Why is Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) a Labor Issue? (Berkeley Graduate)

The Berkeley Graduate, November 14, 2014

Why is Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) a Labor Issue?


Michael Letwin, staff attorney for the Legal Aid Society and member of Labor for Palestine discussing the relationship between BDS and Labor organizing.

Pro-Palestinian student groups on the UC Berkeley campus continue their efforts to intensify the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions(BDS) Movement, as many Palestinians are still suffering from the devastation wrought by the Israeli government’s deployment of Operation Protective Edge—the ceaseless 50 day bombardment of Gaza Strip (from July 8th to August 26th) that claimed the lives of over 2,140 Palestinian civilians, injured around 11,000 others, and destroyed approximately 42,000 houses. Israel’s blockade of Gaza Strip renders Palestinians destitute of the resources needed to rebuild their homes, to restore the infrastructure of their livelihoods, and to provide adequate medical care and sustenance for thousands of displaced families.

On Wednesday, November 12th, the UAW 2865 BDS Caucus hosted a panel discussion among graduate student workers and labor union organizers to illuminate the significance of Labor organizing in BDS, to stress the exigencies of worker participation in BDS as part of an international solidarity movement against colonial occupation, and to encourage members of the graduate student union to vote yes on the UAW 2865 Ballot Initiative to join the BDS Movement on December 4th. This resolution calls on the University of California System and UAW International to divest from companies complicit in Israeli occupation of Palestine and calls on the US government to cease aid to Israel until it complies with international law.

“It’s a good reminder of where and how our struggle began. It was shaped by Labor. It was shaped by peasants, and it was led by workers. Disrupting the economy was the way in which they started the fight.”

Lara Kiswani, Executive Director of the Arab Resource and Organizing Center (AROC), provided a historical synopsis of the relationship between organized labor and the Palestinian liberation struggle. She explained how early resistance mobilizations even before the state of Israel was established—such as the 1936-1939 Arab Revolt against British colonial rule—were peasant-led uprisings. As the steady influx of settler immigrants systemically displaced indigenous families and forced them into poverty, peasant workers organized a year-long strike and boycott of British imported goods. According to Kiswani, actions such as this strike reveals the extent to which the historical legacy and continued efficacy of BDS tactics are rooted in organized labor efforts. Kiswani mentions that this historical survey of Palestinian resistance demonstrates the inseparability of labor from liberation politics:


Clarence Thomas, a long time member of the International Longshore & Warehouse Union (ILWU)

Clarence Thomas, a long time member of the International Longshore & Warehouse Union (ILWU), shared his own insights as a veteran of ILWU solidarity organizing against projects of imperialist conquest and colonial occupation. He explained how the recent Block-the-Boat mobilizations against the Israeli shipping line, Zim, are a continuation of a rich 80 year tradition of labor organizing. He described how a community-organized picket line stopped the shipment of brass and nickel to Italy in 1935, when Italy invaded Ethiopia, and how another community blockade stopped the delivery of scrap iron to Japan In 1939 when Japan invaded Manchuria. Thomas went on to emphasize the significant role of organized Labor in the United States in challenging systems of colonial oppression all around the world.

“When you have international Labor solidarity actions, that means that workers in some part of the world are making a sacrifice, because solidarity is not an empty slogan. It means something.”

Michael Letwin, staff attorney for the Legal Aid Society and member of Labor for Palestine, echoed this sentiment and emphasized how active participation in organized Labor mobilizations – combined with consumer consciousness on the part of people living in the United States – is inextricably linked to the life outcomes of Palestinian people by virtue of the U.S. government’s subsidy of the Israeli military. He states that:

“Palestine clearly is a Labor issue—it’s a union issue—as any anti-colonialist, racial justice, or human rights issue should be. Because the most fundamental principle of Labor is that injury to one is an injury to all. So, it shouldn’t be a big leap to figure out why Palestine is a Labor issue.”

Graduate4In an interview conducted after the discussion segment, David McCleary, graduate student in the Molecular and Cellular Biology Department and organizer with the UAW BDS Caucus, explained how the UAW 2865 Ballot Initiative to join the BDS movement is an unprecedented gesture of democratization. All that is required for the endorsement to pass is a 50% plus one majority vote by the 83 elected members of the Joint Council, however, the Union has extended the process to a membership vote that will allow for the 13,000 rank-and-file union members across all of the University of California campuses to vote on the issue. David goes on to explain the imperatives for graduate students to vote “yes:”

“It’s about ending our complicity as union workers, as graduate students. It’s [about] ending our complicity with the oppression in Palestine. It’s about ending this global system of oppression, its not just about Palestine. The oppression in Palestine is connected to the oppression in our communities in Oakland and we need to fight this system of oppression in a wholesale way.”

About Gabriel Regalado

2nd year in the African Diaspora Studies Ph.D. Program with a Designated Emphasis in Critical Theory at the University of California, Berkeley.

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