This is the final in a four-part series on the anti-war movement of 2003 and the role of labour. The previous article looked at the lessons around anti-imperialism and anti-oppression, and this article looks at lessons around mass action and labour strategy.
The mass anti-war movement stopped the Canadian government from going to war in Iraq in 2003, and trained a new generation of activists in the process. It showed how ideas change in struggle, that anti-oppression must be at the heart of the movement, and that internationalism must be our guide. The movement also provided lessons in mass action and labour strategy.
The fourth lesson is that mass actions have the biggest impact. One of the most familiar forms of mass action is the mass demonstration. This tactic is meant to demonstrate, literally, the scale and size of the movement, as a means to build the confidence of its participants, to shift public opinion, and to influence decision-makers. The most successful example of a mass action in the anti-war movement is the February 15, 2003 protests, which remains the largest coordinated anti-war action in human history and which prevented a number of states from committing their support to the Iraq War, including Canada.
Mass actions such as these, however, rely heavily on the networks of local activists who engage in small-scale activity across a city, region, or country. The mass action allows these groups to unite in common activity—building local support for a centralized action, and then coming together in a united display of the movement’s strength. Activists must, therefore, plan activity in a way that engages, organizes, and mobilizes bigger and bigger audiences. Most struggles don’t enjoy popular support at their outset, so activists need a strategy to build it. Mass actions of any kind are a tactic to help achieve that goal.
When the anti-war movement took its first tentative steps, public opinion was initially sympathetic to the possibility of an invasion of Iraq. This was not a surprising fact, in light of the mainstream media’s uncritical endorsement and widespread dissemination of White House and Pentagon propaganda about Weapons of Mass Destruction, Saddam Hussein’s alleged links to 9/11, and purported US support for Iraqis’ democratic aspirations. In the early days of organizing, activists faced the dilemma of raising an anti-war demand that a majority of the public opposed. This meant that activists had two difficult tasks: first, to shape and change public opinion, turning it into anti-war sentiment; and second, to organize and express that sentiment on a mass scale.
The labour movement was one of the first places that activists achieved success on this front. For example, trying to get a union to take an official anti-war position necessarily involved a mass audience: from the first discussions about the Iraq War at individual union locals, to the national convention where hundreds or thousands of elected delegates would debate and vote on the resolution, the process of engaging a mass organization is a mass action in and of itself. As mass organizations that represent thousands and tens of thousands of workers, trade unions have the potential to exert a huge ideological influence on its members, the wider working class, and society at large. Any time the unions opposed the war in an official capacity, they built the confidence of the anti-war movement, which then further fuelled the growth of anti-war sentiment inside the labour movement itself.
This reciprocal relationship, especially its effects on other civil society organizations, was critically important for anti-war activists as they attempted to build majority support for a full withdrawal of Canadian troops from Afghanistan. In the wake of the initial invasion of Iraq, public opinion firmly opposed the Iraq War, but still overwhelmingly backed Canada’s Afghan mission. Where opposition did exist, it was about the nature of the mission, not its mandate or legitimacy. By 2005, when Canadian troops moved to Kandahar to engage in open combat, there were really only two mainstream viewpoints about Afghanistan: should Canada continue its counter-insurgency operation in Kandahar? Or should it pursue more traditional “peacekeeping” in Kabul? The demand to withdraw was still widely derided in the media, if it received any attention at all.
‘Troops out now’
In order to shift public opinion, the anti-war movement needed to popularize the “troops out now” demand and shine a spotlight on the mission’s impact in terms of deaths and casualties of Canadian troops and of the people of Afghanistan. One way it did that was to build on its growing support in the labour movement to push the New Democratic Party (NDP), another mass organization with influence among workers and society at large, to adopt as its official party position the demand to withdraw all Canadian troops from Afghanistan. In the months leading up to the NDP’s federal convention in Quebec City in September 2006, anti-war activists, both inside and outside the NDP, worked tirelessly to generate support for this demand among the party membership, in one riding association after another and among rank-and-file members of NDP-affiliated trade unions.
