Unions “are part of the struggle” for Palestine solidarity on US campuses

“One of the biggest problems of Palestine solidarity activism in the US is that we just simply don’t have the money and resources, and therefore the level of institutional power that the people working against us have,” said University of California at Berkeley graduate student and organizer Kumars Salehi in an interview with The Electronic Intifada on Monday.

“With the support of unions, though, I think we have a potential source of institutional support … Unions are part of that struggle,” he added.

On 4 December, teaching assistants, tutors and other student workers at the University of California — represented by the UC Student Workers union UAW 2865 — will hold a vote to support the boycott movement in response to the call by Palestinian trade and labor unions.

Palestine solidarity campaigners and US-based labor unions are working closer together in support of the Palestinian-led campaign for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) to hold Israel accountable for its violations of human rights — and end complicity by corporations and universities which profit from such violations.


In October, for the first time, United Students Against Sweatshops — the nation’s largest student labor organization — participated in the annual National Students for Justice in Palestine conference in Boston. United Students Against Sweatshops formally announced their endorsement of the National SJP conference, “the BDS movement and the Palestinian struggle for equality and self-determination more broadly,” National SJP announced.

During the last few months of the Block the Boat campaign, which originated in the San Francisco Bay Area, Palestine solidarity activists and student organizers worked closely with labor unions and dockworkers at the ports to stop the unloading of the Israeli Zim line cargo ships. As The Electronic Intifada reported, their joint organizing resulted in the Zim line completely withdrawing future stops at West Coast ports in what activists have called a major victory for the BDS movement.

“What we’ve learned about how important unions are — and how important the struggles of workers is to the issue of Palestinian liberation — there’s no going back. I think the momentum is definitely with us,” Salehi said. He has organized with the months-long Block the Boat campaign in the Bay Area, and is a member of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP).

Listen to the entire interview via the media player, or read the transcript below.


In a statement, representatives and rank and file members of UAW 2865 say that “because of the urgency of the situation” in Palestine, the joint council of the UAW 2865 — which represents the thirteen thousand members of the union — is seeking “a full membership vote in support of BDS, and we will update our membership regarding educational forums about divesting our union pension investments and the University of California in general from companies that profit off of the Israeli occupation.”

The joint council adds that boycott campaigns have worked in the past at the University of California, especially in the historic campaign against apartheid South Africa. “Students, faculty and workers organized together to demand the UC to divest three billion dollars of investments to support the end of South African apartheid. In coming together, we made this happen,” they say.

Interview with Kumars Salehi

Nora Barrows-Friedman: Let’s talk about the UAW as a union, and how boycott activists have been organizing alongside labor unions and trade unions up to this point, and why that’s important. Can you describe UAW on the campuses of the University of California, and what it took to get to the point where this enormous union could vote in support of boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel?

Kumars Salehi: As you mentioned, the UAW Local 2865 is the union that represents grad students in the University of California system, so that’s about 13,000 grad students. A lot of people. And the bill is a bill in support of BDS — the ballot item is divestment from companies that profit from Israeli occupation and human rights abuses. It should be noted that this particular union actually doesn’t have investments in those companies, but our umbrella organization, United Auto Workers International does. The University of California does, in companies like Hewlett-Packard, Lockheed Martin — and I’m sure I don’t need to tell your listeners what those companies are up to.

The bill calls on UAW International and the UC Regents to divest, as well as the US government to end all military aid to Israel. In addition to that ballot item, there’s a checkbox where you can make a non-binding pledge to support the academic boycott.

This means that all of the grad students on all of the UC campuses have the opportunity to make a really symbolic statement. This would be the — we’re not actually totally sure — but I think that it would be either the first or certainly one of the first member votes on BDS in a US union. So it’s really going to be huge.

NBF: Kumars, can you talk about the close relationship that is building between Palestine solidarity organizers and labor unions, especially in the last six months or so?

KS: Absolutely. For me, I think the really important lesson of the Oakland Block the Boat action has to do with the intersectionality of struggles. You mentioned that there was a diverse coalition that came together for the port blockades, and I think that you can see what intersectionality means. It’s a word that gets thrown out a lot but when you see all the people turn out to protest not just the Zim ships but also Urban Sheild, which is like Comic-Con for … hyper-militarized police, after two years in a row of community protests, it won’t be held in Oakland anymore next year.

With regard to Block the Boat, of course, also following the 2005 call from Palestinian civil society for BDS, every single Palestinian trade union has issued a statement specifically asking workers all over the world to refuse to facilitate business as usual for Israel. That includes the longshoremen, the dockworkers that unload the cargo of Zim, the largest Israeli shipping company.

There was a period of preparation during which, especially at the insistence of one of the organizations, the port blockade was put off until activists could really dialogue with the workers that we were asking to heed this call. We knew that we weren’t really barking up the wrong tree, because this was a union that had actually refused to unload a Zim ship before, in 2010, in response to the Israeli massacre aboard the Mavi Marmara, so there had been a call from Palestinian trade unions in response to that, asking people to boycott all Israeli cargo ships. And a similar call was issued again this summer in response to the Israeli assault on Gaza.

