This article is being co-published with Workday Magazine.
As the Israeli military relentlessly bombards 2.4 million Palestinians in the besieged Gaza Strip and a ground invasion appears imminent, one storied, national union — the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE) — is opposing U.S. military aid for the state of Israel whose assault on the besieged strip has already taken the lives of at least 1,800 Palestinians (a number that is quickly rising) and displaced more than 420,000 others. The Israeli government’s overwhelming violence comes on the heels of a surprise attack by Hamas militants on October 7 when 150 were taken hostage and more than 1,300 people, almost entirely Israelis, were killed.
“We certainly don’t support any killing, whether it’s in the form of bombs, guns, starving people through blockades, or through apartheid, from any side,” says Andrew Dinkelaker, the UE’s general secretary treasurer. “U.S. military aid going in is pouring gasoline onto a fire. It encourages that there be military solutions, and military solutions will get more people killed.”
In opposing U.S. military aid to Israel, the UE — along with some organizers, elected representatives and rank-and-file workers from other unions, as well as just a few progressive members of Congress like Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D.-Mich.) and Rep. Cori Bush (D.-Mo.) — is striking in a U.S. political climate defined by unqualified bipartisan support for Israel’s newly formed, hawkish “unity” government as it uses white phosphorus and cuts off fuel, food, water and electricity to Gaza’s entire population, which is about half children.
A video has been circulating of Israel’s Defense Minister Yoav Gallant saying, “We are fighting against human animals.” Israeli President Isaac Herzog said Friday, “It’s an entire nation out there that is responsible. It’s not true this rhetoric about civilians not being aware, not involved. It’s absolutely not true. They could have risen up. They could have fought against that evil regime which took over Gaza in a coup d’état.” In an article published Friday by Jewish Currents, Raz Segal, a professor of Holocaust and genocide studies at Stockton University, writes that “the assault on Gaza can also be understood in other terms: as a textbook case of genocide unfolding in front of our eyes.”
After destroying roads, entire blocks and other infrastructure, the Israeli military ordered the entire population of northern Gaza — 1.1 million civilians — to evacuate to the south within 24 hours, something the United Nations says would be “impossible.”
A growing chorus of human rights organizations, including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the Israeli group B’Tselem, have said the Israeli government has embedded the conditions of apartheid and many have been sounding the alarm about the growing humanitarian crisis in Gaza — which has been under a land, air and sea blockade enforced by the Israeli military since 2007. “Military action, total war, expulsion, and carpet bombing will not solve anything. They will make things worse. The immediate priority should be a cease-fire,” tweeted Jehad Abusalim, co-editor of Light in Gaza: Writings Born of Fire. Many have also warned about the dire situation in the occupied West Bank, where Israeli settlers have been violent and frequently attacked Palestinians. The scope and impact of Hamas’s attack was unprecedented and hundreds of Israeli civilians, including children, were killed. Some organizations and social movement groups, and even the brother of slain Israeli Hayim Katsman, are urging that the killing of Israeli civilians should not be used to justify more civilian deaths.
Less than a month ago, on September 21, a resolution was passed at the UE’s national convention calling for the United States to end military aid to Israel, citing the urgent need to end the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the siege of Gaza. Titled “For Jobs, Peace and a Pro-Worker Foreign Policy,” the resolution also calls for a reduction of the U.S. military budget, an end to sanctions on Venezuela, and steps toward a “world free of nuclear weapons.”
The 78th UE convention “demands the U.S. government end all military aid to Israel,” the resolution states.
It’s not military invasion that people in the U.S. are most endangered by, but rather, the “failure to provide living wage jobs, affordable healthcare, education, housing, and necessary social services as human rights,” the resolution states.
The UE represents roughly 35,000 workers and Dinkelaker says the provisions about Israel are important in light of ongoing violence. “By saying, ‘Hey we’re going to back [Israel] no matter what with military support,’ that seems to be the wrong message,” he says.
With rare exceptions, both Republicans and Democrats are almost entirely showing unconditional support for Israel, and Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen says she is weighing new sanctions on Iran, in a political atmosphere some observers have compared to the post-9/11 U.S. climate of pro-war jingoism. In addition to the roughly $3.3 billion in aid the United States gives the Israeli government annually, Biden pledged at a press conference on Tuesday to increase U.S. support for the Israeli government’s war, with no requirement that it show any restraint in its killing of Palestinians and tactics of collective punishment.
