Building Labour Solidarity with Palestine

May 24th, 2008 | Posted in Boycott, Palestine, Politics, Resistance, Solidarity
    Adam Hanieh. Socialist Project: the Bullet.


    Photo: Active Stills. Demonstration against Apartheid wall, Bil’in, Palestine.

In July 2005, over 170 Palestinian organizations urged the world to adopt a campaign of boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) against Israel in the manner of South Africa Apartheid. This call was signed by all the main Palestinian trade union federations, as well as refugee, women and student organizations from across Palestine and the Arab world. It represented the broadest political statement in Palestinian history, precipitating a powerful global solidarity campaign that has grown dramatically over the last few years.

Since the 2005 call from Palestine, the campaign for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israeli apartheid has made significant advances within the Canadian labour movement. The first major turning point in this regard was the passing of Resolution 50 by the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE Ontario) in May 2006. Resolution 50 was the first BDS resolution against Israeli apartheid in Canadian labour movement history. It inspired activists across the world, including the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), who wrote to CUPE Ontario immediately after the resolution stating: “Your unwavering resolve inspires us, we who lived through decades of apartheid oppression, as it will undoubtedly inspire and endear you to millions of Palestinian and other freedom loving people throughout the world.”

Despite a vicious backlash launched by pro-Israel groups outside of the union, activists in CUPE Ontario responded to the challenge. An education campaign was launched within union locals and committees that has been widely praised as the most effective grassroots campaign in the union’s history. Literally thousands of rank and file CUPE members received material on Resolution 50 or participated in workshops on Palestine. The work has revitalized CUPE Ontario international solidarity work, building a large, open and active member-led committee that is beginning to take up other international solidarity issues with similar energy. The campaign around Resolution 50 has demonstrated the main strategic significance of union resolutions, as a tool to educate and mobilize rank-and-file members, and build an appreciation of international solidarity as an integral component of a fighting labour movement. Resolutions mean nothing if they are not linked to rank-and-file organizing.

In April 2008 the BDS movement in Canada received another historic boost. The national convention of the Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW) passed a resolution modeled on CUPE Ontario’s Resolution 50. The CUPW resolution committed the union to conducting an education campaign similar to CUPE Ontario and expressed support for the 2005 BDS call from Palestine. The CUPW resolution was doubly significant: not only did it represent the first time a national union in Canada had passed a BDS resolution, but CUPW had also been the first Canadian union to pass a boycott resolution against South African apartheid.

The CUPW and CUPE Ontario resolutions indicate that solidarity with Palestinian workers, and the recognition that Israel must be isolated in the manner of South African apartheid, is becoming an established principle of a progressive, principled trade union politics. If we are to wage an effective fight against neo-liberal policies such as privatization, lay-offs and union-busting here in Canada, then we must also stand with workers struggling against oppression internationally. The CUPE Ontario International Solidarity Committee puts it this way: “International solidarity is fundamental to a progressive and fighting labour movement. It is not an optional part of labour activism or a form of charity. International solidarity goes to the heart of what it means to be a labour activist. It means seeing the struggle of our sisters and brothers in other countries as our own struggle. Their victories as our victories.” (CUPE International Solidarity Committee: What We Stand For).

Challenges and Next Steps

Despite these significant victories, major challenges remain. There is a general unevenness of solidarity work across unions, cities and regions across North America. In some areas, a handful of disconnected activists can feel as though they are confronting a powerful and organized opposition that makes it difficult to raise the question of Palestine in an effective manner.

Within the context of an accelerating neo-liberal offensive against organized labour, the fight for international solidarity must be situated within a renewal of general labour politics. Over the last two decades there has been a generalized drop in consciousness around international solidarity issues. We need to be able to explain why international solidarity – too often seen as a form of charity or expensive junkets for overseas conferences – actually matters to the lives of workers.

We also face the across-the-board challenge of declining union membership and weakened capacities to fight back. In many cases, the various fights to defend working conditions, extend the rights of non-status immigrants and their families, or resist the neo-liberal devastation of urban environments and infrastructures, are led by organizations and campaigns with only tenuous links to trade unions. Part of building a successful solidarity movement with Palestine is the ability to link with and support these movements, and find ways to bring these concerns into our international solidarity framework. This process is also critical to rebuilding an effective union movement.

Brick by Brick: Building Labour Solidarity with Palestine

These are the types of questions that labour movement activists will discuss at the upcoming conference, “Brick by Brick: Building Labour Solidarity with Palestine,” to be held in Toronto from 30 May – 1 June 2008, following the Canadian Labour Congress Convention also being held in Toronto. The conference promises to be an exciting event with strong international participation. Two representatives from the executive of the Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions (PGFTU), Manawell Abdul-al and Amne Rimawi, have confirmed their attendance. In addition to these two guests, Paul Loulou Chery, secretary of the Confederation of Haitian Workers, will be speaking at a public forum to launch the conference on Friday 30th May. Salim Vally, a prominent South African trade unionist, educator and activist in the Congress of South African Trade Unions, will also be speaking.

Conference registrants include a wide range of union leaders and labour movement activists from Toronto, Quebec, Vancouver, Ottawa, Winnipeg, San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York. Unions represented include the Canadian Union of Public Employees, the Canadian Union of Postal Workers, the United Steelworkers, the Canadian Autoworkers, the Fédération Nationale des Enseignantes et Enseignants du Québec, the Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation, the Ontario Public Service Employees Union, the Communication Workers Union, United Teachers Los Angeles and others.

This conference is aimed at labour movement activists committed to finding ways of doing Palestine solidarity work in their unions and workplaces. It will be a venue to share experiences, resources and strategies. There is much to learn from each other in how to move forward resolutions around Palestine, conduct educational work in unions and workplaces, deal with organized, pro-Israel backlash, and find ways to win spaces in our unions. For this reason, the conference is organized around a series of workshops that will be repeated to maximize participation. In addition, four plenary sessions will help to shape a common view of our strategies in the next period.

Adam Hanieh is a member of CUPE and an activist with the CAIA.

Leave a comment

Upcoming events