Why the UAW Should Stand in Solidarity With Palestine

Brandon Mancilla

UAW Region 9A is standing in solidarity with Palestine — including publicly supporting pro-Palestine campus protests. We spoke with Region 9A director Brandon Mancilla about the UAW’s antiwar position and why “unions have no business investing in genocide."

Protesters march in support of Palestine in Washington, DC. (Andrew Caballero-Reynolds / AFP via Getty Images)

Interview by
Nick French

Over the past two weeks, pro-Palestine occupations have spread rapidly across US college and university campuses. After Columbia University called on the New York Police Department to clear out a tent encampment of students demanding the university divest from firms profiting from Israeli occupation and apartheid, similar encampments have popped up at dozens of colleges around the country. These occupations have faced similar repression from university administrations as well as hostile media attention, but they don’t appear to be slowing down.

Last Friday, United Auto Workers (UAW) Region 9A organized a rally in New York City’s Washington Square Park in solidarity with the campus protest movement. UAW Region 9A includes unions of higher-education workers at universities around the Northeast where protests have emerged, including at Columbia, New York University, the New School, and elsewhere. UAW members have been among the protesters facing arrests and disciplinary action.

At the rally, Region 9A director Brandon Mancilla spoke in support of the protesters and reiterated the UAW’s demand for a cease-fire in Gaza that the union issued last December. Jacobin’s Nick French sat down with Mancilla to discuss the cease-fire demand, the US labor movement’s complicated history with respect to US foreign policy, and how the UAW is demonstrating solidarity with the campus protesters.

Nick French

The labor movement has not always been on the right side of history when it comes to US foreign policy. In the twentieth century especially, during the Cold War, US labor leaders often supported violent imperial interventions abroad. How do you see the UAW’s current call for a cease-fire in Gaza in light of that history? How did the cease-fire call come about?

Brandon Mancilla

It’s a complicated history. The UAW has taken bold, solidaristic, internationalist stances in its history. It sees its fight against fascism in World War II in that vein. In 1978, the union divested from South Africa, which was pretty early on in the divestment movement within the struggle against apartheid in South Africa. In other circumstances like the Iraq War, the union took the right position.

But there’s also the other history, one in which the UAW, like so many of the other major unions in the country, went in lockstep with US foreign policy throughout the Cold War. Walter Reuther himself eventually opposed the Vietnam War and spoke a lot about a peace dividend or a transition away from the military-industrial complex. But it took him a while to get to that point. For many years, he was either silent about or supportive of the Vietnam War.

That wasn’t unique to him; it was a lot of unions. Shamefully, a lot of unions even took Ronald Reagan’s side on the anti-communist crusade in Central America. It’s called the “AFL-CIA” for a reason: there’s a history of the US labor movement, and of the AFL-CIO and its affiliates specifically, taking stances that solidified US hegemony at the expense of solidarity with oppressed people, fighting against war and imperialism and oppression. So the UAW’s record is admirable in some respects and in others less so.

The cease-fire call is a seismic shift. Throughout that entire history, there was an unquestioned commitment to supporting the state of Israel. Israel was established by the Zionist movement, which had a lot of socialistic or progressive currents within it, like the kibbutz movement. A lot of prominent labor leaders, including Reuther, were honored by Israel after its founding.

A lot of those ties didn’t survive the early decades, but what did survive was an unquestioning support for Israel. In other cases, it was just ignorance: not paying attention or doing any political education around Middle Eastern politics.

The UAW was confronted by its Arab caucus in the 1970s about its investments in Israel, especially after the 1967 war. But the UAW decided to stand against the demands of those Arab members, who even went to the point of wildcat striking. The UAW was happy to shake off that history and move on.

It’s not until the last six months that the UAW has had to return to this question. I give a ton of credit to the UE [the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America], UFCW [United Food and Commercial Workers] 3000, and the American Postal Workers Union — the usual champions of internationalist causes and solidarity with oppressed people and Palestinians specifically.

I think they were very wise in — instead of reiterating their BDS [Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement] positions or usual commitments [around Israel-Palestine] — making a general call to the labor movement and said, “This is the moment that you all need to stop being quiet and join in a cease-fire demand. We obviously condemn antisemitism, but we also acknowledge that there is a really brutal history of occupation and violence against the Palestinian people that can’t be ignored, and we have to start speaking out against that.”

That’s how I see the cease-fire demand emerging: it was a combination of these unions that had for a long time taken a clear position on Palestine, and second and most important, there has been a profound shift among members, among rank-and-file workers. Especially among younger workers, especially among newly organized workers in industries where we’re organizing for the first time, such as Starbucks and higher ed and nonprofits. Not exclusively, but a lot of this energy is coming from the newly organized sectors.

That, combined with the general strategic call for a cease-fire from some unions, led to a moment in which the UAW was the first major union to step out and say, we are also going to call for this cease-fire, and we’re going to call for the rest of the labor movement to come along with us.

Nick French

There has been an explosion of campus protests against Israel in the last couple of weeks, along with fierce repression by university administration. UAW members in higher ed at Columbia, NYU, and other universities are being affected. What is the UAW doing to support members who may be experiencing repression and to stand in solidarity with the campus protests more generally?

Brandon Mancilla

Beginning in October, a lot of our members took to the streets, specifically wearing their UAW swag or carrying the UAW wheel with them. That was very much a sign of a demand for realignment — we want to realign our union to Palestinian solidarity, and the cease-fire is the first step.

So when the student encampment movement took off, workers from our units, especially on the campuses, took to the occupations and participated. We have faculty members who are UAW standing in defense of their students. Student workers are also participating. It’s a moment in which the entire higher ed sector is very much on fire — not only with our organizing, but also because of this fightback against campus repression and police presence and the defense of free speech, and also the call for divestment.

