Podcast / On The Nose
On the Nose is our biweekly podcast. The editorial staff discusses the politics, culture, and questions that animate today’s Jewish left.
Labor’s Palestine Paradox
Duration
0:00 / 39:44
Published
January 3, 2024

The US labor movement has had an exciting few years. Labor unions are gaining popularity among the general public as workers organize at new shops from Amazon to Starbucks to Harvard. Perhaps most critically, legacy unions are experiencing a democratic upsurge, with both the Teamsters and the United Auto Workers (UAW) recently electing militant leaders. This revival has also been expanding labor’s purview, with unions increasingly taking on demands that exceed “bread-and-butter” concerns about wages and benefits.

But the renaissance in labor is now being tested, as rank-and-file workers begin to demand that their unions break long-standing ties with Israel and materially support Palestinian liberation. This challenge is particularly stark in unions like the UAW, which represent workers producing the weapons being used to kill Palestinians. On this episode of On The Nose, news editor Aparna Gopalan speaks to historian Jeff Schuhrke, organizer Zaina Alsous, and journalist Alex Press about the labor movement’s deep imbrication in Zionism and militarism, the rank-and-file efforts that have challenged this status quo over the decades, and what’s at stake in labor embracing an anti-imperialist politics.

Thanks to Jesse Brenneman for producing and to Nathan Salsburg for the use of his song “VIII (All That Were Calculated Have Passed).”

Articles Mentioned and Further Reading

The Problem of the Unionized War Machine,” Jeff Schuhrke, Jewish Currents

US Labor Has Long Been a Stalwart Backer of Israel. That’s Starting to Change,” Jeff Schuhrke, Jacobin

The UAW Has Had a Big Year. They’re Preparing for an Even Bigger One,” Alex Press, Jacobin

A Night at the Movies With Brandon Mancilla,” Alex Press, The Nation

A Working-Class Foreign Policy Is Coming,” Spencer Ackerman, The Nation

Thousands of Palestinian Workers Have Gone Missing in Israel,” Taj Ali, Jacobin

This Union Is Famous for Opposing South African Apartheid. Now It’s Standing With Gaza,” Sarah Lazare, The Nation

Respecting the BDS Picket Line,” Labor for Palestine

Stop Arming Israel. End All Complicity,” Workers in Palestine

Transcript

Aparna Gopalan: Hello, and welcome to On the Nose, the Jewish Currents podcast. I’m news editor Aparna Gopalan, and I will be your host today. Today’s episode, which was recorded in mid-December, was about the response of the US labor movement to the ongoing genocide of Palestinians in Gaza. In November, we published a piece by historian Jeff Schuhrke, which showed that many of the weapons the US is now sending to Israel are being made in Union shops. This forms a key contradiction within US labor, which has otherwise been experiencing a renaissance as rank-and-file movements oust corrupt leaders and adopt an increasingly militant, social justice-oriented unionism. For example, the United Auto Workers (or UAW) elected reformist leader Shawn Fain last year, and he has already adopted a much more militant posture to the boss, as well as a much more expansive understanding of what counts as a union issue. But the events in Gaza test the limits of this reform movement’s strength. So even though the UAW, under pressure from the rank and file, has called for a ceasefire and said that it would like to start exploring a just transition for its weapons workers, UAW-made weapons are still being sent to Israel right now. Today’s episode explores this paradox. It also talks about the history of unions’ implication in Zionism and US imperialism and talks about what is at stake in labor breaking free from these ideologies.

We’re joined by three guests today that I’m really excited to introduce. We have Jeff Schuhrke, who is a labor historian, journalist, and union activist who teaches at Harry Van Arsdale Jr. School of Labor Studies at SUNY. Welcome, Jeff.

Jeff Schuhrke: Thanks for having me. It’s great to be here.

AG: Zaina Alsous is our second guest. Zaina works in the labor movement in South Florida and is the author of a poetry collection, A Theory of Birds. Hi, Zaina.

Zaina Alsous: Thanks for having me.

AG: And our final guest is Alex Press, staff writer at Jacobin who covers labor organizing. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Nation, Jewish Currents, and many other places. Hi, Alex.

