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Our Unions Can Turn the Tide for the Campus Palestine Revolt

Rank and filers can organize unions to join the encampments, strike for Palestine and turn words into action.

Demonstrators march on the Northrop Mall to call for a ceasefire in Gaza before setting up an encampment on the lawn on April 29, 2024, on the University of Minnesota campus in Minneapolis.

Right now, the biggest student revolt of this century is rocking the country, denouncing the genocide of Palestinians and calling for divestment from Israel and an end to the war on Gaza.

The repression has been bipartisan and savage. College administrators are calling in heavily armed police of Democrat-controlled cities to drag away hundreds of students and faculty, for the crime of sitting on a lawn on their own campus to oppose genocide. The Biden administration and other high-ranking Democrats have denounced the protestors as antisemitic, which gives the green light to further repression. The Republican Party is taking an incredibly harsh position on the protests with Republican governors mobilizing state troopers in Georgia and Texas to repress protesters and declaring, in the words of Texas Governor Greg Abbott, that “these protesters belong in jail.” And yet we’re also seeing more and more encampments and protests, from the City University of New York (CUNY) to Emory to Yale, from the University of Texas at Austin to the University of Pennsylvania (UPenn) and California Poly.

But if the repression wins, and can stomp out the movement, it will be a devastating blow to democratic rights in this country. That would normalize the attack not just on the right to protest, but on unions’ strikes, pickets, and marches — the weapons workers and oppressed people use to fight back. We need all of us out to help protect these protests.

Workers and their unions are seeing this threat. They’re heading into the encampments like at Columbia, UPenn, and CUNY to stand with the student movement. In NYC, the UAW held a march in solidarity with its arrested members. Still, union leaders haven’t yet called us all out in large numbers to join the struggle.

Our unions have a special power in this battle. In the balance of the fight, we can be the thumb on the scale. Our strategic position in the economy ( for example, driving buses and teaching classes), our numbers, our power to paralyze city economies — these can shift this battle towards victory. And besides, many of those unions have already called for a ceasefire. It’s time to push and pull our unions fully into the fight for Palestinian liberation.

Unions Join the Fray

Many union members and unions are joining student protesters at their encampments and calling for their protection.

UAW 2710, which represents student workers at Columbia, released its call for solidarity against the repression. It’s been signed by dozens of unions — largely locals — as well as by over 800 individual union members. Union bus drivers recently refused to transport people arrested on campuses to jail.

And more: at CUNY, union faculty and staff joined hands surrounding the students, chanting: “To get to our students, you’ll have to go through us.” The national AAUP, to which many faculty at Columbia belong, denounced the mass arrest of peaceful students. The PSC, the union for 30,000 CUNY academic workers, also denounced the repression at Columbia and called for the protection of democratic rights at CUNY. Sarah Nelson, the head of the Association of Flight Attendants, tweeted from her personal account, “Hands off students! They’re going to save us.”

In other words: there’s a groundswell of support surging inside unions — mostly from below and in our locals— for the student revolt.

At the top of a lot of our unions, though, we’re not seeing the mobilizing of mass union support for the encampments. It’s true AFL-CIO, AFT, and the UAW — representing millions of us in unions — already demanded a ceasefire. Ceasefire statements, and statements denouncing repression, like the one from the PSC in New York, are important. They spread awareness, they help stir their members towards more action, and they show that there’s widespread worker support for the Palestinian cause.

But in the teeth of intense repression, we’ll need to turn fine words into real action: to mobilize our unions into the streets and to the encampments, to join arms to protect them, and to strike for Palestine, and for our leaders to call us all to that kind of support too.

All of that is so important because of the strategic power of our unions. They embrace millions of workers — 14 million, all told. 12.5 million of those are in the umbrella of the AFL-CIO (which includes unions like my AFT). There are about half a million active members of the UAW.

It’s not just our numbers. Unions in cities like New York stand at most of the chokepoints of the economy: shipping goods on trucks, transporting workers and people on buses, and beyond. Union teachers, too, and teachers in public K-12 schools, could be mobilized to join the struggle as well.

Our Unions Need to Go Much Further

There’s inertia in our unions though, especially at the top, moving against more active support from below. Although the UAW and AFL-CIO leaders have put out statements for a cease fire, they also promised full support for Biden and his regime who are arming and funding Israel. In fact, the AFL-CIO suppressed the inner push for a ceasefire call until its members forced the issue.

All of that support for the regime is part of a long strategy in these unions. The upper crust committed themselves long ago to appeal to Democratic Party politicians to win gains for workers. And that strategy has been an abject failure throughout the entire neoliberal era of union decline and dismantling, falling wages, and destroyed pensions. In line with this strategy, union bureaucracies in the U.S. have a long history of supporting imperialism abroad, standing shoulder to shoulder with the politicians of their own country.

When our unions embrace Democrats as their allies, that brings a very long train of other problems too. For example, it commits our unions to working inside the labor law that Democrats helped pass (in hopes of currying favor and winning better laws). But labor law is like a fixed carnival game. In Democrat-controlled New York, for example, the Taylor Law forbids public sector strikes. The Taft-Hartley law from 1947 was passed by Democrats and Republicans and outlaws solidarity strikes. Agreeing not to strike means we’re agreeing not to use our power as workers — and hope for the best.

But workers’ and unions’ support for Palestine shows something crucial. We — rank and filers — can organize from below to push and pull more of our unions to join, and protect, the student movement, even if that means breaking labor law.

In the 1930s and 1940s, workers in their locals organized strikes and then walked out. Since there was no turning back, that essentially dragged union leaders against their wills to support them (otherwise they’d look weak and ineffective). We can organize our own pro-student and pro-Palestine strikes. We can also bring more and more of our locals to the encampments, surround the students, lock arms, and protect them from the cops that also break our own strikes.

And we can build the pressure on our union leaders, in the UAW, AFL-CIO, and elsewhere, to put teeth to the words they already put out. When we do that, we can also demand our union leaders publicly and openly support us, and back us with the resources of our unions.

Their job now is to stand by their statements, and more. Call us all, by the millions, into the streets! Call us to the encampments on campuses across the country! Call us out on strike!

The battle for the student movement is raging. Let’s throw the full weight of our unions into the fray.