By Steve Early
Even in the era of identity politics, one category of identity is much ignored: what journalist Joe Glenton calls “veteranhood.” In the U.S., nineteen million people, across several generations, share a strong sense of personal identity based on having served in the military.
Mainstream media outlets tend to notice veterans only when they’re voting Republican or joining right-wing militias, white supremacist groups, or other MAGA-land formations. On the left, former soldiers who become anti-war activists are highly regarded. But the far larger number of military veterans (more than 100,000) who become law enforcement officers are seen, for good reason, as contributing to the problem of militarized policing, along with the better known Pentagon-to-police equipment pipeline.
Largely ignored is the positive role that veterans from working-class backgrounds have played in key labor and political struggles since the mid-20th century—and modern day campaigns. In the heyday of industrial unionism in the 1950s and ‘60s, tens of thousands of World War II veterans could be found on the front-lines of labor struggles in auto, steel, electrical equipment manufacturing, mining, trucking, and the telephone industry. Today, about 1.3 million former military personnel work in union jobs, with women and people of color make up the fastest growing cohorts in their ranks.
According to the AFL-CIO, veterans are more likely to join a union than non-veterans. In a half dozen states, 25% or more of working veterans belong to unions. Vermont Labor Council President David Van Deusen sees veterans as “an underutilized resource for the labor movement,” particularly in high-profile organizing campaigns. No one, he believes, is better positioned to “expose the hypocrisy and duplicity of ‘veteran-friendly’ firms like Amazon and Walmart, who wrap themselves in the flag, while violating the rights of working-class Americans who served in uniform and the many who did not.”
That’s why labor consultant and author Jane McAlevey recommends that unions today follow the example of Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) organizers. In the post-war era, she reports, they better appreciated the fact that former service members had “strategic value” in strike-related PR campaigns, not to mention “experience with discipline, military formation, and overcoming fear and adversity,” all very useful on militant picket-lines.
An OCAW Role Model
Brooklyn-born Tony Mazzocchi was a leading figure in this generational cohort. After World War II, he became a catalyst for change within the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers (OCAW) and the broader labor movement for five decades. A survivor of the Battle of the Bulge, Mazzocchi spearheaded labor’s fight for the 1972 Occupational Safety and Health Act, which now provides workplace protections for 130 million Americans. During his storied career, Mazzocchi also campaigned for civil rights, nuclear disarmament, labor-based environmentalism, and single-payer health care.
In the 1990’s Mazzocchi helped found a union-backed Labor Party and popularized the demand that public higher education should be free for all. He was inspired by the liberating experience of veterans from his generation, who were able to attend college as a result of the original GI Bill, which he regarded as “one of the most revolutionary pieces of legislation in the 20th century.” According to his biographer Les Leopold, Mazzocchi believed that an all-inclusive 21st-century version of the GI Bill could plant the “seeds of the good life” for millions of poor and working-class Americans today.
Post-9/11 veterans continue to benefit from their hard-earned access to affordable higher education. Will Fischer, a Marine who served in Iraq before becoming director of the AFL-CIO Union Veterans’ Council, reports that he was able “to graduate from college and do so without the yoke of student debt.” Fischer now favors universalizing such benefits. He believes all student debt should be canceled and public higher education, including vocational schools, made tuition-free. As Fischer sees it, this would free lower-income young people from having to choose between “putting on a uniform and participating in never-ending U.S. wars or taking on crushing debt.”
Vets have also worked within organized labor to create civilian job opportunities, which don’t require trading one uniform for another. Fischer’s successor at the Veterans Council is Will Attig, a member of UA Local 160, Plumbers and Pipefitters in southern Illinois. Attig helps fellow Iraq and Afghanistan combat veterans find building trades jobs through the Helmets to Hardhats program. He also introduced the Communications Workers of America (CWA) and the IBEW to Common Defense, a post 9/11 veterans group, which has helped train members of CWA’s “Veterans for Social Change” network. Unveiled three years ago by CWA President Chris Shelton, a former telephone worker who served in the Air Force, this program seeks to “develop and organize a broad base of union activists who are veterans and/or currently serving in the military.”
As CWA notes, veterans, active-duty service members, and military families “are constantly exploited by politicians and others who seek to loot our economy, attack our communities, and divide our nation with racism and bigotry so they can consolidate more power amongst themselves.” CWA hopes to counter this on-going right-wing threat by encouraging veterans in its own ranks to engage in grassroots campaigns with community allies.
Public Sector Defenders
That includes fighting privatization of two federal agencies that employ many former soldiers, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), which serves nine million patients in the nation’s largest public healthcare system, and the U.S. Postal Service (USPS), which delivers mail to 163 million homes and businesses. Both have long been the target of corporate-backed efforts to reduce their staff, downsize their operations, and outsource their functions to politically connected private firms.
