In May 2008, the Toronto-based Coalition Against Israeli Apartheid (CAIA) organized a conference that brought together labour activists from across North America to develop strategies for labour union involvement in the international movement for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel. During the landmark conference, Brick by Brick: Building Labour Solidarity with Palestine, participants shared ideas about how to move forward with anti-apartheid organizing within and in spite of the limits of anti-democratic unions and a fragmented, weakened labour movement.
In his conference address, Canadian Auto Workers activist and academic Sam Gindin posed the question, “Can a defeated movement play a role in supporting an international movement?” The Canadian labour movement, he suggested, is increasingly unable to defend itself. Neoliberal globalization and the deterioration of democratic union structures pose significant constraints for all Canadian unionists, at all organizational levels. Does this faltering movement have the capacity for international solidarity?
The Canadian labour movement’s contributions to the BDS campaign already indicate that a certain capacity does indeed exist. The initial BDS call came from Palestinian civil society in July 2005. By May 2006, the Canadian Union of Public Employees - Ontario (CUPE-O) had passed the landmark Resolution 50, which formalized the union’s support for BDS. More recently, in April 2008, the Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW) became the first national union in North America to support the BDS campaign. These victories have strengthened the profile of the BDS campaign, provoking increased repression from Israel advocates but also providing opportunities for education under the morally timeless banner “an injury to one is an injury to all.”
In this context, it is important to ask the following questions: How are solidarity activists navigating constraints and opportunities? How are activists addressing the labour movement’s precarious position while pushing forward with solidarity efforts? Is international solidarity work a potential means for reviving the atrophied capacities of the Canadian labour movement to practice genuine internationalism?
In June, Clare O’Connor and Caitlin Hewitt-White spoke to four participants in the Brick by Brick conference.
Dave Bleakney is a member of the Canadian Union of Postal Workers and the union’s National Representative for Education.
Iliam Burbano is a member of Canadian Union of Public Employees and a member of Labour for Palestine.
Andy Griggs is a member of United Teachers of Los Angeles. He works with the LA Palestine Labour Solidarity Committee, and is a member of Peace and Justice Caucus of the National Education Association.
Jenny Peto is a member of United Steelworkers and a member of Labour for Palestine.
Let’s begin with a practical question. Palestine solidarity labour activists are currently prioritizing the development of education campaigns about the apartheid nature of the Israeli state, and Canadian and American support for these practices. How are your respective unions developing these education campaigns?
Burbano: Since CUPE Ontario passed resolution 50 in May 2006, a group of activists connected to the union’s International Solidarity Committee have used every opportunity within CUPE’s structure to advance Palestine solidarity advocacy. We’ve met with union leaders and communications staff, we’ve organized train-the-trainer sessions, and we’ve designed and compiled materials for internal educationals. We’ve carried out extensive education tours, traveled to locals throughout Ontario, and presented at labour council meetings and at various sectoral CUPE conferences. We followed CUPE Ontario and CUPE National conventions, distributed CUPE resolution educational materials, tried to get this issue onto the agenda, and responded to questions. This is a rank-and-file designed and driven campaign, and our priority is figuring out how to reach the rank-and-file.
Griggs: US Labour is not really on board with BDS or pro-Palestine labour solidarity. Various labour organizations across the country work to raise awareness: for instance, international committees in some teachers’ unions have worked on educational pieces, but very little has happened in terms of resolutions. This absence is largely due to a very strong Zionist backlash. In my union, the United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA), we were totally unprepared for the Zionist backlash we provoked when we tried to hold a meeting to discuss BDS. Zionists even organized some teachers to write to UTLA leadership threatening to resign from the union if we held the meeting. So now we’re regrouping. Attending this conference is part of our effort to figure out what to do next. We’ve developed some educational material, and framed it to address questions about the right to education: that is, the right of teachers to teach, and the right of children to learn. We’re connecting Palestine solidarity to issues that teachers are passionate about.
