California Campus Workers Become First Major Local Union to Endorse BDS Against Israel

Mario Vasquez December 29, 2014

Will other American unions follow suit and vote to boycott Israel? (raysto / Flickr)

On Decem­ber 4, Unit­ed Auto Work­ers Local 2865, a union of 13,000 teach­ing assis­tants and stu­dent-work­ers at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia, became the first local of a major Amer­i­can union to pass a res­o­lu­tion by mem­ber­ship vote endors­ing the glob­al move­ment for Boy­cott, Divest­ment and Sanc­tions (BDS) against Israel. Vot­ing results were released Decem­ber 12 and mark an unprece­dent­ed moment for the BDS move­ment with­in the con­text of mod­ern Amer­i­can labor activism.

A total of 2,168 votes were cast by union mem­bers, with 65 per­cent of them in favor of the mea­sure direct­ing the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia and UAW Inter­na­tion­al to divest their invest­ment port­fo­lios and pen­sions funds away from com­pa­nies com­plic­it in severe and ongo­ing human rights vio­la­tions as part of the Israeli oppres­sion of the Pales­tin­ian peo­ple.” The pri­ma­ry tar­gets of BDS cam­paigns are Hewlett Packard, Cater­pil­lar, SodaS­tream, Elbit Sys­tems, G4S, Meko­rot, and Israeli banks. The advo­cates at UAW Local 2865 are demand­ing that, at a min­i­mum, the uni­ver­si­ty and union divest from these companies.

Local 2865’s bal­lot also includ­ed an option­al box ask­ing vot­ers whether or not they would vol­un­tar­i­ly pledge to boy­cott any schol­ar­ship spon­sored by Israeli uni­ver­si­ties com­plic­it in the occu­pa­tion of Pales­tine and the set­tler-colo­nial poli­cies of the state of Israel.” Fifty-two per­cent of vot­ers vot­ed in favor. The bal­lot also called for an end for U.S. aid to Israel until [Israel] com­plies with inter­na­tion­al law.”

Accord­ing to Local elect­ed offi­cial Sky­lar Covich, a Polit­i­cal Sci­ence grad­u­ate stu­dent at UC-San­ta Bar­bara who serves the cam­pus record­ing sec­re­tary, union lead­er­ship passed a res­o­lu­tion in July endors­ing BDS and call­ing for a mem­ber­ship vote on the mat­ter after this summer’s bom­bard­ment of Gaza by Israel prompt­ed mem­bers to attempt to heed the call of sol­i­dar­i­ty made by Pales­tin­ian trade unions who con­demned the violence.

Even though there cer­tain­ly have been real­ly hor­ri­ble acts on both sides, there is some­thing about the way the Israeli gov­ern­ment has act­ed about this all that has been an injus­tice, espe­cial­ly since they are the far more pow­er­ful coun­try,” says Covich. Since oth­er peo­ple in the union were inter­est­ed in this, I felt I need­ed to join [the local gov­ern­ing body] to make sure a mes­sage was sent about this,” he adds.

The bom­bard­ment, which killed upwards of 2,000 Pales­tin­ian cit­i­zens in a 50-day cam­paign, along with con­tin­u­ing Israeli set­tle­ment encroach­ment into Pales­tin­ian ter­ri­to­ry, has brought Israel much crit­i­cism from human rights groups and for­eign nations seek­ing peace in the region. Covich says that aside from a few absten­tions, there was min­i­mal resis­tance from union lead­ers when final­iz­ing the elec­tion date.

Kumars Sale­hi, a Ger­man Stud­ies grad­u­ate stu­dent at UC-Berke­ley and a mem­ber of the BDS cau­cus with­in Local 2865, sug­gests that the resolution’s out­come was sym­bol­ic of the cru­cial link between BDS and Amer­i­can orga­nized labor: The over­whelm­ing mar­gin of vic­to­ry shows that a con­sen­sus is emerg­ing that BDS is a legit­i­mate and jus­ti­fied strat­e­gy of inter­na­tion­al sol­i­dar­i­ty,” Sale­hi said in an email to In These Times. Pales­tine is a social issue in the Unit­ed States: Israel is now some­thing you either boy­cott or you don’t, and these results sug­gest for a new gen­er­a­tion of work­ers and stu­dents the answer is increas­ing­ly to boycott.”

Although rank-and-file enthu­si­asm is strong accord­ing to the results, Local 2865 Exec­u­tive Board mem­ber Katy Fox-Hodess, a soci­ol­o­gy grad­u­ate stu­dent at UC-Berke­ley, states that the UAW Inter­na­tion­al has large­ly ignored its UC mem­bers’ desires to link their union to the BDS movement.

The only com­ment they’ve made through­out this whole process was to reit­er­ate a 2007 posi­tion that they and 44 labor lead­ers from around the coun­try had signed on to,” says Fox-Hodess. Like Sale­hi, she hopes that the cur­rent gen­er­a­tional shift will be favor­able for BDS advo­cates. “[The state­ment was made] sev­en years ago and we hope that this vote tak­en by a local with large mem­ber­ship will lead to the Inter­na­tion­al revis­it­ing their ear­li­er position.”