Alex Press: Hi. Thanks for having me.

AG: So just to start off, it seems like since October 7, when this most recent war on Gaza began, there are two different strands in the labor movement. On the one hand, there’s masses of rank-and-file organizers who are getting politicized around Palestine. There’s people who are passing resolutions in their union locals, there’s people attending marches, doing political education and teach-ins, and doing shop floor actions, et cetera. On the other hand, we have labor leaders, many of whom have been, at best, staying silent, or at worst, aligning with the most repressive and anti-worker forces around. How are you seeing this duality playing out in the unions that you’re either part of or paying attention to? Also, is this the right characterization, or is there some other kind of balance of forces?

AP: My experience is, it’s actually a little more complicated now. And I think it’s a limited experience. It’s based on particular unions that I’m in or have spoken to people about this issue in. I’m a member of the News Guild of New York. I think our leadership is actually fairly on the right side of things on this, but they represent members, including—you know, The New York Times is the biggest unit in the local. So actually, there has been a very active, hearteningly democratic, open airing of members’ views. We’ve had meetings where any member can come at the nationwide level for new skilled CWA to talk about the issue. And it’s actually the rank and file where the split is; there’s a huge number of members who wanted the union to put out a statement endorsing ceasefire very quickly, after October 7, when it became clear what Israel’s project in Gaza was. And there are other people who vehemently reject the idea that a news union, specifically, should say anything. So it’s actually been a really interesting kind of debate.

Obviously, it’s clear what side I’m on in this debate, and I think the key argument people have been making is: Journalists, particularly, are getting fired or otherwise silenced and censored for speaking up about this, and so what is the union’s point if not to speak wherein an individual cannot? I think a lot of people find that argument convincing. Other members still say (for a variety of specific-to-this-industry reasons) the union can’t say anything. Just to give one more example of the flip side, the UAW has been a really interesting counterfactual to the general picture I think many of us often give, of the rank-and-file wanting an end to US labor-supportive Zionism, and the leadership doesn’t. Brandon Mancilla, who’s the UAW region 9A director (New York, New England, and Puerto Rico are the areas he represents), he was the one who introduced the news that the UAW’s international head voted to endorse ceasefire. And in doing so, he quoted Walter Reuthor and Reuthor’s break from supporting the Vietnam War and saying that we need a transition to peace and not wider theatres of war. And I think it’s true that within the UAW, some of this actually came from the leadership as much as the rank and file.

AG: That’s really interesting. Because in the UAW, for example, I know that myself and a bunch of UAW members were part of an internal pressure campaign, which was aimed at Brandon Mancilla before the announcement. And so it is true that the leadership is receptive, but they’re receptive because the rank and file has taken over the union.

ZA: I think that’s exactly right. And I think that we’re seeing the afterlife or the lineages of unions with a strong internationalist solidarity lens. So ILWU Local 10 in the Bay Area, since the 70s (as Sara Lazare reported on), have been really explicit in an anti-apartheid stance and now have been vocal for ceasefire. The United Electrical Workers, UE, has also called for a ceasefire, and famously was the first international union in the US to sign on to BDS. And then exactly as you just shared right now, it’s really interesting because we’re seeing the fruits of labor of the rank-and-file strategy since the early 2000s, when this strategy was really planting its seeds. I think I, like most fans of the labor movement, am a big fan of Shawn Fain, but I’m also hesitant to romanticize Shawn Fain as an individual. I really think that Shawn Fain is a byproduct of years of rank-and-file struggle within the UAW. Jeff has done an amazing job reporting on their workers’ caucus and other sorts of insurgent movements within the UAW, and I think that what we’re seeing right now with the UAW is really a response or responsiveness to the rank and file. And now, AFT team members are also calling on their union leadership to call for a ceasefire. So I wouldn’t distinguish Palestine solidarity from the rank-and-file strategy, and if anything, I think what I’m hopeful for is to see more of a rank-and-file strategy around Palestine and see Palestine very much as connected to the rank-and-file strategy and its fruition.

