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Let’s Make the AFL-CIO Join the Fight for Palestine

The biggest union federation in the U.S. is staying silent on the slaughter of Palestinians. And it’s trying to silence members calling for a ceasefire. But union members can push our federation into real and active solidarity with the Palestinian people.

Jason Koslowski

November 15, 2023
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Pro-Palestine protesters in Brooklyn, New York.

Israel is intensifying its massacre of Palestinians. According to the latest numbers, one out of every 200 Palestinians in Gaza is dead: over 11,000 people, more than 4,000 of them children. The Israeli Defense Force (IDF) has surrounded Gaza City. Hospitals are running out of fuel and have no electricity. The UN Secretary-General says Gaza is “becoming a graveyard for children.”

But people are flooding the streets in historic protests for Palestine. Close to 100,000 descended on Washington, D.C.; at least 300,000 in London. The pro-Palestine movement is the biggest movement in the U.S. since the historic 2020 Black Lives Matter uprising.

Unions could play a major role in grinding the Israeli massacre to a halt, a massacre funded and armed by both Democratic and Republican parties. 

So why is the AFL-CIO silencing members calling for a ceasefire?

Unions Are Standing Up Again — This Time, for Palestine

Labor is starting to organize itself for Palestinian lives. Starbucks Workers United was among the first to make a public statement, posting to its social media account on October 9: “Solidarity with Palestine!”

Since then, other unions have joined the fray by calling for a ceasefire: the American Postal Workers Union, SEIU 1021, Harvard Graduate Union, Longshore Workers Local 5, and United Electric. They’re joined by United Food and Commercial Workers 3000, American Federation of Teachers – Oregon, Chicago Teachers Union, Democratic Socialists of America Union, IBEW Local 520, Industrial Workers of the World Mid-Valley Branch, Labor Express Radio, Massachusetts Teachers Association, NJ State Industrial Union Council, Pride at Work/Eastern Massachusetts, PNWSU 3000, Restaurant Workers United. San Antonio Alliance of Teachers & Support Personnel NEA/AFT Local 67, Unemployed Workers United. UAW Region 6, and UAW Region 9A, who signed this petition calling for a ceasefire.

At least one major voice is missing from this list: this country’s biggest union federation. 

The AFL-CIO Silences Calls for a Ceasefire

By October 11, the situation in Gaza had already become dire. Israel’s “total siege” against the entire population of Gaza had begun: no water, fuel, food, electricity, or medical aid. 

That’s also the day the AFL-CIO put out its first and only statement about the attack on Palestine. Its brief statement ran: 

There can be no justification for the unspeakable atrocities and carnage carried out by Hamas against Israelis over the past several days. The labor movement condemns and stands resolute against all terrorism, and we are concerned about the emerging humanitarian crisis that is affecting Palestinians in Gaza and throughout the region. We call for a swift resolution to the current conflict to end the bloodshed of innocent civilians, and to promote a just and long-lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

The statement is a strange one. It calls Hamas’s actions “carnage,” but the IDF’s bombing of civilians in Gaza is a “humanitarian crisis.” Its call for a “swift resolution” is ambiguous: does that mean a ceasefire? Or does it mean Israel should accomplish its goals in Gaza quickly? Should workers who help make and ship weapons to Israel keep doing that, or not? What “resolution” would be a good one, in terms of the cost of civilian lives? 

Then something even stranger happened. 

As the Gaza crisis deepened to catastrophic, even genocidal, levels — with the IDF’s bombing of refugee camps and attacking hospitals in a “graveyard of children” — the AFL-CIO stopped talking about it altogether. In fact, the federation’s leaders aren’t just keeping silent. They appear to be actively repressing voices inside the federation calling for a ceasefire. 

By October 18, a little fewer than 2,000 were dead in Gaza. That’s when one of the AFL-CIO’s organs in Washington State — the Thurston-Lewis-Mason Central Labor Council, or TMLCLC — met and passed a resolution demanding a ceasefire. 

The TMLCLC’s resolution “opposes in principle any union involvement in the production or transportation of weapons destined for Israel.” And it challenges the AFL-CIO leadership, too: 

[W]hile the TLMCLC agrees with the AFL-CIO’s statement calling for a “just and lasting peace,” we would ask our parent federation to also publicly support an immediate ceasefire and equal rights for Palestinians and Israelis.

The AFL-CIO leadership caught wind of this dissent. That’s when it stepped in. 

A representative of the AFL-CIO leaders contacted the labor council to declare the dissenting statement void. Under pressure, the Washington labor council deleted the statement from its Twitter account.

The silence from upper AFL-CIO leaders, and their silencing of a labor council, could have a chilling effect on the labor movement generally. As union members, we can fight back. Actually, some in the AFL-CIO are. The Western Mass Area AFL-CIO (WMALF) just voted to sign a petition demanding a ceasefire. “Working people,” said Jeff Jones, president of WMALF, “must condemn this war and call for a ceasefire now.” 

Why Does the AFL-CIO Leadership Want Silence on Palestine? 

