impossible, so a tip of the hat to them. USLAW has more than 4 million union members who opposed attacking Iraq, and we wanted you to hear from these union leaders. There are officials touring the Midwest and the West too, 25 cities in all, and it’s cost big, so we’ll be looking for some help. Burlington has spent 16.3 million dollars already “freeing” Iraq, but donations today will be better directed toward democracy. There are USLAW donor cards circulating and we hope you’ll be kind enough to chip in to help us cover costs and help the Iraqis.
Sure I know, most of you turned out here to hear Adnan Rashed talk, and Vermont union folks are a bit of a distraction from the “real” story. We’re proud in USLAW that Iraqi unionists will even talk to us after we devastated their country. We want to share information, tactics and money to help them attain democracy from within. And we know they can help us confront some problems here. Vermont’s trade unionists are speaking today because the “real” story has been ignored for far too long. Workers are under siege worldwide, not just unionized workers like me who are down to 8% in the U.S. private sector, and public workers like Marty who make up the other 4%, but all workers. Corporate greed is driving U.S. foreign and domestic policy. I’ll read you the USLAW Mission Statement because it lays it out well:
“We’re living in an era in which the government has manipulated our nation’s fear of terrorism to launch wars, destroy our economic security, undermine government services, erode our democratic rights and intensify divisions among working peopleâ€¦Under the mantle of National Security, the present Administration seeks to reverse decades of victories won by working people to regulate corporate conduct, protect the environment, strengthen the rights of workers, defend civil liberties, end racism, sexism and discrimination, and provide an adequate social safety net. But democracy as we know it is under threat. The USA Patriot Act threatens our fundamental rights under the Constitution. This crisis is aggravated by the government’s policies of military intervention abroad and attacks on working peoples’ rights at home. Only corporations and the wealthy have benefited. Our nation faces a domestic calamity – unemployment, declining wages and benefits, de-unionization of the workforce, privatization and reduction of public services, crumbling health care and educational systems, underdeveloped communities, cuts in veterans benefits, escalating public debt and decreased economic, social and personal security.
We cannot solve these economic and social problems without addressing U.S. foreign policy and its consequences. The foreign policy of the Bush Administration, with the consent of Congress, is based on military aggression and the threat of force. It has weakened, rather than strengthened security in the U.S., creating enemies around the world and alienating friends. This policy has done immense harm to innocent civilians abroad and to our friends and family members in the military. The policy of Permanent War has been based on lies and false promises to the American people and lucrative contracts to large corporations. This is coupled with a strategy of unbridled economic globalization with so -called ‘Free Trade’ Agreements aimed at exploiting workers, controlling natural resources and destroying jobs and communities. War has become a strategy for advancing the interests of US corporations in international markets.”
USLAW pretty much sums it up. Union activists are particularly well placed to frame this mess. We were the first targets in the corporate shooting gallery. Corporations had to crush unions. Unions help workers keep up standards their grandparents fought for in the labor movement; 40 hour a week jobs, pensions, weekends, social security, public schools, health insurance, and wages high enough so only one wage earner was necessary per family. But those standards are pretty much gone. The attacks have been relentless. Unions are the canaries in the coalmine of democracies. And it has become almost impossible to organize unions here in “supposedly” the greatest democracy in the world. When the Vermont AFL joined USLAW in September of ’04, their resolution called on the governor to release from duty and return to Vermont all our Guard personnel. In DC, John Sweeney invited the Iraqis to attend their convention in July. And we’re working to get the national AFL-CIO to call for the end of the occupation. But we know the fix isn’t in Iraq. We gotta get the corporations out of our government.
They’re wrecking everything. Look all around in the news. Look at Enron, Social Security- look at United’s pensions. This is how we’re treated? Corporations contract by law to pay for certain things, in lieu of wages, and then won’t comply. And taxpayers are forced to bail them out. Have you seen the movie, The Corporation? It’s called “externalizing” costs. The “real” story is that corporations run the world. Working families need to become just as “ruthless” and just as global in our support for each other. Working class solidarity must reach beyond borders and the distractions of corporate politicians and misguided union leaders.