While Salehi’s home cam­pus of Berke­ley account­ed for near­ly one-third of votes cast, the res­o­lu­tion man­aged to pass with a major­i­ty at all UC cam­pus­es except for UC-Irvine and UC-San­ta Bar­bara. The large sup­port for BDS among UC teach­ing assis­tants par­al­lels the suc­cess seen at the under­grad­u­ate lev­el, with six out of nine stu­dent gov­ern­ments — UC Irvine, UC San Diego, UC River­side, UC San­ta Cruz, UC Berke­ley, and UCLA — pass­ing res­o­lu­tions regard­ing divest­ment. The under­grad­u­ate leg­isla­tive meet­ings devot­ed to these mea­sures were notable for long hours and emo­tion­al­ly charged, packed rooms.

Despite the dual suc­cess for union and under­grad­u­ate advo­cates, the 26 Regents appoint­ed by the state Gov­er­nor to con­trol the UC sys­tem have attempt­ed to block BDS. In the past 15 months since Janet Napoli­tano became Pres­i­dent of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia, she has not only crit­i­cized the aca­d­e­m­ic boy­cott that 52 per­cent of Local 2865 mem­bers now belong to, but also reaf­firmed2010 posi­tion on divest­ment stat­ing that the Uni­ver­si­ty would only adopt it in the cas­es of geno­ci­dal for­eign entities.

The lone seat on the Regents des­ig­nat­ed for stu­dents has also met con­tro­ver­sy in recent years due in large part to divest­ment issues. UC Regent Richard Blum, hus­band of Sen. Dianne Fein­stein, abstained from a vote to approve the 2013 appoint­ment of Sadia Sai­fud­din, an under­grad­u­ate at UC-Berke­ley, due to her polit­i­cal activ­i­ty as an advo­cate for BDS dur­ing her term as a sen­a­tor at Berkeley’s stu­dent gov­ern­ment. Ear­li­er this year, UCLA under­grad­u­ate Abra­ham (Avi) Oved was appoint­ed amid protest stem­ming from a pos­si­ble con­nec­tion with pro-Israel donors.

Regard­less of the recur­ring prob­lem with the unde­mo­c­ra­t­ic” UC Regents, Fox-Hodess told In These Times, It’s going to take peo­ple from many dif­fer­ent sec­tors with­in the uni­ver­si­ty — oth­er UC unions, the fac­ul­ty and hope­ful­ly the broad­er pub­lic in Cal­i­for­nia — to build on this momen­tum begun by under­grad­u­ate activists that we have con­tin­ued with this union res­o­lu­tion.” Ref­er­enc­ing the pop­u­lar con­nec­tion used by BDS activists, she adds, Divest­ment from South Africa didn’t hap­pen overnight, but was the result of years and years of ground­work by activists.”

Clarence Thomas, a mem­ber of ILWU Local 10, the same union that hon­ored the Block the Boat” pick­et lines at the Port of Oak­land this past August, men­tioned in an inter­view that while the union has not tak­en a for­mal stance on BDS, the insti­tu­tion­al mem­o­ry of BDS move­ment against apartheid in South Africa is very much a rea­son for expand­ed con­scious­ness regard­ing Israel.

Cur­rent mem­bers of Local 10 know past long­shore­men have tak­en sim­i­lar actions in the past. Many of them feel this is their chance to step up to the plate and be con­sis­tent with our his­to­ry of hon­or­ing com­mu­ni­ty pick­et lines, which we’ve done since the 1930s. They’re pay­ing atten­tion to things on social media and pro­gres­sive press, and it has made people’s per­spec­tive change,” he says.

Thomas, speak­ing as a rank-and-file activist rather than on behalf of Local 10, says the move­ment for BDS against Israel will only grow stronger as it mir­rors the anti-apartheid actions against South Africa in the 1980s. For the long­time rank-and-fil­er, ILWU Local 10’s coura­geous” actions go hand-in-hand with the rest of the movement’s attempts to pro­voke large-scale eco­nom­ic shifts in Israeli investment.

Any­time the work­ing class can help out with rank-and-file grass­roots vic­to­ries it is real­ly impor­tant and peo­ple have to pay atten­tion to it,” Thomas says. Mem­bers should think about the South African anti-apartheid strug­gle: we did it once, and we can do it again.”

Mario Vasquez is a writer from south­ern Cal­i­for­nia. He is a reg­u­lar con­trib­u­tor to Work­ing In These Times. Fol­low him on Twit­ter @mario_vsqz or email him at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)/*= 0)out += unescape(l[i].replace(/^\s\s*/, &#’));while ( – j >= 0)if (el[j].getAttribute(‘data-eeEncEmail_JkRTuBCpnw’))el[j].innerHTML = out;/*]]>*/.
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