Jason Koslowski and James Dennis Hoff
All across the West Bank, Gaza, and Israel, Palestinian workers and their allies have taken to the streets to protest and strike against the bombing of Gaza, the evictions in East Jerusalem, and the continued occupation of Palestinian land by the Israeli state, which has been slowly chipping away at what little is left of Palestinian territory for decades. These strikes and protests show the commitment of the Palestinian people to fight for their own liberation. But as an occupied people, without a military, condemned to what amounts to an open-air prison, the working people of Palestine need our help to win this struggle. This is why Labor unions across the globe, but particularly in the United States, must stand up and say “Not one more cent and not one more bullet for Israel.”
While the U.S. labor movement has been slow to take up support for the Palestinian cause, internationally there is growing mobilization. In response to the recent wave of uprisings and the brutal violence that Israel has unleashed on Gaza, labor union and trade union organizations around the world (including the massive 207 millon-member International Trade Union Confederation) have issued harsh rebukes of the recent round of Isreali violence and the ongoing occupation of Palestinian territories. From South Africa to Belgium, the UK, and Brazil, labor unions have consistently shown their support for the people of Palestine. This support so far has usually taken the form of either directly divesting from Israeli bonds, or, more frequently, endorsing the growing Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. Meanwhile, in recent years, dock workers around the world have consistently and directly refused to load or have protested the loading of weapons or materials to Israel. In Durban, South Africa, for instance, during the 2008-2009 Israeli bombing campaign against Gaza, dockworkers refused to offload goods from Israel. In 2010, Swedish dockworkers refused to load goods destined for Israel. And most recently, Italian dockworkers in Livorno and Naples came out in force to protest the docking of weapons-loaded ships destined for Israel.
While such international support is important, in the United States, which provides the lion’s share of economic and military aid to Israel, the leadership of national unions and union federations are steadfastly refusing to take a stand against the Israeli state’s brutal slaughter of Palestinians. Indeed, the AFL-CIO has, despite even the most recent wave of bombigs, remained staunchly pro-Israel, defending a two state solution, refusing to call for, or openly opposing, boycotts or divestment, and consistently remaining silent in the face of Israeli aggression against Palestinians. Indeed, its International Affairs Committee has even gone out of its way to distance itself from U.S. critics of Israel, including Representatives Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar, stating: “we strongly disagree with Reps. Omar’s and Tlaib’s positions on the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, and maintain our longstanding commitment to meaningful, direct negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians.” Most local AFL-CIO affiliates, with some rare exceptions, have followed suit.
The American Federation of Teachers (AFT), for instance, one of the largest AFL-CIO affiliates, endorsed the Education International’s tepid 2015 Statement on Israel and Palestine, which, while offering some criticism of the living conditions of Palestinians, still called for a negotiated two state solution that would only provide cover for the continuation of the repressive Israeli state. In fact, it failed to mention any of the instances of the Israeli state’s obscene, indiscriminate, militarized violence against Palestinian civilians, often children. It chose instead to rebuke the launching of rockets from Palestine. And yet, despite this, the AFT’s statement on the resolution went out of its way praise the fact that it included not even a single word about sanctions, divestment or U.S. aid to Israel — or any action, really, that would commit the AFT to stand in solidarity with the Palestinians fighting for their lives and homes against the occupation imposed upon them.
“Unlike the resolutions and proclamations of other global union federations, the International Trade Union Confederation, and other labor organizations, EI has effectively said “no” to negative boycotts and sanctions, and “yes” to a process of negotiation where civil society organizations, including teachers unions, will work toward peace and equality.”
This statement is a perfect example of how the labor bureaucracy manages to undermine even the most timid attempts to criticize Israel.
But the problem with the national leadership of the US labor movement goes much deeper. Many in union leadership in the United States are using our dues money to help bankroll the deadly violence in Israel. They do this by buying Israeli state bonds, which then yield interest payments to the unions investing in them. These bonds are loans to the Israeli government and the interest they accrue is acquired through the oppression of the Palestinian people. While union leaders have been notoriously quiet about exactly how much they’ve invested, a 2008 report notes that around 1,700 unions had bought those bonds by that year alone, and unions held about $30 million in Israeli State Bonds. The AFT — led by Randi Weingarten — publicly declared in 2010 that it held a $200,000 bond.
But there is hope for U.S. labor. More recently, several affiliates of the AFL-CIO, and many unions not affiliated with the federation, have taken much stronger, more principled stands against the Isreali state and its treatment of Palestinians. On Wednesday, chapter chairs of the United Teacher of Los Angeles Union, voted overwhelmingly in favor of a statement calling for an end to U.S. aid to Israel. But much of the resistance within the AFL-CIO has come from graduate worker unions represented by the United Auto Workers. Columbia and New York University Graduate workers, both of whom were on strike last month, have taken strong stands against Israeli colonialism. In a statement condemning both the Israeli and Colombian governments, Graduate Workers of Columbia UAW (GWC-UAW), demanded an end to the occupation, saying “We stand in solidarity with the ongoing struggles in Colombia and Palestine against U.S. sponsored settler colonialism and violent state repression.”
