Building a Labor Movement Against Apartheid: Union Solidarity with Palestine (Jobs with Justice)

Building a Labor Movement Against Apartheid: Union Solidarity with Palestine
A workshop at the Jobs With Justice Annual Conference, April 16,  2016
Springfield, MA Trinity United Methodist Church

Presentation by Michael Letwin, Labor for Palestine

Many thanks to Jobs with Justice and Western Mass Labor for Palestine for hosting this panel, and a special shout-out to GEO-UAW 2322, which adopted a Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions resolution this week by a margin of 95%-5%. You are at the cutting edge of the BDS movement for Palestinian rights, and it is an honor to be with you today.

We are often asked, “Why Palestine?” Because colonialism in Palestine is at the heart of U.S. imperial project, and for more than a century, Palestinians have resisted. This has broad implications: Israel has been at the forefront of U.S. wars throughout the region and beyond. Conversely, without Tahrir Square and the Arab Spring there would have been no Occupy Wall Street – without Palestinian Intifada, there would have been no Tahrir and Arab Spring. This is a perfect example of “intersectionality.”

This nexus has its origins in the Nakba (Catastrophe) of Nakba of 1947-1949, when Zionists ethnically cleansed Palestine by massacring the indigenous population in places like Deir Yassin, erasing 531 towns and village, emptying 11 urban neighborhoods, and expelling more than 750,000 (85 percent) of the Palestinians from 78 percent of their country.

Today, at least 70 percent of 10 million Palestinians remain refugees – the largest such population in the world. Despite other UN resolutions, Israel vows that it will never allow them to return.

In Gaza today, Palestinian workers and the families are being killed and maimed by naval vessels, jet fighters, Apache helicopters, white phosphorous and other weapons supplied by the U.S. and its allies. In the past ten years alone, U.S. military aid to Israel was $17 billion; over the next decade, it will be another $30 billion.

As in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan or Syria, both Democratic and Republican politicians condone the slaughter to ensure Israel’s role as watchdog for U.S. domination over the oil-rich Middle East. It is the same system of police violence, racism, injustice, neoliberal capitalism that we face in this country.

Because Israeli apartheid is systemic, so is the BDS movement, which – like the movement against apartheid South Africa — includes an academic and cultural boycott. It demands full Palestinian rights and self-determination not only in 1967 Occupied Palestine (West Bank, Gaza, and Jerusalem), but also in 1948 Occupied Palestine (“Israel”): (1) An end to Israeli military occupation of 1967 areas; (2) The right of Palestinian refugees to return; (3) Elimination of apartheid throughout historic Palestine.

In other words, BDS applies not only to companies in the 1967 settlements, but from all institutions complicit with the entire regime of oppression of Palestine. Thus, BDS is inherently anti-Zionist, because these demands are incompatible with a “Jewish state” in Palestine, just as humanity and democratic rights could not co-exist with a “white Afrikaner state” in South Africa, or a “white Christian state” in the U.S.

Moreover, BDS is a picket line. Trade unionists believe that “an injury to one is an injury to all,” or as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said: “Injustice anywhere is injustice everywhere.” That kind of solidarity is what it takes to makes labor a fighting, effective movement. And like all solidarity, supporting BDS is a matter of our common class interest, because:

1. Amidst deepening economic crisis, workers in this country pay a staggering human and financial price for U.S.-Israeli war and occupation throughout the region.

2. Without the knowledge or approval of union members, top labor officials, organized by JLC, have invested some $5 billion of our money in State of Israel Bonds, as exposed by Stan Heller’s “Dump Israel Bonds” campaign. Meanwhile, they have also encouraged the U.S. to provide the money and weapons that kill Palestinian workers. This reflects a toxic mixture of racism and undemocratic business unionism. 

3. Standing against injustice anywhere energizes and empowers unions to win immediate demands. 

That is why there has been resistance in the past, as Suzanne Adely will discuss. That’s why Labor for Palestine was co-founded twelve years ago by NYCLAW and Al Awda New York to reclaim this tradition. From the beginning, LFP has called for: 

• The U.S. and other governments to end all aid to Israel. 

• Workers to emulate dockers in South Africa, India, Sweden, Norway, Turkey, the U.S. west coast, and elsewhere, by refusing to handle military or any other cargo destined for Israel.

• Labor bodies to divest from Israel Bonds, and cut ties with the Histadrut, Israel’s racist labor federation.

In just the past two years, as relentless Israeli brutality has energized the BDS movement, this edifice of Labor Zionism has begun to crack.

In July 2014, hundreds of trade unionists signed LFP’s statement Stop the War on Gaza: No Arms for Apartheid Israel — Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions.

On December 4, 2014, 13,000 graduate student members of UAW 2865 across the University of California overwhelmingly became the first major U.S. union body to endorse BDS. This was no accident: it was built on the work of Students for Justice in Palestine, and the national reform caucus, Academic Workers for a Democratic Union. 

Meanwhile, starting in August 2014, members of ILWU Local 10 in Oakland repeatedly refused to unload Israeli Zim Line ships. This too was no accident: it reflected a campaign by communities of color, and workers of color with a long history of blockading injustice, including apartheid South Africa in 1984 and Israel in 2010. 

As Block the Boat put it: “Do not stand in solidarity with Palestine simply to stand in solidarity with Palestine. Stand in solidarity with Palestine to bring down state violence everywhere.” These same connections are reflected in projects like Black for Palestine. 

In 2015, BDS resolutions were also adopted by the United Electrical Workers and Connecticut AFL-CIO. This month, for the first time, Palestine was a major topic at Labor Notes in Chicago. Despite (or even because of) the International UAW’s “nullification” of UAW 2865 resolution, similar BDS resolutions are being adopted by GEO-UAW 2322 at UMass-Amherst and GSOC-UAW 2110 at NYU. 

What can you do? 

• Join Western Mass Labor for Palestine – our first local chapter – and bring a BDS resolution in your own labor body. 

• Access our website, newsletter, and other materials. 

• Contact for support to organize LFP meetings, chapters, resolutions, and/or other events in your local area.

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