Washing Away Labor's War Stain
By STANLEY HELLER
[Originally published on Counterpunch]
Organized labor is joining with the NAACP in a “One Nation” jobs rally in Washington on October 2nd. No doubt they will be expecting anti-war folks to flock to it Lots of peace organizations have already done so
Trouble is the rally has no obvious peace focus at all. Look at the One Nation Working Together website. The demands are for jobs, education and equality for all. Nothing about peace even as a way to pay for jobs. Nothing about peace even though many, many unions have passed anti-war resolutions. Now there is a formation called “the Peace Table” that’s getting anti-war groups involved in the march, but what is “The Table” getting in return? Is it the poor relation allowed to come to the party as long as it stays out of sight?
And does organized labor deserve automatic support while it has a big war stain on its collar, the stain from the support its leaders give to Israeli Apartheid? They support it in two ways, by opposing the growing BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) movement against Israel and by buying huge amounts of Israel Bonds. No sooner had Richard Trumka taken over command of the national AFL-CIO than he ran to a Jewish Labor Committee denouncing Israel “bashing” and any thought of boycott. Go to the JLC website and see how RWDSU and AFT leaders give cover to Israel for its crimes on the Mavi Marmara. Yet, words are secondary. The biggest help to Israeli Apartheid comes from union member dues and pension money going to State of Israel Bonds.
It’s, of course, quite right for unions to support unions in other countries. However, for U.S. unions to give financial support to foreign governments is unheard of …except in the case of Israel. Members dues are shoveled to Israel in the millions. No one knows how much. In 1988 Russell Mokhiber talked about a survey that stated unions held $250 million in the bonds. I wrote to my own union, the American Federation of Teachers, and asked what they have. The answer was they owned $300,000 of the bonds (and that’s just the national body. My guess is the New York City local has even more). In addition some unions manage their own pensions and own bonds while public employee unions sit silently while millions in their pensions are sent to Israel by State Treasurers.
The Israel Bonds site says the money goes for the development of “infrastructure” and it has pictures of highways and trains, but as far as I can tell the money raised for the bonds goes into the general Israel budget to be used for any purpose. Even if it is restricted to “development”, remember for an apartheid state development also includes settlements, settler-only roads and walls.
Why is Union Money Going Abroad?
Is there nothing in the United States in which unions can invest? What about U.S. “development”? There is a union owned bank, the Amalgamated, which was started by Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America in 1923. It’s ownership was caught up in the SEIU – HERE fight, but that seems now to have been settled. Anyway, why is there just one union bank? Why not start others that would invest in worker run co-ops, or at least in the U.S.A.? At the very least invest in bonds of U.S. locales that need it, the Gulf, California, or Central Falls, Rhode Island. For a trade union movement railing against offshoring why is it sending hundreds of millions of dollars of capital overseas?
Unions are supposed to care for their brothers and sisters overseas. What about Palestinian workers, bombed to hell in Gaza, unable to travel to Jerusalem, stopped at checkpoints all over the West Bank, and beaten if they sneak into Israel to work? Even if they are Israeli citizens they’re kept out of whole industries and banned from living in 90% of the land.
There are Palestinian unions. 300,000 Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza are members of the Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions. Their federation belongs to the same international federation as does the AFL-CIO. You would think U.S. unions would owe some loyalty to their union brothers and sisters, or at least some sympathy seeing that their national union headquarters in Nablus and Gaza were blown up by the Israeli air force earlier this decade.
Even Jewish Israeli workers take it on the chin. Once, the Israeli union federation the Histadrut was cock of the walk. It owned banks and industries, administered most workers’ health insurance and owned kibbutzim (collective farms) and a newspaper. But for decades Israeli governments have privatized and have chopped away most of what seemed exciting to us in American unions 30 and 40 years ago. Predictably Israeli Jewish workers suffered. Israel which once was a model of social equality (for Jews) now heads the list of Western nations in inequality.
And U.S. unions should be helping to maintain that injustice?
If union members knew about it would they let their money be invested in an apartheid state? In Connecticut some of us have been raising the issue for years. Last fall we brought it up to the Central Labor Council and the body voted unanimously to ask the state AFL-CIO to dump it tens of thousands of dollars of bonds. And in fact this year when its Israel bonds matured the CT AFL-CIO did not roll them over and so far has not purchased new ones.
It’s not as if U.S. unions were acting like other trade unions around the world. Unions internationally have condemned Israeli government actions and are joining in the BDS. Swedish dock workers boycotted Israeli ships for one week after the flotilla massacre. Similar actions happened in Australia and South Africa. The largest British union, UNISON, voted to boycott Israel as has COSATU of South Africa. Unions in Ireland and in Northern Ireland condemned the attacks on the flotilla. Even the International Trade Union Confederation (of which the AFL-CIO is a member) is calling for Israel to end the siege of Gaza, to end the occupation of the West Bank and to remove all settlements. It’s U.S. international union presidents who are out of step.
There are now websites devoted to eradicating the war stain on American labor. The one I run is called Dump Israel Bonds (dumpisraelbonds.com). There’s also Minnesota Break the Bonds Campaign (mn.breakthebonds.org) which concentrates on getting Minnesota state government to sell off its bonds.
Organizing for October 2
Last month despite Obama’s dismal labor record AFL-CIO heads gave him ovations at a national Executive Committee meeting. In These Times reported that leaders were “elated” when he apologized for not getting card check passed. He echoed FDR’s statement that urged factory workers to join unions. Obama said “ I think that’s true for workers generally. I think if I was a coal miner, I’d want a union representing me to make sure that I was safe and you did not have some of the tragedies that we’ve been seeing in the coal industry. If I was a teacher, I’d want a union to make sure that the teachers’ perspective was represented as we think about shaping an education system for our future.” For this he was “wildly applauded”.
But in this year’s Labor Day address when he was speaking to the nation Obama said none of that. He said nothing about the One Nation march or any union campaign or strike. He didn’t say a sentence about card check or any labor law reform. He didn’t even utter the word “union”. Nothing, nothing, nothing.
Instead he gave hosannas to “the great American middle class”. (If workers are now the middle class who is the lower class?) He talked about how his people were thinking up plans so that workers would have “new ways of saving their tax refunds and a simpler system for enrolling in retirement plans like 401(k)s.” He had the bully pulpit on Labor Day but didn’t say one thing of help to unions, working peoples’ engine of collective power.
So what will the tens of thousands be doing in DC on October 2? Is it a protest? Are we protesting the Republicans? Will One Nation demand the government put millions to work directly? Or will the unions and NAACP circle the wagons around Obama, the leader of the Blue Dog Wall Street Democrats?
The rally is against “hate” so will it support the Islamic Center in Manhattan? Will it protest the racism keeping a million Blacks in what Glen Ford calls the “black prison gulag”? If they even have a peace speaker will she or he be allowed to demand Obama pull out from Afghanistan and stop his 200% support of Israel? Or will the peace speech be limited to calling for cuts in the military budget?
Anti-war folks should organize for October 2nd, and go down to DC and leaflet and show off our banners. But we shouldn’t be chumps. We shouldn’t be restricted to some table in the back of the room. We should insist on a seat at the big table, with anti-war demands right in the main agenda. We need to see banners with “Troops Out Now” and “Close Down the Guantanamos” and “Dump Israel Bonds” right up on the stage.
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