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  • Writer's pictureKaren Young

Unions Flex For Gaza; Lessons for Progressives vs Dems

Welcome to Take Action Tuesday!


Organized labor support for Palestinians and a ceasefire in Gaza is strong, often militant, and growing.  It’s a welcome sign of a relatively powerful progressive sector connecting the dots, lifting up another sector, and making both stronger.  


At the same time, we’ve seen this movie before – the one where union locals and rank-and-file members want to take a stand, but meet resistance and suppression from their national/ international leaders, as well as other rank-and-filers.  It’s like the family dynamic between progressives and the Democratic Party.   What can we learn from their victories and their struggles that could help us in our battle?


Major Unions Stand Up


First, we must salute those national unions that HAVE taken a stand.  Just yesterday, SEIU, the second largest union in the US, called for a ceasefire and also, according to Truthout, for an end to Israel’s occupation of Gaza. As noted by Left Voice, the sixth largest union, UAW’s international, has joined calls for a ceasefire and is exploring how to divest from Israel. And a report from Prism tells us that a week ago on Jan. 14, organizers and activists from the Arab Resource and Organizing Center (AROC) and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) convened at the Port of Oakland (CA) for a protest to prevent ships carrying weapons bound for Israel from leaving the docks.


Pushing National Unions To Take A Stand


Second, about that resistance.  The Nation covers a rank-and-file campaign inside the National Education Association (NEA), America’s biggest union.  Remarkably, in addition to securing support for a ceasefire from union locals, they are also calling for the union to rescind its endorsement of President Biden “until the president secures a ‘permanent cease-fire, stops sending military funding, equipment, and intelligence to Israel, and commits to a fair due process for asylum-seekers and refugees.’”


“Getting President Biden to change his position on Israel will help him to beat Trump,” reads an explanatory document, circulated with the petition. “People who vote Democratic are overwhelmingly in support of a permanent ceasefire and disapprove of Biden’s handling of the situation.”

Organizing Pays Off


They note that there is an Arab-American caucus within the NEA, and a recently-formed group called Educators for Palestine.  These groups “successfully pressed 19 local, state, and regional bodies of the NEA to call for a cease-fire in Gaza, including the National Council of Urban Education Associations, a caucus comprised of 251 large NEA locals and UniServ Councils, which are associations of several locals. And the members behind these resolutions claim credit for NEA President Rebecca Pringle’s December 8, 2023, tweet in support of a cease-fire. ‘With the end of the temporary truce,’ she wrote, ‘the need for a ceasefire in Gaza is growing.’”

Members are now focused on building a base of support. And NEA members are planning an in-person protest at the NEA’s board meeting in February, in conjunction with members of American Federation of Teachers (AFT). On December 30, AFT president Randi Weingarten, a noted supporter of Israel, tweeted out a qualified statement of support for a cease-fire.


Pushback and How It’s Been Handled


A story in Labor Notes discusses how back in October, the Central Labor Council in Olympia, WA, passed a resolution asking for unions not to produce weapons for Israel, and asking the AFL-CIO to support “an immediate ceasefire and equal rights for Palestinians and Israelis.”   The AFL pressured the CLC to take back the resolution, and within a few days, it was taken down from their website.


Some unions that are more democratic have not made statements on Gaza because of internal dissension.  The Writers Guilds East and West said that there was a range of views among their members, and noted that they had usually not taken a side on international matters, for example, they haven’t taken a side on Russia’s war in Ukraine.


A multi-union rank and file group, Hollywood Workers for Peace (nee WGA for Peace), published an open letter, now signed by members of WGA, Animation Guild (IATSE-TAG), the Directors Guild (DGA), and SAG-AFTRA calling on their unions to retract statements uncritically supporting Israel’s actions.  Importantly, WGA for Peace was started by younger members who felt that they had less of a voice than veteran members.


Other locals have made statements and then rescinded or rewritten them based on rank-and-file pushback.  At a national meeting of unionists for Gaza in October, a member of United Electrical Workers Local 150 in North Carolina said that “we had to do a lot of membership education” on the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinians “before we could move forward in Raleigh.” 


Takeaways for progressives vs. mainstream Democrats


-       Democratically elected leaders are more grassroots-oriented and more militant.  An story in Labor Notes opined that when you look at the big union victories of 2023, “an essential thread uniting the campaigns is that the top union officers were all directly elected by the members, a basic democratic right denied to many union members in the United States… a vibrant democratic process is crucial to a revitalized labor movement.”  When there are contested elections for union leadership, members can have a real debate about what the union should be doing and select leaders that share their view. 


Progressives need to fight for a seat at the table. An important development here is Our Revolution’s ongoing effort to reform the party.  They have fought for more democratic procedures at national conventions – remember the superdelegates that elected Hillary? – and for positions on county committees and in state leadership. They have also fought for ways to ensure more people can vote in primaries, for example by making it easier to change your party registration or have open primaries.  The establishment fights these things with extreme ferocity, but as OR says, when we organize – we win!


DSA, by the way, doesn’t engage with the party in this way.  They do help elect progressive candidates, and help their people get jobs on campaigns.  This can help build power within the party, although less directly.


Internal Grassroots Organizing and Power Mapping.  NEA rank-and-file teachers were able to reach members across the country, enabling them to start organizing in a number of different locals.   They also knew the National Council of Urban Education Associations, a group of large locals, had a lot of power within the union and getting them on board would be important.  


I think the analog here would be to organize at local party levels.  Learn where you have support among powerful people or neighborhood/city/regional organizations and try to leverage that into broader support.  Also, learn where there’s opposition to people who are corrupt or irrelevant to today’s struggles, and organize to replace them.   There’s so much of this in areas where Democrats are dominant.  It’s hard work, but someone needs to do it.


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