The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has upheld a decision to dismiss a complaint against the United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers of America (UE) for endorsing a boycott of Israel.
The move is a victory for advocates of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement, which targets Israel over alleged human rights abuses against Palestinians. Earlier this year, the NLRB ruled against Shurat HaDin, the Israeli legal center that brought the complaint seeking an injunction against UE’s decision to endorse boycotting Israel. The latest decision was in response to an appeal filed by Shurat HaDin.
UE endorsed the call for BDS at its August convention, making it the first national union in the United States to support the boycott. The resolution denounced Israeli racism and wars in the Gaza Strip and supported an end of U.S. military aid to Israel.
Palestinian trade unions have appealed for solidarity from unions around the world, urging them to endorse the BDS movement, which calls for an end to the Israeli occupation, equal rights for Palestinian citizens of Israel and the right of return for Palestinian refugees. Labor unions in South Africa, the United Kingdom, Brazil, Uruguay, and Canada have endorsed BDS. And in addition to UE, a handful of labor union chapters in the United States has joined the call for a boycott of Israel. These unions have joined a growing movement, modeled on the fight against South African apartheid, to isolate Israel.
In October, two months after UE endorsed BDS, Shurat HaDin filed an unfair labor practice charge with the NLRB. The group alleged that the UE decision to endorse BDS violated U.S. labor law, claiming the union encouraged its members to engage in an illegal “secondary boycott.”
Under U.S. labor law, a union cannot encourage others who work at “neutral employers”—those outside of a direct dispute between a union and its employer—to strike or stop work. In a statement, Nitsana Darshan-Leitner, head of Shurat HaDin, said it was a “violation of American labor law for the union to encourage its members to cease doing business with Israelis and Israeli companies.”
But the NLRB disagreed. The labor board first dismissed the complaint in January. After Shurat HaDin appealed, the NLRB ruled in May that the union’s endorsement of BDS was not a “signal or request” to employees “to engage in a work stoppage against their employers,” which would be illegal.
(The union only recently commented on the NLRB’s decision because it was waiting for the results of a Freedom of Information Act request on the case. It still has not received a response.)
“As a result of the NLRB decision, it really allows for any other unions to go through and endorse the BDS movement without having to deal with … attacks from organizations that are trying to curb political speech,” Andrew Dinkelaker, general secretary-treasurer of UE, said this month.
Dinkelaker added that the pro-BDS decision was in line with the union’s history of international solidarity, like its support for an end to U.S. aid to apartheid South Africa.
Shurat HaDin did not respond to repeated requests for comment on this story.
BDS activists hope that the boycott Israel movement grows inside labor unions. So far, advocates for BDS have found the most success within graduate student unions.
In December 2014, United Auto Workers-2865, which represents thousands of teaching assistants and other student workers at the University of California, overwhelmingly endorsed BDS. In November 2015, the Connecticut chapter of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations called on the national union to boycott and divest from companies complicit in the Israeli occupation. And this year, graduate student unions at New York University, the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the University of Massachusetts endorsed the boycott. The union endorsements of the BDS movement came after actions like August 2014’s “Block the Boat,” in which dockworkers in Oakland, California, heeding the calls of Palestine solidarity activists, refused to unload Israeli goods for four days in protest of Israel’s assault on Gaza that summer.
But as boycott advocates establish a foothold within labor unions, opponents of BDS have gone on the attack against the movement. In addition to the Shurat HaDin charge against UE, a group of anti-BDS members of UAW-2865 appealed the chapter’s endorsement of the boycott. In December 2015, the parent UAW International nullified the chapter’s decision.
Liz Jackson, a staff attorney at Palestine Legal, a group that defends the right to advocate for Palestine in the United States, said that Shurat HaDin’s complaint against UE “never had legs to begin with” because it had no legal merit.
But Jackson said the legal complaint was just one part of a bigger strategy to combat the BDS movement.
“They clearly are bringing obviously frivolous lawsuits and legal complaints to scare supporters of BDS and drain resources,” Jackson added. “They use legal threats as part of the strategy to persuade people in the upper echelons of institutional power structures to crush [BDS].”