Peto: We are only just beginning to try to make inroads with United Steelworkers (USW). I work with Labour for Palestine (L4P), so we’re going to be using a lot of CUPE Ontario’s educational materials. I think the challenge with the USW is going to be its diversity of workplaces. The USW represents a broad range of people in manufacturing. Most of the other members of L4P are working in public sector unions, so the approach is geared towards those kinds of workplaces. They have done work to link up university workers, teachers, and postal workers in Canada with Palestinians working in those same fields. This is being done through delegations and information exchange. It helps to be able to talk to workers here about the experiences of Palestinian workers who do the same kinds of work they do. The private sector is more diverse, so that kind of direct linking is more difficult, but not impossible.
Workers in the manufacturing sector are often very aware of issues of globalization and are politically engaged because their jobs are being threatened by neoliberalism. That’s actually where the difficulty lies in a lot of ways. The powers that be have managed to pit workers in Canada, the US, and other Western countries against workers in the global south, by blaming them for “stealing” their jobs. There is an “us versus them” mentality that needs to be combatted if we are going to do solidarity work. It’s also hard to support for international work when there is such a crisis in Canada and people are more focused on local issues in their own workplaces. What we need to do is break this artificial binary of us and them. We need to explain that lost jobs here produce exploitation and unsafe labour practices there. We need to help people make the links and see that job loss is part of the same process of globalization that supports Israeli apartheid and exploits Palestinian workers. Still, that’s hard to do when workers’ jobs are threatened and factories are being closed down to move elsewhere.
Bleakney: First, any discussion of the struggle in Palestine has to start with an acknowledgement of the indigenous lands we occupy in North America. Palestine solidarity work in Canada must address this context, and maybe someday the things that we learn from this campaign will help us confront the issue of the occupation of Turtle Island.
In terms of education programs, CUPW solidarity activists pursue a number of delivery points. For example, the union holds two or three-day educationals at regional schools (which include a plenary session), so we’ll be trying to introduce Palestine material there. There are also opportunities to pursue Palestine solidarity in the union’s committees. Committees address Palestine solidarity questions that are relevant for their political focus: how is Palestine a women’s issue, a human rights issue, a health and safety issue? How do people deliver mail under occupation, or in a war zone?
We’ve sent speakers notes to the presidents of all CUPW locals. After we passed the resolution we expected backlash and wanted to ensure that our 230 or so locals across Canada would have that material to help them deal with their membership, the media, and the public.
We’d like to develop some training modules to help members deal with persistent themes, such as how to develop the skills needed to deal with hostility, and how to overcome barriers we face within our unions. We want to start developing these modules right away, but we don’t overlook the value of face-to-face education. This work involves countering 40, 50, 60 years of propaganda, and face-to-face interaction is crucial.
We try to focus on Palestinian experience in our educationals. Our Atlantic region will be organizing a tour of Palestinian workers, which will visit various communities and workplaces. Most people are interested in hearing first-hand accounts of life under occupation, even if they’re still unsure of their political position. It’s effective to get CUPW members to consider what life is like for Palestinian letter carriers. Education is more than just facts. If it was just facts, we would have won by now.
These education campaigns are a response to the call from Palestine for boycott, divestment, and sanctions against Israel. In addition to membership education, how are your respective unions responding to this call? What kind of BDS projects are your unions pursuing?
Burbano: Within CUPE Ontario, support for the BDS movement is mainly at the political level. CUPE Ontario isn’t currently using its funds to implement boycott or divestment. The first thing Resolution 50 called for was an educational campaign about the apartheid nature of the Israeli state, and we’re still in that educational phase with the membership. It would be great if we could move sectors of the Canadian labour movement to actually implement BDS in a coordinated way, but the education piece is a key piece and an important step. The next step will be to lobby the union about practically implementing BDS in Ontario and also nationally.
Griggs: As I mentioned, my union and other US unions aren’t currently doing anything with BDS. Some individuals and small groups are researching their union’s investments, with the hope that we will eventually get to the point of divestment. For example, we’re looking at the teachers’ retirement system in California, which has a pretty good policy on divestment issues in general, so we’re thinking about slowly pursuing that avenue. There are things happening outside the unions, though. The Campaign to End Israeli Apartheid-Southern California, of which I am a member, developed a series of 24 three foot by six foot panels of graphics and text to be used as installations for educational purposes. The issue is so heated and we’ve realized that we really need ways to counter the myths. We put out these panels so that audiences can read, absorb, and think on their own time.
