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Labor & Palestine: Jeff Schuhrke & Bill Fletcher on How U.S. Unions Are Responding to War in Gaza

Web ExclusiveDecember 26, 2023
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Part 2 of our conversation with longtime trade unionist Bill Fletcher and labor historian Jeff Schuhrke about union calls for a ceasefire in Gaza, the 2024 election and more.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

We continue with Part 2 of our look at how the U.S. labor movement is increasing pressure on President Biden to demand a ceasefire in the U.S.-backed Israeli assault on Gaza. Unions helped organize a march to AIPAC — the American Israel Public Affairs Committee — headquarters here in New York last Thursday that called on lawmakers to stop taking campaign contributions from pro-Israel lobbyists. Unions called for a ceasefire — among them, United Auto Workers, United Electrical Workers, American Postal Workers Union, 1199SEIU, teachers unions in Chicago and Boston, to name a few.

For more, we’re joined in Chicago by Jeff Schuhrke, labor historian, journalist and assistant professor at the School of Labor Studies, SUNY Empire State University, here in New York, and in Washington, D.C., by Bill Fletcher, longtime trade unionist, Ukrainian Solidarity Network, on the editorial board of The Nation, has written a number of pieces on Gaza and Biden. Juan?

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Yeah, I wanted to begin with Bill Fletcher. Bill, in Part 1 of our interview, you raised the issue that you’ve written about, suggesting that, given the deep unpopularity of President Biden, especially among young people, in terms of his position on the Israeli attack, continuing attacks on Gaza, that President Biden should resign — or, agree not to run again. And I wanted to explore that a little more with you, because, clearly, it’s not inconceivable. For those who remember, back in the 1960s, President Johnson announced on March 31st of an election year that he would not be running for reelection, given what — the enormous failure of his policies in Vietnam, and that touched off a frenzied race. Bobby Kennedy jumped into the race. Eugene McCarthy, of course, was the antiwar candidate at the time. And it ended up in a brokered convention, with Hubert Humphrey coming out as the nominee. But, of course, then Humphrey was defeated by Richard Nixon in the general election. I’m wondering your sense of what kind of a scenario could conceivably play out if the pressure grew on Biden to step aside.

BILL FLETCHER: Thank you, Juan. Yeah. So, to clarify, you’re right: I’m seeking Biden to not seek reelection, to basically —

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Right.

BILL FLETCHER: — have a repetition of what we had in 1968, as you pointed out, with Johnson stepping aside. And I think that this discussion is taking place all over the country. You know, before October 7th, I actually wasn’t so much concerned about Biden’s unpopularity. That’s very common. But what happened after October 7th is what’s very unsettling, because he is losing younger voters, and particularly voters of color, who are really dismayed by his position on Israel and Palestine and the Gaza war. And so, that’s really my concern right now. And we need to have, going into November, a strong front against the MAGA forces, at this point led by Trump. I don’t see Biden being able to do that right now.

So, one, there’s a number of possibilities. The most important, I think, is, if there’s sufficient pressure, he may then step aside, and then opens up a lot of discussion about an alternative candidate. And that probably would take us into the Democratic convention. Now, a lot of people will say, “Yes, but look at what happened in ’68. There was the opposition to Johnson. Johnson steps aside, and Nixon wins.” And that’s correct. And Humphrey’s refusal to demarcate himself from Johnson’s policies killed his election — his possibility of being elected. Hopefully, we will have learned something from that.

AMY GOODMAN: Jeff Schuhrke, you wrote a piece about the unions and the war machine. Explain.

JEFF SCHUHRKE: Yeah. So, as we know, the assault on Gaza is really being fueled and funded by the U.S. government, in many ways, and the weapons being used in Gaza, the missiles, the bombs, the fighter jets, were manufactured here in the United States. So, when we talk about unions calling for a ceasefire, or unions playing a role in ending the violence, we have to talk about the fact that many of the workers at the weapons plants here in the United States, many of the people who actually work in the military-industrial complex, are union members, represented by unions like the UAW and the International Association of Machinists.

