The US Labor Movement’s Pro-Israel Consensus Is Starting to Crack

Unions in the US have a long history of supporting Israel and suppressing rank-and-file solidarity with Palestine. Israel’s brutal war on Gaza, and the targeting of US workers who oppose it, is starting to change that.

People holding Palestinian flags and banners demonstrate to show solidarity with Palestinians and to protest against Israeli attacks on Gaza, on November 17, 2023 in New York, United States. After Starbucks Workers United tweeted “Solidarity With Palestine,” the company sued the union. (Fatih Aktas / Anadolu via Getty Images)

When Israel began bombing the Gaza Strip following Hamas’s deadly attack on October 7, thousands of Palestinians from Gaza were in Israel on work permits. Israel started granting such permits in 2021, though the process is far from easy: workers are frequently denied the authorization, and traveling to work requires long commutes with hours-long waits at border crossings and invasive security checks.

But Palestinians take the work because they need it; before the latest siege, unemployment in Gaza stood at 47 percent. And when the occupation forces closed entry into Gaza and revoked the permits last month, thousands of those workers were stranded. For weeks, they were missing. “There’s 5,000 that we don’t have any information about,” Muhammad Aruri, head of legal affairs for the General Union of Palestinian Workers, told Tribune late last month. “We don’t know if they are dead or alive.”

Many of them were detained without due process or legal representation. On November 2, some ten thousand of these workers were released and deported back to a largely-leveled Gaza, left to discover if their family members and homes had been decimated or spared by Israeli airstrikes. The workers allege they were tortured while in detention, with their money and cell phones taken and never returned.

“For three days, we remained handcuffed and blindfolded,” Wael al-Sajda, a Palestinian worker, told the Associated Press. “They would put us under the sun for two, three or four hours, with no water, food or anything.”

At least one Palestinian worker, sixty-one-year-old Mansour Warsh Agha, died in detention. His body was delivered at Kerem Shalom crossing to his family, who said that it showed signs of severe beatings.

There is now little Gazan economy of which to speak, as Israel continues systematically destroying the area and killing its inhabitants by the thousands. Work has all but disappeared, as Gaza’s residents spend much of their time trying to avoid being killed, digging through rubble to find survivors of Israeli bombings, and searching, often fruitlessly, for food and water.

All of this should concern any labor movement worthy of the name, particularly one whose government helps provide the bombs, technology, and funds for Israel.

A New Wave of Solidarity

On October 16, a broad coalition of Palestinian unions called for solidarity from their counterparts around the world. That call also asked unions in the United States to push for an end to all military trade with and funding of Israel.

The US labor movement has long supported Israel.

As Jeff Shurchke details, in the wake of the first Nakba — the mass displacement of Palestinians at Israel’s founding — US unions donated millions of dollars to help Israel construct public facilities in previously-majority Palestinian towns, resulting in the erection of buildings like the Walter Reuther Youth Center in Holon, George Meany Stadium in Nazareth, Philip Murray Memorial Center in Elath, William Green Cultural Center in Haifa, James R. Hoffa Children’s Home in Ayn Karim, and ILGWU Hospital in Beersheba. For decades, US unions purchased hundreds of millions of dollars of state of Israel bonds. In 2002, during the Second Intifada, then AFL-CIO president John Sweeney spoke at the National Rally for Israel, a mass gathering meant to demonstrate public support for Israel amid the violence. And in more recent years, when a couple of United Auto Workers (UAW) passed resolutions to endorse the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, the union’s international intervened to tamp down the criticism of Israel.

Yet in the face of Israel’s current bombardment of not only Gaza but also the West Bank, US labor’s pro-Israel consensus is finally beginning to come undone.

That consensus was never total: in 1973, the Arab Workers Caucus of the UAW organized a wildcat strike to push their union to liquidate its $785,000 worth of Israeli bonds and end its unequivocal support for Israel. Other expressions of Palestine solidarity sporadically seeped through organized labor’s pro-Israel wall. In one 1988 statement, labor activists wrote that “minimum justice requires dismantling the apartheid state and replacing it with a democratic secular Palestine, where Jews and Arabs, Christians and Moslems, live together with equal rights and opportunities.”

But Israel’s ongoing brutal war has turned those cracks into gaping holes.

On October 19, the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers (UE) — which endorsed BDS in 2015 and earlier this year passed a resolution urging an end to US military aid to Israel — cosponsored a petition with the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW) Local 3000. The statement calls on Joe Biden and Congress to “push for an immediate ceasefire and end to the siege of Gaza.” It goes on to note that “the basic rights of people must be restored,” including allowing “water, fuel, food, and other humanitarian aid” into Gaza. And continues: “Hamas and Israel must adhere to standards of international law and Geneva Convention rules of warfare concerning the welfare and security of civilians.”

On November 8, the American Postal Workers Union (APWU), too, joined the call for an immediate cease-fire. APWU president Mark Dimondstein raised the issue at an October 16 meeting of the AFL-CIO executive council, urging the body to demand a cease-fire. He reportedly found no support among his colleagues — the AFL-CIO has in fact quashed efforts to back such a call at the local level — but to have criticism of Israel raised at length in such a meeting may itself be unprecedented.