JS: I don’t want to romanticize people like Shawn Fain, but I also don’t want to romanticize the rank and file either. Like Alex was saying, plenty of rank and filers don’t think labor should speak up on this or are very pro-Israel, or very pro-Zionist. There’s also the recent history—just since 2021, the last time Israel was bombarding Gaza, there were these similar kinds of dynamics happening within unions debating whether to put out a statement to call for a ceasefire, or to make any other kind of statement of solidarity with Palestine, or to endorse BDS. And oftentimes, whenever a union does endorse BDS or tries to (or a union local), there’s incredible pushback from pro-Israel groups, from Zionist groups in the United States—very coordinated, well-funded campaigns to attack these unions. And especially—I’m an AFT member—for public-sector workers, for teacher unions and other public-sector unions, post-Janus, where you can basically opt out of paying dues, a lot of union leaders—and even rank-and-file leaders—are concerned about doing anything that might politically alienate members and get them to want to invoke Janus and not pay dues. So, a lot of people within the labor movement are already familiar with this. This isn’t the first time these kinds of debates or these kinds of movements have come up around Palestine. So it enters into this sort of calculation of: Well, I might want to push for a statement, but what are going to be the consequences? And there’s a lot of debate and discussion about that, or sometimes no debate and discussion about that because of the recent history of outside groups coming in and pushing back and all the controversy that it creates.

AP: I see this moment as a time where anything can happen, and things can happen quickly. We’re seeing that in the mass movement writ large around Palestine right now—I certainly was shocked by how many people were in DC. It’s like, oh, things are changing quickly. But also within labor. A few weeks ago, or maybe a month ago, I was interviewing Shawn Fain. And of course, I saved the question for last after we’d gotten to all the other actual points of the interview, I said: Hey, by the way, I know MLK is a big inspiration for you, and at a certain point with Vietnam, he saw things so atrocious he felt he had to speak, even when his allies didn’t. Do you feel that we’re in a similar point with Gaza? And Shawn did not take the bait—I’m loosely rewording his answer here. He said: We’re focused on building our union. He said: We’ll speak out if and when it feels right. And sure enough, not that long after that interview. Brandon and other regional directors and Shawn were targeted by that campaign that Aparna just spoke of. And so Brandon and another regional director put it on the agenda for the international exec board to discuss and Shawn said: Yeah, let’s talk about it, you can’t avoid it. And sure enough, by the end of that meeting, they endorsed ceasefire. They also said: Let’s look at the really thorny stuff that Jeff, in particular, has written really well about for Jewish Currents, about the fact that the UAW and other unions represent members who, you know, the things they produce are used to kill Palestinians. And that is—to me, it’s even more important than just endorsing ceasefire, a sort of recognition that you can’t hide from the contradictions any longer. That’s why I opened by saying, I think it’s actually kind of messy now as far as the rank and file versus the leadership. But certainly, I think the takeaway is we should all be pushing, because there’s room to push.

AG: One thing that you mentioned, Alex, and that’s started to come up already in the conversation, is that the reason it’s so difficult inside labor for Palestine to become the clear-cut moral issue that it’s becoming on much of the left outside labor is that labor has had a very specific history in being imbricated in Zionism for a really long time. This is something that Jeff, I know you’ve written about for a bunch of different outlets, tracing—since the very beginning of the State of Israel (or even earlier than that)— very material and concrete ways in which labor unions have been supporting that settler-colonial project. Could you just speak a little bit about what those forms of support look like and how that has informed the difficulty in divesting—I don’t just mean in a material sense, but psychologically—divesting from this project.

JS: US labor’s support for Zionism (and for the State of Israel) goes back over 100 years, to as early as 1917, at the American Federation of Labor convention that year, where the delegates passed a resolution calling for the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine. This was as the US was entering World War I. At that same AFL convention, the AFL basically endorsed US entry into World War I and began this long and unsavory relationship with US militarism and imperialism. And then, throughout the 1920s and 30s, during the period of the British Mandate, Histadrut, which is the main labor Zionist organization that functions at once as a trade union federation but also, especially in the 20s, 30s, and 40s, was involved in creating communal farms, and industrial enterprises, and banks, and health care clinics—really doing the practical work of settler colonialism, of building up a Jewish-exclusive economy to bring in and absorb all the Jewish settlers who were coming in (and deliberately excluding the indigenous Palestinian population from that economy).