And I should also say — some important context — Palestinian trade unions, including the Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions, have put out an international call for solidarity to unions in other countries around the world, asking that they not participate in the manufacture or transport of weapons to Israel. So, that has — that creates kind of a dilemma for the U.S. labor movement, particularly for antiwar labor activists, whether they are opposed to Israel’s current assault on Gaza or if they’re just opposed to militarism and war and imperialism in general.

AMY GOODMAN: Jeff Schuhrke —

JEFF SCHUHRKE: If we want to talk about shutting down the war machine and dismantling the industrial — military-industrial complex, we have to —

AMY GOODMAN: Jeff Schuhrke, you mentioned —

JEFF SCHUHRKE: — acknowledge the fact that there are roughly 2 million U.S. workers in the defense and aerospace industry, and at least tens of thousands of them are members of unions. So —

AMY GOODMAN: Jeff Schuhrke, I don’t know —

JEFF SCHUHRKE: Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: — if you can hear me, but you talked about Palestinian labor activism. Give us a little history of Arab American, overall, labor activism and the role it’s played.

JEFF SCHUHRKE: Yeah. So, in the late 1960s 1970s, there was a fairly large wave of Arab immigration to the United States, particularly to the Detroit area, where many Arab immigrants, Arab Americans, including Palestinians, were working in the auto industry. This includes Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib’s father, who worked at the Ford Flat Rock Assembly Plant outside Detroit. And they faced a lot of racism and discrimination.

This was the time period of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, a lot of Black auto workers in the UAW who were influenced by the Black Power movement and saw a lot of the systematic racism within the labor movement, within the UAW, and were organizing against that, also organizing against capitalism, more broadly. And some of — the League of Revolutionary Black Workers was one of the first groups of union members to actually speak out in solidarity with Palestinians.

So, in any case, in 1973, during the October War between Israel and Egypt and Syria, members of the Arab community in Detroit, including thousands of auto workers, learned that the UAW had purchased $785,000 in State of Israel bonds, using their dues money to basically bankroll the Israeli government. And so they were obviously — they had never had any say in that. They weren’t — you know, hadn’t been aware of that. So they organized a series of protests, including, in November of 1973, a one-day wildcat strike, where about 2,000 Arab auto workers, joined by some of their Black co-workers, shut down the Dodge Main assembly plant to call on UAW leadership to dump their Israeli bonds. And they ended up forming an Arab Workers Caucus within the union that was active for several years and did succeed in getting the union to get rid of some of their State of Israel bonds.

And in more recent decades, some of this type of activism has continued, not only in the UAW, but other unions, as well, other areas of the labor movement, with unions or central labor councils trying to put forward statements, resolutions of solidarity with Palestinians, but often facing pushback from national labor leaders, saying, you know, “This is not our policy. You can’t say these things.” So, for example, just — well, talking about the UAW again, between late 2014 and early 2016, three graduate worker union locals, which are all affiliated with the UAW, at the University of California, University of Massachusetts and NYU, these UAW-affiliated graduate worker unions passed resolutions endorsing BDS, the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. And the national — or, international UAW leadership effectively nullified those resolutions. They said, “You can’t. It’s not our policy to boycott or divest from Israel.” And even though they found that those resolutions were voted on in a perfectly democratic way, and there was nothing — you know, and this was — there was no wrongdoing, they nevertheless, UAW leadership, nullified those resolutions. And part of their argument was that some of the companies to be boycotted are these military contractors that have workers who are represented by the UAW.

And more recently, in 2021, after Israel’s last attack on Gaza, the San Francisco Labor Council was preparing to vote on a resolution, a BDS resolution, and the national AFL-CIO stepped in and said, you know, central labor councils, which are chartered by the national AFL-CIO, they have to be in alignment with the national AFL-CIO’s policy. And because the national AFL-CIO is not boycotting Israel, they told them, “You can’t vote on this. You can’t vote to boycott Israel.”

And then, just more recently — 

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Jeff?