Peto: I attended a USW globalization conference in March. It was an introductory conference. Participants were overwhelmingly sad and frustrated to hear what’s going on around the world, and were asking “what can we do about globalization?” BDS resonated as a relatively concrete way to take action. I committed to researching the Histadrut (the Israeli trade union congress) and am brainstorming ways that this research might be used for a concrete union campaign. We can counter the paralysis that people feel by stressing that one person and one union can make a change. At the Brick by Brick conference this weekend, we located Palestine solidarity in an analysis of broader patterns of privatization and neoliberalism. There is definitely space to talk about globalization within the USW so I’m hoping to use this analytic framework to move forward with Palestine work.
Bleakney: It is a very complex situation for a national trade union to wade into this political terrain. We don’t want people to perceive CUPW as being “too radical” and to isolate us from the rest of the labour movement (we have experienced this dynamic in the past and have learned from it), but we also don’t want to sacrifice or water down our principles. Walking this fine line (between being effective and isolating ourselves) is a real and nuanced challenge. So, we’re focusing on educational work right now, and talking about BDS as an important issue for the labour movement as a whole.
As some of you have already mentioned, there is an effort to work with and lobby other groups. For example, CUPE-Ontario’s Resolution 50 calls on CUPE National to conduct research about Canadian involvement in the occupation, and calls on the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) to lobby against Israel’s apartheid practices. How are your unions relating to these larger bodies, and to other unions?
Burbano: After we passed Resolution 50 at the Ontario convention, CUPE National issued a statement saying that they “respect the right of its chartered organizations to take a stand on all issues, however, they would not be issuing a call to its local unions across the country to boycott Israel.” CUPE Ontario requested funds from CUPE National to carry out research into the “apartheid nature of the Israeli state” and we weren’t given those funds. It’s an ongoing dialogue. Despite these challenges, CUPE Ontario leadership and grassroots activists have continued to mobilize at conventions, have distributed Resolution 50 materials, and have held numerous educational sessions in order to keep the BDS struggle front-and-centre.
Larger labour bodies have not taken up BDS yet. The CLC has an anti-occupation position on Palestine, and condemns the apartheid wall, but I don’t think there is support for BDS at the higher levels of leadership in the Canadian labour movement. Our role, then, is to build the local bases for a labour movement BDS campaign. CUPE Ontario is one base, CUPW is another. Getting bodies like the CLC to support a BDS movement is going to take a lot of work. It’s going to require stronger links with leaders from the Palestinian labour movement and Palestinian civil society organizations, and it’s going to take a lot more education work. We try to effectively lobby and influence those larger bodies, but they are huge bureaucracies, and individuals in support of BDS are not necessarily at those levels of leadership. So, in addition to lobbying those larger bodies we also have to create some parallel spaces. L4P is an example of a parallel space that brings together labour activists who operate at different levels of union organizing to develop capacity, share materials, and politically support activists. Some people become isolated or demoralized doing this work alone in their unions.
Griggs: There have been some important shifts within the US anti-war movement that are significant for Palestine solidarity organizers. US Labour Against the War (USLAW) is one of the leading labour organizations in the United States, with about 170 affiliates (locals, labour organizations, and community labour centres). USLAW is beginning to take Palestine solidarity more seriously and is coming to understand that the invasion and occupation of Iraq cannot be isolated, in moral or practical terms, from the larger context and similar conditions elsewhere in the Middle East. In 2006, two resolutions about the Middle East came to the floor of the USLAW general assembly. The resolutions were referred to committee and we established a Middle East Task Force, which has been meeting over the last year and a half. After much discussion, the task force developed some guiding principles and presented a recommendation to the USLAW steering committee. Following from the logic that an injury to one is an injury to all, we encourage USLAW to create more space for the voices of people who are not often heard in the US. So, we highlight the importance of the Iraqi Labour Solidarity Tour that USLAW organized in 2005 (which brought labour leaders from Iraq to the US) and argue that “the emphasis should be on providing a platform to those most neglected in the discussion: the working people of the entire Middle East, in particular the Palestinians.” So, this is where we’re going with this, insisting that the principles that guide anti-war work naturally apply to the question of Palestine.
