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Uniting Workers for Palestine Is a Fight for the Future of Labor

The struggle for Palestine shows the potential for the rank and file to push unions to break with imperialism and to build a new, combative, and internationalist unionism.

Tatiana Cozzarelli

November 27, 2023
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Protesters in NYC for Palestinian liberation.

The brutality of the siege in Gaza is almost unfathomable. Hospitals, refugee camps, and schools bombed. Over 14,000 killed. Tens of thousands injured. Although we are in the midst of a four-day pause — one in which the Israeli state has been shooting and brutalizing Palestinians anyway — the brutality of the apartheid ethnostate of Israel, based on the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians, remains firmly in place.

Millions around the world are denouncing this brutality, with massive protests in the Middle East, actions that defy bans on protests in Germany and France, and massive mobilizations in the UK. We are in the midst of a global movement for Palestine that is shaking the U.S. regime to its core. Over 100,000 people recently mobilized in Washington, DC, for Palestine, and national days of action are bringing out hundreds of thousands across the country. The student movement on campuses is reminiscent of the student movements against the war in Vietnam and against apartheid South Africa, which played a significant role in ending both.

Sixty-six percent of people in the U.S. support some kind of ceasefire, not a four-day pause. Meanwhile, the Democrats and Republicans are negotiating even more funding for the state of Israel. Faith in the Democrats and in Biden is plummeting, especially among young people and Arab Americans, which could affect Biden’s chances of winning in November 2024. For millions of people, these polls highlight that our electeds do not represent the will of the people and that an end to the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians depends on our actions.

The labor movement has a central role to play in the fight to end the siege in Gaza, as well as against the U.S. financing of Israel, an end to the occupation, and for a free Palestine. Labor has a strategic role to play in its ability to shut down the point of production, but that is precisely why labor leadership has long held ties to the Democratic Party and to imperialism, and seeks to stop anti-war labor organizing: to stop the disruptive and even revolutionary potential that the working class holds.

In a moment when labor is resurgent and there are numerous strikes, the struggle to mobilize the labor movement for Palestine is, in many ways, the struggle for the future of the labor movement. It is a fight to forge a new labor movement that is based on class-struggle unionism, not business unionism, and on working-class internationalism, not nationalism and chauvinism. The fight for labor to take up the struggle for Palestine is the struggle to strengthen the movement for Palestine, as well as a struggle for labor to break with the top-down leadership that has betrayed workers for decades.

In other words, this is a moment to forge ahead with a new combative chapter of the U.S. labor movement — which is in the interests of U.S. workers, as well as the movement for Palestine.

U.S. Labor Is Starting to Stand with Palestine

The working class is central to the struggle against the siege and for a free Palestine. In addition to speaking out against the genocide, our unions should demand that the U.S. stop funding the state of Israel — especially now that Biden has requested $14 billion more, in addition to the $3.3 billion sent yearly. This means highlighting our solidarity with Palestinians, as well denouncing the lack of funding for social services in the United States. There is always money for imperialism, but not for addressing the dire conditions of our hospitals, schools, and public services, or to forgive student debt or provide Medicare for all.

It’s also essential that our unions defend our right to speak out against the genocide in Palestine, against equating anti-Zionism with antisemitism. We’ve seen McCarthyist attacks on workers around the country, and certainly there is an atmosphere of fear and intimidation. We need our unions to defend our right to free speech and to stand up for Palestine.

Although unions have been severely diminished under neoliberalism, they are still the largest organizations of the working class, organizing 14 million people. If our unions mobilized even a fraction of their memberships to the streets, it would play a central role in massifying the movement for Palestine. And, of course, the working class stands at the choke points of the capitalist economy.

While most unions have not come out on the side of Palestine, there are countless rank-and-file caucuses and sectors of workers who have passed ceasefire and free Palestine resolutions.

The newly formed Starbucks Workers United, which is a product of the recent years of unionization at over 300 Starbucks locations, in a statement titled “Starbucks Stands with Palestine,” declared, “Members of Starbucks Workers United stand in solidarity with the Palestinian people’s right to self determination. … We condemn the occupation, displacement, state violence, apartheid and threats of genocide Palestinians face.” As a result, the Starbucks company is suing the union, but SBWU is holding strong. Starbucks workers even cosponsored their “Red Cup Day” strike actions with Jewish Voice for Peace, linking the struggle for Palestine with the struggle for their contract.