Some high-profile U.S. politicians have overtly called for or justified the mass killings of Palestinians. In a Fox News interview on Tuesday, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said, “We are in a religious war here, I am with Israel. Whatever the hell you have to do to defend yourselves; level the place.” White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said on Thursday that calls for a cease-fire are “repugnant” and “disgraceful.”
This bipartisan support comes despite calls from many in the international community — including a number of Jewish groups — that a real end to the violence, and true safety for everyone, requires addressing its root causes. “The Israeli government may have just declared war, but its war on Palestinians started over 75 years ago,” according to a statement from Jewish Voice for Peace, a group that is arguing that Hamas’s targeting of Israeli civilians should not be used to justify more killings. The statement continued: “Israeli apartheid and occupation — and United States complicity in that oppression — are the source of all this violence. Reality is shaped by when you start the clock.” In a statement released this week, the Jewish anti-occupation group IfNotNow asserted that, “Our grief is not a weapon, our pain is not an excuse.”
Joining them are several prominent Israeli Jews, including award-winning Haaretz columnist Gideon Levy, who blamed the Hamas attack on “Israeli arrogance; the idea that we can do whatever we like, that we’ll never pay the price and be punished for it,” and Knesset member Ofer Cassif, who called Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government “a fascist government.” The Haaretz editorial board, one of Israel’s leading newspapers, also published an article just a day after the violence began declaring that “Netanyahu Bears Responsibility for This Israel-Gaza War.”
At its recent national convention, the UE also renewed a position it has held since 2015, which is an endorsement of the Palestinian civil society call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) of Israel, a strategy that aims to peacefully pressure the Israeli government and its citizens to end the occupation and system of apartheid. While in a different context, the strategy in part draws inspiration from similar pressure tactics used to oppose apartheid in South Africa. At least 35 states have passed laws, resolutions or executive orders to ban or discourage BDS.
Alan Hart started as a rank-and-file UE member before joining the union’s staff until he retired in 2017. He played a lead role in drafting the 2015 BDS resolution.
“UE has never been afraid to speak out on foreign policy issues,” he explains, “and has always taken a position that labor should have its own foreign policy — labor shouldn’t fall behind corporations and politicians.”
Hart, who is not speaking on behalf of the UE in an official capacity, says resolutions opposing U.S. aid to Israel can be helpful, because when members speak out on the issue, they know the union is behind them. “UE people show up at demos in support of Palestine, and we do it knowing that our union supports that,” Hart says. “They show up with UE banners and UE signs. Not every local in the union is involved in this, but it’s the union’s position, so people feel authorized to do this, and we feel like we’re doing the right thing.”
The UE is helping lead the way in organized U.S. labor on opposing U.S. aid to Israel, and what appears to be a growing number of labor leaders, groups and rank-and-file union members have been speaking out since Oct. 7.
“It is important for unions to ask themselves, for all of us to ask ourselves in any space we’re in, what did we do when Gaza was being decimated to ashes? How did we stand up, wherever we were?” says Amira A., co-founder of the Palestine Labor Network — a national group of around 150 labor organizers and Palestine solidarity activists that seeks to strengthen ties between U.S. unions and the Palestinian freedom movement through educational resources and organizing support.
Amira, who helped lead the effort to unionize staff at JVP in 2020 with the NewsGuild-CWA, says even symbolic statements of solidarity from unions “absolutely make a difference” and send a “very clear communication to Palestinians the world over that they are not alone.”
But in a climate where many of those who express sympathy for Palestinians can face tremendous scrutiny and repression, and while supporters of Israel generally do not face the same institutional crackdown for expressing their views, some statements in support of Palestinians made by members of Starbucks Workers United (SBWU) are being weaponized by anti-union forces.
Several individual SBWU members and some SBWU accounts tweeted statements of solidarity with Palestinians and denouncing apartheid in the aftermath of the Oct. 7 attack. One of the tweets also demanded that the labor movement “support liberation for all and fight all forms of oppression.”
The so-called Center for Union Facts — the corporate astroturf firm run by union buster Rick Berman—demanded SEIU condemn the SBWU organizers for the statements. Right-wing news sites, including Ben Shapiro’s Daily Wire, quickly jumped on the story, prompting Sen. Rick Scott (R.-Fla.) to call for Starbucks to be boycotted unless the coffee giant denounced “this horrific support of terrorism.”
