January 25, 2010

Growing Labor Support for Palestine Faces Stiff Opposition in the U.S.

Union members who want to organize U.S. labor support for war-torn Palestine often compare their cause to the battle against apartheid in the 1980s. They point to striking similarities between Israel’s occupation of Palestine and the former South African system: In Israel, Arab citizens face legalized segregation in housing and employment. In the occupied West Bank, separate and unequal conditions are even more overt.

Hundreds of thousands of Israelis live in growing settlements connected by “Israeli-only” roads. Palestinians are left in disconnected towns, stalled at hundreds of military checkpoints, and hemmed in by an Israeli-built wall that grabs more land.

And just as in South Africa, dozens of U.S. companies are involved. Industrial zones allow corporations familiar to U.S. union activists to import low-wage guest workers from Palestine and overseas.

“Palestinians are being exploited by the same entities that are exploiting U.S. workers,” says Sharon Wallace, a teacher from Kentucky who has organized two U.S. tours of Palestinian labor activists and who just returned from a pro-Palestine march in Egypt (see box).

She and a small but growing band of U.S. unionists—some of whom are Jewish—are fighting to educate fellow members and mobilize their unions behind a global call to pressure Israel with a boycott, divestment, and sanctions.

They face substantial barriers to winning union support: Activists say leaders of U.S. unions still seem enamored with the myth that Israel is a pro-labor government. In an October speech at the Jewish Labor Committee, AFL-CIO President Rich Trumka opposed international efforts to boycott Israel, suggesting that opposition to Israeli policy was anti-Semitism in disguise.

Those attitudes are reinforced by an organized pro-Israel lobby and a receptive U.S. government that sends Israel billions a year in military and other aid.

But when Israeli warplanes bombarded Gaza in late 2008, killing 1,500 civilians and destroying the country’s infrastructure, union activists joined protests all over the country. Several union councils, including the California Federation of Teachers, called for an end to the bombardment. On the East Coast, SEIU1199 delegates condemned the violence in Gaza and sent $5,000 to bolster medical relief efforts there.

Today in Gaza, Palestinians—45 percent of whom are unemployed—are still digging out from the rubble. Because of Israel’s blockade, they are unable to move in and out of the country or control their airspace, ports, or borders.

“Families aren’t getting paid, and don’t have jobs. So much of their resistance is just about survival,” Wallace said.

Labor activists are trying to expand isolated protests into a full-fledged campaign.

Garnering support from “a larger small group inside labor than before,” says activist Michael Letwin, Labor for Palestine recently issued a letter to Trumka calling for a boycott of Israeli goods and applauding South African unions for turning away Israeli ships from their ports during the Gaza war.

The union anti-war group U.S. Labor Against the War plans to dispatch a fact-finding mission to Israel and Palestine at the end of the year. And American unionists were among those attempting to bring solidarity and aid to Palestine in December.

USLAW staffer Michael Eisenscher notes that when the group started agitating against the Iraq war in 2003, “opposition was not a majority opinion.”


U.S. workers are connected to Israel’s occupation of Palestine because, for one thing, they’re paying for it. The U.S. is the largest donor to Israel, giving $26 billion in military aid over the past 10 years, according to the Congressional Research Service.

U.S. labor is in the mix as well: 279 labor bodies, including locals, labor councils, and the AFL-CIO itself, fill their pension portfolios with state of Israel bonds—to the tune of $5 billion. The federation owns no other country’s bonds, says Stan Heller, a longtime high school teacher in Connecticut.

Heller is heading up a labor campaign to “Dump Israel Bonds,” underway in New Haven. The labor council there has called on the state AFL-CIO to sell its $60,000 in bonds. Heller says the national Teachers union (AFT) recently sent him a letter proudly informing him of the union’s large investment in the state of Israel.

But globally, union opinion is openly critical of Israeli policy. The Congress of South African Trade Unions initiated the Cairo Declaration in January, signed by unions around the world, including the United Kingdom’s major union federation, Ireland’s largest public sector union, and labor bodies in France, Canada, Australia, Norway, and Scotland.

The document calls for an international tour of South African and Palestinian trade unionists to emphasize the parallels to the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa. It also echoes the Palestinian labor movement’s call for an international campaign of boycott, divestment, and sanctions against the Israeli government.


Monadel Herzallah is an activist with the Arab American Union Council; he moved from Palestine to the U.S. in 1978. Alongside patient education of American workers, he feels an urgency to support Palestinians who are resisting occupation amid a humanitarian crisis.

Herzallah’s extended family lives in Gaza. His 20-year-old cousin was killed in Israel’s bombing last December. “The level of crime being done by Israel makes it essential for the labor movement to take courageous steps to break the taboo that exists when it comes to Palestine,” he says.

Organizing from the Bay Area with labor and community activists, Herzallah sent funds to the Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions in Gaza, whose headquarters was destroyed by Israeli bombs. His network of Arab American unionists has plans to train, educate, and provide equipment to Palestinian unionists, to develop more than a cosmetic solidarity with them.