At the New School, this is being paired with the demand to recognize the new student-worker union there. So the student workers are doing daily pickets in solidarity with the encampment, but also demanding that the university recognize their union and avoid further delay with the National Labor Relations Board.

Workers have strategically and in solidarity decided to become a part of this movement as workers, not just as students. That’s a profound shift in consciousness within the UAW, but also within the labor movement as a whole. This is a student issue, it’s an academic free-speech issue — but it’s also a labor issue, because our members have made it so and have exposed how much it affects the rights of everyone on campus, not just their own bargaining units.

We organized a rally last Friday publicly supporting our membership and the encampments. We support demands for transparency and disclosure and divestment that the student movement is mobilizing around.

When our members got arrested, the great benefit of having the public defenders in New York unionized under UAW — the Association of Legal Aid Attorneys UAW Local 2325 — is that those legal service members defended our higher-ed members in arraignments and court appearances. Our members in public defense were the people on the front lines representing our higher-ed members who got arrested, and other students who were not our members.

Their commitment to Palestinian solidarity is admirable, because, on top of this, Local 2325 is currently being subpoenaed by Congress for approving a resolution last December calling for a cease-fire. Whatever happens next with the subpoena, the UAW is supporting them throughout the process to ensure that all workers have the right to free speech, especially on Palestine.

We’re doing what we can to keep track of everything, make sure everyone’s safe, knows their rights, knows how to act in solidarity. We’re going to continue to fight to make sure everyone is safe and able to fight back against any retaliation or anything like that. Our membership in New York is gearing up for a very active May Day also, [mobilizing around] labor issues that you traditionally think of with May Day, the workers’ holiday, paired with a call for Palestinian solidarity and a cease-fire.

Nick French

I saw you speak at the rally UAW organized last Friday, where you talked about what was going on in the UAW broadly, and you brought up the drive to organize nonunion auto shops in the South. Do you see a connection between that domestic labor fight in the US and the demand for a cease-fire in Gaza?

Brandon Mancilla

I think the UAW right now is leading the fight for social and economic justice and needs to become increasingly inclusive. Part of the reawakening of the labor movement is not just about fighting for stronger contracts or striking or organizing new workers — it’s also about making sure that worker power means building political power that changes this country. And in this country, the question of our complicity in and support for wars and atrocities is unavoidable.

If we want to build a society that is just and equitable for all, we’re going to have to do that while also standing with workers around the world who are suffering. That’s what our Mexico solidarity project is about: supporting the Mexican autoworkers’ independent labor movement. It’s having some wins and organizing in really inspiring ways, but it needs a lot more support. Because they’re doing this with very few resources and against intense opposition, not just from the companies, but also from the police and the corrupt company unions that stand in the way of reform.

The best way to not only stand in solidarity with Mexican autoworkers but also to protect our own jobs in the United States is for the standard of living and labor rights of Mexican workers to also increase. They can’t whipsaw us against each other across the border if we’re all rising, organizing, and standing up and striking to win.

Similarly, with the cease-fire, I recognize the real shift that’s happened by having most of the major unions having said something on the record about the situation in Gaza and calling for a cease-fire. The next step is now pressuring our government to actually end our complicity in the genocide that’s unfolding. We have a lot of responsibility there, from the fact that we are usually just hand in hand with the Democratic Party. We need to actually pressure the Democratic Party, over the fact that we also build the weapons of war. This is an unstated reason why the US labor movement was in lockstep with US foreign policy, because the military-industrial complex essentially led to a pact between the state and business and the labor movement — as long as we get our cut, we’re not going to challenge the politics of what we’re building.

That’s a massive challenge. There are constant calls for work stoppages and ending the supply of arms to Israel, but there are two things that need to be considered. One, the union movement actually does not have high density within the defense industry. It’s not as organized as people assume it is; it’s a minority-organized industry, like most industries in the country. Two, if these demands are coming from the labor movement, they’re coming from other sectors that have been advancing the call for a cease-fire and Palestinian solidarity.

We have yet to see a movement from within arms-manufacturing plants calling out their companies’ complicity. This is a challenge for organizing and political education for us as a union. Demands have to come from within, not just from the top, or from members in other sectors. You can’t just say we’re going to do such and such action or so-and-so policy change when, first, your power as a union is not as strong there as it is in, say, the auto sector, and second, the workers themselves there have not had the avenues for thinking through these questions up until recently.

We should acknowledge that university research plays a big role in the military-industrial complex, too, and shares complicity in Israeli atrocities. We need to see more organizing around that and figure out how to use the strategic power of our higher-ed researcher members. How to go from a cease-fire demand to thinking about your power within the defense industry is a key question, and we’re just beginning to think about it.

I think the labor movement itself also has to divest. I’m working on that internally within the UAW; I know a lot of my region and a lot of our members are very interested in it. I think that would be the best way to offer solidarity with the encampment movement.

Nick French

The UAW has established a committee to investigate divesting from Israel.

Brandon Mancilla

Yes. The UAW holds $400,000 to $700,000 in Israeli bonds and securities; the exact number fluctuates based on market conditions. We’re basically hiring money managers to invest for us, so our investments are tied up in such a way that it’s not very easy to see where our investments are. But we were able to identify this money in the different trusts, and in my opinion, we should stop investing in those kinds of things and create a plan for divestment based on that.

Other unions are probably in a similar situation, and they would have to think hard and strategically about how they would do that. But I think it’s possible; many institutions have done it, for climate justice or fossil fuel divestment and so on. Unions have no business investing in genocide.