During the Trump Administration, right-wing political appointees at the VA launched a major assault on the workplace rights of 300,000 workers represented by the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), National Nurses United (NNU), and other unions. A White House advisory panel on the future of the Post Office called for the elimination of collective bargaining to help pave the way for privatization and job cuts that would affect more than 100,000 veterans.
Like privatization foes at the VA, the American Postal Workers Union (APWU) and the National Association of Letter Carriers (NALC) have tried to counter-out-sourcing threats through a grassroots campaign which declares “The US Mail Not for Sale!” As part of their collective resistance to Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, a Trump appointee still on the job under Joe Biden, postal unions and their allies are fighting for better utilization of public infrastructure, rather than its dismantling and sale to the highest bidder. And among the leaders of that effort is Keith Combs, an African-American former Marine who is leader of a Detroit-based APWU local with 1,500 members.
One-fifth of the postal workers threatened by privatization efforts are Black, like many APWU members in Detroit. For them and other participants in these labor-community campaigns, multiple identities have shaped their labor activism. NNU member Mildred Manning-Joy is a VA nurse in Durham, N.C. and, like one-third of the VA’s care-giving workforce, a veteran herself. She’s also the mother of a VA patient. Multiple tours of duty in Afghanistan and Iraq left her son with “the invisible scars of his time in combat.” Last spring, Manning-Joy was among the many unionized VA care-givers around the country who enlisted patients and their families, veterans’ groups, and other labor organizations in a successful fight to block President Joe Biden’s proposed closing of many VA facilities.
Community-Labor Coalition Builders
Similarly, 38-year old Iraq war veteran Adam Pelletier transitioned from the Marine Corps to public sector union work—first becoming a shop steward, AFGE local president, and then labor council leader in Troy, N.Y. After using the GI bill to finish college, Pelletier joined the Social Security Administration, where he and his co-workers assisted retired and disabled Americans who depend on federal benefits. Meanwhile, as a VA patient himself, he was active in AFGE’s campaign to “Save The VA” from would-be privatizers.
In upstate NY, Pelletier has confronted members of Congress who favor VA out-sourcing and has become a valued advisor to the Veterans Healthcare Policy Institute, a Bay Area-based research group that works closely with AFGE and Veterans for Peace (which Pelletier has joined, along with Democratic Socialists of America).“Congress continually votes to outsource VA services, pushing people into more expensive and less effective care,” Pelletier said, in a message to fellow Labor Council members last year. “They do this instead of adequately funding the VA and looking at it as the model by which we could all, someday, enjoy universal health care. We must mobilize to stop this!”
Just as Tony Mazzocchi was a key builder of late-20th century alliances between labor and environmental groups, one military veteran who spent 29-years in Mazzocchi’s union (which is now part of the United Steel Workers) has followed closely in his footsteps. As vice-president of USW Local 5, B.K. White helped lead a ten-week strike against Chevron in Richmond, CA. last year, the longest walkout by refinery workers there in forty years.
A local contract negotiator and longtime advocate for better oil industry safety regulation, White faced post-strike retaliation by management and was fired, along with four other USW members. While continuing to contest his dismissal, White has taken a new job as public policy director for newly elected Richmond Mayor Eduardo Martinez, a leader of the Richmond Progressive Alliance (RPA) and frequent critic of Chevron misbehavior.
According to Shiva Mishek, chief of staff for Martinez, White’s role will be “to help us lead ‘just transition’ work and support union labor and workforce development in Richmond,” two top priorities for the new mayor. On April 8, in Oakland, White will also participate in a day-long conference, sponsored by Labor Notes. There, hundreds of Bay Area labor activists will attend workshops on shop floor organizing, recent strike activity, and “Blue-Green” alliance-building to create job opportunities less dependent on fossil fuel extraction, transportation, refining, or use. Many of the other causes once championed by Tony Mazzocchi will be showcased at the gathering—from single payer healthcare to stronger workplace safety enforcement. And thanks to White’s participation, a veteran in labor will be among the older activists sharing their own experiences with a new generation of labor radicals.
Steve Early is a member of the NewsGuild/CWA and author of Refinery Town: Big Oil, Big Money, and the Remaking of an American City, about labor-community struggles against Chevron in Richmond. His new book (co-authored with Suzanne Gordon and Jasper Craven) is Our Veterans: Winners, Losers, Friends and Enemies on the New Terrain of Veterans Affairs from Duke University Press. They can be reached at Lsupport@aol.com)