Building BDS and the union at NYU
argues that a solidarity campaign of NYU grad student workers with Palestine is important both for academic freedom and building a stronger union.
NEXT MONTH, graduate student workers at New York University (NYU) will vote on whether their union, GSOC-UAW 2110, will endorse the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement in solidarity with Palestine.
The referendum calls on both NYU and the United Auto Workers (UAW) to divest from Israeli state institutions and international companies complicit in violating Palestinian human and civil rights until Israel complies with international law. It further calls on NYU to close its study abroad program at Tel Aviv University. Graduate workers will also have the option to make a voluntary and non-binding commitment to adhere to the academic boycott of Israeli government and academic institutions.
If the resolution passes, GSOC would be among the first labor unions in the U.S. to come out for BDS through a referendum of the membership. The upcoming vote at NYU follows the success of a similar resolution passed by the graduate workers of UAW Local 2865 in the University of California system at the end of 2014.
The referendum in California inspired GSOC activists, but it also provoked several members of GSOC’s larger amalgamated Local 2110 to send a letter protesting BDS to UAW President Dennis Williams. One year after BDS passed in Local 2865, the UAW International Executive Board showed its business-unionist colors by nullifying the open and democratic vote of its members on the grounds that BDS interferes with the “flow of commerce.”
But as a Labor for Palestine open letter points out, BDS is entirely consistent with past UAW support for boycotts organized by the civil rights movement, United Farm Workers and South African anti-apartheid movement. Graduate student workers at NYU are driving forward that legacy of a labor movement built on solidarity.
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AFTER A decade without a union, NYU graduate student workers finally won a contractone year ago after a huge mobilization, a strike authorization vote and a long night of open, collective bargaining. The contract was a big victory for all the graduate workers at NYU, winning wage gains, free basic dental care, health care and child care funds, and doubling the hourly wages of workers at the Tandon School of Engineering, among other things.
Shortly after this contract was won, some members of the union’s leading reform caucus,Academic Workers for a Democratic Union, began seeking ways to continue the mobilization of the rank-and-file in the union. After learning of the surge in membership involvement in Local 2865 over the BDS referendum, a working group was founded over the summer of 2015 with the help of graduate union members in Students for Justice in Palestine.
The goals of this group, later named the GSOC for BDS Caucus, were to educate the union membership on the injustices faced by Palestinians, but also to motivate union members to politically invest in their union regardless of their stance. Since then, members of the BDS caucus have been hosting educational events and panels, including one in November titled “UAW: Time to Stand Up to Israeli Apartheid.”
GSOC has two mechanisms to trigger a referendum: either the executive body of the union can, by majority vote, call for a referendum, or any union member can gather the signatures of 10 percent of the membership and submit them to set the process in motion.
Opting for a bottom-up approach, the BDS caucus decided to pursue the latter option. Discussing BDS with graduate students in their workplaces, offices, and labs proved spectacularly effective, and over 300 NYU grads eventually signed on to the petition in favor of the BDS referendum.
The labor movement, especially in recent decades, has often shrunk from the kind of mobilizing strategy behind this campaign. This is why the BDS campaign is part of the battle for the soul of the union. While the UAW International Executive Board nullifies the democratic decisions of its rank and file, the BDS campaign is moving and shaking at the base.
As a relatively new union, GSOC is still in its organizing phase of signing up its membership. In order for petition signatures to count toward the BDS referendum, signees need to be card-carrying members of the union, and the same goes for voting in the referendum.
By signing up members over the past five months of the campaign, BDS has been building the union itself, and providing an avenue for dedicated activists to organize their fellow workers and play a role in determining the direction of their union.
Encouraging rank-and-file engagement, making serious efforts to inform the membership about the vote, and putting solidarity at the center of union politics–that is how to revitalize a union and the labor movement as a whole. By taking a bold stance in solidarity with the workers and oppressed of the world, GSOC can exemplify what a union should be.
In the coming weeks, the BDS caucus plans to continue organizing amongst graduate workers, help publicize the town halls, and prepare members to get out the vote on the day of the referendum.