Peto: It would be great if a huge national body like the CLC took a supportive stance on BDS, and affiliates might then follow their lead, but I think it’s going to have to happen in the other direction. I went to the CLC convention as a delegate for my local and was kind of shocked by the lack of democracy. There was barely any time for debate about resolutions. The resolution that was put forth about Palestine was a completely watered down version of the resolution submitted by various locals, and it died before it hit the floor. We found a couple of opportunities to bring up BDS but we had to do it speaking from the mics against the motion on resolutions we actually agreed with. For example, I got up to respond to a resolution on Afghanistan and criticized it for not being based more broadly in the Middle East. There seemed to be some support from the floor, but I also took a lot of heat for voicing that criticism. I agree with Iliam that we need to cultivate support locally and provincially, in different sectors. Then we can start to push the CLC on their so-called democratic principles.
Bleakney: When CUPW coordinates visits of trade unionists from other countries, we try to ensure that our guests meet with other unions and our affiliates, including unions and affiliates that aren’t doing Palestine solidarity work. We arrange these meeting by suggesting, “As workers, shouldn’t we be able to at least have a discussion about this issue? What’s wrong with just speaking, worker to worker?” We engage people who haven’t already aligned themselves with Palestine solidarity or BDS, and I think this is deeply important. For this work, the role of labour councils cannot be underestimated. There are so many different affiliates at labour councils, and if we can get them involved in events and speaking tours then they can benefit from that face-to-face human experience.
Canadian postal workers started supporting South African trade unions in the anti-apartheid battle in the 1970s. At that point, a boycott of South Africa wasn’t on the radar. The logic of a boycott was confusing: why would you boycott goods that workers are making? Isn’t it just going to punish those workers? Eventually, we had a lot of success in boycotting South Africa; one of our locals here in Toronto provided an office for the South African Confederation of Trade Unions and they worked out of that office for many years building that campaign. But it took a long time to build those grassroots structures, and that campaign involved a great deal of energy and face-to-face work. With respect to lobbying large Canadian labour bodies to adopt BDS, they need to understand that we’re not going to sacrifice our principles, and we need to understand that they’re not there yet and that success will be a gradual process.
CUPE local 3902 represents teaching assistants at the University of Toronto. Shortly after CUPE-Ontario passed Resolution 50, 3902 members organized to rescind their support and passed resolutions in opposition to Resolution 50. How do you deal with opposition within your memberships? How might labour solidarity organizers understand and prepare for opposition?
Burbano: After passing Resolution 50, we noticed that most of the vociferous opposition to our stance on Palestine was external to the union, not internal. When we engaged in rank-and-file education, we found that the majority of the members lacked information about the issue. Once they heard the problem framed as a workers’ issue, members were open-minded. We found we could be very effective if we talked about the experiences of Palestinian workers. We’d explain that Palestinian workers don’t have freedom of movement and that they’re denied the right to education and health services, we’d note the high level of unemployment in Palestine, and we’d focus on the need to develop solidarity.
But there is Zionist opposition within the labour movement and within our union. In CUPE local 3902 there are members who are ideologically opposed not only to BDS, but to pro-Palestine work. These members will immediately oppose you if you criticize Israel or try to advocate for Palestinian human rights. So, Zionists in 3902 mobilized a meeting and put forth a resolution so quickly that solidarity activists, particularly in the university sector, weren’t able to respond in time. Even so, the counter-resolution provoked a heated debate and passed by one vote. It stated that 3902 won’t implement Resolution 50.
The Zionist tactic is to suppress discussion, so we’ve been dealing with opposition in our membership by holding education sessions and debating the issue. You have to prepare for opposition systematically and have materials that are relevant and accessible to the membership. Train-the-trainer sessions are particularly useful, because they entail sitting down with solidarity activists and going through questions systematically: How do you respond to the accusation that Resolution 50 is anti-Semitic? How do you respond to the claim that implementing Palestinian refugees’ right of return would mean the destruction of the state of Israel? How do you respond to the claim that BDS hurts the workers it’s supposed to support?