Why is the AFL-CIO staying silent during the Israeli state’s massacres in Palestine? And why is it silencing members who are speaking up?

A main part of the reason is that, atop the federation sits a bureaucracy that has long been locked in a lover’s embrace with the U.S. government. During World War II, the AFL and CIO (not yet united) enforced a “no-strike” pledge on their members to support the imperialist war effort. In the decades that followed, the AFL-CIO helped the CIA undermine democracies worldwide by weakening leftist unions. The AFL-CIO’s “Solidarity Center,” which connects it to unions in the Global South, is funded in part by the National Endowment for Democracy (NED). Jeff Schuhrke points out that the “NED is known for meddling in the democratic processes of other countries and promoting ‘regime change’ to maintain global dominance, including in Venezuela, Haiti, Ukraine, and multiple Central American nations.”

Why this embrace of imperialism? Our union leaders’ position there, atop the federation, helps drive those leaders into the U.S. government’s arms. They earn their (substantial) paychecks from playing the role of national go-between for labor and the U.S. government, building relationships and fostering their prestige with government officials like presidents. Union leaders’ jobs are tied up with those of the imperialist state politicians they are linked to. And so they tend to see the U.S. government and Western imperialism as allies, or at least potential allies, helping secure capitalist profits around the globe in a way that they think will help them, too. 

We get a sense of how deep that idea runs — the idea that imperialism is good for U.S. workers — from the fact that the AFL-CIO’s leaders have been using union dues to buy hundreds of millions in Israeli State Bonds. In other words, the AFL-CIO actually draws revenue from the State of Israel’s colonization and brutalization of Palestinians. 

The AFL-CIO’s embrace of U.S. imperialism is part and parcel of the leadership’s strategy for the U.S. labor movement. 

Like Kim Moody and other scholars have pointed out, the strategy looks like this: leaders of the AFL-CIO have long thought that if they support the U.S. state, especially the Democratic Party, they’ll get favors for the labor movement in turn, like union-friendly laws. 

This has been an unmitigated disaster for the labor movement. Putting their faith in better laws, our federation’s leaders have rejected spending their sizeable war chests on aggressively expanding unions, and they’ve demurred on the need for big, aggressive strikes ready to break restrictive labor law. The success of this strategy is clear from the collapse in union membership and unionization rates for decades, and the lack of helpful labor laws received from Democrats in exchange.

So the leaders of the AFL-CIO see their role as supporting the imperialist policies of Biden and the Democratic Party. And that means refusing to speak out against the Israeli massacre of Palestinians, and even trying to silence its own members for standing with Palestine.

It’s Time to Push and Shove the AFL-CIO into the Fight for Palestine. 

When the AFl-CIO sides with U.S. imperialism, it’s actively weakening the U.S. and global labor movement. 

Without international solidarity, U.S. workers are also cut off from the kind of power that would come with being able to organize strikes and protests across borders to fight international corporations and finance capital. The U.S. working class’s profits flow across the globe; our solidarity has to, too.

Unions have been ramping up workplace struggle in the last few years, clawing back concessions wrung from them since the 1980s. But the problems facing labor today call for far more radical, and far more international, power. The U.S. is funding two catastrophic wars, in Ukraine and Israel, and positioning itself for an eventual, even more more catastrophic, war with China. These conflicts offer little to U.S. workers besides death, destruction, and global crisis. 

And the working class and oppressed are facing down the real prospect of a burning planet: catastrophic climate change that has already started to wreak havoc the world over. Millionaires and billionaires aren’t the ones who are going to suffer most from mounting catastrophes. 

If we want a real shift in the balance of powers — to not just claw back concessions but put workers in the drivers’ seat, to save the planet from a ruling class that’s killing it — that’ll call for an international strategy for workers. We have little to gain, and everything to lose, when we side with national task masters over people dying by U.S. weapons across the world. Our enemy isn’t Palestine. It’s Jeff Bezos and Joe Biden, and the CEOs of Lockheed Martin and Boeing. 

Besides, it’s the state of Israel that trains the police that murder Black and Brown people in our streets and that break our strikes. When the IDF massacres Palestinians, they’re learning what they’ll teach “our” police.

It’s time for the biggest union federation in the U.S. to throw its full weight into the fight for Palestine: to call for a ceasefire now, for the end to every kind of aid to Israel — and for walkouts and strikes to grind the war machine to a halt.

The AFL-CIO belongs to us, to its union members, and we can push and shove the AFL-CIO to take a real stand. We’ll do it with our own weapons as rank and filers. We can take the cue of students countrywide and walk out en masse from our workplaces, and join the protests in the streets. We can take the lead of protesters in Oakland and refuse to do any labor that will assist Israel in getting weapons, ammunition, or any supplies. We can call for and win resolutions for ceasefire in our union locals, state bodies, and in our union nationals, as dozens of unions have done already. 

Workers are standing up in a historic moment. We can help stop the bombs on Gaza, we can help shut off the spigot of guns and money for Israel’s genocidal violence. Let’s make the AFL-CIO join the fight.

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Jason Koslowski

Jason is a contingent college teacher and union organizer who lives in Philadelphia.

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