JEFF SCHUHRKE: — in October of this year, the Thurston-Lewis-Mason Central Labor Council, which is in Olympia, Washington, the delegates to that labor council unanimously voted to pass a resolution calling for a ceasefire and opposing the manufacture and shipment of weapons to Israel. And again, the national AFL-CIO stepped in and said, “You can’t do this,” made them take the statement off their website and off social media. But nevertheless, a few other central labor councils, in Western Massachusetts, in Austin, Texas, in San Antonio, have recently passed their own ceasefire resolutions, as well, effectively, it seems, defying the national AFL-CIO.

So, there’s quite a bit of tension here. It goes back to what Bill Fletcher said in the first segment about how there’s always been this divide within the labor movement on international issues. And oftentimes it takes the — it looks like a divide between some of the top officials and more local or grassroots union members or local leaders.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Jeff, I’m wondering if you could talk about the difference between what’s going on in the U.S. and what’s going on in other countries, as the Palestinian labor movement is asking for solidarity actions in other countries. What’s going on in Europe or in the Global South among trade unions in response to Israel’s attacks on Gaza?

JEFF SCHUHRKE: Yeah. In a lot of the rest of the world, unions are going beyond just statements and resolutions, and actually taking real action. So, for example, dockworkers in Genoa, Italy, and Barcelona, Spain, have said that they will refuse to handle any Israeli cargo, I think particularly weapons heading to Israel. A railway union in Japan said the same thing. Coal miners in Colombia have said they don’t want to send coal to Israel to fuel Israel’s war machine. Most of the major labor unions in India have put forward a statement calling on the Indian government not to provide material support to Israel. And trade unionists in the U.K., Australia, Canada have participated and organized protests at weapons factories, blockading them, shutting them down, at least for a few hours. And this is what the Palestinian trade unions have specifically called for, is to actually get in the way and disrupt the war machine.

Here in the U.S., there have been protests at some of the different weapons manufacturers, but they’ve mostly been led by community members, and not necessarily endorsed by the unions or the union members that work in those factories. But in the past, in 2010, 2014 and 2021, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, ILWU Local 10, which is dockworkers on the West Coast, and Local 10 is in the Bay Area, they refused on three occasions to handle Israeli cargo on ZIM Lines ships. That’s the main Israeli shipping company. There were pickets led by community members, and ILWU dockworkers refused to cross those picket lines and basically did not unload those Israeli cargo ships. And then, this year, more recently, in early November, there were also community-led pickets of a U.S. military supply ship in — first in Oakland, and then in Tacoma. And I know that the protests, the pickets in Oakland, there were some members of the ILWU there supporting it. But other than that, there hasn’t been the same amount of actual kind of direct action in the U.S. to try to shut down the war machine. It’s been mostly statements and resolutions calling for a ceasefire.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to bring Bill Fletcher back into the conversation, trade unionist, one of the heads of the Ukrainian Solidarity Network, on the editorial board of The Nation, wrote “Gaza, Biden, and a Path Forward” for The Nation and wrote “The Fascist Movement’s Biggest Threat: Labor Unions?” in In These Times. And this follows up on Juan’s earlier question. You talked about Biden and saying you thought he should step aside in running for president next year. But if you can talk about the role of President Trump when it comes to labor? You had President Biden on the picket line, and President Trump then stepping in and going to a nonunion shop. Talk about what you see as Trump’s appeal to a number of workers around this country, and the threats that you see he represents in this country.

BILL FLETCHER: Amy, it’s a tremendous threat, both for workers, but also if you’re looking at the Middle East. So let me just preface my response by pointing out that what we’re seeing in Gaza, in many ways, one could argue, was to a great extent provoked by Trump and what Trump did in terms of cultivating his relationship with Netanyahu, supporting the further Israeli aggression and expansion, and the development of the so-called Abraham Accords, which were aimed at strangling the Palestinian movement and Palestinian people. So there’s no way that Trump can get off the hook on the issue of Gaza.

In terms of workers, one of the things that’s interesting is that as — I think a good description of Trump at this point is as a post-fascist. I generally referred to him in the past as a right-wing populist, but I think he’s moved further. One of the things that he’s been attempting to do is to cultivate a different picture of the Republican Party and of the MAGA movement. And so, they want to describe themselves increasingly as a workers’ movement. But what they actually are talking about is a white movement of working people that supports a neoliberal, largely neoliberal, economic agenda, but an agenda that is incredibly racialized.