Other statements include teachers in the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers, the Chicago Teachers Union, the Massachusetts Teachers Association, and the San Antonio Alliance of Teachers and Support Personnel. It includes United Electrical (UE) and the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 3000, which initiated a call for a ceasefire, as well as the American Postal Workers Union, which released a statement calling for a ceasefire.

In addition to unions taking a stand, numerous ad hoc groups of workers have also been formed. A group called Healthcare Workers for Palestine garnered over 4,500 signatures on its statement and has created a network around the country.

The big union leaderships have sided unequivocally with Israel. In an official statement, the AFL-CIO scolded the Palestinian people and did not acknowledge the 75-year occupation of Palestine. It silenced a Washington State labor council that criticized the AFL-CIO’s statement and called for a ceasefire, and it sent an email “reminding” affiliates that they are barred from taking positions contrary to those of the AFL-CIO.

American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten issued a statement saying that “we unequivocally stand with the Israeli people” and that the AFT welcomed “Biden’s swift response.” It even said, “Israel has every right to defend itself as it will now do” — in other words, supporting the genocide.

And the Connecticut State Council of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) fired it’s executive director, Kooper Caraway, after he made comments at a rally in support of Palestine, joining the McCarthyist witch hunt against activists standing up against genocide. Rather than protecting us from this new McCarthyism, the SEIU is joining in.

In this sense, there is a clear division. The biggest union leaderships align with Zionism, while growing sectors of the rank and file, along with unions where the rank and file is mobilized and has the most power, are aligned with a ceasefire and with Palestine.

Labor Has a Strategic Role to Play in Supporting Palestine

The power of the labor movement is not just in our ability to make statements or to mobilize people to take the streets — although thus far, the U.S. labor movement should do more of both.

But the real power of the labor movement is in the ability to shut down production and distribution — to strike. The working class makes everything run. As Lenin explains in “On Strikes,”

All wheels stand still, if your mighty arm wills it,” a German workers’ song says of the working class. And so it is in reality: the factories, the landlords’ land, the machines, the railways, etc., etc., are all like wheels in a giant machine — the machine that extracts various products, processes them, and delivers them to their destination. The whole of this machine is set in motion by the worker who tills the soil, extracts ores, makes commodities in the factories, builds houses, work shops, and railways. When the workers refuse to work, the entire machine threatens to stop.

Strikes stop the flow of capitalist profits, the flow of business as usual, and bring the whole system to its knees.

Palestinian labor unions have long understood this and put out a statement calling on unions around the world to stand with Palestine:

As Israel escalates its military campaign, Palestinian trade unions call on our counterparts internationally and all people of conscience to end all forms of complicity with Israel’s crimes — most urgently halting the arms trade with Israel, as well as all funding and military research.

If the working class of the world decided it, no arms would be sent to Israel. The working class has the power to do that. Nothing moves without workers.

We’ve already seen unions refusing arms shipments to Israel around the world, from Italy to Belgium. India’s Central Trade Union Organizations, which represents 100 million workers, issued a statement that they would refuse to plan to “export” Indian workers to replace Palestinian workers.

In the United States, there is a history of unions taking these kinds of actions. The International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), in large part as the result of numerous Trotskyist and anarchist members pushing for labor actions against imperialism, has taken solidarity actions in the past. Local 10 of the ILWU engaged in an 11-day action in 1984 that refused to unload South African auto parts, steel, and wine. In 2008, the ILWU shut down West Coast ports for the day with the slogan “No peace, no work.”

Workers have also stood up to labor Zionism. In 1973, Arab American workers in Detroit auto plants walked off the job in protest of the UAW’s investment in bonds from the state of Israel. UAW Local 600, which represented Ford workers, had purchased 300,000 in Israeli bonds using money from dues. The UAW owned $1 million in Israeli bonds.

We can do that again. McDonald’s and Starbucks workers could shut it down to divest from the state of Israel. The UAW, which just won major gains, could unite autoworkers and graduate students in a struggle to divest from Israel. This time, we would unite Arab Americans with anti-Zionist Jewish people, as well as the Black Lives Matter generation, which is mobilizing right now for Palestine. University workers and students could walk out and call for divesting our universities from Israel.