Herzallah believes the outrage over conditions in Gaza is opening up space for labor activists to organize against the occupation. And, he points out, the U.S. government’s giant military aid to Israel is part of the lavish war spending that’s draining funds needed in the states and drawing growing criticism from U.S. unionists.

January 04, 2010

Steward's Corner: Txt & Tweet 2 Org & Inform

From the January, 2010 issue of Labor Notes.

By Paul Abowd

Online social media tools like Twitter are often dismissed as time-wasters for the procrastinator in all of us. But they’re also being harnessed for greater causes. You can use Twitter and text messaging to keep members educated and mobilize them for action.

Twitter is a “micro-blogging” website that allows you to post frequent, short messages, using your computer or cell phone, to be read by people who’ve signed up to get your entries via their own computer or cell phone. Text messages are nearly the same, but are sent to specific people by cell phone. Here are examples from four campaigns.


The Caucus of Rank and File Educators (CORE) formed in 2008 to push the Chicago Teachers Union to oppose school closings and fight for its members. According to Kenzo Shibata, the union had an “immense communications capacity which lay dormant.”

As the city prepared to close yet more schools last winter, CORE deployed a “Twitter army” to monitor major goings-on in the Chicago education world.

At twitter.com/coreteachers, the group began sending live “tweets” from the union’s monthly House of Delegates meetings. The gatherings are sparsely attended by non-delegates, but now everyone can keep tabs on how their dues are spent.

The Twitter brigade also descends on monthly Board of Education meetings, which are held during the work day. Shibata says CORE sends “quick bursts of analysis” to teachers, who read up during their lunch breaks.

When Secretary of Education Arne Duncan spoke to a pro-privatization group, CORE activists picketed outside and reported via Twitter that they had been threatened with arrest for trying to enter. A flood of teachers responded with solidarity messages, and others asked for directions to the protest.


In summer 2008 Teamsters at Sotheby’s, the art auction house in New York, won their best contract in a decade. The campaign was helped along by a text-message phone tree, which members set up to connect the workforce of 50.

Rank-and-filer Julian Tysh says the shop’s organizing committee set up the network after discovering that workers young and old were punching out texts on their cell phones. “We started using it for impromptu meetings: hurry up and meet outside, the bargaining committee is going to give you an update. We’d meet on the street in front of the building or on the loading dock.” Seventy to 80 percent showed up.

When the campaign began to escalate, says Tysh, designated texters might send messages asking workers to wear a union shirt the next day and gather at the time clock 20 minutes early.


Texting brought together far-flung longshore activists in a yearlong contract campaign stretching across dozens of ports from Maine to Texas.

The Longshore Workers Coalition, a reform group inside the East Coast Longshoremen’s (ILA) union, used texting to reach hundreds of new recruits, quickly disseminate bargaining updates about concessions union leaders had accepted in secret meetings, and organize a contract rejection that sent the deal back for improvement.

Texting is an organizer’s new best friend, says Marsha Niemeijer, LWC staffer. Receiving messages gives a recruit an identification with the organization. From there an organizer can use the connection to have a conversation and build a deeper relationship.

“Besides an information tool, it’s an action tool,” Niemeijer said, noting that she tailored texts to specific ports or groups of activists, inviting members to distribute flyers and join rallies.

In a union culture where members get little information and meetings are poorly attended, the LWC’s texts became must-have items at contract time. In Norfolk, Virginia, signs went up on the local’s wall with the number to subscribe. One Baltimore member called the message system “our CNN.”

About 90 percent of the LWC membership is on the text list now, up from 60 percent before the campaign.

How much is too much? At its peak, the LWC blasted out three messages a day, several days a week. Niemeijer says she can count the number of negative reactions on one hand. “It’s not a replacement for the human connection,” Niemeijer said, “but it adds a level of excitement, and members feel good about being in the know.”


In Southern California, a digital storytelling and community journalism project built by students and low-wage workers gives recent immigrants without computers a connection to the digital world by using low-cost new media.

The project developed software that allows workers to use their phones to capture and publish pictures, videos, and stories about their jobs, families, and activism. The “Mobile Voices” program, or “Vozmob,” exists primarily for day laborers and domestic workers, said Sasha Costanza, a board member.

Workers are now editing their own videos and sharing their knowledge at worker-to-worker trainings throughout LA. The software for uploading stories to the web can be downloaded free here, and works on any basic cell phone. Workers send their dispatches by phone to an email address, which directly uploads the messages to Vozmob’s blog.

A project of the LA-based Instituto de Educacion Popular del Sur de California, and the University of Southern California, Vozmob has been used by workers to cover a community health conference, job centers and day laborers’ issues, and student organizing against tuition hikes.

At the November national Domestic Workers Alliance conference in the Bay Area, a Vozmob member who blogs as “Madelou” trained other domestic workers how to use the technology. Madelou took pictures of the spirited march for domestic workers’ rights and sent updates throughout the conference to the Vozmob blog.

Constanza says workers are also using this technology to document their workplace problems on the net with pictures, text, and audio—a great way to catalog evidence for grievances.