And so, when we’re looking at Trump, there’s nothing that Trump did during his administration that was to the benefit of working people or the benefit of unions. Nothing. I mean, when you look at, for example, his so-called tax cut, which really was a tax giveaway, it was very harmful to working people, and it benefited a very small slice of the population.

But what Trump does is that he appeals to workers, and particularly to white workers, on the basis of a xenophobic appeal or nativism, you know, the idea that immigrants are the major threat, that competition from China is the major threat, that basically he would rebuild U.S. industries through further xenophobic measures — none of which he was able to pull off while he was president, for sure, and none of which would benefit U.S. workers. But it’s an appeal that is very persuasive among many white people, and not particularly — and this is where it becomes really interesting, Amy. They talk about white workers. The appeal for MAGA, as was true with the tea party movement, is not primarily among white workers. It’s primarily among the middle strata among whites. And that is what I think many people, including good progressives, have misunderstood, particularly after Trump was elected, that the appeal is not mainly for white workers.

Now, the union movement is in a situation where in order to fight MAGA, in order to fight the fascists, what it needs to do is two things. One is, obviously, an economic populist, progressive economic populist message and practice. But that’s not enough. The other part is that it has to actively take on matters of race and sex. It cannot think that it can avoid these issues, and that that somehow will bring us all together in a great kumbaya. It will not happen. Fighting the fascists is going to necessitate taking an advanced position on changing the economy, changing the way that workers are being crushed. But it’s also going to necessitate really taking on what’s happening to workers of color, the way that immigrants are being played — or, the issue of immigration is being played, and the issue of sex. This is the future, I think, of a movement, of an anti-fascist labor movement.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Bill, I wanted to follow up on that point that you raised about that the Trump base is not really a traditional working-class base. I’ve shared that perspective for many years now, because, first of all, the reality is that many people who were formerly part of the U.S. working class or labor movement were thrust into, basically, contingent work — independent truckers as opposed to unionized truckers, franchisers who now, instead of being a legal employee of a company, now own their own franchise — basically creating a much bigger aristocracy of labor than existed in prior times, including, in addition to that, the unions of all of the law enforcement, of police unions, correctional unions, border patrol unions, all of the surveillance and the repression of the state that is unionized, that that is really the base of Trump, rather than the traditional organized labor movement and workers in the most oppressed sectors. But the question then becomes: How do you build a movement, a movement of opposition to the new Trump form of fascism?

BILL FLETCHER: So, that’s the $64,000 question, Juan. And I agree with your basic analysis. I would only add to that that what’s happened in the economy is, in addition, an atomization and a fragmentation of work and workers. And so you have many self-employed people who are only technically self-employed. They actually have employers, but they are 1099ers. That is, they’re considered contractors, even though, in effect, they are all part of the working class.

I think that the building of the anti-MAGA front is a battle around democracy. This is one of the reasons I refrain from using the notion of cultural wars. I don’t think that we’re engaged in a cultural war. I think we’re engaged in a battle around democracy, and the extent to which democracy is either expanded or contracted. Right? Do we expand democracy to address women, to address the gender-oppressed, to address people of color, to address the way that the economy works, or do we contract that? Do we expand democracy to address the various persecuted religious sects, or do we contract it? Do we expand democracy in order to democratize the economy, so that instead of the poor being squeezed, we have a humane tax system, a democratic, with a small “D,” tax system? I think that that’s the basis of building that broad front. And so, what that doesn’t mean — and I get almost homicidal anytime I hear Democrats say this — is this idea of tacking more towards the center. No, no! Danger, Will Robinson. It’s not about tacking to the center. It’s about taking a very strong stand on what needs to happen in the economy to masses, to millions of working people. That’s where we can build that front.

Now, one of the things, Juan, that’s really amazed me is the level of cowardice among many trade union leaders when it comes to actually taking on MAGA. I mean, I’ve actually been engaged in discussions with union leaders about we’ve got to take on the right wing. And they are fearful, man. I mean, they are petrified that they’re going to — that white males are going to run out of union halls hysterically — right? — yelling, screaming, never to return, if they start dealing with race and gender and sex and the issue of fascism, and as opposed to that, no, that’s how we’re going to unite, that’s how we’re going to defeat the right, both within our ranks but also more generally.