And workers can do more than shut it down. The working class produces — and can produce for Palestine. Imagine if workers who make medical supplies demanded that those supplies get shipped to Gaza. If instead of shipping arms to Israel, workers coordinated to ship food and the supplies needed? This is the power of the working class, and it is precisely this power that the capitalists want to rein in — using the union bureaucracy, the agents of capital in the ranks of the working class.

Zionism Is Not in the Interests of the Global Working Class, but Fighting for Palestine Is

It is important to understand that fighting Zionism is in the interests of the working class. The Zionist state of Israel is in the interests of capital; it is not in the interests of workers. The state of Israel was created by imperialist powers after World War II to act as a stronghold for Western imperialist interests in the region. Zionism serves to not only ethnically cleanse Palestinians from their land, but also to create a hyperexploited Palestinian working class, both in Gaza and the West Bank, as well as in the Israeli state. Palestinian workers who have permits to work in the Israeli state are not allowed to join the Histadrut, the largest labor union in Israel, and are not allowed to access benefits and are paid less than the legal minimum wage. Yet many are forced to pay an “organization fee” to Histadrut. In this context, the general strike in May 2021, which united Palestinian workers in Gaza, the West Bank, and Israel, was significant, demonstrating a unified Palestinian labor movement.

The leaders of Histadrut went to great lengths to break any attempts at unity between Arab and Jewish workers. In the 1920s, the Union of Railway, Postal and Telegraph Workers was founded by Arabs and Jews together, although Zionists linked to Histadrut’s leadership undermined it. In the early 1930s, Arabs and Jews went on strike together as well, once again with Histadrut fostering divisions and providing privileges to Jewish workers to ensure divisions and to foster reactionary, racist Zionist sentiments among the Israeli workers.

To this day, although most Israeli workers are reactionary Zionists, indoctrinated into the ideology developed by and for the capitalist Zionist state, they too are exploited and will be policed and repressed by the IDF if they stand up for their labor rights, if they refuse military service, and, most certainly, if they stand up on the side of Palestine. In the past weeks, we have already seen a crackdown against Israeli Jewish people who talk about a ceasefire or of ending the brutality in Gaza. Just as many sectors of the Black movement in the U.S. struggled to break the racist white working class with racism, so too we must have the perspective of breaking a sector of the Israeli working class with Zionism and fighting for a free socialist Palestine.

And the Zionist state of Israel is an enemy to workers around the world: Israel stands against all uprisings of the working-class and oppressed masses in the region and in the world — from standing against the Iranian revolution, to supporting the military dictatorship in Chile, to helping to train U.S. police who repressed protesters in the Black Lives Matter movement. As we know, if working-class and oppressed people in the U.S. stand up, we will be repressed by police trained by Israelis. Rather, our interests are with the working class and oppressed people in Palestine, who sent words of advice to BLM activists to deal with tear gas.

“AFL-CIA,” Business Unionism, and Labor Zionism

The “labor imperialism” of U.S. unions is an old phenomenon: Samuel Gompers’s American Federation of Labor (AFL) supported U.S. imperialism in World War I and stood against the Bolshevik Revolution. Union leaderships played a role in supporting U.S. imperialism in World War II, imposing no-strike clauses on a combative labor movement with the help of the Stalinist Communist Party.

After the mass purge of communists from labor in the late 1940s, and the fusion of the more radical CIO with the AFL in 1955, the groundwork was set for a stronger coordination between labor leadership and U.S. imperialism. Since then, the AFL-CIO has supported every major U.S. war, but has gone even further: it played a role in busting more progressive and left-leaning unions and supporting business unionism tied to bosses and to dictatorial governments.

The AFL-CIO has had strong ties to the CIA. The AFL’s Free Trade Union Committee (FTUC) was created in 1944 to subvert left-leaning and socialist led unions abroad. In 1949, it partnered with the CIA, which financed the group in exchange for passing over intelligence on foreign labor organizing. With the help of the FTUC, U.S. labor leaders attempted to subvert the Chinese Revolution, even sponsoring and funding terrorist attacks.

In Latin America, the American Institute for Free Labor Development (AIFLD), which was funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development, trained labor leaders to fight leftists in their unions. It aided military coups in Guatemala in 1955, in Brazil in 1964, and Chile in 1973.

The AFL-CIO supported the U.S. war in Vietnam (despite rank-and-file resistance), the Marcos dictatorship in the Philippines, apartheid leaders in South Africa, and more — that’s why it was known as the AFL-CIA. Nearly always, this was done unbeknownst to rank-and-file workers who did not decide, vote for, or agree with this approach.

