American and Palestinian Unionists Build International Solidarity To Win ‘Freedom’ for Palestine

Jeff Schuhrke April 6, 2016

The American labor movement seems to slowly be joining the BDS movement. (Adrien Fauth / Flickr)

In an address on Mid­dle East pol­i­cy last month, Bernie Sanders —the first Jew­ish Amer­i­can to win a pres­i­den­tial pri­ma­ry — did some­thing vir­tu­al­ly unheard of in con­tem­po­rary U.S. pol­i­tics when he called for an end to what amounts to the occu­pa­tion of Pales­tin­ian ter­ri­to­ry” by Israel. 

The only can­di­date to skip the pro-Israel lob­by group AIPAC’s annu­al con­fer­ence in Wash­ing­ton, Sanders instead deliv­ered a speech from Utah in which he acknowl­edged that today there is a whole lot of suf­fer­ing among Pales­tini­ans” due to the occupation.

For a pres­i­den­tial can­di­date to break from the mold, like it seems maybe Sanders is doing, and to talk about the fact that the occu­pa­tion needs to end, is some­thing that’s excit­ing to Pales­tini­ans,” says Man­awel Abdel-Al, a mem­ber of the gen­er­al sec­re­tari­at of the Pales­tin­ian Gen­er­al Fed­er­a­tion of Trade Unions (PGF­TU).

We hope this isn’t just elec­tion talk,” he adds. Peo­ple were very excit­ed about Barack Oba­ma as well and we didn’t get much progress. But we’re hopeful.”

Abdel-Al — who lives in occu­pied East Jerusalem — is vis­it­ing Chica­go this week at the invi­ta­tion of the Unit­ed Elec­tri­cal Work­ers (UE), the U.S. Pales­tin­ian Com­mu­ni­ty Net­work, and Jew­ish Voice for Peace to enlist the sup­port of the U.S. labor move­ment in the Pales­tin­ian lib­er­a­tion strug­gle. He addressed stand­ing-room-only audi­ences of rank-and-file union­ists at last weekend’s Labor Notes con­fer­ence and again on Tues­day night at the local UE Hall.

A machine repair tech­ni­cian by trade, Abdel-Al has been a union activist for three decades. He tells In These Times that through­out their his­to­ry, Pales­tin­ian trade unions have always waged a two-part” bat­tle. We rep­re­sent work­ers in the class strug­gle for socioe­co­nom­ic rights, but also in the nation­al, polit­i­cal strug­gle for free­dom and inde­pen­dence,” he says, not­ing that the Pales­tin­ian labor move­ment has man­aged to endure despite a cen­tu­ry of repres­sion and upheaval under British, Jor­dan­ian, and Israeli control.

Abdel-Al’s PGF­TU rep­re­sents 14 pri­vate sec­tor unions in the West Bank and Gaza. In the West Bank, Abdel-Al says the PGF­TU nego­ti­ates col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing agree­ments with employ­ers and suc­cess­ful­ly con­vinced the Pales­tin­ian Author­i­ty (P.A.) to pass a min­i­mum wage law in 2012. The union fed­er­a­tion is now call­ing for the P.A. to imple­ment social wel­fare poli­cies by next year.

Mean­while, over 25,000 pub­lic school­teach­ers (not affil­i­at­ed with PGF­TU) staged a one-month strike ear­li­er this year to call for the P.A. to hon­or a promised pay raise that had been left on the back­burn­er for three years,” Abdel-Al says. The strike end­ed last month after Pres­i­dent Mah­moud Abbas inter­vened and promised back pay and a 10 per­cent wage increase.

Abdel-Al’s PGF­TU is not rec­og­nized by the Israeli gov­ern­ment, leav­ing unpro­tect­ed the approx­i­mate­ly 92,000 West Bank Pales­tini­ans who reg­u­lar­ly cross into and out of Israel and Israeli set­tle­ments for work. Abdel-Al explains that while many of these work­ers have legal per­mits to be employed in Israel, many oth­ers are unau­tho­rized work­ers — hired under-the-table by Israeli employ­ers — and face extreme exploita­tion. When they’re injured on the job, they’re sim­ply tak­en to the clos­est bor­der check­point and left there. The employ­er disappears.”