US unions, they saw what was a nominally socialist—those labor Zionists, they called themselves socialists, believed themselves to be socialists—developing this economy that was all about centering workers and developing a new modern country there in Palestine. And so, a lot of US union leaders (who themselves were not Zionists but were or had previously been socialists) thought that this was a really exciting, worthwhile project, and a lot of the especially Jewish American labor leaders with the needle trades unions, like the International Ladies Garment Workers Union—David Dubinsky was the leader of that. Famously, David Dubinsky never considered himself a Zionist and yet was very supportive of Histadrut and the creation of Israel. And then, in 1948, when Israel was founded, labor leaders were really pressuring President Truman and the government to recognize Israel, lobbying to send weapons to Israel, basically to facilitate the Nakba and to expel Palestinians. It’s some scary stuff when you read about it, that they were saying: Yes, we need to send guns to the Zionist militias that were then involved in carrying out ethnic cleansing.

And then, once Israel was created, US unions were continuing to send lots of money—millions of dollars—to Histadrut, setting up a housing bond corporation to build houses for incoming Jewish settlers, and eventually, from the 1950s onward to the present day, purchasing state of Israel bonds, directly investing union pension funds and union dues and union health care funds and strike funds into the state of Israel, with Israel using that money for infrastructure projects. So that material support and also constant political support, always lobbying on behalf of Israel—especially in those early years of the 50s and 60s, when the US government was not the staunch ally for Israel that it is today. Every time that there was another war between Israel and one of the surrounding Arab states, US labor leaders were issuing statements. We mentioned Walter Reuthor earlier; he was very much always saying: We need to support Israel all the way, Israel has a right to defend itself, that kind of stuff that we hear even still today. And then, constant delegations over to Israel by labor leaders visiting. Many public facilities in Israel being named after labor leaders—orphanages, and schools and sports stadiums, and community centers and hospitals, bearing the names of famous labor leaders like Reuthor, like George Meany, David Lubinski, Jimmy Hoffa, and others.

So there’s a really close relationship between US labor and Israel historically; I think, to some extent that’s maybe weakened, especially since 1977, after the Zionist Labor Party in Israel ended its monopoly on power and the Likud party has become more and more powerful. But there’s still traces of that, to be sure, in people like Randi Weingarten (president of AFT), who visits Israel a lot and was just there very recently, and Stuart Appelbaum (the president of RW-DSU), who’s also one of the most staunchly pro-Israel labor leaders in the US right now.

AP: I was gonna say, Jeff: Learning that there’s a James Hoffa children’s home in Ein Karem, and a Philip Murray Memorial Center, this is shocking to me. It’s not just metaphorical ties, but quite literally, they’re naming public institutions after the American labor movement’s leaders.

AG: Yeah, I think that really starts answering a question you really hear a lot in union spaces, which is: What does this have to do with us?

ZA: One thing I did want to offer, actually, for this conversation—something I’ve been thinking about a lot, and don’t see mentioned often: I have noted some pretty chilling parallels between the state of undocumented immigrant workers in the US and workers in Palestine living under occupation. I think that both in terms of the relationship of Israel and the US collaborating to supply counter-revolutionary movements across Latin America, across the Americas, and undermine democratic governance across the region that then has obviously informed migration up until today. I think reading Stephen Miller’s (a very strong Zionist) plans around what the Trump administration seeks to accomplish around their immigration policies (if reelected), around mass deportation, which ultimately could constitute a form of ethnic cleansing—mass removal of (oftentimes Indigenous) workers from Latin America, from land that they historically lived on. And I was also struck by the LA Times reporting on the conditions of day laborers and just how egregious and unsafe some other conditions are, just a month after Jacobin reported on how day laborers out of Gaza had been disappeared.

