Robert DG Kelly on March 18: Working Class Democracy and the Question of Palestine

Original online here.

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“Working Class Democracy and the Question of Palestine”

Recently, the UAW made history by becoming the largest union in the country to call for a ceasefire in Gaza, and yet Shawn Fein’s endorsement of President Biden has disaffected a significant segment of its rank-and-file, especially auto workers in Michigan, which has a substantial Arab-American working class along with Black and other workers opposed to U.S. policy toward Israel. The divide, Robin D. G. Kelley argues, reflects a longstanding problem that Bob Fitch identified when he argued that the labor Left should focus less on “union democracy” and instead fight for “working class democracy”—that is to say, “creating a system of representation that offers workers a choice of political ends” and “that promotes solidarity.” Since at least 1967, the question of Palestine has divided organized labor, especially between leadership and the rank-and-file, but only the former has the power to set labor’s international political agenda. As a consequence, union leadership has essentially foreclosed avenues of solidarity with Palestinian workers, despite pressure from below. Fitch’s 1966 book with Mary Oppenheimer, Ghana: End of an Illusion, not only gave him a unique perspective on international labor solidarity independent of, or even in opposition to, union bureaucrats, but it allows some speculation as to what his/their Marxist critique Nkrumah’s socialist politics and policies might tell us about his position on Palestine—then and now. In short, I contend that had the labor Left developed the kind of working class democracy Fitch proposed, the American political landscape with respect to U.S. policy toward Israel might look very different—indeed, it would more closely resemble organized labor’s position vis-à-vis apartheid South Africa in the 1980s.

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