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Unionizing solidarity with Palestine: Support grows for BDS among grassroots labor movement


“We, representatives of Palestinian civil society, call upon international civil society organizations and people of conscience all over the world to impose broad boycotts and implement divestment initiatives against Israel.” This call for solidarity was issued in July 2005 by hundreds of Palestinian organizations, including all major trade unions. Systematic land confiscation, mass incarceration, house demolition, and routine attacks that leave hundreds of civilians dead have become part and parcel of daily life in Israel-occupied Palestine. The US-sponsored “peace talks” merely readjusted Israel’s occupation strategy: instead of deploying its army inside Palestinian cities and towns, Israel now surrounds them with checkpoints and walls; hinders Palestinians’ ability to work, study, and travel; and ensures that Palestine remains economically dependent on Israel. Recognizing that Israel has used negotiations to normalize and sustain the occupation, Palestinian civil society adopted the non-violent strategy of Boycott, Divest and Sanctions (BDS) against its oppressor.

Compared to its international counterparts, the U.S. labor movement has been slow to embrace BDS. Michael Letwin, co-founder of the solidarity group Labor for Palestine, suggests this is the product of the American labor movement’s historical and continuing institutional support for Israel. The major US trade unions, Letwin says, have hundreds of millions of dollars in pension funds that are invested in Israel. Senior union leaders, in fear of alienating the Democratic Party and other political allies, frequently denounce BDS and criticize their counterparts around the world who support it.

On the grassroots level, however, things look different. This summer, hundreds of US labor leaders and organizers signed on to Labor for Palestine’s BDS statement. To add to these inspiring developments, on December 4th, UAW 2865, a union that represents 13,000 student workers across nine University of California campuses, will become the first U.S. union to hold a membership vote on joining the BDS movement. Similarly encouraging are recent solidarity actions in the San Francisco Bay Area, which show that, despite the ambivalence among some union leadership, rank-and-filers do not hesitate to stand in solidarity with the oppressed.

This August, during five days and four nights of demonstrations at the Port of Oakland, a diverse group of pro-Palestine and social justice activists under the banner of the Block the Boat coalition picketed several berths where the Israeli cargo ship Zim Piraeus attempted to dock. Activists returned to the port whenever workers were dispatched to unload it—in some cases in the middle of the night. Their numbers, which fluctuated between dozens and thousands, were not always sufficient to physically block all entrances to the vessel. Yet the action succeeded due to the support of Oakland’s longshoremen, members of the International Longshore Workers Union (ILWU) Local 10, who refused to cross the community picket lines. Even when police surrounded and split protestors on multiple occasions, workers refused to proceed and unload the ship. The ship eventually left port, unable to unload most of its cargo.

Israel’s massacre of more than 2,000 Palestinians this summer enraged Samantha Levens, an ILWU marine division rank-and-file member. Upon hearing that community members were organizing to block the Israeli liner, she prepared information fliers and distributed them to the longshoremen. “We weren’t saying ‘don’t handle the cargo,’” Levens says. “We were just giving information about the issue: what happened during the South African apartheid, the history of ILWU honoring community picket lines, and the position of international unions on the situation in Gaza.” The longshoremen’s reaction was positive. Even on the third and fourth days of picketing, she says, when members were eager to go back to work, “I mostly saw people becoming more supportive.”

Lifelong longshoreman, ILWU member, and activist Clarence Thomas explains: “I can’t be silent on these issues. I’m sure that there are longshoremen in Gaza who haven’t been doing work in decades. Isn’t it ironic that ships can go as they please into ports in Israel, but can’t come into Gaza?” Solidarity, Thomas says, is a key value in labor activism: “Politics is one thing, but the aspiration and the communality of the working class is something else,” he says, citing numerous solidarity actions ILWU has taken since the 1930s against oppressive regimes throughout the world. “As an African American man, I don’t have any difficulty relating to the plight of the Palestinian people,” he says. “I know what it means to be racially profiled and to be targeted by a militarized police. I’ve been pulled over many times. I had police guns pointed at me. I understand this phenomenon.”

The strong parallels between state and racial oppression in Palestine and the US, respectively, are at the foundation of ILWU Local 10’s policy of not crossing community picket lines. “We will not work under armed police escort—not with our experience with the police in this community,” said Local 10 president Melvin MacKay, referring to the police’s violent dispersal of anti-Iraq war pickets in 2003. “This action was always about building worker-community solidarity,” assesses Reem Assil, one of the organizers of the port actions. “We hope to use it as an impetus for us to deepen work in educating workers about the issue and connecting it to their personal conditions.”

Following the successful pickets in August, a second ship, the Zim Shanghai, again encountered community picket lines when it docked at the Port of Oakland on October 25. Once again, ILWU longshoremen stood down. As the first shifts to unload the Zim Shanghai were being met with pickets, all but one longshoremen refused to even take a job working the ship. The Shanghai left port without loading or unloading any cargo, thanks to the decision of ILWU rank-and-file members to once more respect a community picket line. When the Zim Beijing, a third ship scheduled to unload at the Port of Oakland, faced similar plans by the Block The Boat coalition in October, the ship diverted to avoid another humiliating defeat at the hands of a determined coalition of social justice activists and rank-and-file union members. With Block the Boat actions now spreading to other ports, it’s difficult to see how Israel will weather the growing storm of BDS.

