Michael Letwin, Labor for Palestine
Fragments of Empire After the American Century – 2016
American University of Beirut, January 15, 2016
(Companion presenters below*)
As you have heard, mainstream US labor institutions have a long history of complicity with Zionism. This is not only, or even primarily, an issue of ethnicity, i.e., pro-Zionist Jewish trade union leaders. Regardless of ethnicity, it is rooted the dominant anti-communism, business unionism, and racism of the labor bureaucracy. Moreover, even “progressive” labor leaders typically supported and identified with the Israeli state.
This reflects not only political disorientation brought out by the Nazi Holocaust, but also the Soviet Union’s indispensable role in supporting partition and arming Zionist militias that carried out the Nakba. More recently, it also reflects an unwillingness to rock the boat, arguing for example, that the post-9/11 antiwar movement should exclude Palestine because otherwise “labor will walk,” which is to say, a loss of funding for antiwar NGOs.
But today, the pro-Israel stranglehold in U.S. labor is beginning to fray at the edges, as reflected in ILWU Local 10 dockers’ refusal to handle Israeli cargo in 2010 and 2014, and BDS resolutions adopted over the past year by UAW 2865 at the University of California, the United Electrical Workers, and the Connecticut AFL-CIO. This is significant because trade unions are not just another venue for BDS resolutions. Rather, they have unparalleled potential to actually implement BDS job actions.
This growing trade union support for BDS in the U.S. reclaims and reaffirms earlier traditions. In particular, it reflects past Black solidarity with Palestine, going back to Malcolm X, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and Black Panther Party, as discussed by other panelists at this conference.
That, in turn, reflects more than two centuries of Black internationalism, dating back to the Haitian revolution at turn of 19th century, Seminole and other Native American resistance, and indigenous resistance to US occupation of Caribbean and Philippines in early 20th century. It is reflected in cutting-edge Black leadership of the Vietnam antiwar movement — including early draft resistance and the GI revolt — and in the South Africa anti-apartheid movement.
Similarly, the earliest trade union anti-Zionism in the U.S. began with Black-Arab worker alliances in Detroit from 1969-1973. It is that history I want to focus on today.
The first postwar challenge to Labor Zionism in the United States came from the Detroit-based League of Revolutionary Black Workers in January 1969, which recognized Palestinian oppression as a reflection of the same system of racism and colonialism suffered by black South Africans, Vietnamese, Latin Americans, and African Americans.
On October 14, 1973, Detroit was the site of the first industrial action against US labor officials’ support for Israel, when three thousand Arab autoworkers joined a wildcat strike to protest UAW Local 600’s purchase (without membership approval) of $300,000 in Israel Bonds. On November 28, 1973, Arab and other autoworkers struck to protest bestowal of B’nai B’rith’s “Humanitarian Award” on International UAW president Leonard Woodcock. To give you a flavor of what this actually looked like, read this article from Workers’ Power of December 7, 1973.
After three decades, the next visible labor opposition to Zionism came in the wake of September 11, 2001. On April 18, 2002, Local 10 of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), a largely African American union with a long social justice history, condemned Israel’s attacks on the West Bank and “call[ed] for the halt of all military aid to the State of Israel.”
That same day, New York City Labor Against the War (NYCLAW), a grassroots, interracial organization formed immediately after 9/11, linked its overall opposition to the “War Against Terror” by calling for an end to US military aid to Israel, Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza, and support for the Palestinian right of return. NYCLAW also spearheaded unity between two separate coalitions behind a march in DC on April 20, 2002, the first post-9/11 national antiwar protest, in which 150,000 marched with the largest Palestinian contingent in US history.
In April 2004, the Second National Convention of Al-Awda: The Palestinian Right to Return Coalition, adopted NYCLAW’s proposal for a campaign against US labor complicity with Israel. Toward that end, in October 2004, NYCLAW and Al-Awda New York jointly established Labor for Palestine, whose founding statement called on trade unionists to (1) fully support Palestinian national, democratic, and labor rights throughout historical Palestine, including the right of all Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and land; (2) demand an end to US military and economic support for Israeli apartheid; and (3) divest all labor investments in Israeli apartheid.
Like other Palestine solidarity in recent years, Israeli war on Gaza has been the spark for growing trade union BDS.