Educational work requires self-organization. The union can’t pay 10 educators to get out there, so rank-and-file members have had to organize and train people. There’s no shortcut for dealing with opposition. You’ve got to go to locals and committees and engage the membership directly, and talk explicitly about opposition and apprehension.
How do you deal with members who oppose Resolution 50 on the grounds that labour unions aren’t entitled to take positions about “external” political questions?
Burbano: The CUPE constitution mandates us to do international solidarity work. We have structures in the union, provincially and nationally, to do international solidarity work and we have a long history of aligning with various international struggles. Palestine is not an exception. Our response is that an injury to one is an injury to all. Trade unions are not only focused on contract and bargaining issues. Palestinian workers and civil society issued the call for BDS and we responded to that call.
Griggs: Opposition is going to come in a variety of ways. When it comes from outside the union it can usually be dealt with by asking, “Why are you trying to mandate what our union should be doing?” We encountered external opposition when we proposed that the union just hold a meeting to discuss BDS – Zionists call for balanced debate but then shut down meetings. Unfortunately, UTLA leadership was already in a weakened position and so they backed down to this opposition. And solidarity activists didn’t have enough support. We didn’t have a network to solicit letters of support. We realized then that we weren’t prepared to go the BDS route yet.
In addition to developing support, we must develop material. The best organizing is done on a one-to-one basis, but developing materials that address the questions we can anticipate can help us to build with allies and preempt opposition. One of the things I’m working on is a summary of myths and facts.
Peto: I’m planning to organize Steelworkers at the University of Toronto and it’s a concern that one of the major centres of dissent against Resolution 50 was here at the university. I get a sense that some of the executive and members of my USW local are concerned about what happened, and attribute it to us being unprepared. Some say CUPW’s Resolution 338/339 went more smoothly because they were better prepared, but I don’t think this was the case. I think it went more smoothly because Zionists realized that their opposition to Resolution 50 only brought the resolution more attention, and that this attention actually worked against them. The difference between the CUPW campaign and the CUPE campaign didn’t have to do with preparation, but with a shift in Zionist tactics. Opposition exists and people are very afraid of it, but there will be other resolutions that pass more easily than Resolution 50.
I agree with how people have described the backlash, especially about the charge of anti-Semitism. As a Jewish person, I think that Jewish people doing Palestine solidarity work have a responsibility to respond to the charge of anti-Semitism. When the accusation comes up, I tell people that I’m personally offended that by virtue of my birth I’m expected to be a racist, a colonialist, an imperialist. I get called self-hating. I respond by pointing out that there’s actually a really proud history of Jewish socialism and labour activism, and of Jewish anti-racist and anti-oppression activism.
Bleakney: In dealing with opposition it’s really important to allow space for debate and not to shut anybody down. It educates our membership when people make really bizarre arguments, in the same way that media backlash at CUPE educated the public. We’re fortunate in CUPW not to have encountered much opposition within our union. Opposition exists, but it hasn’t been overwhelming or organized. I mean, several years ago CUPW became the first North American union to publically criticize Israel and pass resolutions around the issue of Palestine. Various factors made this possible, particularly the fact that CUPW organizers and members are already very skeptical about what we’re told by the bosses or the media. CUPW members have experienced a lot of negative media, so we address Zionist/pro-Israel media bias by asking our members, “Has the media ever said anything true about us? Well, why would they be accurate about a postal worker in Palestine?” We deal with the charge of anti-Semitism by asking, “Why can’t we criticize a government? Why can’t we criticize their actions?” We have to create space for these debates. It encourages democratization and allows us to reflect on our own movements, too. We have to remember that some of our members have absorbed decades of propaganda that people are only now beginning to dare to unpeel.
Peto: Recently, Adam Hanieh of the Toronto Coalition Against Israeli Apartheid made a good suggestion about how to respond to people who call for “balanced” debate about Palestine. He compared this to when media call for balanced debate when workers are on strike: “Why don’t the two sides just sit down and negotiate?” In that context, workers know that it’s unbalanced, that employers always have more power. Bringing that power analysis into discussions about Palestine reminds people that most debates are not balanced. If we can say that the media has a right-wing bias and an anti-union bias, why believe what they’re saying about Palestine? I think using worker-related analogies is a really great way to deal with backlash.
