Paying the price on the home front for the occupation of Iraq

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Tanks on the streets, bombed-out neighborhoods, continuous civilian deaths and rising soldier body counts make the war in Iraq hard to ignore.

Unreported and not as bloody, but taking another kind of toll is the war against workers and poor people in the United States.

This conflict has many fronts: severely injured soldiers fighting for medical care; domestic programs gutted to pay for high-tech weapons; immigrant families detained in prison camps; economic devastation by inflation, higher taxes, and shrinking wages; civil liberties trashed; racism and deep poverty.

Republicans and Democrats babble about “sacrifice” — while handing out exclusive billion-dollar contracts to corporate behemoths like Halliburton, Boeing, and Corrections Corporation of America.

News outlets regurgitate the “debate” on whether troops should surge or shrink. Getting out is unmentionable.

But in the streets, people are connecting the dots. This war isn’t in the “national interest.” It’s not even a “mistake.” It’s for profits and empire, where the corporate elite gets richer, and the working class kills, dies, and gets taken to the cleaners.

Domestic programs gutted. In an eye’s blink, the U.S. spends several million dollars on war. Estimates vary. Supplemental spending earmarked for Iraq hovers around $367 billion. But the real cost is far higher.

For example, Bush proposes to cut health-care spending for vets in 2009 and 2010, even as soldiers swamp understaffed veteran’s hospitals.

Revelations about the Walter Reed Medical Center are the tip of the iceberg in a growing crisis for the Veterans Administration . Technology is saving more soldiers lives, but they suffer severe and permanent injuries. Almost 30 percent have traumatic brain injuries; many soldiers also struggle with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, an illness the VA isn’t prepared to adequately treat.

When such “non-military” expenses are calculated, total Iraq war costs soar above $2 trillion.

The acknowledged costs already take a huge bite. Where does the money come from? Domestic programs. Years of cuts have sliced programs like adult education to the bone. Now, Bush proposes to cut bone, “holding the growth in non-security discretionary spending to one percent, well below the rate of inflation.” Translated, his budget slashes funds for 141 domestic programs, from Head Start and childcare assistance for low-income families, to funding for clean water programs and home energy assistance for seniors.

Democrats, while crying foul in front of the cameras, accept in essence a budget that escalates military spending, and makes permanent tax cuts for the rich.

Medicare and Medicaid, the health programs for seniors, poor families, and people with disabilities, face $100 billion in cuts over five years. The reductions are expected to cripple non-profit hospitals across the U.S., and boost the ranks of the 47 million people without health care.

At state and local levels, many officials are protesting federal cuts, while also using them as excuses for more cuts, layoffs, contracting-out, and privatization of services. Georgia plans to weed poor children from its public health-care system by raising eligibility standards. In Seattle, county officials want to close public health clinics and “restructure” services.

New York Governor Eliot Spitzer plans to chop $1 billion from health care. Washington State and California have schemes to kick families off public assistance.

In New Orleans, where luxury hotels made a quick comeback after Hurricane Katrina, poor neighborhoods still wait for federal aid. Half the population, mostly workingclass African Americans, has not returned. Many residents still wait for loans to rebuild their homes, while housing advocates fight plans to demolish almost 5,000 public housing units. The war budget could pay for 3.3 million new homes, enough to rebuild New Orleans and the entire Gulf Coast region — and shelter the 754,000 people across the U.S. who are homeless.

Sowing divisions and chilling dissent. War is also being used to ramp up repression and divide workers based on race and religion.

Soon after Sept. 11, thousands of Muslims and Arab and African immigrants were detained in raids. Now, immigrants from Mexico and Central America are being swept up in the government’s ever widening net. Bush has doubled the money spent on border security since 2001 ($10.4 billion this year) and he plans to double the number of border patrol agents by the end of 2008. Entire families are held in prisons run by private corporations like Wackenhut that hold lucrative government contracts.

Anti-immigrant attitudes, whipped up by the “war on terrorism,” has also created a fertile breeding ground for ultra-right groups like the Ku Klux Klan and Minutemen.

Meanwhile, the Patriot and Military Commissions Acts sanction expanded spying, detaining suspects without charge, a national ID card, military tribunals for civilians charged as “enemy combatants,” use of hearsay evidence, and evidence obtained by torture, and many other measures aimed at crushing dissent and civil liberties.

Union-busting in the name of “homeland security.” Corporations had a field day after September 11, 2001.

Airport screeners were stripped of collective bargaining rights, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union faced the threat of troops to break a West Coast strike, and airline workers saw union-busting and wage cuts as Congress bailed out the owners.

Today, Immigration and Customs Enforcement is using the nationalism and anti-immigrant sentiment whipped up by war to raid unionized work sites across the U.S. and encourage employers to fire immigrants. Some of the recent examples include a Smithfield plant in Tar Heel, North Carolina; several Swift meatpacking plants; and a Cintas laundry: all places where workers were involved in union campaigns.

The hostile climate for unions is reflected in a decline of organized labor’s numbers and workers’ wages.

A war-maker’s nightmare. The good news is that U.S. workers have incredible power to do something about all these attacks. Not through support for Democrats and their non-binding resolutions, but by literally shutting down the war machine.

Leading up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Italian rail workers blocked shipments of U.S. military equipment and teachers closed down schools; the Rail, Maritime and Transport workers of Britain refused to handle weapons going to the Gulf; and workers in Bangladesh went on a general strike. Actions by unions in several countries lent punch to mass protests in the streets.

But with U.S. labor not organizing its own actions, global antiwar efforts were unsuccessful. It is high time for workers and all of us who live in the belly of the beast to act! Strike to stop the war at home and abroad!

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