How Labor Can Aid the Student Movement for Palestine

Despite heavy repression, campus protests in solidarity with Palestine have been spreading like wildfire across the US. The support of organized labor can help the movement grow — and increase its leverage to achieve its demands.

Banners hanging from the fence outside Northwestern University during a pro-Palestinian protest in Evanston, Illinois, United States on April 27, 2024. (Jacek Boczarski / Anadolu via Getty Images)

Since April 18, over one thousand students, faculty members, and community supporters have been arrested at college campus protests across the country. Despite fierce repression from university administrators and police, new Gaza solidarity encampments, set up by students protesting Israel’s genocide and demanding their schools divest, are popping up every day.

Students have been threatened with arrest, suspension, and even expulsion for their participation in campus protests calling on their universities to disclose their financial holdings and divest from all financial ties to Israel and weapons manufacturing. On April 30, police in riot gear swept student antiwar encampments at Columbia and City College of New York, arresting nearly three hundred protesters. Violent police attacks on peaceful protesters have gone viral on social media, including harrowing footage of blood being hosed off from the walls at Emerson College in Boston and police tasing a protester while he was pinned to the ground and handcuffed at Emory University in Atlanta.

Last night, a mob of pro-Israel counterprotesters at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) launched an attack on the student encampment, launching fireworks directly into the camp, attempting to tear down students’ barricades, and brutally beating students. Campus security and police officers arrived on the scene but refused to intervene for an hour and a half.

As the situation continues to escalate, the need for support from groups beyond the students is becoming increasingly clear. Organized labor, with its capacity to mobilize wider layers of working people and leverage to shut down universities or even broader sectors of the economy through collective action, can help the protest movement to achieve its demands.

Union Solidarity With Palestine

Several international labor unions — including the United Auto Workers (UAW), the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE), and the American Postal Workers Union — have publicly called for a cease-fire, in addition to over two hundred local unions. Many have shown up at local rallies and protests, including a rally organized by UAW Region 9A that marched to support the student encampment at New York University on April 27.

These efforts show that more of the labor movement is recognizing the need for solidarity with Palestine. But unions can have their greatest impact in winning a cease-fire and student demands for university divestment when they use their power to strike and carry out other disruptive actions.

During the Berkeley Free Speech Movement (FSM) of the 1960s, organized labor played a crucial role in supporting the student strike on UC Berkeley’s campus. Joel Geier, a student activist in the International Socialists (IS) during the FSM, recalls:

The local labor movement, including the campus unions — the Building Trades, SEIU [Service Employees International Union], the ILWU [International Longshore and Warehouse Union], and the San Francisco Labor Council — supported the strike. A contribution to shutting down the campus came from an unexpected force: the conservative Teamsters. I led a group of FSMers to meet with Teamster union officials, who agreed with us that crossing our picket lines would be scabbing, and they would prevent all deliveries to the campus. Within an hour, no trucks bringing supplies or food entered the campus, helping to halt the normal functioning of the university. The solidarity of campus workers was outstanding, particularly the underground support from secretaries and clerks of the main university administrators, who acted as part of our intelligence network, providing us with the enemy’s thinking, plans, and memos.

Yet on many college campuses today, union groundskeepers have been tasked with the university’s dirty work of sweeping protest camps, throwing students’ posters and tents in the trash.

Student activists can take a page out of the FSM’s book in building relationships with local unions, especially those representing the groundskeepers involved in universities’ repression of encampments. Many college campuses have pro-labor student clubs that organize solidarity efforts with their local unions, and, increasingly, their own undergraduate student labor unions; these clubs and unions would be the ideal avenues for holding conversations with local unions about supporting the student activists. At the New School in New York City, for instance, student-workers are picketing to simultaneously demand union recognition from the university and to support the Gaza solidarity encampment at the school — a tactic that organizers say has helped stave off more aggressive tactics from police.

As many college students gear up for summer break and a likely demobilization of campus activism, student activists can think of using the summer to develop long-term relationships with local unions, supporting them in upcoming contract fights or labor disputes and in turn sharing why student activists will need their support in the coming fall.

Some union members whose locals or internationals have passed cease-fire resolutions are already starting to take organized action in support of the protests.

Organizers in Los Angeles launched a button campaign, “Button Up 4 Palestine,” on April 30 to show solidarity, while United Teachers Los Angeles members from the rank-and-file-led LA Educators for Justice in Palestine led teach-ins at the student encampment at UCLA. In New York City, bus drivers with Transport Workers Union Local 100 refused to drive city buses to transport arrested protesters from a Jewish Voice for Peace protest during Passover, and public defenders unionized with Association of Legal Aid Attorneys UAW Local 2325 have been providing legal services to arrested protesters. (Local 2325 is itself currently being subpoenaed by Congress for passing a cease-fire resolution last December.) And graduate workers at the University of Southern California organized with UAW Local 872 have filed unfair labor practice (ULP) charges against the university for the unlawful arrest of its members during a peaceful protest on campus.

The Power of the Strike

For most union workers, no strike–no lockout clauses in their contracts restrict them from going on strike over a ULP. But workers who are organizing a union for the first time, fighting for recognition, or working under an expired contract typically can throw up legal picket lines over ULPs. Most union contracts include language protecting workers from having to cross legal picket lines, something often referred to as “secondary boycotts.”

A strategically placed picket line can trigger secondary boycotts that have the power to bring the economy to a screeching halt. On college campuses, this may look like picketing in front of the loading docks of cafeterias, biosciences buildings, and engineering buildings, all of which tend to rely on time-sensitive deliveries. This was a tactic employed by the UAW strike of forty-eight thousand academic workers in the University of California system during their six-week strike in 2022.

Secondary boycotts during an ILWU recognition fight for a small unit of intermodal yard workers at the Port of Tacoma shut down the entire port for a day, costing the company an estimated $5–6 million. The result? The company caved, granting voluntary recognition for the union that eventually won those workers double their pay, up to $80,000 annually from $40,000. The lesson here is that solidarity across bargaining units, job classifications, and unions gets the goods.

Picket lines don’t have to be legal of course. The ongoing Massachusetts public school teachers’ strike wave and the 2018 wildcat teachers’ strikes in West Virginia and Arizona show that sufficiently organized workers can carry out winning strikes even when they are against the law. As West Virginia teachers’ striker Emily Comer said, “It doesn’t matter if an action is illegal if you have enough people doing it.”

Actions don’t have to be as drastic as secondary boycotts or illegal strikes. Both are highly risky, especially in controversial political moments like this one; most workplaces still aren’t at the levels of organization required to pull them off effectively, and governments sometimes respond to illegal strikes with severe repression. But every action counts, like button campaigns or other structure tests that can help union activists build long-term organization of members. Heated moments require flexible tactics, but organizers should be cautious of taking shortcuts.

Workers are behind the operations that keep these universities afloat, from the faculty and graduate students that teach the classes and grade the papers, to the custodial and cafeteria staff that keep the campus clean and fed. If workers choose to stand in solidarity with student protesters rather than the bosses — the universities — they may be able to use their leverage to help students win their demands.

For the students’ movement for Palestine to develop beyond the campus (and to survive the demobilization of summer break), it will have to make inroads into other spheres of society where ordinary people have power. The power of the working class lies in its numbers and its ability to stop the flow of capital through the simple — but by no means easy — act of withholding its labor.

The current student protest wave is a reminder that the shop floor isn’t the only important site of struggles for social justice, as the bravery and courage of student activists facing immense repression has breathed new life into the movement for Palestinian liberation. But to build an effective mass movement for Palestine, we’ll need strategic leverage. We can start with the unions.