Abdel-Al at Chicago’s Hay­mar­ket mon­u­ment. (Jeff Schuhrke)

Regard­less of their legal sta­tus, Abdel-Al says that all Pales­tin­ian work­ers in Israel, includ­ing Pales­tin­ian cit­i­zens of Israel, face dis­crim­i­na­tion, arbi­trary dis­missal, low pay, and a host of oth­er issues on the job. All we want is free­dom from oppres­sion,” he says, ask­ing U.S. union­ists to do what­ev­er they can to help their fel­low work­ers in Palestine.

Heed­ing this call, last August, UE became the first nation­al U.S. labor union to endorse Boy­cott, Divest­ment, and Sanc­tions (BDS) — a glob­al, non­vi­o­lent move­ment to protest Israeli human rights vio­la­tions inspired by the suc­cess­ful efforts of civ­il soci­ety groups to pres­sure South Africa’s apartheid régime in the 1980s.

While the activist net­work Labor for Pales­tine has been push­ing U.S. unions to get behind BDS for the past decade, seri­ous strides have only been made in the two years since Israel’s 2014 bom­bard­ment of Gaza, which killed 1,462 civil­ians. In Decem­ber 2014, BDS was endorsed by Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia grad­u­ate stu­dent work­ers with UAW Local 2865 — a vote that was con­tro­ver­sial­ly nul­li­fied by the UAW’s Inter­na­tion­al Exec­u­tive Board ear­li­er this year. Fol­low­ing Local 2865 and UE’s lead, the Con­necti­cut AFL-CIO also passed a res­o­lu­tion in favor of BDS late last year.

BDS is gain­ing trac­tion with­in the inter­na­tion­al labor move­ment as well, with sup­port from unions in South Africa, the UK, Nor­way, Brazil, and else­where. Last April, it was endorsed by Canada’s Con­fed­er­a­tion of Nation­al Trade Unions (CSN), which rep­re­sents 325,000 pub­lic and pri­vate sec­tor work­ers in Quebec.

I think BDS is a pow­er­ful tool to edu­cate peo­ple on what is hap­pen­ing in Pales­tine,” Nathalie Guay, coor­di­na­tor of CSN’s inter­na­tion­al rela­tions, tells In These Times. Guay, who helped con­nect the PGF­TU and UE, hopes that more North Amer­i­can unions will not only endorse BDS, but also send their mem­bers on del­e­ga­tions to Pales­tine to learn about the sit­u­a­tion first-hand. Every sin­gle per­son who goes there comes back as an activist for Pales­tine. We need more of that.”

Not­ing the grow­ing inter­na­tion­al influ­ence of unions from the glob­al south, includ­ing Brazil’s pro-BDS Cen­tral Úni­ca dos Tra­bal­hadores, Guay pre­dicts the inter­na­tion­al labor move­ment will con­tin­ue to increase its sup­port for Pales­tine in the years to come. I think there will be some evo­lu­tion,” she says.

This evo­lu­tion is already evi­dent in the Inter­na­tion­al Trade Union Con­fed­er­a­tion — a glob­al orga­ni­za­tion com­posed of the world’s major labor fed­er­a­tions — which has issued increas­ing­ly crit­i­cal state­ments of Israel since the 2014 assault on Gaza.

We believe state­ments are not enough and hope the ITUC will change its poli­cies in a more defin­i­tive way to help end the occu­pa­tion,” Abdel-Al says. But no mat­ter how small, this is a pos­i­tive change.”

Abdel-Al took time out of his busy sched­ule this week to vis­it the Hay­mar­ket memo­r­i­al — a trib­ute to mar­tyred Chica­go union­ists who were hanged in 1887 as a result of their activism in sup­port of the 8‑hour work­day. This is the birth­place of the world­wide labor move­ment. Around the world, we cel­e­brate labor on May 1st because of what hap­pened in Chicago.”

He wants U.S. labor activists to remem­ber that occu­pied Pales­tini­ans are also oppressed work­ers. Any activism, any sup­port for us would be in accor­dance with a slo­gan that is well known by the work­ing class every­where—work­ers of the world, unite! Through sol­i­dar­i­ty and willpow­er, work­ers can make changes and bring about the achieve­ment of rights for per­se­cut­ed and oppressed peo­ple everywhere.”

Jeff Schuhrke has been a Work­ing In These Times con­trib­u­tor since 2013. He has a Ph.D. in His­to­ry from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Illi­nois at Chica­go and a Master’s in Labor Stud­ies from UMass Amherst. Fol­low him on Twit­ter: @JeffSchuhrke

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