So activists had been planning all summer, trying to find a way to take direct action for Palestine, for BDS, to the next level, to up the ante and think creatively. And of course that was only possible because these dockworkers understood where we were coming from, understood that we knew that we were asking them to not work a ship and to not get paid. Nobody who is an activist, certainly on the left, should take that lightly.

And over time, we saw that while the union, due to contract negotiations, wasn’t able to take a position as a union officially — as leadership — the rank and file members were in solidarity with us. And all our sources told us that as long as we kept a strong community picket going, the Local 10 dockworkers said that they would honor it, and they kept their word.

This is of course a union that has a history of solidarity with social justice struggles, that trace their history of solidarity back to 1935, when they refused to load military equipment headed toward fascist Italy and Japan, all the way up to the historic refusal to unload in 1984 a South African cargo ship, when they — in response to community initiatives, the union blocked that boat in 1984 for ten whole days.

So this wasn’t the first time that this had happened in the Bay Area, and it seems like with all the Block the Boat protests that are happening elsewhere, and what we’ve learned about how important unions are — and how important the struggles of workers is to the issue of Palestinian liberation — there’s no going back. I think the momentum is definitely with us.

NBF: Students for Justice in Palestine has come out with a statement in support of the UAW vote for boycott. How important is it, from a student organizer’s perspective, to have the backing of major labor unions as the BDS movement presses forward and, as you said, gains momentum?

KS: It’s really important, because BDS is all about institutions, as we often have to remind people. The whole way that Israel is able to sustain its occupation and its regime of apartheid is through the complicity of western multinationals, of the US government. And these are incredibly overwhelming forces to go up against.

One of the biggest problems of Palestine solidarity activism in the United States is that we just simply don’t have the money and resources, and therefore the level of institutional power that the people working against us have. With the support of unions, though, I think we have a potential source of institutional support, of institutions like churches, or academic organizations like the American Studies Association, when these groups come out and show support, it lends legitimacy. Not that the BDS struggle needs to be legitimized necessarily, but in the eyes of the American people, I think that we need all of the legitimacy we can get with all of these smear campaigns against us.

Unions are part of that struggle.

NBF: In the week or so before the vote, and in speaking with members of the UAW boycott organizing committee, how optimistic can you be about the way this vote will go, and why?

KS: It’s interesting that you used the word “optimism” — I’ve been thinking a lot about that lately, in the days after UCLA’s successful divestment campaign and what happened, I was looking at their social media campaign. And what was really striking about their messaging was an embrace of this notion that BDS supporters are optimists. They have grounds for optimism.

I think in this case, it’s very difficult to see clearly which way these different campuses are going to vote. Before the UCLA vote, I would have told you that UCLA might be a more difficult campus for us to win than Berkeley, and that really we didn’t have a good sense of what sort of base the opposition to BDS has.

I personally, at this point, am very optimistic, and that’s just because that in the discourse that we’ve had with students on campus, with our peers, we see that the other side is increasingly running out of coherent arguments, especially in a setting where people are roughly familiar with the facts. Even in a pretty heated debate, no one can seriously defend Israel without taking pretty substantial heat for it. And that’s just because this critique of Israel has become so mainstream even in the past year. And it’s on us to remember that that critique is necessary and it’s an essential part of the other part of BDS, which is the mechanisms that it uses to actually change the situation.

I think I’m a generally pretty pessimistic person, but BDS isn’t a new or unproven strategy. I think that making the case, so I’ve seen anyway, that we should not — as university students, not as American citizens, not as members of UAW 2865 — be invested in war crimes and apartheid. I think that as long as there’s also a positive vision there that says, look, it’s worked before, it’s actually working now, and it’s going to work again — when you see all of the losses in exports that Israel is taking, some $30 million from the Jordan Valley, and then SodaStream closing its West Bank factory, people are, on campus at least, aware of this news.

People know what Block the Boat is, and I think that the more success we have, the more it will actually start to — this idea that Israel is either something that you boycott or you don’t is new, I think, now. And campaigns like ours are going to win because the answer is increasingly, yeah, you should boycott Israel. And it’s not a fringe opinion, if it ever was.

NBF: Kumars, people can learn more about the vote, which is scheduled for 4 December, at UAW2865.org. Where else can they go?

KS: They can also follow us on Twitter at @UAW2865bds, you can look for us on Facebook, but all of the information that you need if you want to get involved and help us get out the vote the week of, is on the website and on our Twitter.


Nora Barrows-Friedman

Nora Barrows-Friedman's picture

Nora Barrows-Friedman is a staff writer and associate editor at The Electronic Intifada, and is the author of In Our Power: US Students Organize for Justice in Palestine (Just World Books, 2014).