Ranging from the halls of Congress to high-school walkouts, Palestinians and their supporters have pressed the Biden administration to call for a ceasefire in Gaza. Last Thursday, several-dozen union activists and others rallied outside the AFL-CIO regional office in Midtown. They called on the union federation to support a ceasefire in the Israel-Gaza War and to break with its long history of supporting U.S. imperialism abroad.
Jac, an organizer with CUNY for Palestine, had a message for AFL-CIO national: “I want to put the AFL-CIO on notice. I want to put the labor bureaucrats on notice and put the labor hierarchy on notice,” he said. “We can see what kind of fighting force labor has for showing solidarity with Palestine. Belgian ship workers, Italian ship workers, activists in Melbourne, Australia, shutting down trucks on their way to load ZIM lines.”
AFL-CIO President Liz Schuler has warned union locals that only national unions can take official positions on national and international matters like the war in Gaza. But that didn’t stop the participants at Thursday’s rally from making their views known.
Sultana, a member of the JFK8 Amazon Labor Union of rank-and-file workers, dismissed Schuler’s comments. “In other words, only the party line set by the AFL-CIO Executive Council is permissible and no overt opposition will be tolerated. The unity invoked by Schuler is a unity of the trained union bureaucracy against rank and file workers.”
Longtime member of the Industrial Workers of the World and former Teamster, Tarry Tapp sees the link between labor and Palestine as an extension of imperialism. “As a worker, as someone who sides with the international working class, I side against imperialism, I side against settler colonialism. And I recognize the contradiction of being an American to say that, but I say it against settler colonialism. So I want my union monies and the monies of other unions, not to go to destroy the Palestinians.”
Rally participants pointed to the long history of the AFL-CIO supporting U.S. foreign policy over being in solidarity with working class, anti-imperialist struggles in other countries.
In 1917, the AFL (which didn’t merge with the more left-leaning CIO until 1955) endorsed the Balfour Declaration, which was the British promise to support the creation of a Zionist state in Palestine. Later, in the 1920’s, AFL raised funds for the Histadrut, a militarized movement of Israel’s trade workers which was established in then-British controlled Palestine.
“The Histradrut was not a labor union, it was an arm of the Israeli state that helped to build capitalism in occupied Palestine,” said a speaker from the Palestine Youth Movement (PYM). In the 1930’s, the AFL directly funded an American colony in the Galilee region of northern Palestine, the same land that Palestinans have not been able to return to since Israel’s founding in 1948.
The PYM member placed the effect of these colonies into perspective: “The same project that has wiped out over 10,000 people [in Gaza] in one month, the same project that has wiped entire families off the face of the planet, the same project that is bombing down hospitals and refugees, the same project that is dropping white phosphorus on children, their children, women and men of Gaza.”
Protesters urged AFL-CIO leaders to withdraw funds that unions invest in Israel. The AFL-CIO invests in state of Israel bonds, and thus profits from the growth and success of the nation. Stanley Heller, a retiree from the American Federation of Teachers, was at an AFL-CIO convention 20 years ago when he noticed a line about Israel Bonds in the Treasurer’s report, “and they had $10–20,000 worth of Israel bonds.”
Jac reiterated the need for workers to act. “These are the sorts of actions that we need to start talking about in New York City, we need to start talking about blocking the boat. We need to start talking about the material change that we can make as laborers in the city of New York.”
Amid bold calls for unions to break with Israel, protesters at Thursday’s rally had varied opinions of what could be done to stop Israel’s onslaught in Gaza.
“If enough members pressure it,” Tapp said, “they could stop funding Israel, the Israeli state, and Israeli projects.”
Others were not as hopeful “I don’t see an ideal outcome from any of this; from the war, from the protests,” said Larry Goldbetter, President of the National Writers Union. “The best outcome is the building of a movement, building of international solidarity and building of consciousness. There’s no short-term solution to this problem. But it has to be based on international solidarity, anti-racism and a working-class outcome”