US union wins right to boycott Israel

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THE UNITED Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE) earlier this summer won a major battle in the courts that recognises the UE’s right to join the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement in support of Palestine.

UEY National President Peter Knowlton has been speaking about the struggle, which will surely have great ramifications for the Palestinian movement. The National Labour Relations Board (NLRB) has reaffirmed its dismissal of an unfair labour practice charge brought by an Israeli law firm against the UEY, which represents 30,000 workers, over its support of protests against Israeli policies including the union’s endorsement of the BDS movement.

At its national convention in Baltimore August 16-20, 2015, the UE adopted a resolution endorsing the BDS movement to pressure Israel to negotiate peace with the Palestinians and end the occupation. UE was the first national US union to endorse BDS.

The resolution reads: ‘For more than 25 years the US has engaged in a so-called “peace process” with Israeli and Palestinian representatives. But the US role has remained extremely one-sided. The US gives Israel $3 billion a year in aid and repeatedly uses its UN veto to shield Israel from criticism of its human rights abuses.

‘The Palestinians are worse off. In the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem, Israel continues to confiscate homes and land to expand Israeli settlements which violate international law. Since 1967 Israel has settled more than 500,000 of its citizens in the West Bank, and has been building a wall that separates neighbouring towns and cuts off farmers from their fields.

‘Many prominent human rights activists including former President Jimmy Carter and South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu have called the system of Israeli rule over Palestinian people “apartheid”. In Gaza, 1.8 million Palestinians are crowded into a tiny enclave under continuous military and economic blockade.

‘In the summer of 2014 Israel waged a merciless war on the impoverished population of Gaza. More than 2,000 Palestinians were killed.  The vast majority were civilians, including more than 500 children; and the physical destruction was overwhelming.

‘UE officers issued a statement expressing our union’s alarm and over 300 Holocaust survivors and descendants signed a full-page newspaper ad that condemned the Israeli attack as genocide and declared, “never again must mean never again for anyone.”

‘Yet incredibly, the US Senate voted unanimously at the time to endorse Israel’s actions. The source of the conflict goes back to the origins of the State of Israel. The population was overwhelmingly Palestinian Arab (Muslim and Christian) before 1947-48, when well-armed Zionist militias seized most of the territory of Palestine and expelled 750,000 people from their cities, villages and farms.

‘They executed much of the Palestinian leadership and declared the founding of the State of Israel. As a result millions of Palestinians are refugees both in the occupied territories and in other countries. Israel prohibits their return to their homes. In recent years racism and extremism in Israel has grown more severe.

‘One-fifth of Israeli citizens are Palestinians who survived ethnic cleansing. Some members of parliament, including cabinet members in Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s government, call for stripping their citizenship and expelling them. Some also call for expelling all Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza and annexing them to Israel.

‘The “peace process,” supposedly aimed at negotiating the terms of Palestinian statehood in those territories, has been dead at least since March when Netanyahu, in his reelection campaign, declared he would never accept a Palestinian state.

‘In July 2005 Palestinian trade unions and hundreds of Palestinian civil society organisations called for a worldwide campaign of boycotts to pressure Israel to end its apartheid over the Palestinians. This has developed into a global movement called Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions. BDS was modelled after the 1980s international solidarity campaign that put economic pressure on South Africa’s government which helped end apartheid.

‘The summer 2014 Israeli attack on Gaza increased worldwide support for BDS. UE Local 150 endorsed BDS. The largest union in Britain, Unite, endorsed BDS in July 2014. UAW Local 2865, which represents 13,000 graduate employees of the University of California, also endorsed BDS last year. COSATU, the Congress of South African Trade Unions that helped defeat apartheid in that country, is a strong backer of BDS. Many progressive Jewish organisations and individuals, in the US… and elsewhere actively support BDS’.

The UE vote to adopt the motion was celebrated in Palestine. Omar Bargouti, Palestinian activist and the founder of the BDS movement, said: ‘UE endorsement of BDS shows that, despite the extreme intimidation, bullying and/or cooptation practiced by Israel and its powerful lobbying groups in the US against critics, let alone advocates of a boycott, BDS is spreading the fastest in the US.

