Inside the AFL-CIO
Issued Every Tuesday
Column #20 August 7, 2001

Machinists’ President Tackles a Taboo,
Publicly Favors Bush Anti-Missile Plan

By Harry Kelber

It’s almost unheard of for an AFL-CIO Executive Council member to speak publicly on a controversial issue if the entire Council hasn’t taken a position. Yet, Machinists President R. Thomas Buffenbarger is disregarding the unwritten rule by speaking out in favor of the Bush Administration’s proposed nuclear missile defense (NMD) system.

At the National Press Club in Washington on July 19, Buffenbarger urged politicians from both parties to support the NMD initiative. “The threat of a ballistic missile attack on an American city is real today and will be an even greater threat in the next five years,” he warned. “We need a realistic program that is not tailored to anyone’s political agenda.”

He conceded that many union members oppose NMD, including some of his colleagues on the Executive Council, but said he would try to persuade them to reassess it.

In the May 1 issue of FaxLink, IAM’s newsletter, Buffenbarger said President Bush should move ahead, regardless of opposition from Russia, China and Western Europe or violations of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. He said: “Missile defense tests — the unsuccessful ones and the successful ones — cannot be held hostage to diplomacy or domestic politics. Those NMD tests must proceed with one unshakable idea in mind. America can and will protect its cities most at risk, the cities on an arc from Anchorage to Los Angeles.”

At the Press Club in July, Buffenbarger sounded a more cautious note: “Moving with undue haste to deploy an untested or semi-tested system has the potential to turn Congress and the American public decisively against the whole concept of national missile defense.” But just before Congress recessed in August, he suggested that Democrats “forgo the short-term, tactical, partisan advantage” and asked rhetorically: “Can our party really afford to be seen as weak on the defense of America’s cities? I think not.”

As the largest union representing defense industry workers, with 750,000 active and retired members, the IAM stands to gain thousands of jobs if Congress approves the NMD project. The construction unions and the Teamsters are favorably inclined for the same reason, although their leaders haven’t spoken publicly.

The AFL-CIO Executive Council has not acted on NMD, and probably won’t at the Dec. 4-7 convention in Las Vegas. Still, Buffenbarger and like-minded delegates could, if they wish, force a full-scale debate on the convention floor.

Even if the convention takes no position on NMD, labor people need answers about an issue that directly affects their personal security. They — and all of us — deserve to know:

• What are the nuclear capabilities of “rogue” nations (North Korea, Iran, Libya and Iraq) that may possibly attack the United States? What damage could they inflict?

• What evidence is there that a “protective shield” could be constructed that would stop all enemy missiles from reaching our shores?

• How long will it take to build an NMD system? And what will it cost?

• How do we deal with Western European allies who oppose a U.S.-deployed NMD system and say it might trigger a nuclear arms race? And should we worry that Russia and China have signed a 50-year “friendship” pact?

• How does NMD protect us from terrorists exploding a suitcase nuclear bomb, loaded with biological and chemical weapons?

Union families need to make up their own minds about NMD. One of the wisest things Thomas Jefferson ever said was that Democracy depends on a well-informed population.

It would be easy to encourage a lively dialogue among union members on this and other subjects. There’s no reason the AFL-CIO couldn’t set up an electronic forum on one of its two Web sites. So why not do it?

“Inside the AFL-CIO” can be viewed every Tuesday on Our “LaborTalk” column appears on Mondays.

HomePublications Inside the AFL-CIOContact us