Griggs: Another form of opposition is when people say, “It’s just not the right time for this, wait a bit, be patient.” We’ve started responding to this by referring to Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous 1963 letter from Birmingham Jail, which reads “I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was ‘well timed’ in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now, I have heard the word ‘Wait!’... This ‘Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never.’ We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that ‘justice too long delayed is justice denied.’ ”
How can Palestine Solidarity organizing become an opening for more general revitalization of social justice unionism? How can this work create opportunities for moving into discussions “beyond the contract”?
Burbano: Palestine solidarity work and work around Resolution 50 have revitalized international solidarity work within CUPE Ontario. It has revived grassroots activism and activist involvement in the International Solidarity Committee (ISC), and entailed reclamation of existing committee structures. CUPE-Ontario’s ISC has been around for a long time and has done good work, but in recent years there has been an urgent need to increase rank-and-file member mobilization around international solidarity issues. The debate, discussion, public attention, and organizing that went into Resolution 50 has increased participation. We’re now having ISC open meetings. Historically, five members get elected to be the ISC and those five members formulate campaigns for the union. We asked “Why just these elected members?” and have since opened up the space. Other equity committees are now doing the same. The Brick by Brick conference is an example of this revitalizing of labour activism beyond the contract, as is the rank-and-file education campaign. Getting people involved in developing material, then going out and meeting face-to-face with fellow workers in the union; that kind of rank-and-file model is a way to revitalize broader social justice organizing.
Griggs: In a lot of ways, it’s the opposite in my union. The revitalization of social justice unionism within US unions is going to allow us to discuss Palestine. For example, UTLA teachers are beginning to recognize that this extreme focus on testing, on standards, on scripted curriculum is destroying public education. They’re starting to make larger analytic connections about neoliberal policies and patterns of privatization, and realizing that these are major threats to people in the US and around the world. UTLA recently hosted the eighth Trinational Coalition Conference to Defend Public Education, intended to address questions about privatization in the US, Canada, and Mexico. Unionized teachers from all three countries attended, and people were amazed at how much was going on. It was the first time the meeting had been held in the US since 1993 and I think it really revitalized teachers’ recognition of the importance of anti-privatization action. Adam Hanieh expressed similar thoughts at his talk at the Brick by Brick conference. He explained that what’s happening in Palestine is part of an overall policy of privatization and neoliberalism in the whole Middle East. You don’t hear about Middle East free trade, but it’s there, and these broader analyses are going to help us bring the issue of Palestine solidarity to the forefront.
Peto: All weekend I’ve been talking about myself as a young worker. I guess if you’re younger than 30 in the labour movement you’re a baby. The question of youth is significant for discussions about social justice unionism. At the CLC convention the entire USW delegation only had two youth delegates, and this reflects a major problem within the union movement. Older generations of trade unionists have done great work, but I’m afraid that in 20 years, when many people retire, the movement will be much smaller. The labour movement needs to link up with engaged young activists doing anti-globalization work. I wasn’t involved with my union until I became involved with L4P. I would go to union meetings about the collective agreement, but I didn’t engage beyond that. L4P is how I became more involved.
I’m not trying to speak on behalf of everyone under 30 in the country, but I do think that young people are organizing in different ways that could link up with the labour movement even though they don’t yet. Especially around international work and Palestine solidarity, young radicals are making the links and labour organizers should reach out to them. We’re the generation that expects a life of precarious work. I don’t know anyone, except people who are going to be doctors, dentists, and lawyers, who feel like they’re going to have a job for life or employment security. We’re aware of the new economic realities and we understand them on a global level. This is a key moment, and it would be sad if the labour movement didn’t bring in young workers.