Palestine solidarity is gaining traction among academic workers too. This July, UAW Local 2865, which represents over 13,000 University of California student workers, took an important step towards joining the international BDS movement. In a public letter posted on the union’s website, the UAW 2865 Joint Council (which includes 83 elected officers) declared its commitment “to support our Palestinian counterparts.” The joint council pledged to bring a comprehensive BDS proposal to a general membership vote this year, a proposal that would include a call for academic boycott of institutions profiting from Israeli occupation and human rights abuses. In addition to soliciting its members’ commitment to cut contact with such institutions, the union would also call on the UC system and UAW International to divest from companies complicit in the occupation.

This endorsement comes as no surprise: in the past few years, UAW 2865 has joined numerous struggles against oppression, including Occupy protests, UC student protests against fee-hikes, and last year’s strike by UC custodians. Recently, it negotiated unprecedented protections for its undocumented immigrant members, queer and trans members, parents, and others.

In the midst of Israel’s bombing of Gaza, the union’s social justice committee carefully worded the call for BDS, outlining in detail the different dimensions of the Israeli occupation. They cited Israel’s refusal to recognize Palestinian refugees’ rights as indigenous people (specifically, their right to return to their land), the system of apartheid that Israel enforces in the West Bank and Gaza, and the second-class status of Israel’s Palestinian citizens. The letter also mentions the connection between Israel’s military industry and ethnic cleansing, the suppression of popular movements, and the oppression and criminalization of people all over the world. Concluding by quoting Desmond Tutu’s “hope for a time when there are universal rights for all humans regardless of ethnicity, gender, or national, origin,” the letter emphasizes that BDS does not target the Jewish people but instead targets Israel as “a colonial-apartheid state.” The letter further highlights the unequivocal support BDS receives from Jewish organizations such as Jewish Voice for Peace and the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network. In fact, a few days after the letter’s publication, more than forty current and former Jewish UAW 2865 members publicly endorsed this BDS call.

The date for the general UAW 2865 membership vote has been set for December 4th. The official ballot language adopted by the Joint Council includes a single yes or no vote on whether the union should call on the US government to end military aid to Israel, and call on the University of California and UAW International to “divest…from Israeli state institutions and international companies complicit in severe and ongoing human rights violations as part of the Israeli oppression of the Palestinian people”. The ballot also includes a checkbox where members can pledge to refuse to “take part in any research, conferences, events, exchange programs, or other activities that are sponsored by Israeli universities complicit in the occupation of Palestine and the settler-colonial policies of the state of Israel”. The Joint Council also adopted several documents to educate members about the issues and explain the rationale for the vote; these include a BDS FAQ page, an academic boycott fact sheet, and a labor movement statement.

As in other social justice struggles, mobilization for BDS concerns not just Palestinian rights, but also the right of workers to act and express themselves politically. Purporting to represent UC Jewish students, several Zionist organizations have petitioned UC President Janet Napolitano, alleging that the Joint Council’s solidarity with Palestine creates “a hostile anti-Semitic environment” for Jewish students. Many Jewish students, however, find such allegations to be spurious and see the claims as dishonest attempts to silence criticism.The BDS movement is a fundamentally anti-racist movement, one that opposes racism in all of its forms, including and especially anti-Semitism. The President’s office has yet to respond to the petition, and one can only hope that Napolitano’s tenure will not add to her abysmal human rights record both as Governor of Arizona and Homeland Security Secretary.

The success of Oakland’s Block the Boat makes clear the centrality of organized labor to the global movement for Palestinian freedom. This, and the upcoming UAW 2865 vote on BDS, signal a sea change in US labor’s willingness to be complicit in apartheid and ethnic cleansing. As the larger Palestine solidarity movement picks up steam, we can expect the grassroots labor mobilization for Palestine to bear greater and greater fruits, until Israeli apartheid is no more.

Alborz Ghandehari, David McCleary, Kumars Salehi and Tory Webster

Alborz Ghandehari is a graduate student at UC San Diego; Tory Webster is a graduate student at UC Davis; Kumars Salehi and David McCleary are graduate students at UC Berkeley. All are UAW 2865 rank-and-file members and members of the UAW 2865 BDS Caucus. Tory and Alborz are also elected officers of the UAW 2865 Joint Council. Kumars and David participated in the Block the Boat protests in Oakland.

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6 Responses

  1. just on November 7, 2014, 7:41 am

    This is tremendous news– so exciting, so right, and so normal!

    Many thanks to ILWU Local 10 for your devotion to justice, and thanks to you guys– who “are UAW 2865 rank-and-file members and members of the UAW 2865 BDS Caucus”!!!

    As in many other things, California leads the way!

  2. Kay24 on November 7, 2014, 9:16 am

    These guys are so impressive. I would not have really expected this initiative from a group like the ILWU. A welcome move indeed. There are so many labor unions around the country, who can take this example, and speak out for oppression, in ways to hit the occupier where it hurts.
    I think the rest of the world can take this example too.

