Why Labor Should Oppose NATO's War Against Yugoslavia

by Jon Flanders

The AFl-CIO has spent a great deal of time in recent years opposing trends in international trade and economic policy that adversely impact workers. It has taken note of the downward spiral of wages and working conditions that constitute the "race to the bottom" happily being led by the huge international corporations like GE, Sony, and a whole slew of their profit-hungry brethren.

At the same time, there have been efforts to shake off the legacy of the Cold War AFL-CIO policies, which more often than not, pitted its representatives against third-world labor movements, with disastrous outcomes now becoming apparent in places like Mexico and Central America, all in the name of "fighting communism."

Now a huge new foreign policy issue looms, the NATO led war against Yugoslavia. In its policy statement, the AFL-CIO implicitly sides with NATO and Washington, condemning Serbian crimes against labor leaders and refugees, concluding...."The AFL-CIO calls upon the international community to make protection of civilians and of human rights a priority of the NATO operations and to declare that the continuing atrocities in Kosovo constitute war crimes on the part of Serbian political and military leaders, as well as those who are taking innocent lives in this senseless slaughter".

Nowhere in the official statement is there any analysis of the background of the break-up of Yugoslavia, the role of international financial agencies like the International Monetary Fund, and the machinations of the corporate titans in Eastern Europe since the fall of the Soviet Union.

Given the time and energy spent in opposing the Clinton administration on NAFTA and Fast Track, shouldn't the official representatives of workers in the United States spend a little time researching an issue like the Balkan crisis, before uncritically jumping on Clinton's war wagon? Why should this administration be any more trustworthy in the Balkans than it has been in Mexico? Should labor's agenda be driven by an endless stream of Albanian refugee pictures on CNN, which could just as easily come from the territory of NATO member Turkey, where hundreds of thousands of Kurds have been driven from their homes? Pictures do not always tell the whole story.

I don't claim to be a Balkan expert, but like a lot of workers today, I have a computer and a modem, and even a cursory search of the web, and a couple of email list memberships bring in a vast amount of information on this crisis, much of which easily discredits the Clinton "humanitarian bombing" of Yugoslavia.

I contend that the evidence shows that NATO and US policy in Yugoslavia is being driven by the same interests that created modern Mexico, a place close enough for us to see the hellish consequences of capitalist greed run amok.

The long range plans of the wealthy powers that lead NATO, is a corporate driven agenda to turn Eastern Europe, and eventually Russia, into a vast pool of cheap labor and natural resources.

In a 1996 article, Brian Caplen cites Eastern European wages as low as $1 an hour, and notes that.."It's easy to understand that selling into Eastern Europe at affordable prices implies manufacturing in Eastern Europe at low cost. But the really big profits will flow to companies that can produce in Eastern Europe at sufficient quality to sell into Western Europe".

In other words, the same formula now in place for Mexico.

A recent NY Times article profiled Russian garment workers in the far east, working for an international company, making 11 cents an hour, half the wage of Guatamalan workers! I could go on, but you get the point.

Now what about workers in the Balkans? In a long article posted on the web, Professor Michel Chossudovsky, Professor of Economics at the University of Ottawa points out that... "Yet while the World's attention is focused on troop movements and cease fires, creditors and international financial institutions are busy at work collecting former Yugoslavia's external debt, while transforming the Balkans into a safe-haven for free enterprise. Adopted in several stages since the early 1980s, the reforms imposed by Belgrade's creditors wreaked economic and political havoc leading to disintegration of the industrial sector and the piece-meal dismantling of the Yugoslav Welfare State."

Chossudovsky outlines the history of the economic crisis in Yugoslavia that dates back to the late 1970's and recounts the role of the IMF..."The economic package was launched in January 1990 under an IMF Stand-by Arrangement (SBA) and a World Bank Structural Adjustment Loan (SAL II). The budget cuts requiring the redirection of federal revenues towards debt servicing, were conducive to the suspension of transfer payments by Belgrade to the governments of the Republics and Autonomous Provinces thereby fuelling the process of political balcanisation and secessionism. The government of Serbia rejected Markovic's austerity programme outright leading to a walk-out protest of some 650,000 Serbian workers directed against the Federal government. The Trade Union movement was united in this struggle: "worker resistance crossed ethnic lines, as Serbs, Croats, Bosnians and Slovenians mobilised (...) shoulder to shoulder with their fellow workers..."

Chossudovsky goes on to say that"....The objective was to subject the Yugoslav economy to massive privatisation and the dismantling of the public sector. Who was to carry it out? The Communist Party bureaucracy, most notably its military and intelligence sector, was canvassed specifically and offered political and economic backing on the condition that wholesale scuttling of social protections for Yugoslavia's workforce was imposed..."

In other words, say hello to our old friends, Bribe, Divide and Conquer. The workers of Yugoslavia were derailed from their common struggle against impoverishment and privatization, by appeals to nationalism from former Communist party elites seeking to feather their own nests at the workers expense. Thus was launched the bloody ethnic cleansing campaigns, carried out by all sides, that disfigured the Balkans since the beginning of the nineties. It is absolutely false to fix all blame on the Serbs for this outcome.

Yugoslav workers, once part of a sizable European power of some 25 million, are now downsized into small, poverty stricken statelets, ripe for exploitation by transnational corporate interests. As the largest industrialized and unionized section of the Balkans, Serbia was targeted for destruction by the corporate-driven NATO agenda, using the excuse of the Milosevic regimes abuse of the Albanian residents of Kosovo. With their industry destroyed, Serbian workers will be in no position to resist the maquiladora-style investment that will be touted as "rebuilding" in the post-war period.

Given this reality, and I see no evidence to the contrary, should workers and their representatives in the United States support Clinton's war?

I say no, and I contend that this issue should be debated front and center in the union halls and shop floors of the U.S. Do working people here really want to support an imperial foreign policy that intervenes at the behest of the corporate will anywhere in the world? The price of this war has already been estimated close to 10 billion dollars, without considering ground troops. Issues such as health care, education and the fight against discrimination will go to the chopping block as this war escalates. Is this what we want?

We need to discuss what a genuine worker-friendly foreign policy would be, one that sought to raise the least of the world's workers up, not tear them and all of us down in pursuit of profit. Let's join those who are demanding and end to the bombing, for the withdrawal of all NATO troops from the Balkans, and justice and genuine self-determination for the Balkan people.

And even if you do not agree with the analysis I lay out here, I hope you will agree that the prospect of a Vietnam war in the Balkans, a war that poses the possibility of a confrontation between nuclear armed powers, should be the subject of the most serious study and debate by working people and their representatives.