In July 2007, a group of labour leaders from the US issued a statement opposing the growing international campaign of boycotts, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel. The statement was signed by a number of presidents from unions including the American Federation of Teachers, the American Postal Workers Union, the Communication Workers of America, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, and the AFL-CIO(1). It was widely discussed in the Israeli media, where it was presented as a response to this summer’s important set of boycott resolutions from unions in the UK. While the US statement can in no way be seen as representative of grassroots sentiment within the North American trade union movement, as labour activists involved in a variety of Canadian unions we feel it is important to respond to the array of mistruths and distortions it contains.
Singling out Israel or International Solidarity?
The US statement begins by endorsing a sentiment that is repeated adnauseum by pro-Israel activists:
“with the diverse range of oppressive regimes around the world about which there is almost universal silence, we have to question the motives of these resolutions that single out one country in one conflict.”
The first thing to note about this argument is that it contains a remarkable omission. Nowhere in the entire US statement is there mention of the fact that the global campaign of BDS against Israel is a direct response to an urgent appeal signed in July 2005 by over 170 Palestinian worker, student, farmer, women, professional and refugee associations (2). This appeal was endorsed by every Palestinian trade union federation and is the broadest and most representative call for international solidarity ever made by Palestinian society.
This point bears repeating. To portray the call for boycott as a “simplistic and non-constructive approach” originating from outside the region deliberately obfuscates the central point of the BDS campaign. The global trade union support for boycott resolutions is a direct response to an urgent appeal from Palestinian workers and their representatives. Palestinian workers and their representatives have set up a picket line and asked us not to cross. As North American trade unionists we have an extra responsibility to workers and their families struggling against unjust and oppressive regimes – particularly when those regimes are fully supported by the US and Canadian governments.
It is worth emphasizing that attempts to characterize the international trade union movement as ‘singling out’ Israel appear ridiculous to anyone with more than a passing acquaintance with the labour politics. If there is one issue – particularly in North America - that the labour movement has simply been silent on for too many decades it is the injustice committed against the Palestinian people. The courageous resolutions coming from the UK, Canada and countries in Europe are a long overdue response to a shameful blight on the history of the international trade union movement. Our fellow trade unionists in the US should take up this campaign with even more vigour, given the fact that the crimes committed against the Palestinian people by the Israeli government would simply not be possible without US diplomatic, financial and military support.
The ’why-pick-on-Israel’ response to the boycott campaign is even more shocking to hear from the leaders of the largest and most influential union organizations in the US. What kind of trade unionists ever make the argument that we shouldn’t support a labour struggle in one city because there are other workers also being oppressed in another? Or that a victory in one sector won’t aid our struggles as workers in another? This is an essential ABC of international solidarity. It is an unfortunate truth that too many in the labour movement in the US - and Canada - have largely forgotten or deliberately buried the principle of ’an injury to one is an injury to all’. Nevertheless, we must constantly uphold and stress this principle as essential to rebuilding our respective labour movements around a platform of militant, progressive solidarity and anti-imperialism. It is indeed striking that the US statement avoids all mention of even the word ’solidarity’.
We are absolutely certain that the trade unionists in the US that are active around solidarity with Palestine are the same ones promoting other solidarity issues in the labour movement: the wars against the Iraqi and Afghan peoples, solidarity with workers in Mexico, Columbia, Egypt, the Philippines,and many others. These activists are also on the forefront of picket lines, organizing the unorganized, building support for undocumented workers, and leading ‘unauthorized’ strikes for social justice. The portrayal of BDS resolutions as narrowing the work of trade union activists is simply dishonest. A victory on one of these issues will inspire and mobilize activists across a broad range of social justice issues. This is our experience in Canada. It is certain to be the case elsewhere.
The ‘Both Sides’ Argument
The US labour leaders’ statement also invokes the equally oft-repeated argument that we need to be ‘balanced’, look at ‘all sides’, avoid talking about the ‘victims and victimizer’, and so forth. The statement claims:
“We note with increasing concern that virtually all of these [BDS] resolutions focus solely on objections to actions or policies of the Israeli government, and never on actions or policies of Palestinian or other Arab governments, parties or movements. We notice with increasing concern that characterization of the Palestinians as victims and Israel as victimizer is a staple of such resolutions. That there are victims and victimizers on all sides, and that many if not most of the victims of violence and repression on all sides are civilians, are essential items often not mentioned in these resolutions.”
This argument of balance is willfully blind and deliberately obfuscating of the central political issues at hand. There is an underlying cause to the ongoing misery and suffering that affects peoples in the area – and it affects some people more than others: The destruction of the Palestinian homeland in 1948; the creation of an exclusivist state that closely resembles the apartheid state of South Africa; the continued occupation, since 1967, of Palestinian lands in the West Bank and East Jerusalem in violation of UN resolutions; and the current encirclement, siege and economic strangulation of Gaza; these are the root problems of the conflict. Israel (with U.S. and British support) is the key perpetrator of these violations and it is morally disingenuous to deploy arguments of ‘all sides equally guilty’. These violations of the Palestinian peoples and nation must be addressed if a genuine and just peace is to be achieved in the region. Avoiding these issues – and repeating vacuous calls that serve to equate the oppressed and their oppressors – really means standing on the side of those in power.
Of course civilians on all sides suffer from the ongoing state of war. But if you want to do something about that, then the fundamental causes of the problem need to be addressed. The global BDS movement attempts to do just that: by denying legitimacy to those who make a living justifying the current state of affairs; by refusing to work with organizations that support the oppression of an entire people; and by opposing investments that strengthen the occupation and domination of the Palestinian people. Peace can only be brought to the region by supporting peoples struggling for their freedom and social justice.
