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Did a Major US Union Overrule Members on Palestine Solidarity?

teleSUR | January 16, 2015

Members of a local Californian branch of United Auto Workers said Friday they were appealing a controversial decision by the larger union to overrule a pro-Palestine resolution backed by rank and file members.

The United Auto Workers Local 2865 (UAW 2865) made history in late 2014 when its members voted overwhelmingly to support a boycott of corporations accused of involvement in Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories. The vote was one of the most well attended in UAW 2865’s history, and came after months of intense discussion among union members. The union’s boycott resolution was framed as part of the international Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which has sought to use economic pressure to push Israel to end what human rights groups say are widespread human rights abuses in the occupied Palestinian territories. Supporters of the movement say their campaign is modeled on the 1980s anti-apartheid boycott of South Africa.

UAW 2865 was the first major union in the United States to endorse BDS through a vote put directly to ordinary members. Since then, the United Electrical Workers union has followed suit, endorsing BDS during its 2015 conference.

Internationally, BDS has also been backed by COSATU of South Africa and the Unite the Union in the U.K.

International UAW Steps In

However, in December 2015, UAW 2865’s parent union, International UAW surprised workers by nullifying the pro-Palestine vote, claiming the decision discriminated against Jewish union members.

Now, a group of UAW 2865 members have told teleSUR they have begun an appeals process against the International UAW board’s decision. The members said they are seeking to overturn the nullification through the union’s public review board, after filing an appeal Thursday.

They have argued the original UAW 2865’s BDS resolution was reached democratically by ordinary members, and said the larger union leadership should respect the demands of ordinary members.

teleSUR has obtained union documents that some members of UAW 2865 say indicate some of the fiercest supporters of BDS within UAW 2865 were rank and file members identifying as Jewish – calling into question the International UAW’s primary reason for overruling the vote. There is also evidence of at least one multinational firm weighing in on the union’s decision.

Speaking to teleSUR, UAW 2865 President Robert Cavooris said he firmly disagreed with the International UAW board’s decision to overrule the BDS resolution, stating, “Many Jewish members of our own local, like myself, took part in the campaign for BDS.”

He argued the board’s decision “conflates the state of Israel with a diverse global diaspora of Jewish people.”

Not all union members appear to agree. During the appeal hearing in December 2015, one union member alleged the BDS campaign was “rampant” with “anti-Semitism and active promotion of hate.”

In a complaint submitted to the International UAW’s board, another UAW 2865 member said, “The … local union (2865) pledged that it would not discriminate against members who are Israelis and stated that the academic boycott was aimed at ‘institutions’ and not individuals.”

“But this is a distinction without a difference: boycotting Israeli academic institutions can only be carried out by discriminating against individuals associated with those institutions,” the member argued.

However, internal union documents show the board was also contacted by a group of Jewish UAW 2865 members who firmly supported the BDS resolution.

“As an injustice anywhere is an injustice everywhere and none of us are free until all of us are free. As Jews, we understand from our own experiences with discrimination and our own history of resistance to oppression that standing on the right side of history necessitates standing in solidarity with Palestinians,” a petition in favor of BDS directed at the board stated.

The petition was signed by more than 40 UAW 2865 Jewish members who said, “We affirm our right and responsibility as Jews to oppose the state of Israel’s actions and policies that we believe to be unjust.”

The final International UAW’s decision also noted the UAW 2865 carried out its internal vote in a democratic matter, and “made an earnest effort” to engage all members in months of pre-vote discussions, but found the BDS resolution anti-Semitic nonetheless. The decision was based on the board’s conclusion that the BDS resolution unduly focused on Israeli policy and actions when discussing “atrocities against Palestinians.”

“Thus, the local union’s platform is apparent in its unfavorable stance against the state of Israel, Israelis and, invariably, Jewish union members,” the board said in its conclusion.

However, Cavooris said Israel hasn’t been singled out by his branch at all, pointing to an extrensive list of resolutions related to human rights issues from Mexico to China.

“For example, our local passed a resolution condemning the disappearance of 43 Mexican students at Ayotzinapa in 2014, and last fall we made a statement of support for South African students fighting against racism and for better university conditions. Just last week we signed a letter to condemn the repression of Chinese labor activists in Guandong,” he explained.

Cavooris continued, “We have also criticized political institutions in the U.S. for their repression of protests in Ferguson and elsewhere.”

“A brief scan of our political record shows that we are proud to stand against injustice against working people and others wherever it occurs,” he said.

