Unions Critical for Fighting Israeli Apartheid
From South Africa to Palestine, global worker solidarity can link worker oppression to the injustices of apartheid.
- SONALI KOLHATKAR
- JAN 13, 2024
When United Auto Workers (UAW) President Shawn Fain called for a ceasefire in Israel’s assault on Gaza in mid-December, his union was among the nation’s largest to do so. It was a bold move, fresh from UAW’s victorious high-profile contract negotiations with the Big Three auto manufacturers a few weeks earlier. “[U]nions are the best bridge toward fighting all forms of hatred and phobias,” said Fain in his ceasefire speech alongside Congressional lawmakers. He added, “As union members, we know we must fight for all workers and people suffering around the world.”
UAW’s move is part of a major turning of the tide for American labor unions as a whole, which have historically backed the state of Israel and done so unconditionally—so much so that labor historian Jeff Schuhrke told the New York Times, “In many ways, you can argue that U.S. unions helped construct the state of Israel.”
But the idea of unions is based on collective power to ensure just outcomes for workers in the face of the financial might of bosses: the powerless versus the powerful, working together to tilt the scales of justice in their favor. While Israel may have successfully hijacked the narrative to cast itself as the victim for decades, that story is unraveling as younger Americans—including union members and leaders—are viewing Palestinians as dispossessed victims of a well-armed apartheid state.
This trend is long overdue. U.S. unions, including UAW, were instrumental in opposing South Africa’s apartheid regime. The AFL-CIO led a wave of protests against apartheid South Africa in 1984, with the union federation’s secretary-treasurer Thomas R. Donahue being arrested alongside the heads of the Newspaper Guild and the United Steelworkers of America.
A conflict between Starbucks corporation and Starbucks Workers United (SBWU)—the worker union comprising young baristas fighting for unions and contracts at cafes—is symbolic of this trend. In October, SBWU posted a powerful statement of support for Palestinians on its social media account. In response, Starbucks sued SBWU and its parent union for trademark infringement because the barista network’s name and logo is similar to that of the corporation. SBWU is countersuing for defamation.
Christian Smalls, the well-known charismatic young organizer who gained fame for his efforts at unionizing Amazon workers, and who has been hailed as “the future of labor,” has also backed the Palestinian struggle against Israeli oppression. His organization, the Amazon Labor Union (ALU), together with the subgroup that wants to reform ALU, released a joint statement calling for a ceasefire, and condemning Israel’s genocide of Palestinians and U.S. funding of Israeli weaponry.
Palestinian trade unions representing a broad spectrum, from oil workers to teachers, initiated such cross-border worker solidarity. The Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions in Gaza released a call for global support a week into Israel’s latest attack. “We ask you to speak out and take action in the face of injustice as trade unions have done historically,” said the workers. They see the Palestinian struggle for justice as “a lever for the liberation of all dispossessed and exploited people of the world.”
But Palestinian workers don’t want just lip service. They want—and need—concrete action to stop the carnage. To that end, they have specifically called for “trade unions in relevant industries… [t]o refuse to build weapons destined for Israel.” Although UAW has answered the call for solidarity, it has not used all its levers of power. A new formation called UAW Labor for Palestine which has taken credit for pressuring union leadership to adopt a call for a ceasefire last October, wants UAW workers in weapons manufacturing factories to actually stop production.
“UAW has taken no concrete steps to stop the production of weapons used to massacre Palestinians,” said UAW Labor for Palestine. The group added, there is “no excuse in the face of a genocide,” and lauded organized labor in Europe for going much farther by refusing to handle weapons being sent to Israel.
Among the union workers most militantly putting their money where their mouths are, are longshore workers.
Among the union workers most militantly putting their money where their mouths are, are longshore workers. The International Longshore & Warehouse Union (ILWU) has a long history of cross-border solidarity organizing going at least as far back as 1962 against South Africa’s apartheid regime. The ILWU continued its actions into the 1980s and, unsurprisingly, has supported the call for a ceasefire in Israel’s war on Gaza. ILWU members also refused to work on what was believed to be a load of weapons being sent to Israel last November.
Workers in an oppressive capitalist system experience similar power dynamics as residents of settler colonialism—from Black victims of South African apartheid, to Palestinian residents of Gaza and the West Bank. Palestinian workers have faced a unique set of circumstances, having struggled in an economic system controlled by Israel. Since the war that began last October, Gaza’s already fragile economy was, in the words of one Washington Post story, “pounded to dust.”
As far back as 2005, Palestinian unions signed on to a call for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel, and in 2011 formed the Palestinian Trade Union Coalition for BDS. The coalition called on organized labor around the world to “actively show solidarity with the Palestinian people by implementing creative and context-sensitive BDS campaigns as the most effective way to end Israeli impunity.”
More than a decade later, major U.S. unions have only just begun to take a strong stand in support of Palestinian workers and unions. The narrative of Israeli victimhood—in the face of so much evidence to the contrary—has been a strong bulwark against global worker solidarity for Palestinians. Take the Portland Association for Teachers, which promoted events examining Israel’s war on Palestinians. Denounced for promoting “disturbing” “anti-Israel” content, the union was cowed into pausing its social media activity. Several other teachers’ unions from Minneapolis to Chicago, have faced severe backlash for supporting Palestinians and criticizing Israel.
Changing the narrative of who is the oppressor and who is the victim is a critical step in labor solidarity for Palestinian workers. It’s fitting that South Africa has led the international call to charge Israel with genocide at the International Court of Justice (ICJ). The post-apartheid government has such moral weight in light of South African history that the Israeli government has taken the rare step to formally respond to the charges.
For those unions that backed boycotts of apartheid South Africa, the writing is on the wall: Israel is no victim, rather it is a perpetrator of apartheid. There can be no exception to global labor solidarity.
This article was produced by Economy for All, a project of the Independent Media Institute.
The opinions expressed here are solely the author’s and do not reflect the opinions or beliefs of the LA Progressive.
Sonali Kolhatkar is the founder, host and executive producer of “Rising Up With Sonali,” a television and radio show that airs on Free Speech TV (Dish Network, DirecTV, Roku) and Pacifica stations KPFK, KPFA, and affiliates.