Unions and Elected Officials Are Joining the Movement for Palestinian Freedom

When a group of pro-Palestine state legislators and activists launched a five-day hunger strike outside the White House this week, members of Congress and major unions showed up in solidarity. The movement against Israel's war on Gaza just keeps growing.

New York assemblymember Zohran Mamdani speaks in front of the White House during a five-day hunger strike for Gaza. (Eman Mohammed)

“I’m quite exhausted,” admitted socialist assemblymember Zohran Mamdani yesterday, speaking by phone a few hours before ending a five-day hunger strike in front of the White House, demanding a cease-fire in Gaza.

Mamdani, who is part of a slate of New York state legislators backed by the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), was joined by other hunger strikers, including actor and former New York gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon, Delaware state representative Madinah Wilson-Anton, activist and writer Sumaya Awad, Virginia state representative Sam Rasoul, Oklahoma state representative Mauree Turner, and Michigan state representative Abraham Aiyash.

While Mamdani has used the hunger strike tactic before — successfully demanding debt relief for New York City taxi workers in 2019 — the solidarity surrounding the past week’s action was unprecedented in US politics, reflecting the impressive movement against Israel’s brutal war, as well as the growing representation of the Left in government.

On Wednesday, Mamdani and his fellow hunger strikers were joined by members of Congress, most of them democratic socialists: Rashida Tlaib of Detroit, the only Palestinian member of Congress, who has faced censure from members of her own party for her outspoken advocacy of Palestinian rights; Cori Bush of St. Louis, who introduced the cease-fire resolution in Congress last month; Jamaal Bowman of New York, who faced criticism from DSA for traveling to Israel with the liberal pro-Israel group J-Street and voting for some military funding but has since become more outspoken on the issue than any other New York congressperson. The socialist members were joined by a colleague, Representative Jonathan Jackson of Illinois, the son of Reverend Jesse Jackson and a former spokesman for the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, a civil rights organization founded by the elder Jackson.

Jamaal Bowman, Rashida Tlaib, Jonathan Jackson, Cori Bush, Cynthia Nixon, and others outside the White House. (Eman Mohammed)

It’s rare in America for members of Congress to stand up so publicly against US aid for Israel’s war crimes. But even more surprisingly in the context of US politics, Mamdani and his fellow protesters had the support of major labor unions.

That morning the leadership of the United Auto Workers (UAW), the American Postal Workers Union (APWU), and the United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers of America (UE) announced their support for a cease-fire at a press conference, hours after Israel resumed bombing Gaza.

The biggest of these was the UAW International, whose executive board had just voted to sign onto a cease-fire call organized by UE and United Food and Commercial Workers 3000, a milestone announced by Brandon Mancilla, director of UAW Region 9A at Friday morning’s press conference. (Full disclosure: I’m a member of UAW Region 9A and introduced the resolution to sign the cease-fire letter, which 9A did this fall.) The UAW’s stance comes amid dramatic reforms in the union’s internal democracy and on the heels of a historic strike. Mamdani noted that the UAW, having dramatically expanded the political horizons of the US working class, is now doing the same for Palestine.

“From opposing fascism in World War II to mobilizing against apartheid South Africa and the CONTRA war,” Mancilla said at the press conference yesterday, “the UAW has consistently stood for justice across the globe. A labor movement that fights for social and economic justice for all workers must always stand against war and for peace.” (His words were later tweeted by Shawn Fain, the UAW’s president.) Mancilla also announced that the union, which represents some workers who manufacture weapons, had voted to investigate its own economic relationship to the Israel-Palestine conflict, and “explore how we can have a just transition for US workers from war to peace.”

“What’s motivating me to go on a hunger strike,” Mamdani told Jacobin yesterday, “is the complicity that we have as American in the ongoing massacre of the Palestinians, not only by bombs but also by the policy of starvation by the Israeli military. It’s President Biden’s continued military support of Israel that allows these tactics to be used.”

Mamdani pointed out that the death toll in Gaza does not tell the full story of Palestinian suffering. What’s also horrific, he said, are “the conditions of the living: starvation, disease. It is a slow death for so many.” Explaining why he and his comrades had chosen the hunger strike tactic, he said that because the White House has so often dismissed Palestinian accounts of their hardships, the movement must speak about them through “the bodies of those this White House does extend humanity to — Americans.”

In the recent past, the Palestinian cause has been viewed as divisive within the labor movement and the Left. The bold actions of DSA elected officials, and of labor leaders representing so many rank-and-file workers, show that’s changing. “The political and media class will try to make us feel that extending rights to Palestinians is a death knell for the left,” said Mamdani, “but it’s the opposite.”

Rather than sowing division, standing against Israel’s war is uniting the Left. Take the DSA, which has been playing a leading role in the movement for a cease-fire. Mamdani said that for every article criticizing DSA for its stance, he has received just as many if not more messages from people who were once skeptical but now express a new respect for the group. “It shows that we are living up to the principles that we as socialists espouse,” Mamdani said of DSA’s support for a cease-fire in Gaza, “We’re building a multiracial, working-class movement.”