Teachers and the War

Many Americans would be surprised to learn that among the most important constituencies backing the Bush administration’s disastrous agenda in the Middle East and promoting anti-Arab policies has been the one million-strong American Federation of Teachers (AFT). The AFT leadership has gone so far as to make a series of public statements and push through resolutions with demonstrably inaccurate assertions in its defense of administration policy. A key constituent union of the AFL-CIO, the AFT – which also represents a significant number of health care and other public service workers – gives over $5 million in contributions to congressional candidates each election cycle.

In January 2003, as anti-war activists were scrambling to prevent a U.S. invasion of Iraq war by challenging the Bush administration’s claims about Iraq having reconstituted its chemical and biological weapons capability, offensive delivery system, and nuclear weapons program, the AFT’s executive council decided to weigh in on the debate.

The AFT executive council issued a public statement claiming that Iraq at that time posed “a unique threat to the peace and stability of the Middle East” and “to the national security interests of the United States.” This decision to parrot the Bush administration’s rhetoric regarding Iraq’s alleged military capabilities flew in the face of substantial evidence gathered from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the UN Special Commission on Iraq, and the UN Monitoring and Verification Commission. In addition, testimony by former UN arms inspectors, articles in scholarly journals by arms control experts, reports by investigative journalists, and analyses by independent research institutes available at that time cast serious doubts on such allegations.

The vote for this resolution was not unanimous. A number of members of the executive council – such as Barbara Bowen, president of AFT’s large local at City University of New York (CUNY) – raised concerns over the credibility of the claims made by war supporters in the administration and on Capitol Hill regarding the alleged Iraqi threat. These dissenters were overwhelmed, however, by those on the council who fell in line with the Bush administration. Instead, the majority of the AFT executive council relied exclusively on the opinions of current and former government officials.

At the subsequent biannual convention in 2004, members passed a resolution strongly condemning the Bush administration for misleading the American public on Iraq. However, AFT officials have quietly acknowledged that it was actually the testimony of Senator Hillary Clinton before a meeting of labor leaders in 2002 that played a major role in convincing them that there was still an ongoing Iraqi threat. Her misleading claims notwithstanding, however, the AFT has gone on to actively support her presidential campaign.

Despite admitting they were wrong about Iraq’s supposed military threat, the AFT leadership has refused to apologize for making such false and reckless statements and, despite demands from the rank-and-file, have refused to make public any change of procedure so to minimize the risk of issuing such false statements on important national security issues in the future. Indeed, the union leadership’s eagerness to back the Bush administration’s phony claims of an “Iraqi threat” was only the beginning of its support for the Bush Middle East agenda.

Continued Support for the War

Once U.S. forces invaded and occupied Iraq and the Bush administration admitted that Iraq had not failed to disarm, it became apparent that the AFT leadership’s expressed concern about Iraqi WMDs was not the only motivation for supporting a U.S. conquest and occupation of that oil-rich country.

In a 2004 resolution at the AFT’s biannual convention, the AFT rebuked anti-war elements of the union by passing a resolution declaring, in part, that “we urge the Bush administration, the Congress and the American people to reject calls for the precipitous withdrawal of U.S. forces.” They did not define what “precipitous” meant and the resolution listed no criteria for when or under what conditions they believed U.S. forces should come back home, a choice of words widely interpreted to mean support for an indefinite U.S. military occupation. The majority of AFT’s political contributions (funded from the union dues of its members) in 2004 went to candidates who supported the Iraq war. This hawkish stance was in sharp contrast to the AFL-CIO as a whole and most of its other member unions, which had gone on record in opposition to the U.S. war in Iraq and in support of the withdrawal of American troops from that country.

The AFT rank and file opponents of the resolution raised questions about the impact of the occupation on the people of Iraq, including Iraqi trade unionists. They also wanted to know why a union supposedly backing public education would support spending hundreds of billions of dollars worth of taxpayers’ money to fight such a war in the face of huge cutbacks in federal aid to education. A number of statewide affiliates, such as Wisconsin and California, went on record opposing the war even as the national union continued to support it.

