Labor for Palestine
By Lauren Anzaldo
Published on: August 01, 2005
Disgusted by the national labor establishment’s blind support for US foreign policy in the Middle East, trade unionists and Palestinian-liberation activists have initiated a campaign called Labor for Palestine. The campaign centers on educating workers about the Israeli occupation of Palestine and fostering international solidarity reminiscent of the movement to topple apartheid in South Africa.
Al-Awda, The Palestinian Right to Return Coalition, and New York City Labor Against the War (NYCLAW) launched Labor for Palestine in the spring of 2004 with an open letter to “fellow trade unionists and workers.” The letter, endorsed by 31 labor organizations and individuals nationally and internationally, asks all labor bodies to fully support Palestinian rights, including the right of return; to demand an end to US military and economic aid for the occupation; and to relinquish all investments that further the occupation.
Michael Letwin, a member of Legal Aid Attorneys/United Auto Workers (UAW) Local 2325 in New York City and a co-convener of NYCLAW, sees Labor for Palestine as an extension of the vital anti-war work that needs to occur within the labor movement.
“Palestine is just so clearly another front in the war that the US has been waging for a long time, for decades, and especially since 9/11,” Letwin says. “It’s very distressing that official US labor supports the oppression of the Palestinians, but that reflects long-standing US labor support for reactionary US policy around the world.”
Addressing these issues within the labor movement means confronting the behemoth AFL-CIO, which represents 13 million workers, some 80% of organized labor in the United States. Convincing the federation leadership to change its stance on the Israeli occupation of Palestine will be a major challenge.
The AFL-CIO has been a strong backer of Israel for decades. Early AFL leaders romanticized the warped socialist notions on which Israel was built. Today’s leadership cleaves to Israel because of its strategic role as a Western ally in the Eastern world. “They straight up support Israel all the time,” in the words of a reporter for the Palestine Solidarity Review.
A statue of former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir – infamous for her declaration that Palestinians never existed – stands in the federation’s Washington, D.C., headquarters. President John Sweeney proclaimed the AFL-CIO’s support for the Israeli people “in the darkest of hours” at a pro-Israel rally in April 2002 at the height of the Israeli military’s invasions of the Palestinian cities of Jenin, Nablus and Bethlehem. Sweeney was knowingly silent about the Israeli bombing of the offices of the Palestinian General Federation of Labor Unions in Nablus in February of that year.
The AFL-CIO’s support for Israel is monetary as well as rhetorical. The federation is the largest non-Jewish holder of Israeli bonds in the world, according to a report by Lenni Brenner in the June/July 1997 issue of the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs. AFL-CIO affiliates have more than $300 million in Israeli bonds invested in pension funds. In all, the US labor community holds $5 billion worth of Israeli bonds, according to Jerry Goodman, director of the National Committee for Labor Israel.
Ethically speaking, the bonds should be boycotted because they help fund the illegal and bloody Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands and the construction of settlements and the Apartheid Wall. From a financial standpoint, they are also a risky investment that yields a lower-than-average payoff.
Labor for Palestine aims to bring this information to the attention of AFL-CIO-affiliated workers in hopes that a combination of compassion, common sense and international labor solidarity will spur the rank-and-file to push the AFL-CIO to divest from Israeli bonds.
“Most workers do not know about the investments of their union’s pension funds, and this information is not readily available,” says Steve Zeltzer of the International Union of Operating Engineers (IUOE) Local 39 in San Francisco. “When workers find out that their union is investing in a state that discriminates against Palestinian workers, they won’t put up with it.”
Labor for Palestine campaign organizers are looking to the South African anti-apartheid movement as a model and a guide. Divestment was a critical tool in that struggle and has recently gained ground as a strategy of the Palestinian-liberation movement. Large-scale labor divestment could prove decisive in crippling the Israeli occupation apparatus.
“If you look at the way the South African divestment movement went, it was when the AFL-CIO leadership said that the AFL-CIO would completely divest from South African bonds [that the movement succeeded],” says Francesca Rosa of the Justice in Palestine Coalition’s Labor Solidarity Committee and Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 535 in San Francisco. “It was a follow-the-money thing. Those South African bonds were fueling apartheid just like the Israeli bonds now are fueling the occupation.”
Zach Wales, an Al-Awda volunteer who helped to kickstart the campaign, recognizes that this effort diverges from the South Africa movement in several places. For one, Wales says, Americans are woefully misinformed about the nature of occupation: “They see it as mostly benign.” And emotions run high on the subjects of Israel and Palestine, even among those who possess little factual knowledge of the situation.
“We are in the very nascent stages of that [South African]-type movement, and it’s going to be a lot harder because there is so much misinformation about what is happening and conflation of anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism,” Rosa says. She stresses that Labor for Palestine must be a bottom-up campaign to be effective. In fact, working chapter-by-chapter and local-by-local may be Labor for Palestine’s only chance for victory. While AFL-CIO officials have their minds made up about Israel, rank-and-file workers seem more open-minded on the topic, although they are often hesitant to take on such a controversial issue. Still, several locals have passed resolutions condemning various aspects of the occupation, and Labor for Palestine organizers plan to encourage more, as well as a petition campaign calling on the AFL-CIO to sell its Israeli bonds.
“This fight for the rights of Palestinian and [other] Arab workers is something that has to be fought for in the labor movement in an organized way,” Zeltzer says.
The first Labor for Palestine conference – entitled Palestine, Labor and the AFL-CIO – will take place in Chicago on July 23, the weekend before the AFL-CIO holds its national convention in the same city. A documentary explaining Israeli bonds and outlining the AFL-CIO leadership’s relationship with Israeli labor will debut at the convention. Wales, who worked for two years as a reporter in South Africa, is the filmmaker.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Lauren Anzaldo is a teacher and global justice activist who has traveled twice to Occupied Palestine. She is one of the founders of the Florida Palestine Solidarity Network (www.flpalsolidarity.com). For more information about the Labor for Palestine campaign, visit www.laborforpalestine.org.