Enter Caterpillar

Yet disagreements over the board’s decision to label the BDS resolution as anti-Semitic aren’t the only concerns raised by rank and file UAW 2865 members.

Also included in a collection of documents handed to teleSUR was a letter from industrial vehicle manufacturing giant Caterpillar. Caterpillar armored tractors have been used by Israeli forces to demolish Palestinian homes, sparking the ire of BDS activists and human rights advocates. Dated August 20, 2015, the letter from the firm’s labor relations head Jonathan Ginzel was addressed to International UAW Vice President Norwood Jewell. The letter denied allegations Caterpillar is “engaged in or complicit in human rights violations,” and warned BDS advocacy was viewed as an “attack on our business and our customers.”

“The actions taken by UAW Local 2865 are without merit and set a dangerous precedent in our relationship,” Ginzel wrote to Jewell.

The letter also included a paragraph supporting an appeal against UAW 2865’s resolution.

The International UAW’s final conclusion expressed similar concerns to those raised in Ginzel’s letter, stating the BDS resolution could have blow back on union members employed by companies like Caterpillar.

The UAW 2865’s rank and file BDS Caucus has accused the International UAW of effectively prioritizing the interests of companies like Caterpillar over the interests of union members.

“The (board of the International UAW) support for the profits of these companies – their prioritization of the so-called “flow of commerce” – trumps their support for other labor unions, such as the Palestinian labor unions that initiated the call for BDS, and their own members, like the 65 percent of affirmative voters from UAW 2865,” the caucus said.

The International UAW was invited to respond to these complaints, but didn’t respond by the time of publication.

The UAW 2865’s president, Cavooris described the International UAW board’s decision to “consider” Caterpillar’s input in internal union matters as “rather amazing.”

“When the (International UAW board) listens to executives at Caterpillar Inc. instead of workers in one of its locals, I think there is a clear breach of democracy and autonomy,” he said.

Cavooris continued, “This sort of deference to employers definitely raises the question: Who is the union supposed to represent? Are we an organization that fights for the rights of working people worldwide or are we an organization that makes sure our employers are happy?”

“When workers at Caterpillar demand a wage increase in their next contract, is the UAW (international board) going to ensure that this demand is okay with Caterpillar management as well? Because we held a democratic vote on BDS – and the (board) acknowledges that it was completely democratic – we know we are representing the views and interests of our members. I wonder if the (board) can say the same, given their deference to Caterpillar management,” he said.

Rank and file members of UAW 2865 that spoke to teleSUR likewise said they felt the International UAW was undermining local union democracy.

“I believe this decision not only calls into question the autonomy of local chapters, but it also exposes the contradictions that arise among labor unions that in theory are committed to social justice of those disenfranchised (ie: workers), but in practice are easily swayed by corporate interest and threats by oppressive powers,” said Jennifer Mogannam, UAW 2865 member and Ethnic Studies PhD candidate at University of California, San Diego.

“As stated, our efforts were transparent, honest and a two thirds vote in favor is telling of the commitment to justice that our generation of academic laborers upholds,” she said.

The dispute between UAW 2865 pro-BDS members and the International UAW leadership may not end anytime soon, with the appeals process only just beginning. Members that spoke to teleSUR said that irrelevant of the board’s decision, they will continue to push for greater support for Palestine solidarity.

“The struggle for Palestine is one symbol of struggle that we must continue to fight for and endure the repercussions of, alongside other struggles for true justice and liberation, because it is this commitment that may guide us to a new, just and better world,” Mogannam said.

Another rank and file UAW 2865 member, Beezer de Martelly, from the University of California Berkeley music department said, “The UAW 2865 BDS caucus will continue its work to educate students and union members about ongoing human rights violations, the intensifying climate of Islamophobia, and the Palestinian-led struggle for democracy.”

However, some members said the International’s decision could be a step backwards for workers’ and student rights.

“I am worried about the ramifications of this decision on the democratic spirit of Unionism, and this struggle is far from over,” said Irene Morrison, southern vice president of UAW 2865.

“It won’t end until Palestine is free,” she said.

January 16, 2016 - Posted by | Ethnic Cleansing, Racism, Zionism, Illegal Occupation, Solidarity and Activism | , , , , ,

1 Comment »

  1. Good on the rank and filers of UAW Local 2865! Viva Palestine — its working people and the entire population!

    Thanks for this post from teleSUR!

    Comment by roberthstiver | January 17, 2016 | Reply


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