So I think that the role and the conditions of undocumented workers is also an existential question for the labor movement in the US. What we’re really seeing when it comes to undocumented immigrant labor is: Where is the floor for the working class? And really, the precedent that’s being set for undocumented workers living in the US—and for Palestinian workers living under occupation—is threat of death, threat of expulsion, as setting the floor that then sets the precedent of all of our shared labor conditions. And I think that’s something that I hope the labor movement evokes a bit more. But I do think it’s also a reflection of some of the insularism that we’ve seen out of many major labor unions over the last several decades. So, only focusing on maintaining their existing base of dues-paying members as opposed to wanting to exert popular leadership over the broader labor movement and political terrain.

AG: That’s a really helpful connection, Zaina, especially because, as we’ve been seeing, there’s very concrete ways in which the anti-immigrant project in the US is tied into what’s happening in Israel and Israel/Palestine, because even this $14 billion-dollar additional funding that’s going to be sent to Israel is now becoming a tool with which Republicans are moving Democrats on the issue of the border. And so these issues are completely one, for the right, and they ought not to be separate for the left.

Just to go back to something that a few of you mentioned earlier: as long As this kind of system has existed, where US workers have been pitted against workers elsewhere, there have also been workers who have resisted this. Zaina, you mentioned the Arab workers (about whom Jeff has written) going on a wildcat strike in, I believe, 1973 around the issue of Palestine. But that’s only one example, and there have been other popular movements within labor, challenging both the connection to Zionism and also the connection to Imperial adventures in Vietnam and other places. I wonder if any of you could speak about what those efforts were and what happened to them?

AP: One example that inevitably comes up when we talk about workers in the United States opposing imperialism and war is [when] the ILWU famously refused to handle goods for apartheid South Africa. And this is rightfully held up as a prime example, an inspiring one, of why it’s so important that workers specifically oppose war. Not to discount mass protests against apartheid South Africa, but just a handful of workers have so much leverage to materially stop the weapons from getting there. I raised that, actually, because while there are ILWU members who still support doing this around weapons going to Israel and have, in the past, shut down ships, refused to handle goods or help move ships along (especially on the west coast in Oakland) that were destined for Israel—when you look at the current and recent protests to stop the boats and the weapons from going to Israel, it’s actually community and the Palestine Solidarity movement that is making use of ILWU members’ right to not cross picket lines or respect any kind of health and safety problem. The activists use that to block the boat, but there’s actually very few workers who are endorsing or even leading this stuff. And that’s not a condemnation, I think it’s just a reflection of where we are at in the US labor movement; that this common-sense blockading and militancy—the muscle hasn’t been used in a while There is rank-and-file resistance, and ILWU is particularly kind of left wing on a lot of international issues and imperialism, and yet, when push comes to shove, there’s actually very few members who are getting to the frontline of these actions. And it’s just an open question, I think, for all of us and for the movement, about how to rectify that.

JS: Yeah. And this gets back to that question of the possible divide between top labor officials and rank-and-file members. It’s important to think about how, throughout much of the 20th century, starting with World War I as an experiment, and then especially from World War II and throughout the Cold War, from the 1940s to 1990s, US labor leaders were completely on board with US militarism and imperialism for many reasons. Part of it had to do with—during World Wars I and II, the US government needed rapid and uninterrupted industrial production for the war effort. And this was before the US had the largest military in the world with hundreds of bases all over the globe. When the US went to war, there was a need to actually build up a war machine, almost from scratch, and labor leaders (like Samuel Gompers during World War I, and William Greene and George Meany during World War II) made this agreement with the federal government that said: We will keep our people in line, we’ll make sure that more production goes smoothly, there won’t be any strikes or any trouble, and in exchange for that, the federal government needs to provide certain protections to help us grow our membership, to have better benefits and wages and hours. And that Faustian bargain seemed to work for the short term, especially for white male industrial workers in the core of the economy.

