UAW Suppresses Local Union’s Vote to Support BDS
Labor activists Frank Hammer and Kumar Salehi discuss the United Auto Workers’ decision to nullify Local 2865’s resolution in support of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement
SHARMINI PERIES, EXEC. PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore.
Back in December of 2014, the United Auto Workers Local 2865, that is the branch that represents the University of California systems, 40,000 teaching assistants, and student workers, they elected to support the call for the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions campaign. BDS is an international movement, seeking to end the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, as well as the right of return for displaced Palestinian refugees. Shortly after the 65 percent vote in favor, the UAW leadership stepped in to nullify the resolution. The international leadership of UAW justified their move to veto the grounds, on the grounds that the resolution constituted an interference in the flow of commerce, and secondly it violated a no-strikes clause in the contract with the University of California. And the leadership found it to be anti-semitic.
A new open letter calls on the international leadership of the UAW to withdraw its original decision. Here to discuss this issue we have Frank Hammer and Kumar Salehi. Frank is a retired member and rep of the UAW GM International, and former president and chairperson of the UAW Local 909 in Warren, Michigan. And Kumar is a Ph.D student and activist in the Students for Justice in Palestine at the University of California, Berkeley. He’s a rank-and-file member of UAW 2865. Thank you both for joining us.
KUMAR SALEHI: Thank you.
FRANK HAMMER: Pleasure to be with you.
PERIES: So Kumar, let me begin with you. As a member of Local 2865, you’re really challenging the leadership here. Give us a sense of why you decided to go head to head with the union leadership.
SALEHI: Well, this is an issue that many of our members feel strongly about, whether it’s because of their background, we have many Jewish members, many Palestinian members who feel very strongly about BDS and about Palestinian liberation. This is also an issue that is in harmony with a lot of what progressive union members believe. The labor movement has a progressive history, and our Local is no exception to that. It’s full of young students who care about social justice causes.
And this was a cause that we had been talking about for a long time. The BDS call, of course, has come from Palestinians themselves, including other Palestinian trade unions. And so we felt that it was a fight worth picking.
PERIES: Frank, so as a longtime member of the UAW and having the history you have had, what do you make of the arguments being presented by the international leadership to nullify this vote?
HAMMER: Well, in my memory it’s quite unprecedented that the UAW [international] executive board could find that the decision by the Local 2865 was done in a very democratic way, and that it then could choose or decide to nullify the actions of the local union. And it seems to me that if the UAW had had a resolution that had been passed at a previous convention, representing the will of the membership, that supported the IEB’s position against the BDS movement, that the international union might stand on good ground. But the fact of the matter is, this kind of issue, in regards to the Israeli repression of Palestinians, Palestinian workers in particular, has never come up for a convention that I’m aware of where the membership could vote democratically on what the direction of the UAW would be.
So the IEB has taken it upon itself to impose its own insular position on the question of the BDS movement, and sanctions and boycott and divestment of Israel. And does not have a basis for doing that, on the basis of the will of the membership as a whole.
PERIES: Frank, operating in the backdrop of this case is a law firm that is advising the students at UC campuses to appeal this resolution by the union. Give us a sense of what that is all about.
HAMMER: So the only way the international executive board got involved in [inaud.] this nullification was through an appeal that was signed by other UAW Local 2865 members against their Local’s, the democratic vote that was held by the Local.
Apparently that group that filed the appeal with the international executive board that led to the nullification, that group has been advised by a notorious law firm by the name of Gibson, Dunn, and Crutcher. This firm has represented the defense industries where the UAW is organized. They represented [inaud], they represented Northrop Grumman, Lockheed Martin, Boeing. They even represented Chris Christie in the bridge scandal, and they also represented Walmart. So here is this very corporate law firm that’s engaged in some very questionable behavior. To defend a recount, for example, against the Ecuadorean indigenous peoples over the question of oil pollution.
And this is the law firm that worked in tandem with this group who are members of Local 2865. And it’s a rather odd picture of this large corporate firm assisting the anti-BDS movement in the University of California, and submitting the appeal to the international union, and the international union supporting that appeal. It was a corporate-guided appeal.
PERIES: So Kumar, in the wake of the vote has there been other unions coming to your aid? Because there are quite a track record of other unions endorsing the BDS campaign, and it’s starting to have real legs in terms of a campaign. What kind of support have you been getting?
SALEHI: Well, we have been getting support from other unions. Most recently, our counterpart at NYU, who are called GSOC, they’re also a UAW Local, released a statement in solidarity with our Local, backing us up on the BDS resolution and calling on UAW International to respect the democratic vote that we held. I mean, they know that since our vote was passed in December of the previous year, the United Electrical Workers have come out and passed BDS resolutions. The Connecticut AFL-CIO has come out and passed a BDS resolution.
And we’ve had an outpouring of support from other community organizations and academic groups like the American Studies Association, which of course had its own infamous and extremely important, from our perspective, pro-BDS vote back in 2013, as well as our usual allies, Jewish Voice for Peace, the U.S. campaign to end the Israeli occupation. We feel that we are standing on pretty solid ground.
PERIES: Now, Kumar, you got a tremendous amount of support for this resolution, 65 percent. How does your Local break down in terms of the Jewish members of your Local? And I ask this because of the anti-semitism charge against you.
SALEHI: Well, our BDS caucus has many Jewish members, as do the groups that I do pro-Palestinian activism with. There are obviously differences of opinion among the student body and the membership of the union, but a great many of the most fervent supporters of this resolution were Americans of Jewish descent, as well as some Israeli students studying and working in California who feel an obligation to help mitigate and even end the oppression of Palestinians. This is the way that they feel they can be the most effective, and I agree with them.
