U.S. Union Support for Palestinian Rights Could Be a Game Changer
By Stanley Heller
On Oct. 29, the 200,000-strong Connecticut AFL-CIO passed a powerful resolution of support for Palestinian rights, calling on its national federation to join the campaign of boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israeli government abuses.
This is huge. Unions in South Africa, Britain, Ireland and other countries have long supported Palestinian rights, but leaders of national U.S. unions not only would not do so, they criticized unions in other countries for their stance. Back in 2007, a long list of leaders of U.S. international unions blasted British unions for supporting BDS. This came just a year after Israeli forces pounded Lebanon unmercifully, including dropping over a million cluster bombs on that country.
U.S. unions had long backed Israel. Part of it had to do with admiration for the success of the Israeli Histadrut federation. I remember being a young teacher unionist 40 years ago and going to a weekend training session at the University of Connecticut. I was awed by stories of the Histadrut and what it had accomplished. We were told it represented the overwhelming number of workers in Israel. It owned a bank, a newspaper, industrial companies and the company that provided most workers’ health benefits. Its close partner, the Labour Party, had headed the government for decades. We had nothing like that in our U.S. unions and could only gape in admiration. As you might imagine, we were told nothing about Palestinian workers.
U.S. unions supported Israel in concrete ways, especially by buying State of Israel Bonds, lending money to the country that could be used for any purpose. In 2008, the Jewish Post claimed 1,700 unions had purchased Israel Bonds over the years. The total amount of bonds held at any one time is a closely guarded secret, though the Jewish Post story said the Israel Bonds’ Labor Division had sold $30 million worth of bonds that year.
In 2010, the secretary-treasurer of the American Federation of Teachers said that it owned $300,000 of the bonds. Over and above that, unions never protested as their treasurers used state and city worker pension money to buy Israel Bonds. That gave critical support to Israel, because the amounts are probably in the many hundreds of millions (over $100 million in Ohio alone).
U.S. union support for Israel hit a major bump in 1985. That year, a dispute prompted the AFL-CIO to threaten to tell its affiliates to sell off their bonds immediately and to call for a travel ban on Israel. The dispute had nothing to do with treatment of Palestinians. The AFL-CIO issued the threat because El Al, the Israeli government-owned airline, had treated members of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers shabbily at Kennedy Airport. The workers struck and had been out for 15 months. Eventually, a settlement was arranged and the threat was lifted.
The most dramatic effort to get a union to stop support of Israel took place in Detroit, which at one time had a large number of Arab autoworkers. In a Socialist Worker article in 2011, Michael Letwin wrote, “On October 14, 1973, just eight days after Israel provoked its fourth war in 25 years, 3,000 Arab autoworkers in Detroit held a wildcat (unofficial) strike and [marched] to protest UAW Local 600’s purchase, without membership approval, of $300,000 in Israel Bonds.” The effort was unsuccessful.
The onetime leaders of the PLO—known as the Palestinian Authority since the 1993 Oslo Accords—were endlessly involved in the fruitless “peace process.” Palestinian working people and professionals took a different tack. In 2005, scores of Palestinian “civil society” groups called for BDS in a public statement. British, Irish and South African unions responded positively, but the call had no immediate effect on U.S. labor.
In Connecticut in 2006, a number of us brought up the question of Israel Bonds at a state AFL-CIO convention. It was a small amount of money— $25,000 in bonds—but we were anxious about what kind of reaction we’d get by raising the issue. Happily, we received very little grief and some active support. A couple of years later, the New Haven Central Labor Council called on the state federation to sell off the bonds and invest in U.S. companies. In 2010, the bonds of the state federation matured and no new ones were purchased—a small but satisfying victory.
It should be mentioned that one thing that had changed over the decades was that U.S. labor was no longer in awe of the Histadrut. Decades of right-wing governments in Israel had forced privatizations and stripped the Israeli union of its newspaper, its health benefits company, its factories and so on. The Histadrut was weak, and Israel, which had been extremely equalitarian (as far as Jewish workers were concerned), became one of the most unequal developed countries in the world.