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AT THE first Town Hall meeting on the referendum at NYU, opponents of BDS were noticeably weak, both in number and in argument. Attempts to portray the occupation of Palestine as two equal sides in need of dialogue fell flat, with one union member Nathan Pensler illustrating the situation in Palestine by reference to the power imbalance at the bargaining table:
Our opponents think dialogue alone can achieve justice in Palestine. But as we know from our recent contract campaign, when one side can deploy overwhelming power and force, you’re not negotiating as equals. We had to mobilize our membership and threaten to strike in order to have any real power at the bargaining table. BDS is doing the same thing: it’s correcting a massive power imbalance that prevents dialogue from being effective. So even if you think dialogue or negotiation might help, BDS is necessary to give Palestinians a meaningful voice.
Updated Zionist talking points pay lip service to the desperate plight of Palestinians living under the Israeli jackboot, but take issue with BDS as a means to achieve peace. The fact that Israel’s propagandists have already conceded this much ground confirms the longer-term and ongoing shift in public opinion toward a new common sense in support of Palestinian human rights and dignity.
We should be clear: the BDS movement is the motor driving this visible shift in public opinion, the more so as it continues to grow by leaps and bounds.
Over the last couple years, the BDS movement has gathered significant momentum, with several U.S. academic institutions joining in, including the American Studies Association, the American Anthropological Association and the National Women’s Studies Association, along with dozens of student government resolutions.
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THE ACADEMIC boycott of Israel stands in the proud tradition of the academic boycotts of apartheid South Africa in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s. In 1985, NYU divested fromcompanies complicit in apartheid South Africa.
Twenty-eight years later, in 2013, NYU president John Sexton and Provost David McLaughlin trampled on this legacy of solidarity by condemning the American Studies Association endorsement of BDS, calling it “a disavowal of the free exchange of ideas and the free association of scholars that undergird academic freedom.”
In reality, ongoing support for the Israeli military state is undermining academic freedom in Palestine every day. Israeli universities discriminate against Palestinian scholars in their admission policies, scholarships, and dorm applications–not to mention the bombing of Palestinian academic institutions or the frequent calls to violence against Palestinian students who speak out.
Palestinian organizers are routinely targeted for repression as well. Just as the international academic community recognized that an academic boycott of apartheid South Africa was justified and necessary to open the way to academic freedom and the free exchange of ideas, so today academics are acting on the academic boycott specifically as an integral component of the BDS call. Supporting BDS is essential to restoring and securing academic freedom all over the world, today and for future generations.
Academic workers have proven to be an auspicious conduit for BDS to enter the U.S. labor movement, where it can exponentially increase its power and influence. For academic laborers, free speech and academic freedom are workplace conditions to be defended. Autonomy in the classroom and unrestricted research programs are a prerequisite for workers’ rights and workplace autonomy at universities.
That means labor unions organizing (usually precarious or contingent) academic workers have a duty to defend the right to free speech. Today, when BDS activists and scholars are subject to increased and disproportionate censorship and repression, we cannot allow our unions to simply tolerate sympathy with Palestine. Unions must become champions of Palestinian liberation and the BDS movement in the interests of the workers they defend.
With their potential social and economic weight, labor unions particularly can make a contribution to the global BDS movement. Around the world, numerous labor unions and union federations have complied with the call of Palestinian trade unions to endorse BDS.
In the U.S., the Connecticut AFL-CIO convention passed a resolution in favor of BDS last October, the United Electrical Workers adopted a resolution endorsing BDS in September, and the graduate student workers in UAW Local 2865 backed the campaign at the end of 2014.
Several Palestinian trade unions have now issued a letter directly to NYU graduate workersin GSOC-UAW 2110, calling on them to endorse BDS and stand up against Israeli human rights violations. As they say in their letter, “BDS has raised the price of these violations and given our people, including our workers, hope that one day we can live in freedom and dignity.”
Palestinians have gone long enough without justice. It is time to heed their call.