In a rebuke to their union’s top officials, graduate student workers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst overwhelmingly approved a measure aimed at supporting Palestinian human rights last week.
The 2,000-member Graduate Employee Organization (GEO), part of United Auto Workers Local 2322, passed a resolution endorsing Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS), a global movement pressuring Israel to respect the rights of Palestinians and end its occupation of Palestinian territory. The vote — which organizers say passed with 95 percent approval — comes just months after the UAW International Executive Board (IEB) controversially overturned a similar BDS resolution passed by University of California graduate student workers with UAW Local 2865.
After Local 2865 became the first major U.S. union local to pass a BDS resolution in late 2014, UMass grad workers were inspired to form a Palestine Solidarity Caucus. “We believed that our fellow members in GEO-Local 2322 would be likely to stand in support of such a resolution as well,” says Alyssa Goldstein, a founding member of the caucus.
But last December, the UAW IEB nullified Local 2865’s resolution. As Mario Vasquez reported for In These Times, the IEB found no misconduct in the BDS resolution vote, but ruled that the measure — which called for the UAW to divest from companies tied to the Israeli occupation — would “interfere with the flow of commerce to and from earmarked companies,” including Boeing, Caterpillar, Lockheed Martin and others. Local 2865 has appealed the decision to the UAW’s Public Review Board.
Calling the IEB nullification decision “cowardly and undemocratic,” Goldstein and other rank-and-file activists at UMass remained undeterred and moved forward with efforts to present a BDS resolution to the GEO membership. “The IEB has no power to stifle this movement. You can’t nullify an idea whose time has come,” Goldstein says.
Last week’s BDS resolution vote was “not just a show of hands,” says Anais Surkin, a Local 2322 union rep and GEO member. Surkin stresses that the effort was ultimately an exercise in rank-and-file democracy. “We went through the process outlined in our bylaws. It was important to do things in a formal way, to engage the maximum number of members possible, and to be able to stand up to scrutiny.”
In February, Local 2322’s Joint Council issued an open letter calling on the IEB to reverse the decision to overrule Local 2865’s resolution. Without taking a position on BDS, the Local protested on grounds that the nullification “looks like censorship” and undermines union democracy.
Meanwhile, in another act of rank-and-file defiance against the UAW IEB, New York University graduate student workers with the Graduate School Organizing Committee (GSOC)-UAW Local 2110 are voting on their own BDS resolution this week. A group of graduate students released a statement today condemning what they say are undemocratic actions taken by their union’s leadership to prevent some students from assuming leadership positions in GSOC; some of those students support the BDS resolution. (A statement issued by Local 2210’s executive board called these allegations “completely untrue” and disputed the insinuation that students were excluded from leadership positions because of “caucus affiliation and an individual’s political beliefs.”)
From UC to UMass to NYU, the recent wave of Palestine solidarity activism is reflective of the coordinated efforts of Academic Workers for a Democratic Union (AWDU), a reform caucus of UAW graduate workers pushing the union toward a broader vision of social justice.
“BDS has definitely been a topic of discussion among those of us in the AWDU national network,” says Anna Waltman, a GEO member and AWDU activist. “But our respective Palestine solidarity caucuses drafted these resolutions largely independently of one another and with attention to our individual unions’ practices, cultures and bylaws.”
GEO Co-Chair Santiago Vidales calls last week’s BDS vote “a testament to what social justice unionism looks like. We know that our principled stand will be criticized, scrutinized and challenged. But we know that we are building a movement for liberation.”
This is not the first time UAW members have rebelled against union leaders in opposition to the occupation of Palestine. In 1973, thousands of Arab American auto workers staged two wildcat strikes to protest the UAW’s close ties with Israel. A few years earlier, the Detroit-based League of Revolutionary Black Workers — which included many UAW rank-and-filers—came out in support of Palestinian liberation.
