The recent, controversial Undergraduate Student Association Council vote to divest from American companies that profit from alleged human rights violations in Israel’s West Bank raised tensions among undergraduates. It also inspired a great deal of Ha’Am coverage. While many undergrads closely followed the USAC vote, most are unaware of a similarly-inspired vote coming up this Thursday with the graduate labor union, which represents academic workers on all nine UC campuses.
UAW 2865, a division of United Automobile Workers, was created in 1999 to represent teaching assistants, associates, academic tutors, readers, academic student employees and postdoctoral scholars in the UC system. Thus, most of its 13,000 members are graduate students. In the past, UAW 2865 has won its members childcare cost subsidies, healthcare, and protection against discrimination and sexual harassment. UAW 2865 members fought hard for their right to organize and be recognized as a labor union. Now, some wonder if they are truly recognized and represented — by the union itself.
This past October, the union’s Joint Council voted to poll its membership about whether to support boycott, divestment, and sanctions against Israel, while simultaneously endorsing a BDS resolution. According to Informed Grads (an organization that has sprung up in opposition to the union’s support of BDS), since the council vote, UAW 2865 has sent out numerous emails and otherwise encouraged its members to vote in favor of BDS, while refusing to grant equal access to its members by BDS opponents.
Joshua Saidoff, a graduate student in UCLA’s political science department and a member of both UAW 2865 and Informed Grads, says that “the union has spent, literally, thousands of dollars promoting BDS to its members and…at UCLA, has refused to sponsor or advertise a single event that features even a lone anti-BDS voice.”
The union’s website provides a link to a document handily titled “Equal representation of perspectives on the BDS proposal,” but the document contains no significant information other than admissions that “[t]he Joint Council has publicized four documents containing over 6,000 words supporting the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) Movement” and “[t]o date, nothing has been publicized opposing the proposal, despite numerous offers by members to help prepare materials.” The website claims to have commentary on proposals publicly available, but Ha’Am was not permitted access to the folder file.
UAW 2865’s BDS resolution, unlike USAC’s, calls for a complete academic boycott of Israel — officially, a boycott of Israeli academic institutions — on the basis that they “engage in widespread open discrimination of Palestinian students and applicants…are embedded in the state’s discriminatory legal structure…[and] intellectually [contribute] to the violation of Palestinian human rights,” among other accusations, according to a union statement. However, the resolution would also effectively stigmatize and isolate people of Jewish, Palestinian, Druze, or any other affiliation, purely on the basis of their academic affiliation with an Israeli institute of higher education. This is because boycotting an institution entails a lack of support for and recognition of those individuals to which it is connected. The statement was refuted point-by-point by Informed Grads, but the union did not take the refutation into consideration before publicly endorsing BDS, according to Informed Grads.
In addition to targeting Israeli academia and students, members of the union’s BDS caucus have publicly made allegations against Israel and Jews that are simply breathtaking in their blatant lack of factual accuracy. For example, at a Nov. 12 event (not organized by UAW 2865 but by its BDS caucus members and supported by its labor president in an unofficial capacity), Michael Letwin of Labor for Palestine stated that “it was Labor Zionists who led that colonial project [Jewish settlement of Mandate Palestine]…the deals that they made with the Nazi regime to bring in Jewish settlers to Palestine while sacrificing the vast majority of European Jews to the Holocaust.” In addition to Letwin’s allegation that Jews partnered with the Nazis, Lara Kiswani of the Arab Resource and Organizing Center blamed Israel for problems in United States prison infrastructure and for causing the killing of Michael Brown by “training St. Louis police.” The event was ended shortly after an attendee questioned the lack of response to “problems” brought up by Informed Grads and Kiswani’s self-expressed “hatred” for any supporter of Israel. (A video broadcast of the event is available online, as is a transcript prepared by Informed Grads.) UAW 2865 has not issued any statements regarding the event or the opinions publicly expressed by its members.
The union’s endorsement of the resolution has been condemned by the California Teamsters labor union, which represents nearly 250,000 labor workers statewide, including 14,000 UC workers. In a letter to UAW 2865, the Teamsters vice presidents wrote, “Whatever your motives, we cannot conceive of an action more hostile to the interests of our members and more antithetical to the most basic principles of the union movement than for a union to call for actions which are intended to do harm to the economic security of other union members. We would find it difficult to ask our members to support your union in a labor dispute with the University of California so long as you are engaged in activities that are fundamentally hostile to their interests.” Furthermore, the head UAW organization also wrote a letter reaffirming its formal opposition to BDS, stating that the resolution may also violate federal and state anti-discrimination laws.
Requests to UAW 2865’s headquarters and its UCLA branch for comments received no response as of the publication time for this article.
It is a pity that UAW 2865’s Local Council felt the need to act in a discriminatory manner toward a country by singling it out for alleged human rights violations, rather than focusing on actual issues that are pertinent and directly affect its members. It is even more of a pity that it used member funds to promote a one-sided view of a complex issue and disregarded the right of students to a balanced picture of that issue, while condoning virulently anti-Semitic and anti-Israel rhetoric through its BDS caucus. One hopes that the members of UAW 2865 will have the courage to stand up for their academic rights, and demand that all the members’ voices be given the opportunity to be heard.