On Thursday, graduate students across the UC system have the opportunity to take a decisive stand in solidarity with Palestinian students and trade unions. Our union, UAW 2865, which represents student workers across the University of California, will be voting Dec. 4 on whether to join the global movement for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions. We urge our fellow graduate students and academic student workers to vote yes.
The movement for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions has been gaining in strength over the last 10 years as an international nonviolent form of solidarity with Palestine. In July 2005, more than 170 organizations from Palestinian civil society, including all major trade unions, called upon “international civil society organizations and people of conscience all over the world to impose broad boycotts and implement divestment initiatives against Israel similar to those applied to South Africa in the apartheid era.” The groups that made the call include the Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions and the General Union of Palestinian Teachers, among many others.
The demands of BDS are simple: the end of the occupation and the dismantling of the separation wall; full, equal rights for Palestinian citizens of Israel; and respect, protection and promotion for the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes. BDS asks only for the minimal rights that international law guarantees the Palestinian people. The so-called “peace process” has been stagnant for decades, with the Palestinian people in the balance: BDS only demands that international institutions fulfill their obligations.
In the wake of Israel’s seven-week attack on Gaza this summer, killing more than 2,100 Palestinians — the vast majority of whom were civilians — and destroying considerable civilian infrastructure, the call to BDS has sounded ever more urgently. A coalition of unions and other organizations in Gaza issued a renewed call for divestment in September. The statewide Joint Council of our union voted 40-0 to endorse the call for BDS and bring the issue to a full membership vote.
The labor movement in the United States is beginning to join its international counterparts in embracing BDS. This summer, members of International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 10 played an important role in supporting the “Block the Boat” campaign, which successfully prevented an Israeli shipping line from docking in the Port of Oakland. Other U.S. trade unions have endorsed BDS, as have labor coalitions. These join widespread international support for BDS, including the Congress of South African Trade Unions and the University and College Union, the university lecturers’ union in the United Kingdom.
Our union will be the first in the United States to hold a full membership vote on supporting BDS. The leadership we can take on this issue is consistent with the leadership we’ve taken in supporting other important political movements. We have supported undergraduate organizing against fee-hikes, the Occupy protests of 2011, and we’ve gone on strike in solidarity with other workers on our campuses.
As in these other cases, in supporting BDS, we are responding to a call from other unions specifically asking for our support. This is consistent with our support for Taiwanese student activists facing repression and our calls for justice for Mexican students murdered in Ayotzinapa. In addition, our labor union, the United Auto Workers, has a history of political involvement, supporting the Civil Rights and anti-war movements of the 1960s. Union solidarity played a key role in opposing the military dictatorship in Chile during the 1970s and 1980s and supporting the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa. Our move to support Palestinian workers and students is not the first nor last time we take part in debates around global issues.
The specific ballot language calls on the university and the UAW international to divest their holdings in Israeli state institutions and international companies complicit in severe and ongoing human rights violations. The vote would also call on the U.S. government to end military aid to Israel.
Members will also have an opportunity to check an additional box at the bottom of the ballot to pledge to join the boycott of Israeli academic institutions, a “voluntary and non-binding individual commitment.” The academic boycott has recently been endorsed by the American Studies Association, the Association of Asian American Studies, the Critical Ethnic Studies Association and the African Literature Association. As the ballot itself states, the academic boycott “does not target individuals” who work in Israeli universities — instead, it is a challenge to the universities themselves, deeply linked to Israel’s military and complicit in Israel’s human rights violations. As explicitly stated in the ballot, the union “condemns discrimination … for any reason including religious affiliation and national origin,” and “affirmatively encourages academic collaboration with individual Israelis, Palestinians, and others in the region who oppose the occupation of Palestine.”
As trade unionists, we act against the widespread violations of labor rights, and the hyperexploitation of Palestinian workers by Israeli employers. As academics, we protest the denial of academic freedom to Palestinian scholars and students. To quote UAW 2865’s joint-council statement in support of BDS, “Working people everywhere have a common interest in opposing oppression and exploitation wherever they are found.”
Daniel Benjamin is a graduate student in the department of English, and Aidin Fathalizadeh is a graduate student in the department of physics at UC Berkeley. They are both rank-and-file members of UAW Local 2865.