In response to “Operation Cast Lead” in 2008-2009, NYCLAW echoed the Congress of South African Trade Unions and other international labor bodies to reaffirm “support for the international Boycotts, Sanctions and Divestment campaign, including an immediate end to all support for Israel—including that provided by US labor leaders.” On December 4, 2009, Labor for Palestine issued an open letter challenging AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka’s opposition to BDS.
Trade union BDS further escalated in the wake of Israel’s May 2010 attack on the Mavi Marmara, an unarmed Turkish merchant vessel carrying humanitarian relief to Gaza.
On June 8, 2010, the ILWU Local 10 executive board unanimously condemned the massacre and issued a “call for unions to protest by any action they choose to take.” This statement was particularly significant, because ILWU members had refused to handle cargo for Nazi Germany (1934), fascist Italy (1935), Chile (1978), apartheid South Africa (1984), and US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (2008). On June 9, 2010, 133 US trade unionists signed Labor for Palestine’s response, which reaffirmed the BDS call.
Most importantly, on June 20, 2010, members of ILWU locals 10 and 34 in Oakland honored an eight-hundred-strong picket line against the Israeli-owned Zim Shenzhen ship—the first US labor-based BDS action.
The next major spark was Israel’s renewed war on Gaza in July 2014. Hundreds of trade unionists signed Labor for Palestine’s statement reiterating calls for an end to aid for Israel; for “workers to emulate dockers in South Africa, India, Sweden, Norway, Turkey, the US west coast, and elsewhere, by refusing to handle military or any other cargo destined for Israel”; and for “labor bodies to divest from Israel Bonds, and cut ties with the Histadrut, Israel’s racist labor federation.”
On July 29, 2014, the eighty-three member Joint Council of UAW Local 2865, representing thirteen thousand graduate student workers throughout the University of California, responded to Palestinian trade union and Labor for Palestine appeals by submitting a BDS resolution for a full membership vote.
Israel’s 2014 assault on Gaza also set off an unprecedented community-labor campaign against Zim Integrated Shipping Services, Israel’s largest cargo shipping company. On August 16, 2014, a coalition of seventy San Francisco Bay Area organizations led by the Arab Resource and Organizing Center (AROC) responded to a call from the Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions by mobilizing a mass community picket under the banner of Block the Boat for Gaza to prevent unloading of the Israeli vessel Zim Piraeus. Countering Zim’s attempts to evade the picket, over three thousand people marched to the docks, chanting “When people are occupied, resistance is justified” and “From Ferguson to Palestine, occupation is a crime.”
When the ship finally docked, ILWU Local 10 members responded to various pickets, some organized independently of AROC, by refusing to unload it for four consecutive days. Due to these and subsequent pickets, Zim line lost millions of dollars, and has abandoned attempts to return to Oakland or Los Angeles.
On December 4, 2014, in the wake of these events, UAW 2865 members voted by 65 percent to adopt their leadership’s BDS proposal. Thus, the union had “become the first major U.S. labor union to hold a membership vote responding to the Palestinian civil society call for boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israeli occupation and in solidarity with Palestinian self-determination.”
Nine months later, the United Electrical Workers, a leftwing union with thirty-five thousand members, endorsed BDS. Significantly, both of these resolutions embraced the full BDS call, which demands not only an end to the 1967 occupation, but equality for Palestinians with Israeli citizenship, and refugees’ right of return. And this was followed shortly thereafter by the Connecticut AFL-CIO’s adoption of a BDS resolution.
As on campuses and elsewhere, Zionists have sought to intimidate, reverse and silence trade union support for Palestine. Just last month, the UAW’s International Executive Board “nullified” UAW 2865 members’ BDS resolution. In response, the 2865 BDS Caucus wrote: “We are part of a growing movement for union solidarity with the people of Palestine and for a democratic and visionary U.S. labor movement. As workers, educators, and students, we know together we can prevail over these forms of repression and continue striving for justice for all peoples.”
For more information about these issues, you are invited to visit LaborforPalestine.net, particularly our new article in American Quarterly, which is posted online at the above site.
Panel 18: Shifting Geographies of Knowledge and Power: Palestine and American Studies
Chair : Elie Haddad, Asfari Institute, AUB