That kind of calculation continued throughout the whole Cold War, but also anticommunism was a huge factor. Many of these top labor officials were adamantly anticommunist—not only from an ideological or political perspective, but also from a deeply personal perspective, because they themselves, earlier in their union careers, had battled against communists within their own unions and pushed out communists, and they considered themselves the experts at fighting communism overseas, and trying to convince foreign workers and foreign unions in the global south that capitalism was better—that you can have a great standard of living, and rapid industrial production, and high mass consumption following the US model of collective bargaining. And this has to be said: labor leaders were working directly with the CIA and the State Department and the National Endowment for Democracy, a lot of these arms of the US foreign policy apparatus, to influence workers’ movements overseas. And this is partly why many US labor leaders were completely on board with the Vietnam War, even as the war became more and more unpopular.

But this kind of gets to your question, Aparna: There is this important tradition of rank and filers pushing back against this. Most of the time, rank and filers didn’t even know about any of this because it wasn’t very transparent or open, but when they found out, they usually protested. They usually organized against war, particularly in Vietnam. Just like now, how you see more and more unions, little by little, calling for a ceasefire, during Vietnam, you were seeing more and more unions, little by little, calling for an end to the war, for the US to completely leave Southeast Asia. During the Iraq War, for the first time because of US labor against the war, a network of anti-war unionists convinced the AFL-CIO (at its convention in 2004, I believe) to put forward a resolution saying: We want this war to end, and saying this war was begun on false pretexts of weapons of mass destruction that weren’t there. And it doesn’t seem like a big deal, the AFL-CIO saying the Iraq War is bad, but it’s the only time the AFL-CIO has ever officially been against any war that the US has waged. And that was only because of this movement from below.

And there are many other examples like this. One of the notable things we talked a lot about the ILWU (International Longshore and Warehouse Union): For most of its history, it’s been outside of the AFL-CIO. It’s an independent union, except for briefly between, like, 1988 and 2013. And so it’s had, I think, a little bit more freedom and leverage to take some of these anti-imperialist, anti-colonial, anti-apartheid positions. And similarly with UE that we also mentioned (United Electrical Workers), which was the first union to call for a ceasefire, to call for an end to US military aid to Israel, and to endorse BDS back in 2015. UE has always been independent, and in fact, the UE was started by those leftist Communists who were pushed out of the CIO during the early period of the Cold War. So there’s this connection, I think, between the history of the Cold War and anticommunism and those divides and what the AFL-CIO in particular became, and the unions affiliated with it, and their ties to US imperialism, and what’s happening right now in terms of US labor’s position on the assault on Gaza.

AP: As you were speaking, Jeff, I was thinking of—I was just outside of Erie, Pennsylvania this past summer. There’s a big UE shop there. Wabtec is the company, manufactures locomotives. It’s this gigantic, sprawling complex, an unbelievably large place that used to employ many more workers than it does now. Anyway, those workers struck this summer. They had complaints around wages and benefits, but also for a couple of things, one being the right to strike over grievances, meaning the plant had new ownership that was violating their contracts constantly. They had no recourse. They were like: We need this clause back in our contract that we used to have. And they also want to build green locomotives. They know the stuff they create is incredibly polluting, it’s often polluting them and their families and other working-class people who live along the rails, and so they wanted to push the company on this. And so, those are more radical demands, and they come back to this broader question of the right for workers to decide certain things and control over the shop floor.

Anyway, all of that is a prelude to say that Carl Rosen, the UE president—I spoke to him about this, and he said to me: One of the great tragedies of the American labor movement is that in the McCarthy era, most of the labor movement decided to give up the fight over controlling conditions on the shop floor. And I think this is a connection that we’re seeing quite explicitly at times now. Most obviously in the UAW, where there was a fight to control what types of cars are being produced, and a fight to ensure that electric vehicle plants are going to have good union conditions ‚and safe conditions, and decent wages. And this leads both the membership and the leadership to speak of the idea of fighting for the public—you know, we’re not going to take this Faustian bargain and create polluting cars until we all die of a polluted planet. We want a say over the direction of our industry.

