ATTEMPTS TO STIFLE BDS SUPPORT WITHIN UAW LOCAL BACKFIRES
Members of the United Auto Workers (UAW) have been fighting to protect a resolution passed in 2014 to support Palestinian civil society’s Boycott, Divestment, and Sanction (BDS) call.
According to an official press release, in December 2014, UAW Local 2865, a student-workers union representing some 13,000 tutors, teaching assistants, and other student-workers at the University of California, became the first major U.S. labor union to demand that their union and employer divest from companies that have been complicit in human rights violations against Palestinians.
UAW Local 2865 members voted to endorse the BDS call for divestment in a landslide—by 65%—with 52% of voting members pledging to support an academic boycott, and over 2,100 voting.
In a letter endorsed by union leadership in the run-up to the vote:
We believe that as student and labor organizers, we have a duty to stand by principles of anti-oppression organizing. As we stand in solidarity with Palestinian self-determination, we also recognize that here in the United States we have our own systems of structural racism and settler colonialism to resist and dismantle. In the university system in which we both learn and labor, the disparity in access to people of color and working class people as well as the existence of our universities on stolen indigenous land alerts us to the importance of making these connections in our movements.
The measures that were called for were, according to the official statement released by UAW Local 2865:
“[That] the University of California divest from companies involved in the occupation of Palestine; that UAW International to divest from these same entities; the US government to end military aid to Israel. 52% of voting members pledged not to “take part in any research, conferences, events, exchange programs, or other activities that are sponsored by Israeli universities complicit in the occupation of Palestine and the settler-colonial policies of the state of Israel” until such time as these universities take steps to end complicity with dispossession, occupation, and apartheid.”
Since this historic vote, pressure on members who supported the resolution has mounted. Stephen Brumbaugh, a member of the union’s anti-BDS caucus known as Informed Grads, appealed the results of the vote to UAW Local 2865 in December 2014.
In 2015, the UAW 2865 vote in support of BDS was nullified by the International Executive Board. The IEB did not find any issues with the vote itself and went out of their way to defend the integrity of the process and make clear that the results represented the will of voting members. Instead, the IEB nullified the vote on constitutional grounds, claiming the vote interfered with the flow of commerce and could hurt UAW employers, as well as claiming that, by targeting Israeli policies, the resolutions discriminated against Israeli and even Jewish UAW members.
This claim of vilification, unsupported by evidence in the official record provided to Shadowproof, was upheld by the IEB despite the fact that the same records show significant numbers of Jewish and Israeli members and officers supported the resolution.
According to briefs provided to Shadowproof, UAW Local 2865 went on to appeal the IEB decision, stating in part that “the IEB improperly ignored the UAW constitutional mandate to solidify the labor movement and build solidarities with other unions, such as the Palestinian labor unions representing hundreds of thousands of workers who issued the call for BDS in 2005.”
The Local has appealed the IEB ruling to the UAW Public Review Board, a panel of labor lawyers with no affiliation to the UAW, who are empowered to review decisions of the IEB if they are appealed. Gibson Dunn and the UAW IEB have filed their own responses, and the Public Review Board has started its review of the case, with a final ruling expected in the next few months.
While the fate of UAW 2865’s resolution remains uncertain, the campaign to erase the Local’s Palestine solidarity work through undemocratic means has only backfired on those seeking to shield Israeli policy from criticism.
While major unions like the United Electrical Workers and the Connecticut AFL-CIO endorsed BDS resolutions following UAW 2865’s vote, there has been a greater increase in U.S. labor movement support for BDS following the nullification of their resolution.
Following nullification, rank-and-file activists in Local 2865 gathered nearly 18,000 signatures, including over 11,000 from the pro-BDS Jewish group Jewish Voice For Peace, and close to 500 signatures from US trade unionists. Activists also collected letters of support from a long list of prominent individuals, community groups, labor caucuses, as well as other unions.
Three UAW Locals—UAW 4121, UAW 2322, and GSOC-UAW 2110, which represent academic and other workers at the University of Washington, University of Massachusetts Amherst, and NYU, respectively—each wrote strong letters supporting UAW 2865’s right to local autonomy and democracy, demanding that the UAW IEB reinstate UAW 2865’s vote.
