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Labor Demands a Ceasefire: UAW, Electrical & Postal Workers Call for Israel’s Assault on Gaza to End

StoryDecember 26, 2023
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Unions across the United States have begun to shift from a long history of supporting Israel to condemning the Israeli occupation of Palestine amid growing calls for a ceasefire in Gaza, where Israel’s 80-day assault has killed over 20,000 people. As ceasefire demands from teachers to Starbucks workers are published across the country and a major march led in part by union organizers in New York called on members of Congress to stop taking campaign cash from pro-Israel lobbyists, Democracy Now! speaks with longtime trade unionist Bill Fletcher and labor historian Jeff Schuhrke about the United States labor movement’s history with Israel and Palestine, Biden’s Zionism clashing with his union support, and the labor movement’s “tailspin” about how to respond to the war on Gaza.

Transcript
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 look now at the growing pressure from the U.S. labor movement on President Biden to demand a ceasefire in the U.S.-backed Israeli assault on Gaza. Unions helped organize a march to AIPAC headquarters here in New York last Thursday that called on lawmakers to stop taking campaign money from pro-Israel lobbyists. This is United Auto Workers President Shawn Fain speaking alongside progressive congressmembers at a news conference Thursday on Capitol Hill.

SHAWN FAIN: We cannot bomb our way to peace.

REP. CORI BUSH: That’s right!

SHAWN FAIN: The only path forward is to build peace and social justice, is through a ceasefire. … As union members, we know we must fight for all workers and suffering people around the world. We must fight for humanity. That means we must restore people’s basic rights and allow water, food, fuel, humanitarian aid to enter Gaza.

AMY GOODMAN: For more, we’re joined by two guests in Washington.

Bill Fletcher, longtime trade unionist, co-founder of the Ukrainian Solidarity Network, member of the editorial board of The Nation, where his latest piece is headlined “Gaza, Biden, and a Path Forward.”

And in Chicago, we’re joined by Jeff Schuhrke. He is a labor historian, journalist, union activist, and assistant professor at the School of Labor Studies, SUNY Empire State University in New York City. His latest piece for Jewish Currents is “The Problem of the Unionized War Machine.” His recent articles for In These Times, “The AFL-CIO Squashed a Council’s Cease-Fire Resolution. What Does It Say About Labor Right Now?” and “The Labor Movement’s History of Backing Israel — and the Changing Climate Amid the War on Gaza,” which was also published in Jacobin magazine under the headline “US Labor Should Act Boldly and Choose Solidarity With Palestine.”

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Jeff Schuhrke, let’s begin with you. If you can just go through the labor unions, every one, from the United Postal Workers Union to the powerhouse UAW, United Auto Workers, and talk about the Gaza activism that we’re seeing today?

JEFF SCHUHRKE: Good morning, and thank you for having me.

Yeah, since October, scores and scores of unions and labor bodies at the local, state, regional and national level have been calling for a ceasefire. There is a statement, a U.S. labor movement call for a ceasefire. It also includes a call for restoring food, fuel, water, electricity to Gaza and a call for the release of all hostages, that was started around October 17th by United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers, UE, which is a relatively small, but historically very progressive, trade union here in the United States. So, UE, along with United Food and Commercial Workers, UFCW Local 3000, started this petition with the ceasefire call and asked or called on other unions to sign on to it. And so far, as I say, I’ve lost count how many have signed on to it. And other unions have also issued their own statements and resolutions calling for a ceasefire. So, these are unions of teachers and academic workers, healthcare workers, roofers, painters, dockworkers.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you list some of the — can you list some of the unions?

JEFF SCHUHRKE: Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: Like the UAW, in talking about —

JEFF SCHUHRKE: Yeah, yeah, sure. Certainly. So, I mentioned the United Electrical Workers, the American Postal Workers Union, United Auto Workers, 1199SEIU, which is the largest healthcare union in the country, the National Nurses United, International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 10, the Chicago Teachers Union, the Boston Teachers Union, several locals of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, and on and on. It would take a long time.