For their part, the members of New York University’s graduate worker union, the Graduate Student Organizing Committee UAW (GSOC-UAW), overwhelmingly voted in favor of supporting the Boycott Sanctions and Divestment movement in 2016, along with GWC-UAW, and the University of California graduate workers union (UAW 2865). But graduate worker unions are not the only ones taking a stand. The Roofers Union Local 36 in Los Angeles issued a strong statement condemning the attacks and demanding that “President Biden halt all economic and military assistance to Israel.” The United Electrical Workers have also released a statement criticizing Biden for giving military aid to Israel and affirming their support for BDS.
While few and far between, these statements show that there is growing resistance to the Israeli occupation among rank-and-file union members in the United States. Last week’s remarkable global protests on the commemoration of the Nakba, which saw some of the largest Palestinian solidarity rallies in the United States in many years, are also a sign that working people, unionized or not, are increasingly uncomfortable with U.S. support for the state of Israel. If ever there was a moment to build a movement against Israeli occupation and US imperialism, now is the time.
Building such a movement, however, requires more than statements of support. The problem isn’t just that some union leaders have made mistakes about what their position on the Israeli state should be. It’s that many of our national union leaders are financially and politically vested in the Israeli state — benefiting economically from both the oppressive Israeli state and U.S. imperialism.
The leaders of our national unions curry favor with the notoriously pro-Israel Democratic Party. This includes dumping huge sums of money — coming in part from our membership dues — into the sewer of Democratic Party campaigns. Not only do the Democrats mostly sit on their hands when it comes to labor—- candidates like Obama and Biden who union leaders gush over and tell us all to shill for during election seasons are the ones that enthusiastically support Israel. And they do it not just in words, but with billions of dollars in economic and military aid (not to mention with direct weapons sales) for the slaughter of Palestinians and the occupation of Palestinian land. As workers, we’ll never stop U.S. money and weapons flowing into Israel by working in the Democratic Party.
So, if we want to make our unions join the fight for freedom alongside the Palestinians on strike and in the streets, we will have to reject the Democrats while fighting our own rotten labor leaders, from below — to push our unions into real, concrete support for the Palestinian struggle. We simply can’t wait on those national leaders to change their minds.
But what would concrete solidarity look like?
On the one hand, solidarity with our Palestinian fellow workers means fighting inside our unions against the leaders investing our dues money in Israeli violence and occupation and sucking up to the Democrats. Now is the time to demand, in no uncertain terms, that our unions liquidate every Israeli state bond, and refuse to bankroll the colonial slaughter and displacement in Palestine. Fighting for that demand would mean following in the footsteps of Arab workers in the UAW, whose 1973 wildcat strike demanded the selling of Israeli bonds.
But supporting boycotts and sanctions is not enough; and Israel will not be defeated by such measures. Real solidarity means taking matters into our own hands as rank-and-file union members. As workers, we are the source of all the profits capitalism needs to survive and grow. And more than this, workers in the U.S. need to stand in concrete solidarity with workers and the oppressed around the globe if they’re going to be able to stand up against their oppressors at home.
For example: not only does the U.S. fund and arm the murderous Israeli state. U.S. police departments send their cops to Israel to be trained in the most effective forms of repressive violence against workers and the oppressed — skills the Israeli state has perfected in the militarized, brutal repression and murder of Palestinians. The cops that come back to the U.S. are then crucial to the terrorizing, murdering police forces that attack Black and Brown people every day. Those cops are part of a racist system that is excellent for the bosses — it’s just good business. The more that segments of workers are harassed, terrorized, and scared, the easier it is to hyper-exploit them and keep wage levels down across the board. And all of this means that fighting Israel isn’t just the right thing to do — it’s necessary for the labor movement in the U.S.
To fight back against the United States’ support for Israel, then, we badly need to follow our Palestinian comrades, building strike actions to force the U.S. state to end all of its military and aconomic aid to Israel — not one cent, not one bullet. But beyond that, we need to build the kinds of workers’ organizations capable of directly confronting capitalism at home and abroad, creating the kind of self organization that could halt or regularly disrupt the production and transportation of weapons to Israel by taking actions at ports, warehouses, and factories, among other actions.
And as large protests continue throughout the United States, labor’s place is in the streets. The movement for Palestine seems to be reaching a tipping point. Solidarity from our unions — in strike threats and actions, in marching en masse in solidarity with comrades in the streets — would be a major weapon in forcing the U.S. government to stop its massive economic and military support to Israel.
But all of this means building from below. It means rank-and-file organizing in our locals to put out statements of solidarity with the Palestinian people, to connect the fight for Black Lives and against police repression to the struggle for Palestinian freedom, to go out into the streets to march, and to organize solidarity strike actions that confront the U.S. war machine.
And it means building campaigns to force our local, regional, and national unions to take action in concrete support of workers’ struggles everywhere, in the streets and in our workplaces.