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Million member union Teachers Union
Votes to "Oppose the Iraq War"

by Stanley Heller
Stan H mecc@comcast.net

Three thousand delegates filled the immense meeting hall at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center on Sunday July 23 to vote on a resolution on the Iraq war. It was the last day of a four day convention of the nation's second largest teachers union, the 1.3 million member American Federation of Teachers (AFT). Two years earlier the union stuck to the John Kerry line that the war was necessary but being run incompetently. At that convention delegates voted to "reject" calls for immediate withdrawal.

A lot has happened in two years. The war has spiraled downward. The biggest national union federation (the AFL-CIO) passed a resolution last summer which included the words "rapid withdrawal". At the New York State teachers convention this year Hillary Clinton met with vocal protest because of her stand on Iraq. The Lamont challenge to Lieberman is on everyone's lips. Within the AFT resolutions to this year's convention came from state bodies in California, and Michigan, from New York City college professors, and from a Connecticut local all demanding immediate withdrawal.

The AFT national leadership is very conservative on foreign policy matters and it usually rules the convention with an iron hand through its "Progressive Caucus". Yet it couldn't ignore the growing disgust with the war felt by all over the country. It submitted its own resolution essentially seconding last year's AFL-CIO resolution. That wasn't going to cut it. That resolution was essentially a contradictory hodgepodge of "rapid withdrawal" grafted onto a bunch of pro-war excuses.

With five resolutions to consider the matter was sent to a hundred person committee and there the battle was joined. A newly formed "Peace and Justice Caucus" led the effort to have a fully anti-war resolution with the words "immediate withdrawal" sent to the full convention. After heated debate it failed narrowly. What was fascinating was that the rhetoric of the Progressive Caucus speakers was clothed in the vocabulary anti-war movement! "Yes, we have to get out, but we can't repeat the mistakes of the Vietnam War era protests by being too extreme", etc. etc.

The Progressive Caucus resolution passed but not before being amended to call for removal of all US bases and to have the words the "American Federation of Teachers opposes the Iraq War" inserted into the resolution.

On the convention floor delegates had the right to propose changes but no one did. There was a short debate with Peace Caucus delegates denouncing the war and a Progressive Caucus speaker lamely explaining how it was important not to have immediate withdrawal so as not to "desert" the Iraq people. Debate was closed and since no one had spoken against the resolution the chairman asked if anyone wanted to do so. No one in the cavernous hall volunteered. Not a single person would defend the war, nor utter the hackneyed slogans of "Support the Troops" or "Stay the Course". Not a single person voiced objection to the AFT going on record for the first time an opposing a war fostered by the U.S. government. When the final vote came if there was opposition it could not be heard.

What happened in Boston shouldn't be overstated. It wasn't a sea change. No one expects the national leadership to do much around the war. In fact an attempt to have the union join USLAW, the national labor anti-war coalition, was crushed. Yet clearly in the AFT the times are a changing.

Shameful vote on Gaza and Lebanon

No teachers' local had proposed any resolutions on Palestinians or Israel. The AFT had long been led by its 60,000 strong school teachers local in New York City and its leadership was extremely hawkish on Israel. Several of us were hoping to try to have a discussion about Palestine, Israel and Lebanon, but were unsure if we'd even be allowed a room. At the start of the convention even the Peace and Justice Caucus didn't want to talk about Palestinians.

Then word came that the national leadership was preparing a "specal order of business", a horrendous resolution on the Israeli attacks on Gaza and Lebanon. It was entitled "State Sponsored Terrorism and the Crisis in the Middle East". Everything was started by Hamas and Hezbollah, everything they did was "terrorism" and all was at the behest of Iran and Syria. Israel? It had a right to defend itself.

With very little organization a handful decided to speak in opposition. When the issue came up the national leadership crowded the mikes. Randi Weingarten New York City teacher's union president and began pressing all the hot buttons, "terrorism", "World Trade Center", "911", "The Holocaust". Another leader called for Hezbollah to be annihilated.

Then a Jewish teacher who identified himself as being the son of Holocaust survivors offered a subsitutute motion. He called for negotiations and eloquently described conditions of Palestinians. I was at the convention as a delegate from my Connecticut teachers' union local and told of the thousands of Palestinans and hundreds of Lebanese in Israeli jails and how polls of Israelis showed that in opposition to their government they wanted to solve things in Lebanon by negotiations and not by military action. Several others spoke for the substitute motions with facts and with passion.

The vote for the substitute won at least a third of the delegates, maybe even 40 or 45 percent, but it did lose and the revolting resolution applauding the Israeli invasions and massacres won handily. It's the official policy of the union and who knows what the union leadership will do with it, maybe go out and buy Israel Bonds.

I've been in the union for 37 years and the vote is the most shameful act that I can remember.

Silver Lining

Out of anger and grief I could hardly speak after the vote, but there were indeed some things we should be positive about. The delegates weren't scheduled to hear a word about the Palestinians or Lebanese. Instead because of the hubris of the leadership three thousand people heard a passionate debate about Palestine and Lebanon Well over a thousand voted to repudiate their leaders and call for peace.

The Peace and Justice Caucus was so enraged by the vote that it overwhelmingly decided to sponsor a talk the next day, "Palestine, Israel and Lebanon: War in the Fateful Triangle". With almost no publicity 50 people gathered at 8:30 in the morning. We had Elaine Hagopian, Meriee Nijimmy, Hilda Silverman and I speak on everything from the history of the conflict to growing up Arab in an Anglo community to Israel and the Iran and Iraq wars. For the next few days delegates I had never met came up to me and thanked me for my remarks at the convention and on the panel discussion.

People will listen to us. Go out and talk to them in every venue, on every street corner. Go knock on doors. Protest the infamy.

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