On August 20 in Baltimore, the last day of its 74th national convention, United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers of America (UE) became the first national union in the United States to heed the 2005 call made by Palestinian civil society groups for a global Boycott, Divest, and Sanctions (BDS) movement to protest Israeli violations of international law.
The Palestinian call for BDS, inspired by similar displays of international protest in the 1980s that helped bring about the fall of apartheid in South Africa, first gained formal support from organized labor last December when UAW Local 2865, the 13,000 campus workers at the University of California, endorsed BDS and asked the university to divest its financial investments in companies involved in Israeli occupation of Palestine. Local 2865 became the first American union local to endorse the movement.
“The overwhelming margin of victory [in the local’s internal vote over endorsing BDS] shows that a consensus is emerging that BDS is a legitimate and justified strategy of international solidarity,” Kumars Salehi, a German Studies graduate student at UC Berkeley, told In These Times then. “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.”
Endorsement proponents at UAW Local 2865 said their resolution was not only an answer to the broader BDS call, but also a specific response to Palestinian trade unions who hoped for immediate aid in the midst of the Israeli shelling of Gaza in July 2014. The military action, though given unanimous support by U.S Congress then, was widely condemned by international leaders—and is part of the catalyst for UE’s action on the issue, according to UE Western Region president Carl Rosen.
“We reached a breaking point when Israel launched the war on Gaza in 2014, killing over 2,000 people including 500 children. Because Israel has been unwilling to engage in real negotiations to bring about a just resolution to the occupation, this is a necessary step for labor to take in order to bring about a peaceful end to the conflicts there,” Rosen said in a statement released by the union.
The resolution adopted by UE also calls for an end to U.S aid to Israel, citing yearly economic and military packages of $3 billion, and for any peace agreements between Israel and Palestine to include a right to Palestinian self-determination and the right of return for refugees created “when well-armed Zionist militias seized most of the territory of Palestine and expelled 750,000 people from their cities, villages and farms.”
The BDS endorsement was one of 37 resolutions acted on at UE’s 74th National Convention. Other approved resolutions included a variety of issues surrounding police brutality, an end to the Cuban embargo and others that follow UE’s long history of left-wing activism in labor. After the Red Scare of the 1940 and ‘50s, UE, along with 10 other progressive unions, were kicked out of the Congress of Industrial Unions over a schism that dated back UE’s refusal to sign anti-communist affidavits and the subsequent raiding of its membership by other compliant unions.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the only union other than UE that managed to survive its CIO expulsion and remain active today, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), has indicated sympathy for BDS as well. ILWU Local 10 honored picket lines for last year’s “Block the Boat” protest of an Israeli ship attempting to unload goods at the Port of Oakland in support of BDS. The ship was left at sea for four days, costing Zim Integrated Shipping Services Ltd., Israel’s biggest cargo shipping company, an unknown amount of money.
The BDS movement, as a whole, both in actual economic logistics and channeling of political conscious-raising, seems to be taking a measurable toll on Israel. A June 2015 report by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development found that foreign direct investment in Israel has decreased by 48% between 2013 and 2014. One of the report’s authors, Dr. Roni Manos of the Open University of Israel’s Department of Management and Economics, told the Israeli news organization Ynet News, “We believe that what led to the drop in investment in Israel are Operation Protective Edge and the boycotts Israel is facing."
With an increased presence for BDS in the labor movement, it seems there is room for even more impact. According to Leah Fried, Director of International Strategies at UE, “Now that BDS is UE policy, we will be evaluating any investments in our pension fund for ties to the occupation.”
Reacting to UE’s endorsement, Omar Barghouti, a Palestinian human rights activist and co-founder of the BDS movement, told Palestinian online news publication The Electronic Intifada, “UE’s endorsement of BDS shows that, despite the extreme intimidation, bullying and/or cooptation practiced by Israel and its powerful lobbying groups in the US against critics, let alone advocates of a boycott, BDS is spreading the fastest in the US.”
Mario Vasquez is a writer from Santa Barbara, California. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.