The Negotiations Myth
The US labour leaders’ statement goes on to argue that peace requires the coming together of the parties. The calls for boycotts stand in the way of the necessary interaction between the warring communities. Such an argument is again similar to those used against workers engaged in struggle in their workplaces. How often have we been told that a strike ‘hurts everyone’, and if we sit down and negotiate then ‘all sides will win’?
The reality is that over the last few decades the so-called ‘peace’ negotiations have simply served to cement Israel’s stranglehold over the Palestinian people. Following the 1993 Oslo Accords, Israel’s settlement construction in the West Bank doubled. Its system of military orders governing every aspect of Palestinian life was expanded to include an invidious control of Palestinian movement based on the notorious South African pass card system. Israel guaranteed the complete dependence of the Palestinian economy through control of all exports and imports, the construction of industrial zones to exploit cheap Palestinian labour, and the ultimate supply of all water, electricity, and fuel entering the Palestinian areas. The disconnected islands of territories that Palestinians have been made captive within have been rightly described as Bantustans. These Bantustans are now encircled by the Apartheid Wall and its associated network of military checkpoints, barbed wire fences and explosive mines.
To claim that ‘direct talks’ are a panacea for these fundamental problems overlooks the basic fact that negotiations are not neutral. The Israeli government wields tremendous military, economic and political superiority over the Palestinian people. It is supported by the most powerful states on the planet. The Palestinian people are living under Israeli occupation. In such a situation can it be anything more than self-evident that negotiations will favour the more powerful? These realities of power in the region – and its implications for the achievement of rights of self-determination and justice for Palestinians – must be acknowledged to truly demonstrate international solidarity. It means taking sides. As unionists we know that this means always being in the front ranks supporting those suffering against exploitation and oppression.
There are groups of people in Israel that respect the rights of Palestinians, maintain relations of solidarity and support for their struggle, and also support the BDS movement against Israeli apartheid. Much like the relations between the white South African supporters of the ANC and the liberation movement, the former fully supported the struggle and renounced the privileges and the superior status given to them by the racist regime. We are absolutely confident that the numbers and public profile of those courageous Israelis who stand with the Palestinian people will continue to increase alongside the growing strength of the global boycott movement.
Israeli and Palestinian Unions
What about the Palestinian and Israeli trade unions? Once again, the silence of the US labour leaders’ statement towards the call issued by all Palestinian trade union federations in February 2007 to boycott the existing Israeli union movement – the Histadrut – needs to be underlined (3). The Histadrut represents a colonial-type union formation that supports the ongoing domination of the Palestinian people. It has worked hand-in-hand with the military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip for decades, and is thus an integral part of the exploitation of Palestinian labour. The former Histadrut leader, Amir Peretz, moved straight on to Israeli Defence Minister and in that position presided over the horrendous bombardment of Lebanon in 2006. As part of Olmert’s government, he participated in the further extension of settlements in the West Bank and the building of the Apartheid Wall. The relationships that exist between the Histradrut and Palestinian labour institutions can in no honest way be described as constituting “co-operative and mutually supportive activities”.
The purpose of boycott and divestment resolutions is to force the Israeli government to fulfill basic principles of human rights. Governments around the world have clearly failed to do so – and, in contrast, are instrumental to supporting Israel’s system of oppression. The BDS campaign message is direct: it simply says that we should have no part in supporting those who stand with and maintain Israeli apartheid; we refuse to participate with and strengthen those structures and demand that basic human rights are achieved for the Palestinian people.
The boycott campaign is working. What other international initiative over the last few decades has so publicly expressed global dissatisfaction with Israeli policies against the Palestinian people and been so effective in forcing the Israeli government to respond? We know that we are having an impact when the Israeli government decides to set up a special government committee to combat the global boycott movement (4). We know that our voices are being heard when the British government must publicly come out against the UK trade union movement because of its position on Israeli human rights violations (5). When was the last time a western government has paid attention to a trade union resolution?
The BDS movement is also a powerful consciousness raising tool. By raising the arguments and debates we help to educate workers around an issue that it is simply impossible to understand on a diet of the mainstream, corporate media. In Canada, for example, union activists in the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE Ontario) have been conducting a year-long education campaign throughout dozens of union locals based on material produced by the union on BDS. Hundreds of workers have gone through these educational sessions. Discussions and groups supportive of Palestinian solidarity have formed in other unions. This would simply not have been possible without a resolution passed by CUPE in March 2006.
Over the past fifty years much of the trade union movement in the US (and many in Canada as well) have an inglorious record in supporting the foreign policy efforts of successive pro-business governments. Nevertheless, today a growing number of trade unionists are rejecting that tradition and are instead looking to rebuild a truly internationalist worker’s movement. The BDS campaign is a powerful component of this movement for progressive union solidarity.
As Canadian trade unionists, we are convinced that the global BDS campaign represents a re-awakening of the true principles of the labour movement. The boycott movement was an important part of solidarity with black South Africans struggling against apartheid. We are certain that it will be an instrumental part of achieving justice and peace in the Middle East. We are proud to be active in this campaign in Canada. A great many rank-and-file labour activists in the US support this work. Their voices and solidarity will not be silenced.
(1) A copy of this statement.
(2) See www.stopthewall.org/downloads/pdf/BDSEnglish.pdf
(3) See www.stopthewall.org/boycott/bds/cupe.shtml
(4) See “Government to Form Joint Task Force to counter U.K. Boycotts”, Haaretz, 8 June 2007 www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/868700.html
(5) See British Embassy Tel Aviv, “Howells Comments on Boycott of Israeli Goods” www.britemb.org.il/news/2007/howells180407.htm
About Labour for Palestine: Labour for Palestine is a network of activists involved in promoting and strengthening the BDS campaign across a variety of different Canadian unions as a sub-committee of the Coalition Against Israeli Apartheid (CAIA).