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Largest Union Calls for Ceasefire in Gaza

UAW, the powerhouse union representing over 400,000 workers, takes a groundbreaking stance on the Gaza conflict.

Factory workers and UAW union members form a picket line outside the Ford Motor Co. Kentucky Truck Plant in the early morning hours on October 14, 2023 in Louisville, Kentucky.

On Friday, at a press conference of labor leaders in front of the White House, United Auto Workers (UAW) Region 9A director Brandon Mancilla announced that the international UAW, meaning the entire union, had joined calls for a ceasefire in Gaza and made plans to investigate its ties to the Israeli military. The UAW represents over 400,000 workers in the U.S. (and over half a million retired workers), which makes it the largest union to do so in the U.S.. UAW International President Shawn Fain soon followed Mancilla’s press conference announcement with a post on X, expressing pride in the union’s decision.

This announcement comes after months of action by a mass international movement for Palestine in the streets, on university campuses, and within unions like Starbucks Workers United, that have helped call attention to Israel’s atrocities and helped to dramatically shift public opinion. This movement includes academic unions, many of whom are part of the UAW. UAW members at Harvard (HGSU-UAW 5118), Columbia (SWC-UAW 2710), and NYU (GSOC-UAW 2110) have been threatened with firing or eviction for pro-Palestine speech in their workplaces, and the struggles on university campuses against this neo-McCarthyism have played a role in catalyzing internal pressure on the UAW International Executive Board (IEB) from rank-and-file UAW members. It is worth noting that all three of these academic unions are in Region 9A, and that before becoming Director of Region 9A, Mancilla was the President of HGSU. Before Friday, Regions 9A and 6 were the largest governing bodies of the UAW that had signed on to a call for a ceasefire: Region 6 covers much of the West coast and also includes many academic unions, including those at the UC campuses and USC.

This progressive move marks a large shift from top UAW leadership who, as Jacobin writer Alex Press told In These Times, have historically, “not only largely ignored its Arab Workers Caucus in 1973 when they pushed for the union to divest itself from Israeli bonds; in more recent years, it has also intervened to prevent locals from endorsing the movement for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions.”

Beyond joining international calls for a ceasefire, Mancilla announced that the UAW’s IEB, the highest decision-making body in its bureaucracy, made up of the president, secretary-treasurer, vice presidents, and nine regional directors, will be investigating “the history of Israel and Palestine, our union’s economic ties to the conflict, and explore how we can have a just transition for U.S. workers from war to peace.”

Divesting from War and the Israeli State

This announcement by the international UAW, the parent union of all UAW locals and shop-floor unions, indicates institutional support at the highest level of the union’s bureaucracy for two things. First, that regions, locals, and individual unions that want to organize for Palestine in their workplaces may have some level of backing from the union leadership. It is essential that UAW take every step to protect members against McCarthyist attacks, as well as supporting non-members in the same institutions– that means standing against the attacks on SJP and JVP at Columbia and against all attacks on students and non-union workers as well. Second, that the international union is indicating that after years of calls to divest from Israel from the BDS movement, the UAW leadership is opening a discussion about its ties to Israel and to weapons manufacturing.

This announcement by the UAW appears to follow the framework described by labor historian Jeff Schuhrke in Jewish Currents in late November, which suggests that the success the UAW had seen incorporating the “just transition for a Green New Deal” movement into its successful 2023 strikes at the big three auto companies (and winning the unionization of new electric vehicle plants at GM) should be extended to a “conversion” plan for shifting unionized UAW workers at Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, and General Dynamics out of the U.S. war machine and into socially productive manufacturing and engineering instead. Already, rank-and-file UAW workers are planning to reach out to UAW workers at these companies and try to do the organizing that would be required to get the shop floors of these weapons manufacturers to support divestment from weapons manufacturing.

Schuhrke makes a false equivalency between the just transition and the conversion plans, however, in ignoring that the UAW was only able to unionize EV plants that were already planned by GM following the Biden administration’s legislation to galvanize production of EVs, a domestic infrastructure investment with the primary goal of competing technologically and geopolitically with China. Neither the Biden administration nor the Democratic or Republican parties will lead the charge in converting any part of the U.S.’s military industrial complex into “peacetime manufacturing.” The calls to arms (or away from them, in this case) must come from the rank-and-file UAW workers themselves, who are the only ones who may find both the willingness and the power to shut down these companies’ war efforts.

Importantly, Schuhrke points out, “U.S. unions long ago ceded “management rights” to the bosses, meaning that employers call the shots on what is produced when and how—and that any contest over plant conversion would require a radical expansion of unions’ limited purview.” For rank-and-file UAW workers, this means organizing to actually take democratic control over their workplaces, to the point where they decide what gets made and who it gets sold to. Like the Lucas Plan of the 1970s, where highly skilled workers at a UK aerospace company collectively put together a plan to produce socially useful systems and machines instead, UAW workers in every workplace, including weapons manufacturers, could challenge the capitalist status quo and assert their power over the production process they are a part of.

Labor Must Stand Up

UAW workers in weapons manufacturers cannot be the only ones fighting, and the UAW and smaller unions that have made similar calls for a ceasefire including UE, APWU, IUPAT, CTU, and others, cannot be the only ones involved in this fight. We call on all unions to follow their lead. Additionally, we call on the UAW, UE, and other signatories of this petition to go beyond joining a call for a ceasefire, and demand an end to Israeli military aid from the United States.

All workers should organize in their workplaces to disrupt any connections to the U.S. or Israeli war machines, or disrupt business as usual for the U.S. ruling class, in solidarity with Palestine. Nothing moves without workers. Flexing this power could look like university lab scientists (many of whom are now unionized with the UAW) immediately stopping work on contracts with the IDF or U.S. Department of Defense, or for the medium or long term, organizing themselves to demand their lab stop applying for grants from the DOD or licensing their discoveries or inventions to any military powers, working to divest scientific research from imperialism. It could look like unionized teachers organizing to radically change their curricula to tell the truth about U.S. imperialism and the Israeli genocide of Palestine. It could look like tech workers organizing to cancel their companies’ contracts with the IDF for cloud computing technology that the Israeli security state uses to surveil and bomb Palestinians. It could look like unionized auto workers and teachers and laborers and engineers all marching in a labor contingent in the next big protest in the streets, shoulder to shoulder with the students, writers, healthcare workers, and more who are marching in solidarity with Palestine. These workers should demand an immediate end to the siege, the end of U.S. aid to Israel, an immediate divestment of our unions and workplaces from Israel and stand against the apartheid state of Israel and for a free Palestine.

Imperialism is incompatible with the interests of the working class. An injury to one is an injury to all, and weapons built in the U.S. meant to kill workers in Palestine do not make American workers safer, even if jobs at Lockheed Martin put food on a worker’s table this week. The U.S. working class owes a debt of solidarity to every worker around the world, and if our solidarity is with the international working class, our interests here in the imperial core must lie in dismantling the U.S. war machine that threatens the immediate safety of our comrades abroad and which is turned on activists and organizers here every day. Money spent on war is money not spent on housing, healthcare, and other needed services (the Biden administration’s new bequeathment of $14 billion to Israel alone would pay for 100,000 units of public housing). We must fight in our workplaces and join the struggle in the streets for a free Palestine and an end to U.S. imperialism.

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