In response, both Starbucks and the Republican-controlled House Committee on Education and the Workforce, each issued public calls for SEIU and Workers United to condemn SBWU members. Starbucks posted the call on its union-busting “One.Starbucks” website, which has been the subject of National Labor Relations Board complaints for posting claims and statements that violate labor law.
“Starbucks is cooperating with Rick Scott and Ben Shapiro to use this incredible humanitarian crisis to try to score points on the union, which just emphasizes how utterly opportunistic and unprincipled Starbucks’ union busting is,” says Jaz Brisack, a Workers United organizer and former barista who helped lead the successful effort to unionize the first Starbucks stores in Buffalo.
“I think this is obvious but maybe needs to be clarified: no one is supporting anyone being killed. We’re saying we want people to be able to live with freedom and democracy,” says Brisack, a longtime Palestine solidarity activist who is not speaking in their official capacity with the union. “We’re grieving all of the lives lost, but at the same time there is an incredibly unequal dynamic where the U.S. government and all of these forces are generally very much behind Israel.”
They add, “human rights should not be controversial. I think the labor movement has to be willing to use our collective voice for freedom.”
For her part, SEIU President Mary Kay Henry tweeted Tuesday: “The violence in Israel and Palestine is unconscionable. SEIU stands with all who are suffering, while strongly condemning anti-Semitism, Islamophobia & hate in all forms. I pray for a swift resolution and a future where all in the region can be happy, safe & live with dignity.”
Long before Oct. 7, many union locals and central labor councils that have democratically voted (or planned to vote) on resolutions criticizing the Israeli government’s human rights record or endorsing BDS, including United Educators of San Francisco and the Unified Teachers Los Angeles, have faced swift backlash from pro-Israel organizations.
High-ranking union officials have also sometimes worked to shut down expressions of pro-Palestinian sympathy within the labor movement. In 2015, after rank-and-file members with UAW-affiliated graduate worker unions at the University of California, New York University and University of Massachusetts Amherst each voted to endorse BDS, the UAW’s international executive board formally “nullified” the measures. In 2021, AFL-CIO leadership intervened to stop the San Francisco Labor Council from voting on a BDS resolution, saying it did not comport with the federation’s national policies.
The AFL-CIO and top U.S. labor leaders have a long history of being among Israel’s most steadfast supporters in the United States — including by using union funds to purchase hundreds of millions of dollars in State of Israel bonds starting in the 1950s.
During Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon and siege of Beirut, the AFL-CIO Executive Council took out a full-page ad in the New York Times declaring, in all-caps: “THE AFL-CIO IS NOT NEUTRAL. WE SUPPORT ISRAEL.”
In 2007, several AFL-CIO leaders signed onto a statement formally opposing BDS, and in 2009, the AFL-CIO’s then-president Rich Trumka called anti-Zionism antisemitic. (Many Jews are non-Zionist or anti-Zionist, which has been true for well over a century, with many arguing that modern Zionism is harmful to all involved, including Jews.)
In response to this week’s events, the AFL-CIO condemned Hamas and also expressed concern “about the emerging humanitarian crisis that is affecting Palestinians in Gaza and throughout the region” and called for “a swift resolution to the current conflict to end the bloodshed of innocent civilians, and to promote a just and long-lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians.”
On Saturday, Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, issued a statement on behalf of a pro-Israel group of union officials that reads: “We recognize the State of Israel’s unequivocal right to defend itself and those who live within its borders, and extend our support for that country’s defense forces. … Hamas’s violent hatred of Israel and refusal to live in peace will only lead to more tragedy for both those living in Israel and Gaza.”
Another anti-BDS voice in the labor movement, American Federation of Teachers (AFT) President Randi Weingarten, also issued a statement along with AFT Secretary-Treasurer Fedrick Ingram and Executive Vice President Evelyn DeJesus.
“Israel has every right to defend itself as it will now do,” the AFT leaders said. “We are deeply worried for the safety of the Israeli people, including the hostages now in Gaza as Hamas has threatened their execution. We are also worried for the safety of the Palestinian civilians who are now caught in the crossfire — with hundreds of people now reported dead and over 2,500 wounded in Gaza amid intensive Israeli airstrikes and a full cutoff of electricity, gas, water and food to the Gaza Strip.”