‘It is inspiring to see growing support from US trade unions, including the Industrial Workers of the World, which endorsed BDS in 2010, and UAW 2865, the California-wide union of teaching assistants that earlier this year adopted divestment from the Israeli occupation with a two-thirds majority vote.’

‘We would like to express our deepest appreciation for the courageous resolution… in support of our right as Palestinians to live in peace and dignity as equals on our lands,’ wrote the Palestinian Postal Workers’ Union to the UE. We sincerely hope that other national unions in the US and many other countries will follow in your footsteps.’

However, the union’s actions were not universally well-received. On October 23rd 2015, the Israeli law firm Shurat Hadin filed a charge with the NLRB alleging that the UE resolution violated the prohibition in US labour law against ‘secondary boycotts’.

The union disputed the charge, arguing that Shurat Hadin’s action was an attempt to interfere with the First Amendment rights of the union and its members to express opinions on political and international issues, and also that the Israeli firm’s allegation were factually untrue.

On January 12th 2016, Region 6 of the NLRB dismissed the charge. Shurat Hadin then appealed to the Office of the General Council of the NLRB, and on May 26th that office denied the appeal. UE National President Peter Knowlton says the union ‘welcomes the labour board’s decision’ to reject, for a second time, Shurat Hadin’s charge.

He said that UE in the past had ‘withstood attempts by the US government to silence us during the McCarthy era in the 1950s,’ and was ‘unbowed by the latest attempt of a surrogate of the Israeli government to stifle our call for justice for Palestinian… workers.’

Knowlton added, ‘The NLRB’s decision is a victory for the growing BDS movement across the US, which faces increasing political attempts to silence and intimidate critics of the Israeli government. As Americans who have a constitutional right to criticise our own government, we certainly have a right to criticise and, if we choose, boycott a foreign government that is heavily subsidised by US taxpayers.’

UE General President Peter Knowlton commented: ‘At the 2015 convention UE delegates voted to support BDS because of the atrocities committed by the Israeli government in Gaza in 2014, and the increasing discrimination and repression of Palestinian people and workers by the Israeli government and military. Our US tax dollars, in excess of $3 billion a year, are funding this system of apartheid, and we must do more to change it.’

UE is very concerned about attacks on the BDS movement by US politicians who advocate or have adopted resolutions, executive orders, and statutes targeting the BDS movement, said Knowlton.

He pointed out that the 2016 party platforms of both the Democrats and Republicans condemn BDS. ‘These are unconstitutional attacks on free speech,’ said the union president. ‘Boycotts have been an essential component of non-violent struggles for workers’ rights and other struggles for justice throughout our history.

‘The Montgomery Bus Boycott launched the modern Civil Rights Movement. The worldwide campaign of boycott, divestment and sanctions against South Africa in the 1980s helped end the apartheid system in that country.

‘UE opposes any legislation and legislative resolutions that outlaw or condemn legitimate criticism of Israel and support for BDS, or attempt to sanction individuals, organisations, companies or governments simply because they have legitimately criticised Israel or supported BDS.

‘We will support legal and political challenges to overturn such attacks on fundamental civil liberties.’ On July 14th, peace activists defeated an anti-BDS bill in the Massachusetts legislature.

Shurat Hadin is an Israeli organisation that uses legal cases to harass supporters of Palestinian rights and critics of Israel, a strategy known as lawfare. Its most infamous case was a 2011 lawsuit against former President Jimmy Carter for writing a book critical of Israel, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid. The suit against Carter failed.

Its attacks on UE began September 2nd, 2015 when Shurat Hadin wrote a letter to the CEO of the General Electric Company, UE largest employer, ‘warning’ GE to ‘rescind its recently concluded labour agreement’ with UE because Shurat Hadin did not like the union’s resolution on Palestine.

On July 11th, 2016, Shurat Hadin sued Facebook for $1 billion, charging the social media company with insufficiently censoring Palestinians. The global BDS movement arose from a 2005 call by Palestinian trade unions and human rights groups.

UE resolution also calls for a cutoff of US aid to Israel and for US support for a peace settlement on the basis of self-determination for Palestinians and the right of Palestinian refugees to return to Palestine.

With its resolution UE joined the South African labour union confederation COSATU, Unite the Union in Britain and many other labour unions around the world in supporting BDS as part of the fight for a Palestinian state.