NLRB Upholds Union’s Right To Endorse BDS Against Israel

Alex Kane

UE endorsed the call for BDS at its August convention, making it the first national union in the United States to support the boycott. (Adrien Fauth/ Flickr)

The Nation­al Labor Rela­tions Board (NLRB) has upheld a deci­sion to dis­miss a com­plaint against the Unit­ed Elec­tri­cal, Radio, and Machine Work­ers of Amer­i­ca (UE) for endors­ing a boy­cott of Israel.

The move is a vic­to­ry for advo­cates of the boy­cott, divest­ment and sanc­tions (BDS) move­ment, which tar­gets Israel over alleged human rights abus­es against Pales­tini­ans. Ear­li­er this year, the NLRB ruled against Shu­rat HaDin, the Israeli legal cen­ter that brought the com­plaint seek­ing an injunc­tion against UE’s deci­sion to endorse boy­cotting Israel. The lat­est deci­sion was in response to an appeal filed by Shu­rat HaDin.

UE endorsed the call for BDS at its August con­ven­tion, mak­ing it the first nation­al union in the Unit­ed States to sup­port the boy­cott. The res­o­lu­tion denounced Israeli racism and wars in the Gaza Strip and sup­port­ed an end of U.S. mil­i­tary aid to Israel.

Pales­tin­ian trade unions have appealed for sol­i­dar­i­ty from unions around the world, urg­ing them to endorse the BDS move­ment, which calls for an end to the Israeli occu­pa­tion, equal rights for Pales­tin­ian cit­i­zens of Israel and the right of return for Pales­tin­ian refugees. Labor unions in South Africa, the Unit­ed King­dom, Brazil, Uruguay, and Cana­da have endorsed BDS. And in addi­tion to UE, a hand­ful of labor union chap­ters in the Unit­ed States has joined the call for a boy­cott of Israel. These unions have joined a grow­ing move­ment, mod­eled on the fight against South African apartheid, to iso­late Israel.

In Octo­ber, two months after UE endorsed BDS, Shu­rat HaDin filed an unfair labor prac­tice charge with the NLRB. The group alleged that the UE deci­sion to endorse BDS vio­lat­ed U.S. labor law, claim­ing the union encour­aged its mem­bers to engage in an ille­gal sec­ondary boycott.”

Under U.S. labor law, a union can­not encour­age oth­ers who work at neu­tral employ­ers” — those out­side of a direct dis­pute between a union and its employ­er — to strike or stop work. In a state­ment, Nit­sana Dar­shan-Leit­ner, head of Shu­rat HaDin, said it was a vio­la­tion of Amer­i­can labor law for the union to encour­age its mem­bers to cease doing busi­ness with Israelis and Israeli companies.”

But the NLRB dis­agreed. The labor board first dis­missed the com­plaint in Jan­u­ary. After Shu­rat HaDin appealed, the NLRB ruled in May that the union’s endorse­ment of BDS was not a sig­nal or request” to employ­ees to engage in a work stop­page against their employ­ers,” which would be illegal.

(The union only recent­ly com­ment­ed on the NLRB’s deci­sion because it was wait­ing for the results of a Free­dom of Infor­ma­tion Act request on the case. It still has not received a response.)

As a result of the NLRB deci­sion, it real­ly allows for any oth­er unions to go through and endorse the BDS move­ment with­out hav­ing to deal with … attacks from orga­ni­za­tions that are try­ing to curb polit­i­cal speech,” Andrew Dinke­lak­er, gen­er­al sec­re­tary-trea­sur­er of UE, said this month.

Dinke­lak­er added that the pro-BDS deci­sion was in line with the union’s his­to­ry of inter­na­tion­al sol­i­dar­i­ty, like its sup­port for an end to U.S. aid to apartheid South Africa.

Shu­rat HaDin did not respond to repeat­ed requests for com­ment on this story.

BDS activists hope that the boy­cott Israel move­ment grows inside labor unions. So far, advo­cates for BDS have found the most suc­cess with­in grad­u­ate stu­dent unions.

In Decem­ber 2014, Unit­ed Auto Work­ers-2865, which rep­re­sents thou­sands of teach­ing assis­tants and oth­er stu­dent work­ers at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia, over­whelm­ing­ly endorsed BDS. In Novem­ber 2015, the Con­necti­cut chap­ter of the Amer­i­can Fed­er­a­tion of Labor and Con­gress of Indus­tri­al Orga­ni­za­tions called on the nation­al union to boy­cott and divest from com­pa­nies com­plic­it in the Israeli occu­pa­tion. And this year, grad­u­ate stu­dent unions at New York Uni­ver­si­ty, the Uni­ver­si­ty of Wis­con­sin-Madi­son and the Uni­ver­si­ty of Mass­a­chu­setts endorsed the boy­cott. The union endorse­ments of the BDS move­ment came after actions like August 2014’s Block the Boat,” in which dock­work­ers in Oak­land, Cal­i­for­nia, heed­ing the calls of Pales­tine sol­i­dar­i­ty activists, refused to unload Israeli goods for four days in protest of Israel’s assault on Gaza that summer.

But as boy­cott advo­cates estab­lish a foothold with­in labor unions, oppo­nents of BDS have gone on the attack against the move­ment. In addi­tion to the Shu­rat HaDin charge against UE, a group of anti-BDS mem­bers of UAW-2865 appealed the chapter’s endorse­ment of the boy­cott. In Decem­ber 2015, the par­ent UAW Inter­na­tion­al nul­li­fied the chapter’s decision.

Liz Jack­son, a staff attor­ney at Pales­tine Legal, a group that defends the right to advo­cate for Pales­tine in the Unit­ed States, said that Shu­rat HaDin’s com­plaint against UE nev­er had legs to begin with” because it had no legal merit.

But Jack­son said the legal com­plaint was just one part of a big­ger strat­e­gy to com­bat the BDS movement.

They clear­ly are bring­ing obvi­ous­ly friv­o­lous law­suits and legal com­plaints to scare sup­port­ers of BDS and drain resources,” Jack­son added. They use legal threats as part of the strat­e­gy to per­suade peo­ple in the upper ech­e­lons of insti­tu­tion­al pow­er struc­tures to crush [BDS].”

Alex Kane is a New York-based free­lance jour­nal­ist who writes on U.S. for­eign pol­i­cy in the Mid­dle East.
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