And I think that also is a throughline that’s starting to be heard around Palestine, the question of: What does this have to do with us? Jeff has especially laid out the history of like: We’ve made it about us by quite literally constructing the State of Israel. But also, we have the right to question what we’re producing in our plants, if it’s weaponry or if it’s something else, as well as other broader questions that are part and parcel with this renewed radicalization of sorts across the US labor movement in general, people starting to think beyond the bread and butter into these bigger questions. And again, that is so connected to the question of the left and labor having been divided in America because of that McCarthyism and that anticommunist purge. I think there’s a concerted effort among the rank and file and among the left to build those ties again, and I think we’re already starting to see the fruits of that in this moment.

AG: Why is it so important that the labor movement in particular get this right about Palestine? I just wanted to hone in on the stakes of these rank-and-file efforts happening now, but also of leadership right now taking a ceasefire position. Why is it significant that the UAW said they would be calling for a ceasefire? What, materially, might it mean? So far, as far as I can tell, it hasn’t materially meant anything. You know, UAW workers are making guns that are going to be sent to the West Bank, to arm settlers who kill children. I guess I just want to imagine with you all what possibilities there might be for the labor movement in the US to actualize a free Palestine.

JS: To me, what was especially important about the UAW announcement about a ceasefire was the coupled announcement that there was going to be the creation of this new divestment and just transition working group. I don’t know what that’s going to look like or what that’s going to mean, but that, to me, seems in the long term more meaningful. Just knowing how much money, right now, does the UAW have invested in Israel, whether in actual State of Israel bonds or through pension funds and other types of funds in companies that do business with Israel (and not just the UAW, obviously, but every union in the US): That information is not really out there. So having the leadership of an international union actually committing to looking into these things and discussing these things is an important first step. And I know that, for many Zionist organizations and pro-Israel groups, they consider organized labor to be their greatest ally outside of explicitly Jewish organizations in the US. So pro-Israel groups are really afraid of losing the US labor movement’s support. Just knowing that should give encouragement to pro-Palestine folks in the labor movement, that their organizing activism really does matter.

And looking to the history of the Arab wildcat strike, their main demand in 1973 was calling on the UAW to divest from Israel. So some of how it materially could look is just actually divesting using the BDS strategy. And the political aspect as well. Joe Biden likes to call himself the most pro-union president in history. He was the first sitting President to go to a picket line, to a UAW picket line. He went to Belvedere last month for a UAW rally, where he was called out by someone in the audience to call for a ceasefire. So the fact that his labor allies are calling on him to call for a ceasefire could be important. Also, just the fact that there is a call from Palestinian trade unions, an international call for solidarity, to not manufacture or ship weapons that Israel is using to kill Palestinians. Usually, in the labor movement, there’s the slogan, that an injury to one is an injury to all, and when one union or one group of workers calls for solidarity, you try to honor that call, or you do honor that call. So it’s as simple as that, really. It doesn’t have to get much more complicated. There are unionists saying: Don’t send weapons to Israel. Listen to their call.

AP: The US labor movement is absolutely failing to respond to that at the concrete level: Refuse to build weapons destined for Israel; refuse to transport weapons to Israel; take action against complicit companies involved in implementing Israel’s brutal and illegal siege, especially if they have contracts with your institution; and then pressure governments to stop all military trade with Israel (and, in the case of the US, funding to it). So the UAW thing is a very positive step for precisely the reasons Jeff outlined, but I think a lot of us, at the rank-and-file level, the conclusions we’re reaching is that there are other institutions and organizations to further these aims if unions are going to move too slowly. I bring that up because I helped start this organization, Writers Against the War on Gaza, which is composed of—we have like 10,000 signatories to our statement that launched it—but it is composed of workers across culture industries, in particular, who feel that our unions (as much as we’ll keep pushing them) are not going to answer these calls, for a variety of reasons. It actually has been a productive inside/outside, all-hands-on-deck moment, in that—as I mentioned, I’m in the News Guild of New York. This is a very real question. Something like 83 journalists now have been killed by Israel in Gaza since this war started, and so for us, it feels like a really concrete question and a huge failing of the American news workers that there’s so little push on this. Not to discount where it exists, but certainly, the institutions are not amenable. You know, The New York Times has not said: We need a ceasefire. Even as dozens of journalists are killed, not to mention tens of thousands of other civilians. So it’s been really interesting, in that one thing our organization has been doing is targeting individual institutions and getting them to sign on to PACBI, which is the Palestinian Campaign to Boycott—culturally and academically—Israel. So it’s part of BDS. There’s a lot of people who have been receptive, and so, I think there’s this moment where that pressure also has its own impacts inside unions, as well.