Eventually, a rank-and-file effort to pass a resolution at the AFT’s national convention in 2006 calling for a withdrawal of American troops from Iraq was successful, though the leadership successfully beat back an amendment to ban union endorsement of war supporters.

A Politically Inspired Deception?

In the 1980s – when Iraq actually did have WMDs, advanced WMD programs and sophisticated delivery systems and really did pose a unique threat to the region and to U.S. national security interests – the AFT did not pass a single resolution raising such concerns. Only after the country had completely disarmed did the AFT pass a resolution claiming Iraq was a threat. If the union had really been interested in going on record reflecting the actual situation, it would have passed a resolution warning of Iraq’s danger and its need to disarm back in the 1980s and would not have passed such a resolution in early 2003.

This doesn’t make any sense until one considers that the Reagan administration supported Iraq in the 1980s while the Bush administration in 2003 wanted an excuse to invade that country. When the Reagan administration wanted the AFT to keep mum about Iraq back when it really was a threat, the union dutifully kept mum. But when the Bush administration wanted the AFT to claim Iraq was still a threat when that country no longer was, the union dutifully passed a resolution.

It appears, then, that the AFT leadership – despite its criticism of these two Republican administrations’ domestic policy agenda – was more interested in doing what these Republican administrations wanted it to say than it was in providing its members with an honest assessment of Iraq’s military capabilities.

Backing Bush on Lebanon

Even as a rank-and-file effort to rescind AFT support for the Iraq war succeeded at the 2006 convention, the leadership was able to push through a resolution defending another aspect of the Bush administration’s agenda in the Middle East. The convention passed a resolution supporting Israel’s war that summer in Lebanon – which took the lives of hundreds of Lebanese civilians, destroyed billions of dollars worth of that country’s infrastructure and caused widespread environmental damage – as well as Israel’s assault on heavily populated areas of the besieged Gaza Strip.

As with the decision by the AFT leadership in 2003 to repeat the Bush administration’s false claims about Iraq, the 2006 resolution repeated a series of false claims by the Bush administration regarding the Lebanese Hezbollah movement and the Palestinian Hamas movement.

For example, the resolution claimed that Hezbollah “proudly takes credit for the 1983 bombing of the Beirut barracks” that killed 258 U.S. Marines. In reality, Hezbollah has denied their involvement in the attack (though some individuals who later became part of Hezbollah may have indeed been involved.) Requests from AFT to provide evidence to back their claim that Hezbollah “proudly took credit” have remained unanswered.

The resolution also claims that Hezbollah and Hamas were “holding the people of Lebanon and the Palestinian in Gaza hostage” by putting civilian in harm’s way, backing the Bush administration’s insistence that these Palestinian and Lebanese militias were ultimately responsible for the deaths of their fellow countrymen, not the indiscriminate bombardments by U.S.-supplied Israeli forces into civilian areas. However, a detailed study published at the end of the fighting in August by Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported that it had found “no cases in which Hezbollah deliberately used civilians as shields to protect them from retaliatory IDF attack.” Similarly, Amnesty International, in a well-documented report published in November observed, “While the presence of Hizbullah’s fighters and short-range weapons within civilian areas is not contested” it was “not apparent that civilians were present and used as ‘human shields.’” The resolution went on to claim that the aims of Hezbollah and Hamas in that summer’s fighting were to “carry out the agendas of Iran and Syria.” But the provocative actions of these indigenous Islamic groups were based on their own issues, and neither the Iranian nor Syrian governments – despite some financial and military support – had any operational control over these militias. Passing a resolution claiming that these Lebanese and Palestinian militias were somehow being directed by foreign governments – governments that happened to be targeted by the Bush administration for sanctions, diplomatic isolation, and possible military action – appears to have been part of an effort by the AFT leadership to give credence to the administration’s efforts to further its broader Middle East agenda.