Bleakney: In talking about the revitalization of the labour movement I want to speak to the question of dignity. I don’t mean this in an individualist, feel-good, self-help sense. I mean the kind of collective and individual dignity required to be self-critical. A piquetero once told me five or six years ago, “You North Americans, you’re so rich materially, yet you’re so morally impoverished.” That really stuck with me, and I watch it play out in labour conventions and in unions. We’ve become the ultimate victims; we complain constantly, “Governments are doing this to us, this corporation is doing that.” Of course they are. That’s their job, that’s how the system is constructed: to exploit us and get as much as possible for a few people while everyone else suffers. Yet we never seem to move beyond the victim mode, from saying “They’re doing this to us” to saying “Obviously this is what they do, but what are we doing to them?” When I listen to the voices from the global south, this seems to be much more part of the discussion and part of long term assessments. So, for me, in terms of revitalization of the labour movement, this sort of collective dignity is key. We need to be able to say, yes, we’re getting hammered, but we’re standing on our feet and we’re not ashamed of who we are. And I hope Canadians can absorb that on a much larger scale. That’s not to say it doesn’t exist – it exists in the worst places – but it’s not permeating general Canadian society and the labour movement, as far as I can see.
Reflecting on the Brick by Brick conference, what are the specific opportunities and difficulties relevant for labour unions doing Palestine solidarity organizing in Canada and the US? Given these contextual opportunities and difficulties, how can we continue to build stronger solidarity networks, internationally and locally?
Burbano: One of the challenges is reflecting on what Dave said about collective dignity. In North America, the power of labour to defend the dignity of workers has diminished, so a lot of workers are forgetting the notion that an injury to one is an injury to all is an internationalist concept. I think that there’s a lack of consciousness about international workers’ issues. After the long Oslo “pacification” process and despite ongoing attacks, the Palestinian national movement has mobilized, expressed their collective dignity, and called on the international community to take a stand. If we can link up with the Palestinian movement and effectively educate and implement real concrete solidarity, I think our movements will be mutually strengthened. Despite difficulties with the big labour bodies, we do have opportunities in the Canadian labour movement, best demonstrated by the CUPE and CUPW resolutions. And even on a bare budget, we are establishing the beginnings of a support network: Brick by Brick featured a speaker from the Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions. The siege and sanctions implemented against Palestinians limits opportunities for them to share their perspectives, so these links are extremely important.
Griggs: Opportunities are opening for us, with respect to Palestine, the Iraq war, with many issues. It’s because we’re being humble. We’re saying, “What do you need? What can we do?” We can’t be providing patronizing support, we have to be there and willing to listen and respond. We have to apply this model in our unions, too. For my union, instead of having our weekly board of directors meeting in the central building, why not go out and have it in the eight regions and just listen? Making these changes will create big opportunities.
Peto: Things have gone so badly in the past 10 or so years that there’s almost this palpable sense of frustration and anger. We talk about how much Israeli interests have lined up with American imperialism, and how in Canada there is a strong desire to separate ourselves from American imperialism. Even though Canada is obviously implicated in the war in Iraq, Canadians did take a stand against direct participation. Canadians’ lip service to progressive stuff is offensive, but it’s also an opportunity: we can call them on it. Canadians are frustrated about having right-wing governments and we need to draw from that popular support. There’s a lot of talk that doesn’t translate into action. But we can call people on their anger and say, “Okay, if you don’t want to be involved in American imperialism we have to talk about Israel.” And we need more opportunities, like the conference this weekend, to hear about the work being done elsewhere.
Bleakney: You know, 10 years ago you couldn’t publicly criticize Israel in this country without being perceived as an anti-Semite. This has shifted, and this is positive. It has created openings that I haven’t had in my lifetime.
We have a saying in CUPW about Canada Post: “Our best organizer is Canada Post management.” I know many people who become shop stewards and activists in response to feeling harassed by the larger structures of power. This is one thing that unites us: we’re all living this neoliberal project. Whether you’re talking about the Cuban Five in US jails, or about indigenous leaders like Shawn Brant, or about hospitals being destroyed in Somalia after the Western-backed invasion by Ethiopia, whether you’re talking about the killing of trade unionists in Columbia, or about Israeli apartheid, or about the Afghanistan war, or about privatization and deregulation here at home, we need to ask, “What is the common thing that links all those things?” That’s the question, and we’ve been missing it sometimes. I think we have a real invitation here to step up and create new possibilities for ourselves by asking these more complex questions. This is a good time to be alive, in fact, because the system is starting to decay in a significant way, and we’re here and we’re alive and we can do something about it. This is a great opportunity.