The pressure that came from the party’s base, and from the wider public as the movement continued to organize, created enough momentum to push the federal NDP into an anti-war position before it officially endorsed the “troops out” demand. Although the convention had not yet debated or voted on its anti-war resolution, delegates’ packages included “Bring the troops home now!” buttons and other anti-war materials, and the convention agenda featured high-profile anti-war speakers from the US and Afghanistan, including Afghan MP Malalai Joya. These were signs that the party leadership was aware of, and wanted to be fully aligned with, the membership’s stance on Afghanistan.
The success of this initiative was huge: it immediately broke the establishment consensus that Canada’s Afghan mission should continue, regardless of what form it took, and began to legitimize the demand in the wider public for a full and complete withdrawal of Canadian troops. Although pro-war pundits and the federal Conservatives would label NDP leader Layton as “Taliban Jack,” the party’s anti-war stance rapidly developed a permanent profile in the media and in Parliament, thereby accelerating the process by which the anti-war movement was eventually successful in helping move a majority of the public to oppose the Afghan mission.
Like other attempts to build mass anti-war actions, this one required a clear understanding of the relationship between small, isolated local activity and large-scale coordinated mobilizations. In this case, the local activity to build anti-war opposition inside NDP riding associations and in trade union locals across the country fed into the coordinated mass action to push the NDP to call for the withdrawal of Canadian troops, a turn of events that provided a huge boost to the movement as a whole and breathed new life into all the local networks.
This initiative also had an international impact. When the NDP officially moved to a “troops out” stance, it became the first social democratic party among NATO member states to oppose the Afghanistan war in its entirety. This development gave confidence to anti-war activists outside Canada, especially those who were members of social democratic parties in Western Europe that, either as the governing party or in opposition, had backed their respective state’s participation in the Afghan mission. The effect was the same as in Canada: to legitimize withdrawal as a viable option within various national debates about the Afghanistan war.
The fifth lesson is that movements need a rank-and-file strategy. In many cases, activists have no other choice but to organize this way because they are starting from scratch and there is no one else to build their struggle but themselves. In the labour movement, a rank-and-file approach is not about making abstract demands on elected leaders and simply waiting for them or their staff to implement those demands. A rank-and-file approach is about taking on the work oneself, and building capacity among the rank-and-file membership of the union to engage in independent activity.
This kind of approach is partly based on the previous lesson, which is that people’s ideas change in struggle and that people learn by doing. It is also based on the understanding that elected trade union leaders will only implement your demands in a meaningful way if there is pressure from the members to do so. This was especially true in the early days of the anti-war movement, when very few unions (at least in English Canada) had any recent experience engaging international issues related to war, and when most trade union leaders (but not all) didn’t feel confident to commit the union to a particular stance on the Iraq War.
Twenty years later, almost every national union in Canada and Quebec, including the Canadian Labour Congress, has had an official position on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that was won democratically by their own members, usually at national conventions or conferences. This outcome is the result of months and years of painstaking local-by-local organizing, both within and outside the labour movement, to generate and cultivate anti-war sentiment among rank-and-file members. When a trade union leader or the union itself officially takes an anti-war position, it is all the more effective if the wider membership knows about, supports it, and was involved in the process to make it happen. Otherwise, it could be regarded as an empty gesture, which either inspires indifference or provokes a backlash.
The other key lesson about a rank-and-file strategy is that, within the labour movement or any organization, the main audience to engage is not the leadership, although activists should certainly welcome sympathetic leaders who support the movement’s demands and play a role in mobilizing their membership. The main audience is the members themselves, whose meaningful participation in all aspects of organizing must be a primary goal of organizers.
Why labour matters
The sixth lesson is that labour really matters. This should be an obvious point, but it can’t be emphasized enough. The working class has the potential collective power to transform society. Even the smallest expression of that power can be enough to change the course of history. That’s why an orientation to the labour movement and, by extension, to the working class in its entirety is critical in any struggle.