  3. Keith on November 7, 2014, 6:32 pm

    While it is always nice to see that there are some progressive union members at the local, grass roots level, let us not kid ourselves into thinking that the AFL-CIO is a supporter of human rights. The AFL-CIO and most of the international unions are staunch supporters of empire and have an extremely sordid history of sabotaging progressive unions overseas as well as working closely with the Sate Department and CIA to destabilize targeted countries, Chavez in Venezuela one of many incidents, albeit an unsuccessful one. I have no doubt that these efforts continue. Likewise, the AFL-CIO subservient loyalty to both the Democratic Party and to Zionist Israel is unlikely to change anytime soon.

  4. traintosiberia on November 9, 2014, 1:06 pm

    Israel is shutting down business operations in US .They are making threats on FACEBOOK. BDS hasnt ever made threats .

    Mondoweiss has covered the Kitchen Cuisine politics of Pennysylvania . But it is already being lumoed with anti American activity

    Here is Guardian (UK)
    -A Pittsburgh restaurant which caused a stir by printing what critics called “anti-Israel messages” on its food wrappers has closed after receiving death threats.

    According to its mission statement Conflict Kitchen, in the collegiate Oakland neighbourhood, “only serves cuisine from countries with which the United States is in conflict” and “rotates identities every few months in relation to current geopolitical events”. Run by Jon Rubin, an artist, it had been serving Palestinian food and hosting events, discussions and performances since 6 October.

    On Friday a statement posted to the restaurant’s Facebook page said: “We have received a letter today containing death threats and we will be closed until the credibility of the letter can be established by the Pittsburgh police. We hope to reopen shortly.”

    By Sunday, Pittsburgh police had not commented on the validity or otherwise of the threat, which was reported to have been sent to them rather than to the restaurant.

    Earlier in the week the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that conservative and pro-Israel groups were questioning the propriety of a $50,000 grant to the restaurant from Heinz Endowments, made in 2013. Heinz Endowments, which is headquartered in Pittsburgh, is chaired by Teresa Heinz Kerry. Heinz Kerry is the wife of US secretary of state John Kerry, who has led attempts to broker a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinian territories.

    • just on November 10, 2014, 3:27 am


      Americans, please WAKE UP.

      • American on November 10, 2014, 9:05 am

        I think featuring our new US Zionist ruling elite on msm cable news for all Americans to see and hear might wake them up to the Israel Fifth Column.
        Read the comments on the WP article.

        Billionaires Adelson and Saban, at odds in campaigns, unite on Israel and hit Obama – The Washington Post –

        “The billionaire political kingmakers planning to bankroll much of the 2016 presidential campaign spoke out together on Sunday with blunt warnings on key issues for their respective parties. Haim Saban, a media mogul and close Democratic ally of Hillary Rodham Clinton, criticized President Obama’s outreach to Iran, declaring that “we’ve shown too many carrots and a very small stick.””

        “Adelson, 81, and Saban, 70, have gained enormous political power in the new era of super PACs and unlimited contributions, and both made it clear during a rare joint appearance Sunday before an audience of several hundred Israeli Americans that they intend to assert that power during the next presidential campaign and beyond with policy demands for their candidates. In particular, they vowed to press both sides for a more hawkish approach to the Middle East.”

        Appearing before a new group called the Israeli American Council, both men issued a call for unity when it comes to support for the Jewish state, reminding all prospective presidential candidates of the primacy of the U.S.-Israel relationship. And they agreed that Obama and his administration have not been tough enough in protecting Israel’s interests.”

        Saban said that he thinks Clinton would repair the relationship and that he has told her he would spend “whatever it takes” to propel her into the White House. That includes giving millions of dollars to Priorities USA, a super PAC that helped Obama in 2012 and is revving up to aid Clinton in 2016.”

        “Onstage, Shawn Evenhaim, the national chairman of the Israeli American Council, posed provocative questions to both billionaires. Adelson sat to Evenhaim’s right, Saban to his left — although, as Saban joked, “there’s no right or left when it comes to Israel.””

        “A reminder of Adelson and Saban’s outsize influence in presidential politics came when Evenhaim wrapped up Sunday’s event. “After the election in 2016,” he told them, “one of you will get me a private tour of the White House.””

        Major Democratic Donor: Israel Should “Bomb The Daylights” Out Of Iran –

        “Major Democratic donor Haim Saban said on Sunday that if he were running Israel he would “bomb the living daylights” out of Iran if the current nuclear negotiations produce a bad deal for Israel.

        *Glenn Greenwald: So much to say about this, but ultimately, it all speaks for itself:…
        Chemi Shalev: Saban says he’s “tried everything” to try to influence anti-Israel reporting in newspapers “including threats”

        *MJ (Mike) Rosenberg: After watching Bernie Sanders defending Israel’s slaughter of innocents in Gaza, I have no use for him.

        *David Sheen: “Adelson…said Israel wouldn’t be able to survive as a democracy…adding…democracy…isn’t mentioned in the Torah .

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