Activists in New York City raised the issue of labor support for Israel from time to time. In 2011, Labor for Palestine picketed the appearance of Denis Hughes, then head of the New York state AFL-CIO, at an Israel Bonds award dinner in Manhattan where he was being honored.In recent years, efforts involving BDS and labor were led by people affiliated with one remarkable Connecticut church, the First Congregational Church of Old Lyme, in a small town along the Connecticut River. After the 2001 World Trade Center attack, church members realized that what was happening in the Holy Land was something they had to look into, so they sent a delegation to Palestine/Israel to investigate. They’ve sent delegations each year since, and they formed a Tree of Life Educational Fund to educate Americans about Palestine. This year they held more than 15 sessions in places as varied as Oberlin, Ohio; Portland, Ore.; and mostly Jewish Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass. The Old Lyme church leaders also took the lead in convincing the national synod of the million-strong United Church of Christ to vote overwhelmingly for BDS measures.
They quietly engaged with Connecticut unions, first persuading union activists to attend their conferences, then arranging in 2013 for Mahmoud Abu Odeh, a representative of the Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions, to speak at the state AFL-CIO convention. For nearly a year they worked to get a delegation of Connecticut unionists to visit Palestine/Israel, a trip that took place in September. The delegation included John Olsen, who had led the federation as president for decades and visited Israel many times. He was shocked at what he saw, particularly the lines of thousands of workers who had gotten up at 2 a.m. to stand at checkpoints for hours in hopes of being able to work inside of Israel.
Around the same time this was going on, one national U.S. union joined the BDS movement. The United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America voted to do so by resolution at its convention in August. The union stated that it “endorses the BDS movement and urges the union at all levels to become engaged in BDS and the movement for peace, justice and equality between the Palestinians and Israelis.”
That led to the crafting of the resolution that was submitted to the Connecticut state labor convention. Very telling was the fact that it was not submitted by heads of one or two outlier union locals. It was submitted by David Roche, president of the Connecticut Building and Construction Trades Council, and John Harrity, president of the Connecticut State Council of Machinists. Roche and representatives of the machinists had been on the September fact-finding tour. The resolution met with opposition but in the end got the majority it needed for passage.
After the vote, Roche said, “I went on this trip as what I considered the least informed person on this journey, being new to the real nuts and bolts of the issue which I considered to my benefit. As a unionist it didn’t take long to realize the mistreatment of the Palestinian people that was going on. Although our resolution is a great step to stop this injustice it will hopefully only be the beginning of a real demand for change. I would challenge all labor leaders to take this journey and do as we did, walk the streets of Hebron, visit the soap factories of [Nablus] and the devastation that exists in Qalqilya.”
On behalf of the machinists council, John Harrity said, “We are proud that the [Connecticut] AFL-CIO, through the action of elected delegates from the large spectrum of unions that make up our federation, voted to endorse the resolution. We believe that neither Israelis nor Palestinians should have to live in an atmosphere of fear or violence, or political and economic oppression. As U.S. President Jimmy Carter stated, Israel is now creating an ‘apartheid-like’ system that is intolerable. In that circumstance, it is appropriate to respond as we did to apartheid, by withdrawing economic support.”
The resolution doesn’t literally put the state federation in support of BDS. This kind of major policy decision has to be made by the national AFL-CIO. The resolution, therefore, was directed to the national AFL-CIO. After enumerating a long list of Israeli government abuses, it requests that the “National AFL-CIO adopt the strategy of Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) in connection with companies and investments profiting from or complicit in human rights violations arising from the occupation of the Palestinian Territories by the state of Israel.”
No doubt the Israeli government will marshal all its forces to prevent the national AFL-CIO from taking that step. Still, the Connecticut labor union federation vote is a giant stride forward. A major U.S. union federation has come out in support of BDS. There’s probably going to be a discussion about BDS in trade unions all across the country—something that’s never happened before. Unions will discuss whether the labor adage “An injury to one is an injury to all” will be applied to Palestinian working people, too.