REPORT: JOEL REINSTEIN
A national union backs BDS
reports on a historic vote in support of the boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign–and the rising tide of labor solidarity with Palestine.
AT ITS 74th national convention, the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers (UE) became the first national union in the U.S. to endorse the Palestinian boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement.
In addition to endorsement of BDS, the resolution passed by the UE on August 20 called for cutting off U.S. aid to Israel and for the U.S. to back recognition of the right of return for the 5 million Palestinian refugees scattered throughout the region and the world. It noted Israel’s “long history of violating the human rights of the Palestinians, starting with the ethnic cleansing of 750,000 Palestinians in 1947-48,” as well as the crucial role that organized labor played in the 1980s movement against apartheid South Africa.
Autumn Martinez and Elizabeth Jesdale of UE Local 255 were among those speaking for the resolution, having met Palestinian trade unionists at the World Social Forum in Tunisia. “It’s absolutely disgusting what’s going on,” said Martinez. “Free Palestine!”
Representing 35,000 workers across the U.S., UE’s endorsement of BDS is a major development in the rising arc of labor solidarity with Palestine. Coming soon after an announcement by multinational corporation Veolia, which lost billions of dollars in contracts after being targeted by BDS activists, that it would cease doing business with Israel, the UE resolution is yet more proof of the BDS movement’s growing strength.
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UE’S RESOLUTION comes nine months after UAW Local 2865, the graduate student union representing 13,000 workers in the University of California (UC) system, became the first U.S. union to endorse BDS.
As an academic union, Local 2865 passed its resolution with the support of the BDS movement’s student wing, which is particularly strong in California, where seven of the state’s nine undergraduate student governments at UC schools have also passed BDS resolutions. BDS has also won the support of United Students Against Sweatshops, the nation’s largest student-labor solidarity organization.
But labor solidarity with BDS, despite the wishful thinking of Zionists, isn’t limited to campuses. In October 2014, BDS activists in the Bay Area scored a resounding victory in blocking the unloading of, and ultimately turning away, a ship from the Israel-owned Zim shipping line.
This victory would have been impossible without the assistance of dockworkers from International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) Local 10. While the union was unable to officially endorse the action due to labor law restrictions, members supported it by respecting activists’ pickets and providing them with crucial information about the ship’s schedule.
Labor support for BDS isn’t simply a matter of “doing the right thing.” Palestinian liberation is a working-class issue. All major Palestinian trade unions, including the Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions representing some 290,000 workers, were among the organizations who put out the original BDS call in 2005.
Palestinian workers’ ability to organize in the Occupied Territories is severely curtailed by Israel’s military occupation, and many Palestinian workers must go through the daily ordeal of crossing Israeli checkpoints to reach their places of work, in addition to having to contend with the general violence and repression of the occupation. Palestinian citizens of Israel “face discrimination in work opportunities, pay and conditions” and are “excluded from the labor force by the use of the military-service criterion as a condition for acceptance of employment,” according to a 2011 report by Adalah Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel.
Additionally, in targeting corporations that do business with Israel, the BDS movement’s demands are consistent with putting human needs before profit–its enemies are the same as those of workers. This was illustrated during the 2013 Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) workers’ strike, when BART brought in Tom Hock, vice president of BDS target company Veolia, as a negotiator to help break the strike.
Palestine’s connections to labor are further highlighted in the controversial firing last summer of Palestinian-American professor Steven Salaita by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Under pressure from wealthy anti-Palestinian donors, the university fired the newly hired Salaita after he sent a series of tweets expressing outrage at Israel’s 2014 assault on Gaza.
More than a breach of academic freedom, the political firing demonstrated how universities are increasingly behaving as corporations in which workers–especially workers of color–don’t have a say. As a result, the American Association of University Professors censured the university, and more than 5,000 professors across the country signed a pledge to boycott the school until Salaita’s termination is rescinded.
This was a labor battle with Palestine at its center–and anti-Palestinians on the side of management. And in the legal battle that has followed, Salaita has won the preliminary rounds, and the university chancellor who oversaw his firing has been fired.
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AS ONE of only a few U.S. unions that stood up to the anti-communist purge of radicals in 1949, UE remains committed to progressive politics and democracy within the union. This is reflected in caps on elected union officials’ salaries and UE’s emphasis on “strong workplace organization and militant shop floor action over legal maneuvering.” As its website states, “The members run this union.”
UE doesn’t restrict itself to “bread-and-butter” issues directly involving wages and workplace conditions. In addition to the resolution supporting BDS, its convention saw passage of a resolution opposing war and militarism that called for a reduction in the U.S. military budget, an end to U.S. military intervention abroad, and support for the Japanese labor federation Zenroren in its fight for demilitarization in Japan.
Another resolution addressed racism and the police, with the union’s press release stating that “questioning a police officer, or just putting your hands in your pocket at the wrong time, can get you killed if you’re black or Latino.” There were also resolutions against the assault on public education, discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, and destruction of the environment.
These resolutions represent a continuation of UE’s history in taking up issues that extend beyond the workplace. As the union website recounts:
In the 1950s, UE mounted public campaigns to force major electrical manufacturing corporations to agree to nondiscrimination clauses. UE was among the first to organize undocumented workers and speak out on behalf of immigrants. As an early critic of the Vietnam War, the union campaigned for redirecting the federal budget toward job-creating, socially useful production.
As the first national union to officially respect the picket lines of the BDS movement, UE has shown the way forward for U.S. labor. Issues affecting workers’ lives extend well beyond the workplace, and as bosses are coordinating on an international scale more than ever before, so must labor. As with the international boycott against South Africa, labor’s power will form a crucial component of the Palestinian BDS movement–and UE has taken an historic step towards making this happen.