To Vermont labor activists, it is only natural that Iraqis call for the profits from their oil to be devoted to Iraqis. We’re glad to hear that Iraqi workers chased Kellogg, Brown, and Root from the oil fields and defeated lower wages. We’re psyched to hear that port workers expelled Mersk shipping company and ejected Stevedoring Associates from Um Qsar. Labor victories are rare for us here. Worldwide, people catch on faster because things are worse. We’re heartened by the recent EU votes, the rebellion in Bolivia, where Bush has referred to the workers and farmers as “terrorists”, and the rejection of ‘free trade’ by workers in Central and South America. We’re proud of Specialty Filaments’ workers in Burlington who refuse to go quietly while their company tramples them. The task ahead is huge though, and we need everyone engaged. When I hear neighbors dissing teacher’s benefits, saying how they should be less because taxpayers don’t get healthcare, I think, oh my god, the working class here is so far from where it needs to be.
Bush just gave big tax cuts to the rich and corporations. In 1945, corporations paid 1/3 of all taxes collected. By 2003, their share was 7%. 3/5ths of corporations paid no taxes at all between ’96 and 2000. Given huge tax cuts, they free-traded our manufacturing away. Huge tax cuts to the rich and our president proposed 5.3 billion in cuts for veteran’s medical services by 2010. Huge tax cuts, while productivity increased, but real wages dropped, and families only kept up by working ridiculous hours. Every Vermont tax dollar: 30 cents goes to defense spending. 19 cents goes to paying old military debt and 3 cents goes to veterans’ benefits, an expense no citizen begrudges. But that’s before Iraq’s costs are tallied. 205 billion has been spent, so far. And that means less public service for every worker who falls through the cracks.
And what is the state of Vermont’s democracy? Union folks here are just sick about the occupation and our friends, relatives and coworkers suffering. Many people don’t want to question the military at all. Some are uncomfortable talking about it as if, for their kid’s sake, they just want to cross their fingers and parrot Bush’s rhetoric about freedom. Their kids in Iraq are confident they can “win” democracy, and they’re afraid to “undermine” that. But we desperately need to talk about all this because we have given their kids an impossible mission. Democracy has to rise from within. No democracy has ever been created under occupation. And union activists know that the last thing Bush’s cronies want anywhere is democracy. The Iraqis would immediately boot us out, our 17 military bases and all our damned corporations too. Sure Iraqis want investment, but no Iraqi citizen agreed to wholesale looting. Iraqis need the right to organize to fight corporate vultures. The U.S. should enable democracy, help these secular, progressive organizations, but we aren’t. If fact, we kept Saddam’s anti-union law specifically to keep a thumb on Iraqi labor. See, despite Bush’s vow to promote freedom and democracy, U.S. arms sales policy tells us the real truth. Most major recipients of our arms sales in the developing world are undemocratic, as defined by our own State Department. And U.S. supplied weaponry is present in a majority of the world’s active conflicts. Does this benefit us? No, it makes more danger. But it does benefit corporations.
And our democracy is being squashed. 52 Vermont towns voted to have the legislature study our National Guard’s involvement. We petitioned because it’s logical to contact your representatives if you care for your soldiers and your country’s moral ideals, and sense both going down the wrong road. Our legislators were blackmailed, you might say; the military insinuated they could take away our air base in Colchester, and our citizen legislators caved and tabled the discussion. And it’s desperately needed. This was not a defensive war. The guard are defenders. Vermont’s working class soldiers signed up to protect fellow citizens, not corporations. These kids are deployed in areas of Iraq where there’s depleted uranium. DC Democrats are wisely talking about mandating testing for returning troops, but under the auspices of the Environmental Protection Agency, that same EPA that allowed all our union brothers and sisters in NYC to go back to work before the air was fit to breathe, so they could get Wall Street up and running. And now 11 of Vermont’s sons have been buried. 53 others carry scars. Workers, soldiers, and our ideals must not be sacrificed for corporate profits.
We need to examine our own democracy, right away. And we have to help Iraqis achieve democracy, but from afar. We should assume Saddam’s debt. He was our guy. 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 our 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, comply with international law, 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 troops home now.
Dawn Stanger is a Teamster and Vice-President of the Vermont Workers’ Center