A wave of educators’ unions has also forcefully joined the demands for cease-fire, citing the unconscionable number of children killed by Israel in Gaza, a number that surpassed 4,600 before Gaza’s Ministry of Health stopped counting due to an inability to gather information under the constant bombardment.

“As a union of educators dedicated to empowering the next generation, we are deeply concerned by the loss of civilian life and indiscriminate bombing throughout Gaza, where half the Palestinians living there are children,” said Jackson Potter, the vice president of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), at a November 13 Palestine solidarity rally. The CTU joined the American Federation of Teachers–Oregon, the United Educators of San Francisco, and the San Antonio Alliance of Teachers and Support Personnel in passing cease-fire resolutions.

“As Americans, we also condemn the role our government plays in supporting the system of Israeli occupation and apartheid, which lies at the root of the Palestinian Israeli conflict,” reads Minneapolis Federation of Teachers Local 59’s resolution, which additionally urges the Minnesota State Legislature to repeal laws opposing the BDS movement.

Even two regions of the UAW, with its long history of steadfast support for Israel, have signed on to the UE-UFCW Local 3000 petition. (Shawn Fain, the union’s newly elected reform president, has yet to publicly comment on the subject.) International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 10, which has a long history of taking political action, be it against apartheid South Africa or contemporary Israel, endorsed a cease-fire too — the resolution passed unanimously at a general membership meeting on Saturday.

Facing Censorship

Why the shift in labor solidarity with Palestine now? Israel’s savage bombing campaign, which many critics have labeled genocidal, has certainly moved many in the working class, as evidenced by the hundreds of thousands of people who have rallied in cities across the United States to urge a cease-fire. But there is also the matter of how the war is playing out in the United States. Not only does our government fund the siege, but workers who criticize Israel are now undergoing a fierce and unrelenting backlash.

As of November 14, six hundred people had contacted Palestine Legal, a legal defense organization that provides free legal services to anyone who is being censored, punished, or falsely accused for speaking out for Palestinian rights. As Dylan Saba, a staff attorney at the organization, told Jacobin, “The backlash we’re seeing against people in the United States speaking out for Palestinian liberation has become a new McCarthyism.”

“We’re seeing people being fired from their jobs for saying that they support Palestinian human rights or criticizing Israel’s policies,” Radhika Sainath, a senior staff attorney, told Hammer and Hope. “We’re getting calls from doctors, lawyers, novelists, professors, teachers, models, professional poker players, you name it. There’s no area that hasn’t been touched, because working people across the country are speaking out against Israel’s attempted ethnic cleansing and genocide.”

My own union, the NewsGuild–Communication Workers of America (CWA), is in a fight over precisely this issue. Jazmine Hughes, a member of the NewsGuild of New York and a writer for the New York Times magazine, was forced to either resign or face termination after signing a statement by Writers Against the War on Gaza. According to Vanity Fair, her Weingarten rights (an employee’s right to request their representatives) were violated in that process, and she was denied severance to which she was contractually entitled.

I’m not a disinterested observer: along with being a member of NewsGuild of New York, I helped write that statement. I see doing so as part of my duty as a working journalist: Israel has now killed half of the reporters in the Gaza Strip, in what the Committee to Protect Journalists reports is the deadliest conflict for journalists since the organization started keeping track in 1992.

As Joe Rivano Barros, an editor at San Francisco nonprofit Mission Local, said to the Washington Post in explaining why he signed another statement, this one written by journalists condemning the violence against reporters in Gaza, “Gazan journalists are facing an unprecedented and rising death toll, Western newsrooms are directly benefiting from their work on-the-ground, and if we cannot call for their protection — that is perverse.” Barros’s view did not sway the Los Angeles Times, which has now prohibited the roughly three-dozen journalists who signed the statement from reporting on Israel and Palestine for three months, effectively silencing many of the newspaper’s Muslim journalists.

An Injury to One . . .

Such repression, censorship, and targeting of members of the Palestine solidarity movement is an attack on every union member: if an employer can get away with violating one worker’s contract, it undermines all of their coworkers. If one worker’s rights can be tossed away for criticizing Israel, other workers’ rights are similarly imperiled.

Employers in the United States are already using the anti-Palestinian hysteria to advance their preexisting offensive against labor. For instance, after Starbucks Workers United tweeted “Solidarity With Palestine,” the company sued the union. When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail, and for employers trying to regain control over their workers after the widespread delegitimization of management wrought by the pandemic, the panic over the growing Palestine solidarity movement offers a perfect weapon.

Those employers hope that solidarity with Palestine is so controversial that workers and their union leadership won’t fight for members targeted for it. But not doing so weakens our hand, our contracts, and our rights. It would mark a failure for our movement, where “an injury to one is an injury to all” isn’t just a slogan, but a description of how letting employers pick off individual workers affects the ones who remain.

The business class has frequently underestimated the solidarity of the US working class in recent years, expecting strikes to devolve into division or workers to accept the old status quo. Let’s hope they are once again mistaken.