Labor unions have long been tied to Zionism. While Jewish workers in the U.S. generally held anti-Zionist positions in the 1930s (as did most Jewish people around the world), U.S.-based labor unions played a central role in propping up the state of Israel, as well as building support for it in the labor movement. The AFL-CIO has hundreds of millions invested in Israeli state bonds, profiting from the occupation there; this is a sign of how closely the federation leaders see themselves, and act on behalf of, the state of Israel.

As Michael Letwin, Suzanne Adely, and Jaime Veve argue, “The Zionism of these labor officials was closely linked to their support for U.S. imperialism, anti-communism, and racism against workers of color in the United States. This was consistent with Israel’s self-proclaimed role as ‘watchdog’ for U.S. imperial interests. Meanwhile, nearly all of the U.S. labor Left mirrored the USSR’s indispensable support for establishment of the Israeli state. In the subsequent decades, U.S. trade union leaders across the political spectrum supported Israeli wars, charged ‘anti-Semitism’ against those who criticized Israel’s close alliance with apartheid South Africa, and bought huge quantities of State of Israel Bonds, which paralleled overall U.S. government economic and military support for the Israeli state.”

This is connected to the ties between union leaderships and the Democratic Party, which is a pillar of imperialism. Labor donated $167 million to the 2016 elections, as well as countless hours of canvassing and using their staffers and workers to organize for the Democrats. As Joe Burns explains in Class Struggle Unionism, “The reliance on the Democratic Party encourages moderation, support of U.S. corporate foreign policy, and cooperation with and a reliance upon the very government that is set up to protect the billionaire class.” Especially now, the Biden administration is concerned with “dealignment” of the working class — the fading support of workers for the Biden administration — and it is seeking to rebuild those connections. It is no wonder that in his address to the country on October 20, Biden framed building more weapons as a way to support U.S.-made industry and jobs.

Why Do Unions Side with Imperialism?

This history runs counter to the idea of unions as solely progressive advocates for workers. As Jeff Schuhrke writes, “That U.S. union leaders forged a secret alliance with the CIA to undemocratically divide unions overseas may justifiably be difficult to understand. But AFL leaders and the CIA shared the belief that Left-oriented unions were literally capable of bringing about proletarian revolution.”

Unions are part of what Gramsci calls “the integral state” — extensions of the state into civil society, meant to contain the independent action of the working class in a context in which a capitalist, imperialist system is in crisis and thus cannot raise the standard of living for workers. He argued that the supremacy of the capitalist system is maintained not only by what he called the “coercive state” — that is, by the “bodies of armed men” famously described by Friedrich Engels, acting to preserve the oppressive status quo through threatened or actual force — but also by “institutions of civil society,” institutions which “build hegemony” by creating consent among the oppressed and exploited. Among such institutions, Gramsci included churches, labor unions, and schools, and today, we would include nonprofit leaderships. Indeed, as we have seen, unions play a role in building hegemony for US imperialist enterprises.

Leon Trotsky highlights a similar dynamic in Trade Unions in the Epoch of Capitalist Decay. He explained,

Capitalism can continue to maintain itself only by lowering the standard of living of the working class. Under these conditions trade unions can either transform themselves into revolutionary organisations or become lieutenants of capital in the intensified exploitation of the workers. The trade union bureaucracy, which has satisfactorily solved its own social problem, took the second path. It turned all the accumulated authority of the trade unions against the socialist revolution and even against any attempts of the workers to resist the attacks of capital and reaction.

And this is precisely the role that the AFL CIO has played in the US and around the world– as the lieutenants of capital and against attempts in the US and abroad for socialists to play a leadership role in unions. The union bureaucracy, or rather the layer of well-paid union leaders disconnected from the everyday labor of workers, are on the side of the bosses, on the side of imperialism, and on the side of Zionism. It means union leaders make a conscious effort to build business unions: to pacify workers, to keep them tied to the interests of their bosses, and to run unions with little input from the rank and file. And if we look historically, anti-communism, top-down unionism, and union imperialism have gone hand in hand. This has not resulted in anything positive for U.S. labor. Rather, it has resulted in diminishing power, diminishing wages, and an erosion of unions to their lowest membership rates yet.

