On December 15, 2015, the United Auto Workers (UAW) International Executive Board (IEB) nullified the resolution passed last year by members of UAW Local 2865, the 13,000 teaching assistants and student-workers at the University of California system, that called on the International to endorse the Boycott, Divest, and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel by withholding their financial investments in companies “complicit in severe and ongoing human rights violations as part of the Israeli oppression of the Palestinian people.
The decision to nullify the BDS resolution, which had made Local 2865 the first American local union to endorse a boycott, was the outcome of an appeal filed by a member of Informed Grads, a group of local union members who opposed BDS. Stephen Brumbaugh, a Local 2865 member at UC Los Angeles, took his case up with the International’s executive board after Local 2865 had previously dismissed it in May 2015, failing to find merit in its claims.
The IEB went through a period of fact-finding, gathering testimony and evidence from Informed Grads and Local 2865 before issuing the decision. While UAW IEB admitted that the December 2014 vote on the BDS measure was democratic and free of any misconduct, producing a turnout higher than previous elections held by the local, the IEB concluded that in its view the resolution violated the International’s constitution by “lead[ing] to a direct economic deprivation for members of the UAW, as well as other organized members by, categorically interfering with the flow of commerce to and from earmarked companies” at Boeing, Caterpillar, General Electric, Lockheed Martin, ITT, Northrop-Grumman and Raytheon, the firms targeted by BDS advocates.
Brumbaugh’s attorneys on the appeal are associated with Gibson, Dunn, & Crutcher, a global law firm known for providing for big business, including Walmart in a 2011 landmark civil action discrimination suit. “We are very pleased by [the UAW] International Union’s forceful rejection of BDS, which sets a powerful precedent for other labor unions and national organizations,” said Scott Edelman, a partner at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, in a statement by Informed Grads.
At one August hearing, Brumbaugh and his attorneys introduced several letters sent by “prominent labor union advocates” to UAW International to condemn BDS, including Randy Cammack and Rome A. Aloise, both International Vice Presidents with the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, and J. David Cox, Sr., National President of the American Federation of Government Employees.
“We would find it difficult to ask our members to support your union in a labor dispute with the University of California so long as you are engaged in activities that are fundamentally hostile to their interests,” Cammack and Aloise say in their letter. “Unlike the members of your union, who are graduate students and therefore union members for a short period of time, our members are working in jobs that must support them for a lifetime and it is our job to protect them for all of their working lives.”
Another letter submitted by Brumbaugh came from Jonathan D. Ginzel, the Director of Labor & Employment Relations at Caterpillar (one of the corporations targeted by BDS resolutions for its alleged role in the demolition of Palestinian villages), who tells a UAW International executive that the company “outright rejects any suggestion that Caterpillar is engaged in or complicit in any human rights violations anywhere in the world” and asks the International to “void this Resolution and take whatever additional steps are necessary to confirm that the UAW does not support an effort to divest from Caterpillar or Israel.”
Kumars Salehi, a UAW 2865 member and BDS caucus member at UC Berkeley, calls the IEB’s claims of potential economic deprivation a “model of business unionism,” the union model that eschews engagement with broader social issues beyond its members’ day-to-day needs.
“This is clearly an argument that is from the perspective of the employers rather than of workers. This is the sort of argument that could be used against any boycott,” Salehi says. “There are people within UAW and the labor movement in general that critique the assumption that the interests of employers and ‘the flow of commerce’ are the same as the interests of workers.”
The IEB uses these letters later in their report to support their conclusion that by passing the BDS resolution, Local 2865 broke its constitutional obligation to work together with other unions for the “solidification” of the labor movement. But UAW members claim that their local began organizing around BDS after a call for boycott was made by Palestinian trade union confederations in July 2014 in the midst of the 50-day assault waged by the Israeli military that left 2,100 Palestinians dead.
“Citing ‘the solidification of the labor movement’ in order to justify negating the will of our members is pretty sinister and hypocritical,” says Salehi, adding that in the eyes of the IEB, it seems the rule is that Palestinian trade unions are not a part of the labor movement.
The IEB also ruled in favor of Informed Grads on the charge that the BDS resolution violated the union constitution’s ethical code, saying the resolution was “suggestive of discriminatory labeling and a disparagement” of its Israeli and Jewish members.
“The local union’s attempt to address the predicament of the Palestinian people appears to be accomplished through biased targeting of Israeli/Jewish UAW members, and the scorning of the state of Israel and all alleged entities complicit in actions against Palestine,” the IEB said in report of the decision.
David McCleary, UAW 2865 Northern Vice President, speaking on behalf of UAW 2865 Executive Board, told In These Times, “We firmly reject accusations of antisemitism, and the evidence presented during the appeal process clearly supports this view. As one of many Jewish members of UAW 2865 who supported this divestment campaign, I can say that the accusation is personally hurtful and I expected better of our International Executive Board.”
“While this decision nullifies our non-binding resolution, it does not erase the voices and efforts of the countless rank-and-file members of our union, passionate about equality and justice for Palestinians,” McCleary added.
Unted Electrical Workers (UE) and the Connecticut AFL-CIO have followed Local 2865’s lead on a BDS endorsement over the course of the past year but have met opposition. UE’s resolution has been challenged through the National Labor Relations Board by an Israeli non-governmental organization on the grounds that it amounts to illegal secondary boycotts (a product of the Taft-Hartley Act). In California, as Glenn Greenwald has written for the Intercept, UC administrators and state lawmakers have been vocally supportive of expanding hate speech definitions to include criticism or “demonization” of Israel, which would conceivably limit BDS activism at least in theory.
“No letter from the IEB can erase the educational and organizational work we have done over the past year — work we will continue to do, energized no doubt by the IEB’s undemocratic, business-friendly attempt to nullify this vote,” the BDS caucus says in a statement. “We are part of a growing movement for union solidarity with the people of Palestine and for a democratic and visionary U.S. labor movement.”
At New York University, graduate worker and UAW member David Klassen, says he was “excited” about the BDS campaign in California because it was everything he felt was missing in the UAW: “a long period of education, open debate” followed by “an open referendum in which members can actually decide what the policy of their union will be.”
Klassen is a member of the Academic Workers for a Democratic Union within UAW, a new wave of graduate student workers who say they aim to reform the International in more progressive directions, and says he is invested in ensuring that UAW has “venues in which people can forward their voices and have open debate” rather than important union decisions being made “quietly, in backrooms.” Klassen says that the nullification decision is the “perfect example” of closed-door decision-making that the International needs to break from.
While the IEB may have halted the BDS resolution from Local 2865 for the moment, Klassen says that AWDU members have learned from the effort in California and have launched their own BDS campaign at NYU. While he admits the common assumption is that members would want to shy away from a “controversial” or “divisive” issue, he says members have seemed to prefer democratic debate over the issue.
“People want to know that their union is a place where they can have debates about the world that they live in — that collectively, they can negotiate not just for [their] narrow, material interests at work, but also the world in which they live.” he says.