ZA: There are a lot of people who believe (and I’m one of them) that one strategy around the future of labor in the US is to find a way to expand the terms of bargaining beyond conditions of employment—to be able to leverage contract negotiation for the common good, the public good. I think that will be a really interesting terrain around questions of supporting weapons and wars in other countries for the near future. On another level, good or bad, however, people might feel about unions-—the reality is, they are the largest democratic institutions in the United States. We know historically, whether it be the struggle against apartheid in South Africa, where union support against apartheid was an integral part of the movement to successfully end that regime. What I hope for this moment, even if it’s only the beginning of more material and concrete changes, is a significant narrative shift and mainstreaming of opposition to occupation and apartheid in occupied Palestine. And I think that the reality is that unions are enjoying very widespread public support in this moment, and it matters what Shawn Fain and other labor leaders say on this issue. I was moved by his statement on Twitter, saying: Historically, the UAW has taken a position, whether it be against fascism in World War II or against Apartheid. I thought that was quite strong—and, frankly, a lot stronger than what we’ve heard from really tepid and failed leadership right now from the Democratic Party. So I think a lot of us are looking to labor to take stances and to play a leadership role to end the occupation in Palestine,

AG: To Alex’s point about if labor is gonna move too slowly, there need to be other structures, I think there’s also the flip side of it, which is that some of the other structures aren’t able to go all the way there without labor. One thing that Jeff’s piece opens with is this protest that happened at this Colt factory in Connecticut, where the Connecticut DSA shows up and drops banners outside—they shut down an eight-hour shift, and they just kind of hang out there. And that’s important. And I think we need that; we need those eight-hour shifts to be shut down. But I think now that there is the UAW commitment to a just transition (or the UAW exploration of a just transition), now it starts looking possible that the next time those activists show up at Colt, they can enter a conversation with the workers at the plant. Because to shut down the plant forever—to not just shut it down for eight hours—that can’t be done without labor. Labor and the DSA have to not be on opposite sides of a picket line. So I think coming out of the plant (metaphorically and also literally) and joining people outside—we’re calling for an end to genocide—feels like the labor movement we want.

ZA: Those of us who are coming of age in the labor movement now, we’re really seeing the labor movement at a crossroads where we’re trying to answer the question: What kind of labor movement do we want to build? And so, to quote Stephen Miller talking about his plan around mass deportations, he says, “Mass deportation will be a labor market disruption celebrated by American workers, who will now be offered higher wages with better benefits to fill these jobs.” So that’s one path that the labor movement can take: To continue this imperialism and insularism. And then there’s another path. So I think, part of what informed some of these insurgent labor movements, whether it be the wildcat strike in ‘73 led by the Arab workers’ caucus, who were following the lead of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers in Detroit, to when you read UE’s, famous Yes resolution—they quote, in particular, the local of UE 150 (which is the local that I grew up around as a young labor activist), which was founded by the late, great Saladin Muhammad, who is a revolutionary Black labor leader with a long lineage of international solidarity, especially with African liberation struggles. To this day, UE 150 is a majority Black local that represents public sector workers across the state of North Carolina. What I love about that example, is what has already been shared is that nothing is guaranteed; there is no guarantee that the labor movement ultimately will make the right decision to take on a more anti-imperialist, more democratic posture. That will be the result of struggle. With UE, we see the example of following the leadership of the rank and file—not to romanticize the rank and file, as Jeff says, but to be responsive, to wanting to be on the right side of history and to take stances that are courageous. And so I think this is the question for us to answer in this moment: What path will labor choose?


AG: And on that note, I think we can close out. Thank you, everyone for being here, and thanks for listening to On the Nose, the Jewish Currents podcast.

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