Does this mean giving up on unions? No. But it does mean fighting to remake unions as weapons of the working class, against the state and independent of the capitalist parties. Understanding the role of unions as part of the integral state helps us understand that the fight for combative unions at home is tied to the fight for internationalist and anti-imperialist unions; it’s part of the fight for independent unions that truly stand for workers. The struggle in our unions for Palestine is also a struggle to cut the ties between our unions and the Democratic Party. It’s also a struggle to democratize our unions, to promote rank-and-file discussion and decision-making.

There are inherent ties between business unionism, imperialism, and the Democratic Party, and we must counter it with democratic class-struggle unionism, internationalism, and international socialism.

Building a New Tradition in the Labor Movement

The labor movement is on the precipice of something new. Amid a labor upsurge, we are in a key moment to forge a new path for the U.S. labor movement. A sector of the working class has had key political experiences over the last decade, starting with Occupy Wall Street, with anger at the 1 percent. A few years later, we saw millions of people vote for Bernie Sanders — who expressed discontent with the capitalist class and the political establishment. Although Sanders represents progressive reforms to capitalism, he remains tied to the capitalist system and to the political regime. His politics refuse to break with U.S. imperialism, which is expressed in his failure to call for a ceasefire, much less stand against Zionism. Yet the millions of votes for Sanders did express a growing anger at the capitalists.

And, of course, the pandemic shaped the working class — who on one hand saw that we are essential, but as one EMT said, “When you realize your boss will kill you, it changes your relationship to work.”

The working class was also molded by the BLM movement, which brought millions of people into the streets against racism and highlighted the massive police budgets — thanks to this movement, we saw that there is always enough money for cops but never enough for people. Many participants in BLM are now denouncing the inflated military aid budget for Israel. The BLM movement created a new “intersectional” consciousness in the labor movement — especially in young sectors of labor, like Starbucks workers — who want their unions to take up fights for social justice. More and more people, especially young people in our unions, are questioning the old economistic common sense of unions and seeing the need for “bargaining for the common good” or even class-struggle unionism, as Joe Allen would put it.

We are in the midst of a wave of unionizations and some important strikes — from a wave of higher education strikes, to the writers and actors, to teachers to nurses to the autoworkers at the Big 3, who won a historic contract with some major gains. Workers all over the country are questioning tiered divisions of labor, questioning some of the divisions that became solidified under neoliberalism.

With that said, even a progressive and combative labor leadership does not guarantee a break with imperialism or a perspective of international class struggle. Shawn Fain, who notoriously wore an “eat the rich” shirt and gave strong speeches about class struggle, now appeared in a video essentially endorsing Joe Biden as the “a pro-labor” president, even as Biden supports a genocide in Gaza.

Independent Working-Class Politics against Capitalism and Imperialism

The labor movement is at a crossroads. As it becomes more combative — with increased strikes and the building of more unions — it must make a complete break with business unionism, imperialism, and the Democratic Party if it is to fight on the side of Palestine.

And as we witness all the rank-and-file resolutions and statements for Palestine, it is clear that there is so much potential for the rank and file to push our unions to break with imperialism.

But this will mean understanding, on the one hand, the potential of this political moment, and the connections between top-down unionism, the Democratic Party, and conciliation with the bosses and labor imperialism, on the other. Fighting labor imperialism means fighting all these pernicious elements in the labor movement.

Breaking with business unionism, imperialism, and the Democratic Party is not in contradiction with fighting for the bread and butter demands of the rank and file. Rather, it goes hand in hand; to really unleash the power of the working class, we must fight and defeat the same forces that constrain the labor movement from standing up for Palestine. It is one and the same fight.

Further, we must understand that labor leaders are going to steer us right back to the Democratic Party. Democrats and Republicans, Biden and Trump, represent genocide, imperialism, and brutality toward working-class and oppressed people in the U.S. and abroad. If we do not break with our union leaders and organize independently, have no doubt that they will lead us right back to politicians supporting the slaughter of Palestinians.

This means we must also provide a political perspective and political leadership. It means creating our own political organization, an international working-class party that fights for socialism– in the US and around the world, from Palestine to Mexico. An international political organization that fights for socialism in the United States, as well as a free secular socialist Palestine where Arabs, Jews and oppressed peoples can live in peace: a world without bosses, borders or imperialism. The international working class has the power to bring about this future, and we must organize to fight for it.

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Tatiana Cozzarelli

Tatiana is a former middle school teacher and current Urban Education PhD student at CUNY.

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