This is not simply about tapping into the labour movement’s resources, networks, or skills, although all those things help. This is about trying to involve in a meaningful way the largest number of workers possible in all aspects of organizing. Workers, far and beyond any other constituency, represent the most potential to effect change because of their relationship—as workers—to the economy. No goods or services are produced without the labour of workers. When they withdraw their labour, even if only briefly, they demonstrate the central role they play in the economy and, therefore, their potential collective power to bring it to a grinding halt. At moments like these, when workers strike on a mass scale, they not only slow or stop production, but also open up the possibility of completely re-organizing how production happens in the first place: instead of producing for profit, they begin to produce for human need.
The real source of workers’ power, therefore, is more in the workplace than it is in the streets. However, that power is still felt in the streets when workers, whether on their own or through the organized labour movement, join a struggle in large numbers. The level of struggle in the streets also influences the level of struggle in the workplace. The more that a movement builds the confidence, skills, and experience of workers in a social struggle, the more likely that those same workers will apply their confidence, skills, and experience to a workplace struggle.
Power in the workplace
This relationship should not be underestimated. There were some important examples in the lead-up to the Iraq War in which workers, who had been influenced by the mass movement in the streets, had the confidence to take anti-war action in their workplaces. One well-known example is Scottish train drivers who, in January 2003, refused to transport munitions that were destined for Iraq. Other examples emerged years later, including dockworkers in California who, in May 2008, shut down 29 ports on the US west coast to protest the war. While some of these actions were largely symbolic, and didn’t last more than a day, their impact was huge, and gave a glimpse of what could have happened if workers, especially in the US, had repeated these actions on a larger scale and over a longer period of time: they could have stopped the war.
This is the key lesson about why labour matters. For the millions around the world who marched before the war began, and who were demoralized when their actions failed to stop it, this is what could have made the difference: the expansion of anti-war protest into workplaces across the US and in all the countries that supported the war. But to get even remotely close to a situation in which actions such as those are conceivable, never mind likely, activists must build a movement from the ground up and in way that orients to workers, facilitates their meaningful involvement in all aspects of organizing, and aims to build their confidence over the long term to lead their own struggles—whether in the streets, the workplace, or both.
More than anything else, this task—which must incorporate all the lessons that the anti-war movement offers—requires patience, persistence, and perspective.
Patience is required because none of this happens quickly. This is a long-term struggle that should, at least in part, be about laying the foundations for the struggles that will follow it. At first, what seems like a lot of work will pay few dividends. But over time, it will begin to generate momentum, and bear fruit.
Persistence is also required because there will be many obstacles along the way, and activists must be prepared to continue organizing despite the numerous setbacks they’ll encounter. It’s important to be sober about the movement’s limits, but not to be pessimistic about what’s possible. And that distinction is critical.
This is why perspective is required, too. Activists, especially in the labour movement, must believe in the capacity of ordinary people to play a leading role in their own individual struggles and in their own collective liberation. That capacity might not be obvious when a struggle is just getting underway, or when assessing the state of the working class at any given time. But developing it should never be conceived of as a far-off goal; instead, it should be seen as a process that begins at the very moment a struggle takes its very first steps.
When those few dozen activists and trade unionists gathered in Calgary in June 2002 to propose the first coordinated actions against sanctions and war in Iraq, they had no idea that, just nine months later, their actions would contribute to the growth of a movement that would eventually prevent the Canadian state from joining the Iraq War. Few people know they’re making history until after the fact. The point is to be prepared for the possibility, and organize accordingly.
Read all articles in the series: How labour helped keep Canada out of Iraq in 2003 (part 1); February 15, 2003: When anti-war protests made history (part 2); Lessons of the anti-war movement: Anti-imperialism and anti-oppression (part 3); and Lessons of the anti-war movement: Mass action and labour strategy (part 4).
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