But these represent millions of working people across the country. And I think it’s an illustration of the fact that, as the polls consistently show, a majority of people in this country support calls for a ceasefire. And when you’re talking about a majority of people in this country, you’re talking about working-class people. And when they have organizations, like unions, that represent their voices, that give them a democratic say, then you’re going to see those organizations, those unions express the stance of working-class people, which in this case is a call for an end to the slaughter and for a ceasefire. Yeah.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: But, Jeff, we still have a considerable number of the national unions, obviously, who are not taking that stand. And you’ve explained in prior articles the role of the AFL-CIO in, for decades and decades, basically supporting U.S. imperial projects around the world. And you’ve written about this guy Jay Lovestone, who was a former communist who played a major role in getting the AFL-CIO united with CIA and imperialist ventures. I’m wondering if you could talk about some of our — to some of our younger viewers and listeners who may never have heard of Jay Lovestone.

JEFF SCHUHRKE: Yeah. There is a really kind of unfortunate and ugly history of the U.S. labor officialdom, including the AFL-CIO, in particular, working hand in hand with the U.S. foreign policy apparatus, especially during the Cold War decades, roughly 1940s to 1990s, working with the State Department, the CIA and other entities of the federal government to try to undermine unions in foreign countries, particularly more left-wing unions, anti-imperialist unions, and divide labor movements. Jay Lovestone for many years was the director of the AFL-CIO’s International Affairs Department. He was a CIA agent, as well. There’s a long history to that.

But particularly when it comes to Israel and Zionism, there’s a long history there, as well, of U.S. labor officialdom being one of the strongest supporters in the U.S. of the Zionist movement, going back as far as 1917, and being strongly supportive of the state of Israel, not just vocal support or political support, but also material support, with millions and millions of dollars from U.S. unions donated to, first, early Zionist settlements, before the state of Israel, and then to the state of Israel for housing, for healthcare clinics, for community centers, sports stadiums. So, throughout the 1950s and '60s, in the early decades of Israel, many of these kinds of public facilities bore the names of famous U.S. labor leaders, like Walter Reuther, George Meany, Jimmy Hoffa, you know, orphanages and sports stadiums named after U.S. labor leaders because of this material support. There's also State of Israel bonds, which U.S. unions have been among the most — the top purchasers of, for many decades. This is money that U.S. unions put dues or pension money or healthcare fund money from unions directly invested into the state of Israel for infrastructure projects.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Jeff, specifically about those Israeli bonds, I remember back in the 1980s attending a fundraiser of the Philadelphia unions for the Israeli labor federation. And one of the leaders got up there at that time and said, “We invest millions of dollars in Israeli bonds from our pension fund, but members sometimes tell me that they don’t give as good a return. But I tell them this is the right thing to do.” So, many union members do not know that their funds were being invested in Israeli bonds for decades.

JEFF SCHUHRKE: Yes. But there has been also a kind of slow but sure — slowly but surely, a movement from the rank and file over many decades to try to push back against that. Going back 50 years ago, in 1973, Arab American auto workers in Detroit who were members of the United Auto Workers staged a wildcat strike at the Dodge Main assembly plant to protest the UAW leadership’s decision to purchase $785,000 in State of Israel bonds and called on UAW leaders to divest.

And so, over the last 20 years or so, you know, there’s been the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, led by Palestinians, including Palestinian trade unions, and some unions in the U.S. have tried to endorse BDS and talk about how their own funds, their own dues and pension funds, how they’re invested in Israel.

