Inside the AFL-CIO
Issued Every Tuesday
Column #30 October 16, 2001

A Prolonged ‘War on Terrorism’
Means Major Challenges for Labor

By Harry Kelber

President Bush and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld say that the “war on terrorism” may continue for years, even if the Taliban is wiped out and Osama bin Laden is captured or killed.

There are hints and forebodings that the U.S. could turn its military might against nations known to harbor terrorists — such as Iraq, Iran, Syria, Libya, Sudan, Lebanon and Yemen — and terrorist groups that are said to be operating in 40 other countries. The New York Times on Oct. 10 reported that “terrorists with links to Al Qaeda, based in the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia, (are) among the likely targets of future American actions, both overt and covert.”

What would this blueprint for a long-term, international campaign against terrorism mean for American workers? Are we prepared to pay the enormous costs — and accept the risks — of a never-ending conflict against countries with large Islamic populations? Can we really reach our objective of obliterating terrorism? How can we revive a sluggish economy and still satisfy the pressing demands of the military?

These are only a few of the questions the AFL-CIO Executive Council should consider at its emergency meeting on Nov. 8 in Washington.

Until now, unions haven’t grappled with the wider implications of the Sept. 11 tragedy and its aftermath. They have been too busy grieving, honoring the heroes in their ranks and providing financial assistance and employment referrals to workers who lost their jobs. While the Executive Council’s immediate goal is to persuade Congress to provide adequate assistance for laid-off workers, they’d better address the broader concerns of working families, too.

There is no question that an already shaky economy will be affected for years to come by the possibility of a U.S.-initiated global war. In the last month, nearly 500,000 workers lost their jobs. That number is expected to grow as the ripple effects of the terrorist attacks take hold on the economy. At least three million union and non-union workers in the hospitality industry are out of work, according to John Wilhelm, president of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees. To press Congress for aid to laid-off workers in the airline industry, the AFL-CIO placed double-page ads in a dozen major newspapers. Essentially, the unions want a package of cash assistance for displaced workers in the form of extended unemployment benefits and medical insurance, plus job training and retraining.

Unions are unhappy with both the size and the substance of the economic stimulus package proposed by President Bush. The President wants at least two-thirds of the money used for tax cuts, with the lion’s share going to corporations. The military would get another $12 billion, while $3 billion would go to jobless relief, according to the Office of Management and Budget.

AFL-CIO President John Sweeney said on Oct. 4: “Although details are not clear, the President’s plan appears certain to need substantially more resources than he proposes. Early estimates show that his unemployment proposal would affect less than half of the 360,000 workers already subject to layoff notices, and for too short a time.”

Sweeney reserved particular scorn for the Bush proposal to extend unemployment insurance benefits for only 13 weeks, and only in states that experience a 30% increase in unemployment after Sept. 11. He pointed out that nearly two-thirds of unemployed workers would receive no help at all under the proposal because it does nothing to ease access to jobless benefits. Last year, he said, only 39% of unemployed workers received any unemployment insurance benefits in their respective states.

If Congress would appropriate funds for many long-neglected infrastructure projects, the economy could be stimulated and thousands of jobs created — but the Republicans won’t allow it. Similarly, if low-paid workers had more money to spend on goods and services, the economy as a whole would benefit. But conservative lawmakers vow they’ll prevent even a paltry minimum wage hike of $1.50 an hour spread over three years.

While Bush has a virtual blank check to conduct the war on terrorism as he sees fit and to keep it going for as long as he wants, we have no clear notion of what it will cost and who will pay for it. Unlike previous wars, this one doesn’t require mass production of new military hardware and support services that prime the pump of the economy. We are dealing with an enemy who hides out in caves, uses credit cards to travel and settles down in motel rooms.

And we’re already beginning to see how free speech rights and media access are being curtailed in the name of national security. It’s only a matter of time before cash-strapped governments demand wage cuts from employees to help the war effort. Unions that seek to negotiate better contracts will be accused of acting selfishly. Strikes, no matter how justified, will be denounced as unpatriotic. Rallies for worker rights and amnesty for immigrants will evoke suspicion or outright hostility. The right-wing, corporate coalition will seize on wartime conditions to renew its demand for phony “paycheck protection” laws and similar anti-union measures. Given Bush’s past performance, does anyone doubt that he would like to impose new restrictions on unions?

The members of the AFL-CIO Executive Council may have to adapt quickly and develop new strategies as an open-ended, shadowy war on terrorism inevitably draws attention away from the pressing needs and concerns of working families. Most of the 54 men and women on organized labor’s highest decision-making body choose to maintain very low profiles. They may not have much to say, but labor activists surely will.

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

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