In unprecedented vote, UC student-workers union votes to support divestment

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Members of a UC student-workers union voted Dec. 4 to pass a measure that calls for the University of California and the United Auto Workers International to divest funds from companies associated with the Israeli military, becoming the first major U.S. labor union to support this type of divestment by a membership vote.

United Auto Workers Local 2865 is a labor union representing more than 13,000 teaching assistants, tutors and other student employees at the university. More than 2,100 members voted, with 65 percent in support of the divestment measure.

Nearly one-third of the votes were cast at UC Berkeley, of which about 70 percent were in favor. The vote passed with a majority at all UC campuses except for UC Irvine and UC Santa Barbara. Student governments from six of nine undergraduate UC campuses — UC Irvine, UC San Diego, UC Riverside, UC Berkeley, UC Santa Cruz and most recently, UCLA — have passed divestment resolutions to date.

The divestment efforts are in line with the global Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel. The ballot language specifically called on the union’s members to divest funds from “Israeli state institutions and international companies complicit in severe and ongoing human rights violations.”

The ballot also included an optional question asking members to make a voluntary, nonbinding pledge not to participate in any research, conferences, exchange programs or other activities sponsored by “Israeli universities complicit in the occupation of Palestine.” Approximately 52 percent of voting members across the UC system and 55 percent of voters at UC Berkeley took the pledge.

“We see this as another very significant drop in the bucket in the University of California that builds on the work of what undergraduate student groups have done,” said Katy Fox-Hodess, spokesperson for UAW Local 2865’s statewide executive council.

Kumars Salehi, a doctoral student at UC Berkeley and a member of Cal Students for Justice in Palestine, hopes the vote will not only hold significance within UC system but will also become a catalyst for other unions across the nation to join the movement for divestment.

The regents have explicitly stated that they do not support a policy of divestment, but Salehi believes that a broad consensus across the UC system could pressure them into action.

“As soon as the regents decide to respect the growing consensus, then we will have dealt a concrete blow to the mechanism,” Salehi said.

The vote and its outcome were met with opposition from a group called Informed Grads, which believes that the vote was undemocratic. Jonathan Kummerfeld, a UC Berkeley graduate student and the leader of Informed Grads’ UC Berkeley chapter, believes that insufficient discussion occurred prior to the vote.

“I came into this expecting that these were people with strong opinions and that we were going to debate the issue and see opinions from both sides,” Kummerfeld said. “I’m disappointed that we didn’t get to hear what our members really think.”

As a group, Informed Grads is discussing what to do next and is looking into appeals, but it will not pursue legal action against the union, Kummerfeld said. He said those who opposed the divestment measure now face the dilemma of recognizing the importance of unions but opposing the adoption of the measure in their names.

“I think unions are important, which is why I signed up in 2011,” Kummerfeld said. “But if the union is going to take such an extreme stance, then I’m really opposed to it. I don’t want them to claim that they are representing my views.”

The labor union’s next steps will be decided upon by the joint council, comprising 83 elected officers across nine UC campuses, as it discusses strategies to approach the university and the national union, Fox-Hodess said.

Contact Amy Jiang at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @ajiang_dc.