The AFT message calls for peace for all Israelis and Palestinians, but, like the AFL-CIO’s statement, makes no mention of the occupation, apartheid or the 16-year blockade of Gaza that are seen by many as the primary obstacles to peace.
Calling the AFT statement “problematic in a number of ways,” the executive board of the Rutgers Adjunct Faculty Union, which is affiliated with the AFT, endorsed JVP’s message calling on “all people of conscience to stop imminent genocide.”
Another AFT affiliate, the Graduate Employees’ Organization at the University of Michigan, issued a statement Friday expressing support for BDS and saying, “The violence that comes out of the open-air prison of Gaza is a consequence of the colonial violence that its people have endured for years. All military escalation in Palestine, including the tragic loss of countless Palestinian and Israeli lives, must be understood in light of this context.”
The leadership of the National Writers Union — which represents 1,300 freelance writers — also put out a statement on Friday noting that at least nine Palestinian journalists have been killed in the current assault on Gaza and criticizing how Western media outlets have been covering the violence. “As of this writing, in a massive ethnic cleansing, Israel is forcibly displacing more than a million people as it prepares a ground invasion,” the union’s leaders said. “All of this violates international law, which the Israeli government has done with impunity for decades and with the material and political support of the U.S.”
It is partly because of many U.S. labor leaders’ unflinching support for Israel that many rank-and-file unionists often feel compelled to speak up for the rights of Palestinians. While some might argue that Palestine is not a labor issue and that union members should not weigh in, Brisack says such arguments would be “disingenuous.”
“Many unions actually have taken a stance on this by previous and current statements that either ignore Palestinians or are fundamentally opposed,” they explain. “I think boycott, divestment and sanctions and other strategies like that are fantastic tactics, but the labor movement is not only not particularly interested in those, but is actively invested in Israel.”
Amira A. says, “I really hope more unions will realize this is not theoretical, they are actively involved in the oppression, if not genocide, we are witnessing. … We need to be making a call to action for all labor unions to be divesting their money from Israel state bonds, and we need to be very loud and bold about it, especially at a time like this.”
Meanwhile, Google and Amazon Web Services workers with the #NoTechForApartheid campaign have reiterated their calls for the two companies to cancel “Project Nimbus,” a $1.2 billion cloud computing contract with the Israeli military providing advanced AI tools. Launched two years ago, the campaign has been supported by the Alphabet Workers Union and the Amazon Labor Union.
“We refuse to create tech tools for the Israeli military and government to continue surveilling, segregating, and killing Palestinians — tools that have powered the system of racial domination and brutal military occupation that have led us to this moment of violence,” the campaign said in a statement on Tuesday.
The statement continued, “As long as their tech continues to power the Israeli apartheid government and military, Amazon and Google are complicit in devastation, including the recent indiscriminate bombings of residential buildings that have wiped out entire Palestinian families and neighborhoods in Gaza. As workers, we refuse to be complicit in ethnic cleansing.”
Asked how UE’s resolution is landing in light of recent events, Dinkelaker says, “We know it’s going to come up as part of discussions in our locals. That’s what all these policies are for. This resolution helps provide context for how we as an organization think about this.”
“We hope,” he adds, “this inspires people to have more discussion around foreign policy, the role of the military, and how conflicts tend to harm workers more than anyone else. We’re in the working class, and we need to keep thinking about how to move in a positive direction no matter what your nationality, race, or creed, through economic justice.”
This article is a joint publication of In These Times and Workday Magazine, a non-profit newsroom devoted to holding the powerful accountable through the perspective of workers.
In this new book, longtime organizers and movement educators Mariame Kaba and Kelly Hayes examine the political lessons of the Covid-19 pandemic and its aftermath, including the convergence of mass protest and mass formations of mutual aid. Let This Radicalize You answers the urgent question: What fuels and sustains activism and organizing when it feels like our worlds are collapsing?
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Jeff Schuhrke is a labor historian, educator, journalist and union activist who teaches at the Harry Van Arsdale Jr. School of Labor Studies, SUNY Empire State University in New York City. He has been an In These Times contributor since 2013. Follow him on Twitter @JeffSchuhrke.
Sarah Lazare is the editor of Workday Magazine and a contributing editor for In These Times. She tweets at @sarahlazare.