Two weeks before Christmas, New York’s Saks Fifth Avenue played Scrooge by firing 115 workers in its cosmetics department in retaliation for their having joined a union.
Saks then announced it would convert the department to a “vendor-staffed model,” i.e. an outside contractor would hire new workers and employ them at reduced wages and benefits – and, of course, no union.
A union representative called Saks’ move "a legal travesty and a moral outrage."
I couldn’t agree more. I could hear workers saying to each other, “Those are OUR jobs they’re stealing!” This sense of entitlement, of fury at the bosses having stolen jobs that they’ve labored long and hard at for minimal reward, is a crucial factor in maintaining a struggle for as long as it takes to win back what’s “ours.”
Such outrages are all too common when workers organize to protect their rights. But what made this story stand out among the hundreds of similar outrages I scanned through on the web recently was the name of the union the Saks workers had joined: the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union.
RWDSU has been doing some interesting organizing recently among [email protected] workers in New York. But if the union gets any press these days it’s more often because of the reactionary policies of its president, Stuart Appelbaum – specifically his scabbing on the struggles of Palestinian workers and farmers.
While unions around the world began standing with Palestinian workers over the last few years by joining the global movement to boycott Israel and to demand an end to military and economic aid to Israel, Appelbaum, who is also head of the Jewish Labor Committee, was organizing fellow union presidents in the US to sign a letter opposing the efforts of their union sisters and brothers abroad.
He even set up a new organization, Trade Unions Linking Israel and Palestine (TULIP), to promote such scabbing on an ongoing basis.
Ironically, what’s kept the struggle of Palestinians going for so many decades is exactly the same sense of entitlement, of moral outrage at having been robbed of what’s “ours,” that Appelbaum’s members at Saks justifiably feel.
When, before the Zionist state’s founding, Palestinian workers were repeatedly thrown out of their jobs in a drive for “Hebrew labor,” Palestinian workers no doubt said to each other, “But those are OUR jobs!”
In 1948, the overwhelming majority of Palestinians were driven out of towns and villages their families had lived and worked in for countless generations. And as they sat in wretched camps just across the border and watched Zionist settlers farm soil they had only recently been expelled from, they said, “But they’re farming OUR land!”
When the same ethnic cleansing happened again to Palestinians who had resettled in the West Bank and Gaza in 1967 – and goes on today in Sheikh Jarrah and other neighborhoods in Jerusalem, and wherever else settlers feel like stealing land – the same refrain has been voiced once again.
When Palestinians organized the first Intifada, Zionist employers, in a very Saks-like move, fired in retaliation the overwhelming majority of Palestinian workers laboring inside pre-1967 Israel, replacing them with immigrant workers from various Asian countries.
A year ago the Zionist regime, with weapons mostly made in and paid for by the U.S., massacred 1,400 Gazans – the majority of them refugees who had in previous decades been kicked out of their homes and jobs in pre-1967 Israel.
To anyone who believes in the old labor slogan, “An Injury to One is an Injury to All,” there would seem to be a clear case for solidarity between workers in the US, like those fighting right now at Saks, and in Palestine, who’ve suffered exactly the same kind of moral outrages and been robbed of what they’d worked so hard for and were historically entitled to. In fact the case for such solidarity is stronger than ever these days, given the global economic crisis, for Israel’s relationship to the US is just that of the cosmetics vendor to Saks writ large: Israel has always been a subcontractor employed by Washington to protect its interests in one particular outpost of its empire – an empire now slowly slipping out of its grasp.
Appelbaum, however, is part of a union officialdom which is blind to the case for solidarity, a union officialdom which traditionally sides with its own employers against the struggles of its workers (while occasionally venting against the more “unreasonable” bosses, like Saks), and which also traditionally does the same in alliance with its own government against liberation struggles of workers around the world.
Fortunately unions in other countries are taking new steps to stop this scabbing on the Palestinian struggle. At the conclusion of the recent Gaza Freedom March, participants issued the “Cairo Declaration,” which, thanks to the initiative taken by South African trade unionists, has a heavy focus on labor solidarity with Palestine.
The Declaration projects “an international speaking tour in the first 6 months of 2010 by Palestinian and South African trade unionists and civil society activists, to be joined by trade unionists and activists committed to this programme within the countries toured, to take mass education on BDS directly to the trade union membership and wider public internationally.”
It also calls for a “systematic unified approach to the boycott of Israeli products, involving consumers, workers and their unions in the retail, warehousing, and transportation sectors” — just those sectors in which the RWDSU (and its parent union, the United Food and Commercial Workers) has its base.
The Declaration also calls for “campaigns to encourage divestment of trade union and other pension funds from companies directly implicated in the Occupation and/or the Israeli military industries.”
In explaining how its initiators hope the Declaration will be implemented, spokesperson Greg Dropkin said “We don’t just want to tell people, ‘Don’t buy Israeli vegetables’; we want to go to the workers who are involved in selling these vegetables. We want to go to the people who are running the warehouses where they’re stored [and] to the people who are transporting them.”
That means going to workers like those at Saks.
Supporters of labor rights, from New York to Palestine, will stand by the Saks workers when they say “We want OUR jobs back!” – regardless of the scabbing of their President on other struggles.
But we also want to begin a conversation with those workers, and other members of the RWDSU and of all US unions, about why it’s in their own interest to stand by Palestinian workers and farmers who have said for decades – and will continue saying until victory – “We want OUR jobs and lands back!”
An injury to one is an injury to all!
(See also http://palestineconference.org/wp/2009/12/14/labor-for-palestine/ for an Open Letter to Richard Trumka by Labor for Palestine which explores these issues in more depth.)
Andrew Pollack is a member of Al-Awda NY: The Palestine Right to Return Coalition, and former member of District 65 (itself a former affiliate of RWDSU).