AMY GOODMAN: Bill Fletcher, I wanted to ask you a question on international issues, from Ukraine to Israel, the linking of funding for Israel, funding for Ukraine, and, of course, linking it to the border, that has held it all up, Republicans wanting extremely draconian measures taken on the border, and progressive Democrats fighting back, although they feel that Biden more is compromising with Republicans than with them, like the Congressional Progressive Caucus. But I wanted to ask you about Ukraine and Israel, your views as the co-founder of the Ukrainian Solidarity Network.

BILL FLETCHER: So, my view is that Ukraine and the Palestinians share a lot in common, that they’re both victims of naked aggression. They’re both victims of a colonial project — in the case of Ukraine, that of Russia; in the case of Palestinians, obviously, what the Israelis have been doing since 1948, and I would actually say since 1946.

And so, there is actually a sort of — I would almost argue, Amy, that we’re in an era of a globalization of anti-occupation struggles — Ukraine, Palestine, Kashmir, West Papua, Puerto Rico, etc. — that there are many examples of anti-occupation struggles that are going on, and that these anti-occupation struggles are beginning to reemerge, to globalize and to build important connections. We in the U.S. left need to be supporting that. And the Ukraine Solidarity Network is part of that. And as opposed to what Biden is arguing, that he wants to support the Ukrainians and support Israeli aggression, we think that there’s absolutely a contradiction in terms. There is no alignment.

But here’s the other thing, Amy, that’s going on. The Republicans have this whole thing around the border. But what’s being missed in this is that there is a pro-Putin wing of the Republican Party that is growing, that there is a very important segment the Republican Party, and really based among the MAGA forces, that look to Putin as a political ally. And they look to the Putin regime and the Putin project as something that needs to be replicated in the United States — Putin’s Christian nationalism, I would argue, Putin’s homophobia, his misogynism, his white supremacy, his argument that Russia is defending, in effect, the European and the Western world. This is something that resonates among the MAGA forces. And there are, unfortunately, segments of the U.S. left that seem to have put cotton in their ears when that comes up. They don’t want to hear that discussion. They don’t want to acknowledge that that’s part of what’s going on. But that’s part of the motivating force of Republicans that are trying to block any aid to Ukraine.

So, in sum, I am not at all in support of any kind of aid to Israel. Cut military aid. Stop this. But the linking that Biden has made between aid to Ukraine and aid to Israel, that’s absolutely horrendous.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: But, Bill, in that vein, isn’t the — from the perspective of people suffering from the effects of war, isn’t a more consistent position to have ceasefires, not only in Israel, but also in Ukraine at this stage, and try to figure out a way to negotiate peace?

BILL FLETCHER: Well, you know, that’s an interesting question, Juan, and it’s being debated. Ultimately, the answer to that will lie with the Ukrainians. And they will have to decide, just like the Koreans had to decide, just like the Vietnamese had to decide, whether or not they want to call a ceasefire, whether they want to divide their country, whether they think that the prospects of winning are there or not. That’s not up to us. And that that’s one of those things where I think that segments of the U.S. left prove how American they are in their chauvinism, that we’re going to tell the Ukrainians how to resolve this. My argument is, to the extent that the Ukrainians want to fight and continue to fight against Russian aggression, that should be supported, in the same way that other peoples that are fighting aggression from a foreign power need to be supported. If at some point the Ukrainian people say, “OK, we’re not going to win this,” or that we make a decision that some sort of other solution needs to be taken up, then I think it’s important, in the name of self-determination, that people here would support that.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you both for being with us. Bill Fletcher is a trade unionist, a co-founder of the Ukrainian Solidarity Network. He is on the editorial board of The Nation. We’re going to link to your articles in both The Nation and In These Times. And Jeff Schuhrke, a labor historian, journalist, union activist and assistant professor of the School of Labor Studies at SUNY Empire State University.

To see Part 1 of our conversation, you can go to democracynow.org. We’ll also link to Jeff’s articles at democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman with Juan González. Thanks so much for joining us.

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