U.C. student workers says yes to joining BDS campaign against Israel

A union representing University of California student workers approved a resolution last week to align with the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel.

In the same vote, 1,136 members pledged to personally adhere to a boycott of Israeli academic institutions.

United Auto Workers Local 2865, which represents tens of thousands of U.C. teaching assistants, tutors and other student workers — 13,000 of whom currently work on U.C. campuses — announced on Dec. 10 that the BDS measure was approved by 65 percent of the voters; the final tally of the Dec. 4 vote was 1,411-749.

The local thus became the first chapter of a major American labor union to vote on and pass a BDS measure.

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The measure calls on U.C. and UAW International to “divest from companies involved in Israeli occupation and apartheid” and calls on the U.S. government to end military aid to Israel.

Informed Grads, a group of union members that opposed the resolution, said in a statement it was extremely concerned with the outcome of the systemwide vote, which it says puts UAW 2865 in direct opposition to the International UAW, which opposes the BDS movement.

“This is incredibly damaging to our union,” Jonathan Kummerfeld, a U.C. Berkeley computer science graduate student and Informed Grads leader, said in a statement. “This resolution may end up with our union recommending boycotting fellow UAW members who work for companies that are targets of the BDS movement.”

The resolution consisted of two parts, the second being an option to make a personal commitment to not take part “in any research, conferences, events, exchange programs, or other activities that are sponsored by Israeli universities complicit in the occupation of Palestine and the settler-colonial policies of the state of Israel” until the Israeli universities “take steps to end complicity with dispossession, occupation, and apartheid.” Fifty-three percent of the 2,168 voters said “yes” to the anonymous, individual and nonbinding pledge.

U.C. Berkeley graduate student Katy Fox-Hodess, a member of Local 2865’s statewide executive board and a BDS supporter, told J. that passage of the measure means that “it is now the official position of our local … to support the BDS movement, and we will be calling on our employer, the University of California, and the UAW to divest from companies that profit from occupation.”

However, any such divestment is not likely to happen soon. The local has little say and no control over the United Auto Workers’ financial and investment decisions.

Gary Jones, UAW’s region 5 director, told J. by email that the UAW International Union, in 2007, joined more than 40 national labor leaders in issuing a position statement of opposition to divestment from or boycotts of Israel.

“That is and continues to be the International UAW position on the matter,” Jones said. “Each local … is entitled to operate independently as Local 2865 has done. We do note, however, that there was division within the local, as reflected in its recent vote. That said, it is important to note the [then-president Ron] Gettelfinger letter of 2007 remains the International UAW policy on this matter.”

Similarly, no university-sanctioned academic boycott will likely take place on any U.C. campus.

Kummerfeld contends that talking about academic boycott is one thing. But, he said, “The minute one actually does something, that’s discrimination on the basis of national origin. That’s crossing the line.”

Jonathan Kummerfeld photo/dan pine

With the vote, UAW 2865 joined several labor unions in the United Kingdom and Ireland, New Zealand, Canada and South Africa, as well as several dockworker unions around the world, in supporting the BDS movement.

Also, the undergraduate student governments at U.C. schools in Berkeley, San Diego, Riverside, Irvine and Los Angeles have passed resolutions in support of divestment from Israel.

The S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council and Jewish Community Federation, with the 
 Jewish Community Federation of the East Bay, jointly condemned the measure, writing in a statement, “We are gravely concerned about the chilling effect this will have not only for academic cooperation, but also … on Jewish and Israeli students and supporters of Israel on campus, where they already face hostility toward expressions of solidarity with Israel … this could exacerbate an already tense and polarized environment while doing absolutely nothing to support peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

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Fox-Hodess, who is Jewish, disagrees. “Our BDS statement does not say anything about a one-state or two-state solution,” she said. “Our initiative addresses the Israeli state’s human rights abuses against Palestinians and how we can end those abuses. I’m a Jewish member of the union. There have been literally dozens of Jewish members who have been extremely active on the pro-BDS side of things.”

Kummerfeld hopes supporters of Israel will push back against the local’s position, though with the next leadership elections not due until 2017, he admits no dramatic shift will take place in the short term.

Still, he hopes his side will begin laying groundwork for a more balanced debate.

“They had teams on every campus, and built a machine to wage this campaign,” he said of the pro-BDS effort. “Across campuses, Jewish and Israeli students who are concerned about Israel and opposed to BDS … need to start talking to people and help them understand what BDS really is.”

Meanwhile, in a letter sent this week to the nine U.C. chancellors and U.C. President Janet Napolitano, 21 organizations warned that BDS supporters may now feel emboldened to bring their agenda into the classroom.

The Dec. 16 letter, signed by groups ranging from Accuracy in Academia to the Zionist Organization of America, asked the chancellors to “issue a public statement affirming your commitment to strictly enforcing the Regents’ policy” — which prohibits graduate students from using their positions to promote anti-Israel propaganda inside the classroom — “and to ensuring that Jewish and pro-Israel students have access to a safe and non-discriminatory learning environment.”

JTA contributed to this report.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is J.'s news editor. He can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.