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Unions in the U.S. are breaking their silence on Palestine

Last week, the UAW became the largest union in the United States to call for a ceasefire, joining with other progressive unions

December 05, 2023 by Natalia Marques

One of the largest and most militant trade unions in the US, UAW, has recently endorsed the call for a ceasefire in Gaza. Photo: UAW 

Last week, one of the largest unions in the United States joined the Palestine solidaritymovement in calling for a ceasefire in Gaza. The United Auto Workers (UAW), with 400,000 active members and 580,000 retired members throughout the United States, Canada, and Puerto Rico, is the largest union in the US to take this stance thus far.

The UAW has joined several labor unions in calling for a ceasefire, chief among them being the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE), which helped initiate the call for a ceasefire within labor back in October. Thus far, many unions and union locals have signed onto UE’s call, including the UAW, several teachers unions including the Boston and Chicago Teachers Unions, and United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 3000.

“We cannot bomb our way to peace,” reads the UE-initiated statement. “It’s the labor movement’s turn to make our voices heard and demand a ceasefire. Together, we can stand for peace, justice, and a better future for working people everywhere.”

Some unions, such as the United Educators of San Francisco, have called for not only a ceasefire but an end to US aid to Israel. “UESF affirms that the goal of a ceasefire is to put an end to the killing of innocent civilians and an end to the suffering and trauma of the people of Gaza,” wrote the union in a statement released in November.

“Calling for a ceasefire in Israel and Palestine,” as UAW President Shawn Fain put it, may come off as a mild demand compared to the stances taken by trade unions in other countries.

Transport unions in Europe have taken action to block weapons shipments to Israel, Indian trade unions have labeled Israeli actions as “genocidal” and have condemned their government’s efforts to Indian workers to Israel, and one of the largest industrial trade union on the African continent, the National Metalworkers Unions of South Africa (NUMSA) defended Palestinians’ right to resist occupation. “When Israel, the oppressor, brutalizes the oppressed, forces them from the land, maims and kills them indiscriminately and robs them of their dignity for decades, it is inevitable that there will be counter-violence from the oppressed. Justice is the only road to peace,” NUMSA wrote on October 13.

Break from Democratic Party consensus

However, in the context of the United States, the UAW’s stance is remarkable in the sense that it completely breaks from US labor’s decades-long legacy of toeing the line set by the Democratic Party. Not only did the union call for a ceasefire, it announced the creation of “a Divestment and Just Transition working group to study the history of Israel and Palestine, our union’s economic ties to the conflict, and explore how we can have a just transition for US workers from war to peace.” This indicates a willingness in the union’s leadership to begin divesting from Israel.

The union’s position also indicates a new willingness from some of the most prominent labor voices to break from the Democratic Party consensus. Unions in the United States have for years faithfully backed the Democrats, who, although being one of the two major parties in the US that veers towards slightly more progressive politics, have failed to back pro-worker policies, such as a USD 15 minimum wage and universal healthcare. Unionized workers were en masse sent to canvas for establishment candidate Joe Biden during the 2020 election season. Now, three years later, it is evident that Biden’s presidency has overseen a vast decline in living standards for US workers, such as a vast decline in life expectancy.

The Democratic Party establishment has staunchly condemned the ceasefire demand. White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre labeled the calls for a ceasefire coming from progressives within her own party as “repugnant” and “disgraceful.” Instead, Democratic leaders have defended Israel through every massacre that has led to the nearly 16,000 dead in Gaza.

National Security Council Coordinator for Strategic Communications John Kirby has refused to call Israel actions “genocide”, saying “Israel is not trying to wipe the Palestinian people off the map. Israel’s not trying to wipe Gaza off the map. Israel is trying to defend itself against a genocidal terrorist threat.”

Meanwhile, several Israeli officials and politicians have openly used genocidal rhetoric in relation to Gaza. Likud member Moshe Feiglin called for the complete destruction of Gaza. “There is one and only solution, which is to completely destroy Gaza before invading it. I mean destruction like what happened in Dresden and Hiroshima, without nuclear weapons,” he said. Several politicians have called for a repetition of the Nakba. Days after October 7, Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant called Palestinians “human animals,” adding that “we will eliminate everything—they will regret it.”

The UAW, under the new leadership of the progressive Fain, who won the presidency in 2023 in the first direct election in the union’s history, has in many ways deviated from the established political norm in the US labor movement. The UAW has yet to endorse Biden for the 2024 presidential election, with Fain saying that the union “expects actions, not words.”

“Our endorsements are going to be earned. We’ve been very clear about that, no matter what politician,” Fain said, amidst the UAW’s strike battle against the three largest automakers in the country.

“I am proud that the UAW International Union is calling for a ceasefire in Israel and Palestine,” said Fain about the UAW joining the movement for a ceasefire. “From opposing fascism in WWII to mobilizing against apartheid South Africa and the CONTRA war, the UAW has consistently stood for justice across the globe.”

Natalia Marques Peoples Dispatch 5/12/2023 (from Chris Butler SLP, Yorkshire Region)

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