Kevina King and Tiamba Wilkerson of GEO’s Black Caucus — whose support Palestine Solidarity Caucus members say was instrumental in getting the resolution passed — note that “international solidarity, particularly between Black and Palestinian people, is as important now as it has ever been, as both communities continue to fight state sanctioned terrorism and racist violence.”
“I’m deeply gratified to see that my union is committed to advocating for the fundamental dignity and equality of all workers and all people all over the world,” adds Ghazah Abbasi, a GEO member who voted for the resolution.
Unionized graduate student workers simultaneously inhabit the worlds of organized labor and academia, putting them in a unique position to connect student movements and the labor movement.
In recent years, student governments on campuses across the country have approved BDS resolutions, prompted by activist groups like Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace Student Network. Several scholarly organizations — including the prominent American Studies Association — have also endorsed an academic boycott of Israeli universities.
“Speaking out about the occupation can be particularly risky for contingent faculty and grad employees,” says Waltman. “Supporters of Palestinian self-determination who teach on college campuses risk losing their jobs over something as simple as word choice in personal Twitter posts. Widespread union endorsements of BDS send a message that adjuncts, faculty and grad students in favor of BDS do not speak alone.”
Campus organizing around Palestinian rights is being met with increasing resistance, as criticisms of Israel are being equated with hate speech. Encouraged by pro-Israel opponents of BDS, last month, the University of California’s Board of Regents adopted a new anti-discrimination policy that comes close to conflating anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism. Meanwhile, the right-wing Zionist Organization of America recently alleged that pro-BDS groups and individuals at the City University of New York are promoting anti-Semitism, leading New York legislators to cut $485 million in state funding for the university as a way to “send a message.” (The funding cut was later rescinded by Governor Andrew Cuomo.)
Before UMass GEO members voted on their BDS resolution last week, six of the university’s faculty members wrote a letter to the editor in the student newspaper arguing that such a measure would be “discriminatory” because it “stigmatizes Israel.” Similarly, when the UAW IEB nullified Local 2865’s BDS resolution last year, it alleged “discriminatory labeling and disparagement” of Jewish and Israeli UAW members.
Even Hillary Clinton has attacked the BDS movement as an “alarming” effort “to malign and isolate the Jewish people.”
In a written statement in favor of the BDS resolution, Jewish GEO members countered that it is “anti-Semitic…to expect Jews to support Israel’s policies on the sole basis of their Jewishness.” They added that “as Jews, we feel an urgent need at the present moment to say ‘Not in our name’ as Israel commits human rights violations with impunity.”
Activists with the Palestine Solidarity Caucus tell In These Times that along with the BDS resolution last week, GEO members also overwhelmingly passed a measure reaffirming the union’s condemnation of all forms of discrimination, including anti-Semitism. Throughout the process, efforts were also made by the union to give BDS opponents a voice.
“In my role as union rep, I repeatedly reached out to people who I knew were in opposition to the resolution and let them know they were more than welcome — encouraged, in fact — to form their own caucus and to take advantage of union resources to organize a ‘No’ campaign,” Surkin says. “I think that kind of democratic engagement is healthy for a union and I respect it a lot, but nobody followed up, nobody responded to the offer.”
Instead, organizers say that a small number of opponents who allege BDS is discriminatory are making informal threats to file lawsuits against the union or go to the IEB, which is how the UC graduate workers’ resolution was eventually overturned.
“Opposition from within GEO has been extremely limited and without any grassroots support,” Goldstein says. “There were just a handful of people who came to the GEO open forum to speak out against the resolution, and most of them weren’t GEO members or grad students at all.”
Organizers say they will now urge the university and the UAW International to divest from Israeli state institutions and from companies that do business with Israel, as well as call on other labor organizations — including the Massachusetts AFL-CIO — to also endorse BDS.
The author was a GEO-UAW 2322 member at UMass-Amherst from 2012 to 2014. He never held an official position in the union and was in no way involved in their BDS efforts.
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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.