So that’s one of the significant things, I think, about the UAW’s recent call for a ceasefire. They also created a new working group called the Divestment and Just Transition working group that’s going to look into the UAW’s own investments in Israel and talk about potentially divesting, as well as talking about — when they say just transition, they’re talking about in the arms industry, because the UAW represents thousands of workers in U.S. weapons factories, weapons that are being sent to Israel. And if we want to talk about shutting down those factories, we also have to talk about what happens to the people who work there who are union members. And so, just transition is similar to the same idea of what happens to fossil fuel workers as we transition to a green economy, making sure — and this goes back to an earlier, you know, in the 1970s, '80s, calls for economic conversion, or conversion from a wartime economy to peacetime economy. So the fact that the UAW's new leadership, under President Shawn Fain, has committed to trying to work towards these goals, I think, is probably even more significant than the calls for a ceasefire, because, after all, a ceasefire is sort of the bare minimum here.

AMY GOODMAN: Bill Fletcher, I wanted to bring you into this conversation. You’re on the editorial board of The Nation, your new piece, “Gaza, Biden, and a Path Forward.” And you wrote, for In These Times, “The Fascist Movement’s Biggest Threat: Labor Unions?” Can you talk about what you mean?

BILL FLETCHER: Amy, Juan, thank you for having me on the program.

Can I — I just want to say one thing before getting into that question. The U.S. trade union movement has always been divided on international affairs, I mean, going back to the Spanish-American War, going to the Spanish Civil War, going to the Vietnam War, Central America, South Africa. What has been a generally consolidated position, going to your point, Juan, is at the level of the national leadership of the AFL-CIO, and most unions, they’ve been largely in lockstep with U.S. foreign policy, but not always. Now, what’s different is that when it comes to Israel and Palestine, up until fairly recently, at the national level, there’s almost no discussion about alternative views as opposed to supporting Israel. And so, that’s what’s changing, which is really, really important to emphasize.

And one of the things, Amy, to your question, is that there is great fear within the union movement about what’s going to happen in November 2024 and what will happen in terms of whether Biden or whoever gets elected. And so, with the October 7th, the Hamas attack, and the Israeli genocide following that, the union movement has been in a tailspin as to how to respond. And part of that response is to go back to its general position of supporting anything that Israel does. Another position is that of silence. And then a growing position, which we’re now seeing, that’s represented by the APWU, UAW, NNU and others, is to take a critical position on the views or on the policy of the United States and of Israel. And that’s where we should have hope.

AMY GOODMAN: And what about President Biden, Bill Fletcher? I mean, you have this really interesting discussion going on right now as we move into the presidential election year. Look at Michigan, huge Arab American community in Dearborn, you know, United Auto Workers so powerful. And it looks like, to say the least, he is — though one of the most powerful supporters of unions when it comes to presidents, Arab American — 

BILL FLETCHER: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: — community is enraged, the Palestinian community of Michigan.

BILL FLETCHER: Well, and they should be. And the rest of us should be. I mean, as you said, I mean, Biden is probably the most pro-labor president that we’ve had in decades. But the thing about his response to Gaza, which is one of the reasons I think that he really should step aside and there should be another candidate for president on the Democratic slate, is that Biden is fundamentally a Zionist. He believes this stuff. I mean, this is not just the sort of the kind of opportunism that we saw with Obama, who I actually don’t think was a Zionist but for very opportunistic reasons was prepared to align himself with supporting Israel on so many things. I think Biden actually believes this.

And his embrace of Netanyahu, this defies politics. It defies reality. It defies humanity that he cannot look at what’s happening and, even at the level of pragmatic politics, say, “Wait a minute. Hold on. Hold on. Let’s reevaluate the situation,” and, at best, call for greater humanitarian aid to the Palestinians. This is unacceptable. And I think that’s why it’s really important to right now hammer the administration around Palestine. We’ll get to the issue in November.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to have to leave it there, Bill, but we’re going to continue the discussion and post it online at democracynow.org. Bill Fletcher, longtime trade unionist, member of The Nation's editorial board, and Jeff Schuhrke, labor historian, journalist. We'll link to all of your pieces.

A very happy birthday to Narmeen Maria! I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

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