Did New York union nix election because of BDS referendum?
The unionized graduate student workers at New York University were supposed to be voting on their union representatives this week along with a referendum to join the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement.
But last Friday night, union members were stunned to discover that the executive board of United Auto Workers Local 2110 had selected their delegates and stewards for them, effectively canceling the election.
Unilaterally, the leaders of UAW Local 2110 had disqualified more than half of the Graduate Student Organizing Committee’s (GSOC) nominated candidates.
Leaving just enough candidates to fill the open positions, the leadership announced the results of an election by acclamation.
GSOC was formally recognized by NYU in December 2013. It is a unit within UAW Local 2110, which represents a variety of professional workers in Manhattan.
Now, GSOC is telling its members to disregard the edict from the parent union and vote this week in an election that will include all the disqualified candidates.
Attempt to interfere
Those who had been disqualified overwhelmingly represented the left-leaning Academic Workers for a Democratic Union caucus, who were also integral to organizing the union’s referendum on whether to back BDS.
UAW Local 2110 leaders also tried to persuade GSOC to postpone the BDS referendum, raising further concerns among members.
“The local seems to have unilaterally hand-selected specific candidates in an opaque process that has arbitrarily excluded several members with particular political affiliations and caucus memberships,” the GSOC communications committee and votes committee wrote in a letter to the union’s more than 2,000 members.
“We are very disappointed by this attempt of the local to interfere with our right to elect our own unit representatives via democratic ballot,” the letter adds.
In a follow-up email, the local’s leadership explained that the candidates had been disqualified because they did not meet eligibility requirements to run. The email explained that in order to be eligible to serve as a union steward or delegate, a candidate must have worked the previous two semesters.
But what constitutes “work” as a graduate student is not so clear cut. Shelly Ronen, who serves on the GSOC’s votes committee, told The Electronic Intifada that narrow eligibility criteria of what qualifies as work do not make sense for graduate students, whose work is not limited to their salaried employment as teaching and research assistants.
Moreover, the leadership had been inconsistent and had refused to clarify the eligibility requirements in the lead up to the election, Ronen said.
Emails seen by The Electronic Intifada did not relate specifically to candidate eligibility requirements but did show that Ronen had repeatedly requested a current membership list for GSOC from UAW Local 2110, but that this was not forthcoming.
In her emails to officials, Ronen explained that an up-to-date membership list was needed so that GSOC could administer a fair and secure secret ballot on the BDS question.
Disqualifying BDS organizers
As for the election, the UAW Local 2110 leadership disqualified at least 14 candidates, 10 of whom were organizing the union’s referendum on BDS.
In a petition to the president of UAW Local 2110, GSOC notes that several members of the GSOC’s anti-BDS caucus, which calls itself the Open Dialogue caucus, were installed as representatives.
In an email to all members of UAW Local 2110 sent on Wednesday, the leadership denied any partisan reasons for the disqualifications.
“The stewards and delegates elected were eligible members from both opposing caucuses,” the local stated. “Caucus affiliation and an individual’s political beliefs had absolutely nothing to do with what is a fundamental qualification for election – working under the contract and paying dues.”
But some GSOC members are not convinced.
“We don’t see it as a coincidence that suddenly they changed the eligibility requirements for people who want to run for official positions in our unit, at the time when we have the BDS referendum,” Maya Wind, a disqualified candidate for a steward position and a member of the GSOC for BDS Caucus, told The Electronic Intifada.
“This is a political attempt to silence the left students and those who care about justice in Palestine,” Wind added.
Ronen says that while the UAW Local 2110 leadership and GSOC have an ongoing disagreement about eligibility requirements for graduate student delegates to the union, the local assured the votes committee that stewards, who work within GSOC, did not need to meet the stringent employment requirements.
“They applied different eligibility requirements last election and did not warn us that their most stringent eligibility requirements would be applied for this steward election,” Ronen said. “In fact, they said in person they intended on allowing us to use whatever eligibility requirements we preferred for the steward elections.”
GSOC wrote an open letter to the local’s leadership, rejecting their announcement of an election by acclamation and insisting on reinstating the ballot election.
Across four days this week, GSOC members will also cast their vote on a boycott referendum, which calls on NYU and UAW International to divest from Israeli state institutions and international companies complicit in violations of Palestinian human and civil rights.
The referendum was able to reach a general membership vote after the GSOC for BDS Caucus secured more than 10 percent of members’ signatures.
In the run-up to the ballot, the caucus held two townhalls and one general membership meeting.
“It has been a completely transparent and democratic process, this is what we wanted to make sure from the start,” Ziad Dallal, a member of the GSOC for BDS Caucus, told The Electronic Intifada.
Dallal was left off the list of delegates elected by acclamation, despite meeting the eligibility requirements. Calling it an error, the UAW Local 2110 leadership reinstated him after he contested his exclusion.
But Dallal says the mistake “gives credence to our worries that they were mishandling our election.”
But that resolution was nullified by international executive officials of the union in December 2015, overturning a vote by rank and file members to back the boycott of Israel.
The rank and file and executive officers of Local 2865 have filed an appeal to the UAW Public Review Board to rescind the nullification.
At the beginning of April, the president of New York’s UAW Local 2110, Maida Rosenstein, wrote an email to Ronen urging GSOC to postpone their vote on the BDS referendum until after the review board had made its decision in the California case.
“Why not wait until the Public Review Board rules before conducting this referendum? If the PRB does not reverse the UAW, the GSOC BDS resolution as it has been drafted will almost certainly be thrown out if someone appeals,” Rosenstein wrote.
But Dallal says the UC example inspired trade unionists at NYU to push forward their BDS referendum. “We wanted to follow their lead in this great effort.”
Also following the lead of UC students, the Graduate Employee Organization of UAW Local 2322 adopted a BDS resolution last week with 95 percent of the votes.
GEO represents over 2,000 graduate student workers at the the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
Results of NYU’s BDS referendum are expected to be announced Thursday night.
Maida Rosenstein did not respond to an email requesting comment.