Last week a milestone occurred affecting U.S. Labor and Israelis alike: a vote took place by the University of California's "student-workers" union, UAW Local 2865, to approve the "Boycott, Divest from and Sanction Israel (BDS)" movement. While Local 2865 is just a local player in the large union space, a vote like this will likely encourage anti-Israel and anti-Semitic sentiments across labor and academia.
Local 2865, comprised of 13,000 teaching assistants, tutors and student workers in the UC system, is the first significant U.S. labor union to hold a membership vote on Israel and BDS. The measures approved call on the University of California and UAW International to divest from companies involved in Israel and demand that the U.S. government end military aid to Israel. With strong encouragement from the union's leadership, 1,136 members also pledged to personally adhere to an academic boycott of Israel.
The resolutions unfairly and unjustly single out Israel while marginalizing and alienating Jewish, Israeli and pro-Israel graduate students. In addition, these resolutions are fundamentally contrary to the core principles of both academic freedom and trade union solidarity.
What is especially shocking is that this well publicized and polarizing fight over a non-collective bargaining issue generated participation by fewer than 20% of the union membership. Among the local's 13,000 members, fewer than 2,500 actually voted and of them, only 1,411 supported the resolutions - which were ultimately pushed and financed from the top down by the union's leadership. The selection of these issues to divide a union membership and drain a union's resources is especially confounding.
American unions, especially but certainly not limited to academic unions, have fought long and hard to establish and preserve political and academic free speech. The storied history of teachers' unions in the United States has been built upon preserving the precious principles of academic freedom. The initiatives voted on by the members of Local 2865 constitute an offensive assault on the Labor Movement's dedication to free speech and academic integrity.
The resolutions are also antithetical to the cherished principles of labor solidarity. The BDS Movement exacts pain on workers in Israel, Palestine and the United States. The results of this vote will eventually cost Israeli and Palestinian workers their jobs by targeting the goods they produce and the companies who employ them. It will also harm other UAW members by calling for the boycott of and divestment from companies who employ them like Boeing and General Electric. This is a high price to pay for notions of "political correctness" by folks with little or no "skin in the game".
As an American, a Jew and a proud trade unionist, the actions of a small minority in Local 2865 are very disheartening. In the course of the last ten years, I have participated in numerous labor delegations to Israel hosted by the American Friends of the Yitzhak Rabin Center. These missions were all non-political and designed to expose delegates to diverse views within Israel. Participants have included members and leaders from the American Federation of Teachers, the Teamsters, the Laborers, the United Mine Workers, the United Food and Commercial Workers, the Communication Workers and others who have travelled to Israel to meet with their counterparts in free Israeli trade unions --- counterparts who are Jewish, Muslim, Christian and Druze.
It amazes me how the leadership of Local 2865 has involved itself in these issues without the understanding or acknowledgement that Israeli labor laws (contrary to those present in Israel's neighboring States) provide far greater legal protections for organizing, bargaining and striking. Those rights extend to Arab citizens of Israel and to Palestinians who work for Israeli companies. Israeli labor law and protective judiciary eclipses our own modest labor law in the U.S. The BDS resolutions are silent about these facts.
The resolutions approved by Local 2865 are a troubling reflection of the deterioration of critical thinking and civil discourse on our campuses and in our society. They are an assault on democratic values and offensive to the principles of the Labor Movement in the United States. While it is comforting to know that the effort generated support from fewer than 15% of the members, it is nonetheless worrisome that a union confronting the extraordinary responsibility of protecting the wages, benefits and working conditions of thousands of historically underpaid and frequently underappreciated workers would allow itself to be distracted and manipulated in such a fashion.
Stuart W. Davidson is Chairman of the Board of Directors for the American Friends of the Yitzhak Rabin Center and Partner in the union-side labor and employment law firm Willig, Williams & Davidson .