Similarly, in an apparent effort to undermine Syrian efforts to re-open negotiations with Israel and the United States, the AFT resolution claimed that “both Hezbollah and Hamas” were attacking “Israeli cities and civilians with rockets, mortars, and other heavy weapons supplied to them by… Syria.” In reality, the Hezbollah rockets fired into Israel were exclusively of Iranian origin and the smaller, less-sophisticated Hamas rockets fired into Israel were largely homemade, with components smuggled in from Egypt. In any case, the resolution made no mention of the U.S.-supplied ordnance to Israel, which killed more than 900 Lebanese and Palestinian civilians during that period. The resolution also charges that Hamas “initiated” the crisis that summer by attacking an Israeli border post and kidnapping an Israeli corporal. A strong case could also be made, however, that that the attack and kidnapping were actually in response to weeks of Israeli bombardment of populated areas of the Gaza Strip that had killed over a dozen Palestinian civilians.

A History of Militarism

In many respects, the AFT’s right-wing foreign policy agenda is nothing new. The union’s long-time and influential founding president Albert Shankar was an outspoken supporter of the Vietnam War in the 1960s and of U.S. military intervention in Central America 1980s, as well as of President Reagan’s dangerous escalation of the nuclear arms race and dramatically increased military spending.

Shankar was also virtually the only prominent trade unionist to join the Committee on the Present Danger during the late 1970s and 1980s, the influential right-wing group that included a number of neo-conservatives who would later serve in the current administration. Shankar and his colleagues claimed that Soviet Russia and its allies were somehow getting stronger than the United States and its allies and that the Soviets posed a clear and present danger to America’s national security. Just as with the AFT’s more recent exaggerated claims about an Iraqi threat, however, this charge was nonsense. In reality, the Soviets and their allies were actually falling behind the West in their strategic capabilities, and their decrepit system was actually collapsing.

In short, the AFT is continuing its longstanding role of being the principal shill for U.S. militarism within the labor movement, even to the point of ignoring the facts in order to advance its right-wing foreign policy agenda and demonizing those who challenge assumptions justifying U.S. policy in the Middle East. Indeed, among the AFL-CIO leadership, the AFT was the only union not to oppose on principle the Bush Doctrine of “preventive war.” Support for such policies by the leadership of a major labor union – AFT President Edward McElroy and Secretary-Treasurer Nat LaCour serve as AFL-CIO vice-presidents – gives important credibility to those advancing the Bush’s administration’s foreign policy agenda.

It is particularly ironic that a union representing educators would base its foreign policy agenda not on empirical evidence, but simply on statements by right-wing political leaders. Indeed, the significance of the AFT’s hawkish foreign policy agenda is not just its influential role in Democratic Party politics and in formulating the national debate on important policy issues, but the fact that it represents the people who educate America’s youth.

Rank-and-File Challenge

The AFT leadership’s positions are being increasingly challenged by the rank-and file, particularly those involved in the AFT Peace and Justice Caucus and the multi-union U.S. Labor Against the War (USLAW.) More than two dozen AFT affiliates have formally joined USLAW – more than from any other union. This includes the statewide chapters from California, Oregon, and Wisconsin as well as some of the AFT’s largest locals, including those representing public school teachers in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Milwaukee, as well as the New York State United University Professions, the AFT’s largest higher education affiliate. A significant precedent took place when the largest AFT local, the New York City Federation of Teachers, began endorsing demonstrations against the Iraq war, as have the large public school teachers locals in Philadelphia and other cities.

A willingness to challenge the AFT leadership’s right-wing foreign policy agenda has been growing. A resolution at the 2002 AFT convention opposing a U.S. invasion of Iraq was soundly defeated. At the next convention in 2004, a resolution calling for the withdrawal of U.S. forces lost only narrowly. By 2006, the resolution calling for a rapid withdrawal from Iraq was adopted overwhelmingly.

The AFT is no longer monolithic. There is a strong and growing tendency within the AFT to change directions. And, given the AFT’s important role politically, this could not come too soon.

Stephen Zunes, a Foreign Policy In Focus analyst, is a professor of politics and international studies at the University of San Francisco. He is also a member of the University of San Francisco Faculty Association, AFT local 4269.