America’s Labor Unions Are Increasingly Standing with Palestine
On March 28th, a “Stop the Boycott” conference was held in Jerusalem. Afraid of the support for the Boycott-Divestment-Sanctions (BDS) movement against the Israeli occupation of Palestine, the participants lashed out against its advocates. Israeli Minister of Transport, Intelligence and Atomic Energy Yisrael Katz called upon his government to conduct “targeted civil eliminations” of BDS leaders. Such an alarming statement is not unusual. Israel’s Minister of Public Security, Strategic Affairs and Information said that BDS activists must “pay the price” for their advocacy (he later said that he did not mean to provoke “physical harm”). Israel’s Minister of Interior Aryeh Deri has threatened to revoke the permanent residency of BDS leader Omar Barghouti–who says that he now fears for his life.
Such is the Israeli reaction to the peaceful BDS movement.
The United States Congress sometimes seems like a subsidiary of the Israeli Knesset. Senators Mark Kirk (Republican of Illinois) and Joe Manchin (Democrat of West Virginia) as well as Representatives Robert Dold (Republican of Illinois) and Juan Vargas (Democrat of California) tabled the ‘Combating BDS Act of 2016’ in both houses. This bill asks state and local governments to divest from any group that “engages in commerce or investment-related boycott, divestment or sanctions activity targeting Israel.” Republican donor and gambling tycoon Sheldon Adelson held a secret anti-BDS gathering in Las Vegas, where mega-donors pledged to go after BDS activists – mainly the college campus activities of BDS activists and the Students for Justice in Palestine. Last year, Democratic presidential aspirant Hillary Clinton wrote to Democratic donor Haim Saban to pledge her support against BDS. “I know you agree that we need to make countering BDS a priority,” she wrote. Clinton linked the BDS campaign, which targets Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestine, to anti-Semitism. It is the clichéd way to rebuke BDS campaigns and campaigners.
The Israeli government and its American allies have spent millions of dollars to destroy the credibility of the BDS advocates. It does not seem to have succeeded.
As if undaunted, a host of US labor unions have decided to endorse the BDS pledge. The United Electrical Workers (UE), a union of over thirty-five thousand members, debated the question of Israel’s occupation of Palestine at its August 2015 convention. “Our government is on the wrong side,” said Angaza Laughinghouse of Local 150 (North Carolina). “We have to stand on the right side of the Palestine struggle.” Laughinghouse’s union—UEdecided to unanimously endorse BDS and to actively work “to become engaged in BDS.” In October, the two hundred thousand members of the AFL-CIO of Connecticut passed a resolution that called upon the national AFL-CIO to endorse BDS “in connection with companies and investments profiting from or complicit in human rights violations arising from the occupation of the Palestinian territories by the State of Israel.” There is no immediate sense that the national—which represents twelve and a half million workers – would follow suit.
A few years ago, the AFL-CIO—whose membership dwindled in the United States—turned to college campuses to organize adjunct professors and other campus teachers. This strategy has borne fruit, as many unions, especially the United Auto Workers (UAW)—found receptive campus workers (teachers, adjuncts, and graduate students) to fight for and form locals. A number of these campus unions have begun to push for BDS resolutions in their student and faculty organizations. Two affiliates of the UAW took the lead on this road – UAW Local 2865, the University of California’s graduate student union that represents thirteen thousand workers, and Graduate Employees Organization-UAW Local 2322 at the University of Massachusetts (Amherst) that represents over two thousand workers.
It is little wonder that the labor movement for Palestine has a strong foundation on college campuses. Many scholarly bodies voted in favor of BDS—American Studies Association being the most prominent, while the American Anthropological Association is currently getting ready to vote on a resolution. Anti-BDS advocates are correct to point to the colleges as a hotbed of BDS activity, with bold Students for Justice with Palestine (SJP) units sprouting up across the country. Pressure to rein in the SJP groups runs up against moderate faculty support for these student initiatives, either on the grounds of free speech or of solidarity with Palestine.
Social movements across the United States—whether Black Lives Matter or LGBTQ struggles—have stretched out their arms towards Palestine. In the 1960s and 1970s, the Palestinian Liberation Organization cleverly linked its struggle to that of the Vietnamese and the Algerians, building on global solidarity movements already in motion. This current solidarity is an echo of that era of “Palestine is Another Vietnam.” The 2015 Black Solidarity Statement with Palestine and the many tours of Black Lives Matter activists to Palestine as well as the solidarity statements from Palestine to Ferguson provide the template for the new connections. The most powerful symbol of this was the visit to Palestine by activists from Black Lives Matter, Black Youth Project 100, Dream Defenders and Ferguson/Hands Up United. Standing in Nazareth, the young men and women sang a powerful song of solidarity, drawing a line between Ferguson and Palestine. This is the culture that moved the CUNY Doctoral Students Council to endorse BDS. “The repression of CUNY students,” said fourth year History student Jeremy Randall, “is connected to the same systems of power that uphold the Israeli state’s violation of Palestinian rights.” Comparisons and connections between the security state in the West Bank and in the United States embolden the solidarity.
In 2004, activists in al-Awda New York and New York City Labor Against the War formed Labor for Palestine. They did so, as Michael Letwin told me, “to honor the BDS picket line and fight for full inclusion of the Palestinian liberation struggle in the post-9/11 antiwar movement.” Letwin, who comes from a radical family and has been involved in most radical struggles in New York since the 1960s, understands that there has been a strand in the labor movement committed to Palestine. “There is a hidden tradition of US trade union solidarity with Palestine,” he told me. In 1969, the League of Revolutionary Black Workers took a position against Zionism, and in 1973 Black and Arab workers in the UAW “held wildcat strikes against the UAW.”
Labor for Palestine prods the US labor movement for good reason. Suzanne Adely, another leader in Labor for Palestine, tells me that the US labor unions have to disinvest from the Israel Bonds, which provide capital towards the occupation. Adely understands that the movement, however, has a history of complicity not only with the Israeli labor federation but also with the Israeli state. “Labor solidarity against apartheid and racism,” she says, “has always come from below.” The leadership has to be pushed by the union locals and by campaigns such as Labor for Palestine.
Western Massachusetts’ Labor for Palestine is one of these local chapters. It comes out of both the GEO-UAW Local 2322 struggle and the Western Mass Coalition for Palestine; the labor movement and the Palestine solidarity movement, in other words. The members of this chapter come out of union work, but also from Black Lives Matter and LGBTQ liberation groups. “We wanted to remain active in the Western Mass Coalition for Palestine,” says Ruth Jennison, an English professor at UMASS, “but we also wanted an organization that drew on the constant and permanent nature of union activism.” The chapter hosted a panel discussion last weekend at a Jobs with Justice conference in Springfield, MA, which was attended by representatives from Labor for Palestine and the Connecticut AFL-CIO. The Connecticut unionists – Carol Lambiase (UE) and Bill Shortell (Machinists union) – reported on a union trip to Palestine in 2015. In Palestine, Lambiase delivered a copy of the UE resolution for BDS to Shaher Sa’ed, the General Secretary of the Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions. The panel in Springfield was well attended. Jennison told me, “Many union members and some leadership are excited about our organization, and want to help us build.”
Pressure against BDS will continue. Attempts to make it illegal remain on the table. The UAW leadership continues to attempt to nullify the resolutions of some of its locals. The fight inside the unions has now turned from the question of BDS to that of union democracy. These are conjoined issues. “Ultimately,” Adely says to me, “building labor solidarity with Palestine and with all anti-racist struggles is part of the fight to build a stronger, democratic union movement.”