International executive officials at the United Auto Workers union last month overturned a December 2014 vote by its rank-and-file members to boycott Israel.
The 2014 resolution, which passed in a landslide vote by members of UAW Local 2865, called on the union’s International Executive Board to divest their holdings from Israeli state institutions and international companies “complicit in severe and ongoing human rights violations as part of the Israeli oppression of the Palestinian people.”
UAW Local 2865 represents 13,000 graduate student workers across the University of California system.
December’s nullification followed a lengthy appeal, seen by The Electronic Intifada, which was authored by Stephen Brumbaugh, a graduate student at UCLA and member of Local 2865. In his appeal, Brumbaugh asserts that the boycott resolution “is injurious to the UAW International Union and the labor movement as a whole” and charges that the resolution is “illegal.”
On Thursday, rank-and-file members and executive officers of Local 2865 filed an appeal to the UAW Public Review Board demanding the nullification be rescinded.
Brumbaugh is a member of Informed Grads, a sub-group of Local 2865 which opposes the boycott resolution and unsuccessfully sought to have the resolution overturned by the local board in May of last year.
Brumbaugh’s appeal to UAW executives claims that the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) issue is “divisive” and “does not promote the interests of labor.”
But members of Local 2865 reject the claim of divisiveness and argue that the BDS campaign indeed furthers the interests of labor and workers’ rights.
Palestinian trade unions were among the 170 civil society organizations that authored the 2005 international BDS call, activists point out. That call was reiterated by 15 Palestinian labor groups last year, urging international union members to step up efforts to boycott Israel.
Kumars Salehi, a graduate student at UC Berkeley and a rank-and-file member of Local 2865, told The Electronic Intifada that by accepting Brumbaugh’s allegations, the UAW has essentially stated that Palestinian trade unions “don’t count as part of the ‘labor movement’ — otherwise their input would have been valued.”
Protecting corporate interests
A corporate representative of Caterpillar, which profits from Israel’s destruction of Palestinian homes and property — and is one of several US corporations targeted for boycott under Local 2865’s resolution — sent a letter to the UAW executives pressuring the union to reject the boycott vote. It was submitted as part of Brumbaugh’s appeal.
Caterpillar stated that it “outright reject[s] any suggestion that Caterpillar is engaged in or complicit in any human rights violations anywhere in the world.”
In its decision, UAW executives say that implementing the boycott “would lead to a direct economic deprivation” for its members, by “categorically interfering with the flow of commerce to and from earmarked companies.”
The union’s blunt protection of commerce and corporations is “indicative of the particular fears that the elite have about turning against capital and against other aspects of the establishment that are pro-Israel — or just multinational corporations that are invested [in Israel],” Salehi explained.
“There is a strong prioritizing of the interest of the employers in commerce and in the flow of capital as opposed to the interest of the workers, who have an interest in solidarity,” he added.
Claims of anti-Jewish bigotry
Brumbaugh’s appeal also asserts that the BDS resolution promotes “discrimination” against Jewish and/or Israeli workers, repeating claims by Informed Grads, Israel-aligned individuals and lobby groups that BDS activism in support of justice for Palestinians is inherently anti-Semitic.
In nullifying the BDS resolution, UAW’s executives accept and duplicate Brumbaugh’s discrimination claims.
In a statement, Palestine Legal says that UAW international executives “relied … on a conclusion that the vote was ‘biased targeting of Israeli/Jewish UAW members, and the scorning of the state of Israel’ ” despite the union’s own findings that Local 2865 “conducted a fair and democratic election process with ample debate and engagement over several months.”
The nullification, Palestine Legal adds, “is yet another example of anti-democratic maneuvers by institutional authorities in response to pressure from Israel advocacy groups” which aim to crush the growing support for the BDS movement and justice for Palestinians.
Omar Zahzah, statewide executive board member of Local 2865 and a graduate student at UCLA, told The Electronic Intifada that despite the nullification, rank-and-file members are still energized and perhaps even more determined to continue the anti-oppression work in which the local has been engaged — especially around the struggle for justice in Palestine.
“At the end of the day, an official decision can never take away the work that the rank-and-file has put into the campaign and the effect that that result still continues to have despite the nullification,” he said.
Meanwhile, letters of support for Local 2865’s endorsement of the Palestinian-led BDS campaign have come from an array of organizations and individuals, including the president of the American Studies Association (ASA) which passed a historic resolution in 2013 to boycott Israeli academic institutions.
“By appealing to narrowest possible conception of UAW members’ self-interest, the IEB [International Executive Board] effectively guts possibilities of broad progressive coalitions,” David Roediger, president of the ASA, stated in a letter seen by The Electronic Intifada.
“That is, having allowed that Local 2865’s vote for BDS came in a democratic and fair election, the IEB apparently holds that because a boycott of Israel potentially harms, for example, a tiny portion of Caterpillar sales, it is impermissible for any local to support it,” Roediger added.
The US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation has set up an online petition “to urge the UAW IEB to not be on the wrong side of history” and reverse the nullification.
The outpouring of support for Local 2865’s boycott resolution after UAW’s decision to overturn the vote “really helps show the grassroots momentum that is taking shape,” Zahzah noted, “which at the end of the day is what union work and union activism is supposed to be all about.”