The Autoworkers Caravan, a progressive caucus of auto workers who are members of several different UAW Locals, also joined the chorus of voices demanding the IEB reverse course, showing that support for BDS extends beyond academic workers represented by UAW.
In addition to this outpouring of support for UAW 2865, BDS within the U.S. labor movement has also seen more concrete gains, fueled in part by anger over UAW 2865’s resolution nullification. Just this April, two unions within the UAW overwhelmingly endorsed BDS by member vote. GEO-UAW 2322, which represents 1,700 student workers at University of Massachusetts Amherst, announced on April 15 that they had passed a BDS resolution with a whopping 95% of their voting members in favor.
A week later, on April 22, GSOC-UAW 2110, which represents 2,000 student workers at NYU, announced that they had passed a BDS resolution with 67% of their voting members in favor, in an election that saw record-breaking voter turnout. The results at both of these unions came despite legal threats and intimidation from those opposed to the resolutions, as well as attempts by UAW Local 2110 officials to interfere with elections there.
According to discussions with members of the pro-BDS caucus within UAW 2865, other unions they are in touch with are also beginning their own BDS campaigns, meaning more resolutions like these are sure to follow.
Members from both GEO-UAW 2322 and GSOC-UAW 2110 specifically mention the nullification of UAW 2865’s vote as motivation for holding their votes now, showing that undemocratic efforts to stifle BDS activism within UAW have actually benefited the movement, rather than hindered it.
Activists in the UAW are making it clear to everyone that the only way to defeat BDS is to defeat the occupation. Jennifer Mogannam, a Ph.D. candidate at UC San Diego in the department of Ethnic Studies, a rank and file member of UAW 2865, told Shadowproof that the passage of and commitment to BDS at the student-worker union level “marks an important and uplifting shift in both academia and union organizing.”
Mogannam argues that this marks a critical turn “in a new generation of scholars whereby not only are we able to engage critically on the question of Palestine, but it also indicates an unapologetic commitment to social justice in academia.”
“On the contrary, through the pushback and meaningless appeal based on politics and not protocol,” Mogannam explained, “we see the UAW international board exposing the contradictions within the labor movement by prioritizing fiscal and political relationships over workers’ rights and social justice.”
The attack against UAW is “part and parcel of the larger Zionist movement’s suppression and attacking of those fighting for Palestinian self-determination and against Israeli settler colonialism,” Mogannam said. This is why the fight continues.
The pressure on UAW, groups such as Students for Justice in Palestine, and other organizations that have answered the BDS call, has grown with every successful BDS resolution—from targeted campaigns meant to instill fear of losing a job or academic position, to baseless accusations of anti-Semitism against those who oppose the state of Israel.
Kumars Salehi, a graduate student and a member of Students for Justice in Palestine at UC Berkeley, told Shadowproof that he’s already seen his career prospects and standing in his field threatened by smears against him, simply for being a Palestine advocate.
“Because of this campaign and other attempts to target me personally and brand me as a bigot, I have to live and work with the constant fear that I will be marginalized in my community and denied career opportunities because mentors, collaborators and employers will see me as a liability and a source of potentially unending controversy, ” Salehi says.
He now has to worry that he will be the target of disciplinary proceedings if a student is uncomfortable with him as a teacher, due to his political activities being publicly associated with bigotry.
On April 19, Salehi shared a poster being plastered across the UC Berkeley campus that read like a hit list. It accused a number of UC Berkeley faculty and students of allying themselves with “Jew hatred.” The poster reads:
“BDS. Boycott, Divestment, Sanction. A Hamas-inspired genocidal campaign to destroy Israel, the world’s only Jewish state. The following students and faculty at UC Berkeley have allied themselves with Palestinian terrorists to perpetrate BDS and Jew hatred on this campus.”
The poster listed the David Horowitz’s ‘Freedom Center’ at the bottom, along with the hashtag #StopTheJewHatredOnCampus. And still, whether it’s the fight against the UAW BDS resolution, or the stigmatization of students and faculty members, the push back against Palestine solidarity work has been growing, but that doesn’t mean that resistance has ebbed. The passage of BDS resolutions and organizating around solidarity actions continue. A statement by Kumars Salehi speaks to the attitude surrounding this resistance:
“At this point, being attacked personally doesn’t intimidate me. If my career were going to be fucked by Palestine activism, it already is.”