PERIES: Frank, the charge of anti-semitism since you joined this movement to fight the Israeli injustice against Palestinians, these days if you take that position, you have to wear the charge of anti-semitism. Is the leadership correct in pointing out the specific, I guess, clause of anti-semitism, and is it justified?
HAMMER: Well, I think it’s a, it’s a way of not addressing the condition of Palestinians under occupation by Israel. And I think that it’s a very hollow charge. There is nothing about anti-semitism in the resolution or in the effort by the Local.
I think that to add on to what was said previously, not only is there support locally or in the United States for the BDS resolution, it’s actually global. And I think the UAW International is out of step with the global labor movement. And we have trade union congresses from South Africa, Egypt, Brazil, Ireland, Scotland, the United Kingdom, all of whom are in support of the BDS movement, and I think it’d be hard to claim that all these trade union organizations are somehow anti-semitic. I think that on the contrary, they are pro-Palestinian, especially Palestinian workers.
And what I find really strikingly absent in the UAW’s position is any reference to the condition that Palestinian workers face in the occupied territories, including in the West Bank and Gaza. There’s no mention, no acknowledgement of the brutal conditions under which Palestinian workers are faced with in Israel occupied territory.
PERIES: Kumar, let me ask you, in terms of the Students for Justice in Palestine at the University of California, Berkeley, obviously this is a very heated issue on campus. But in terms of the student movement, and the solidarity with the Palestinian struggle, give me a sense of what is it on the ground and the conditions on the ground that you’re actually responding to.
SELAHI: Well, we, whether it’s because of our Palestinian background or our interest in politics, we are all as activists aware that 4.5 million Palestinians live without any rights whatsoever in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. An additional almost 2 million so-called Israeli Arabs, Palestinian citizens of Israel, live under Jim Crow-style segregation, discrimination within Israel proper. And millions more Palestinians live in exile, unable to return to their homeland, because of Israel’s racist, discriminatory laws forbidding the return of Palestinian refugees.
And so we feel that this is an urgent humanitarian crisis that through U.S. support is becoming prolonged and entrenched more and more with every year. And with every additional billion in arms and other funds that’s given to Israel, so whether it’s as Americans, as Palestinians, as just progressives and people of conscience, we have a stake in the struggle, and in ending this oppression.
PERIES: And Frank, let me ask you, there’s an open letter circulating, trying to garner more support so that the UAW leadership would change its mind. Is that working?
HAMMER: I think it’s too early to tell, but I think that the UAW’s reaction to the Local 2865 action, the resolution, indicates that they are quite fearful of the message from the Local, by the Local, about the need to exercise international solidarity, specifically with Palestinians and Palestinian workers. And I think the reaction and [inaud.] some of the position of the IEB. It’s quite extreme, I mean, charging anti-semitism and charging these outlandish sort of claims. It indicates to me that the campaign is actually working, and they’re fearful of its, the fact, the idea that there are more parts of the labor movement in the U.S., will be able to [take] toward this position.
So I think that the letter is, it’s going to be very important, and I think that it will get more signers, and I think that they will put the UAW under the spotlight. And I think the UAW probably didn’t welcome that, and I think it’s going to have to grapple with what its record is in support of the, the justice, just struggle of the Palestinian people, and it’ll have to come out and talk about what is the condition of Palestinian workers in Israel, which they have [inaud.] not to do.
PERIES: And Kumar, where does one go if they want to sign this open letter?
SALEHI: Well, there is one open letter that anyone can sign on the website of the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation. Just go to their website and you’ll find a letter addressed specifically to the president of the UAW International Executive Board, Dennis Williams. You can add your name. And we have almost 6,000 total signatures so far. I hope to see your name there.
PERIES: And Frank, let me give you the last word. Has there been any record or history of this kind of a reversal on a decision that has been made by the leadership?
HAMMER: I’m not familiar with the international executive board actually being able to nullify a resolution that’s been passed democratically by a local union. So this is, for me, new territory, and I think the campaign [inaud.] is very important.
I do want to point out that the IEB is actually inconsistent with its own past policies in regards to, for example, how to handle apartheid in South Africa. And the UAW took a very strong stand against apartheid and supported the BDS movement against the apartheid regime. And I think we’re looking for the same from the UAW now. For example, they should bring Palestinian labor leaders to the U.S. and bring them around to different towns where the UAW is represented, and expose UAW members, especially in non-university settings, to what the actual circumstances are of Palestinian workers. That is what, in fact, [inaud.] did. It was a former president of the UAW in the ’80s, when you [inaud.] about the struggle of [inaud.] who was imprisoned for his trade union activity in South Africa.
So I’m looking for the UAW to do the same in regards to supporting Palestinian workers.
PERISE: And also, organizations like CUPE in Canada, Canadian Union of Public Employees, has taken a very strong position in their solidarity in support for the Palestinian workers, and also they had a few years ago voted to carry out a public campaign among the union members in order to educate people on this issue.
HAMMER: Yeah. I am aware of the Canadian CUPE doing that. And also, by the way, the former CAW, the Canadian Auto Workers union, which is now called Unifor, has also been supportive of Palestinian struggle.
So I think the UAW International is out of sync. And I think that, for example, [inaud.] in South Africa is a very strong supporter of the BDS movement. And if anyone should know anything about apartheid it should be the National Union of Auto Workers of South Africa. So I think that between the open letters, the action of the Local, and more Locals getting on board, and the international labor movement, [inaud.] suppression of the UAW. And I think we can look for a reversal, if not immediately, certainly down the road.
PERIES: All right. Kumar, Frank, thank you so much for joining us today on this very important issue.
HAMMER: Thank you, Sharmini.
PERIES: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.
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