2. 4. 2022

Labour Solidarity with Palestine is Non-Negotiable

Moe Alqasem
Hassan Husseini

At the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) Convention held in June 2021, an emergency resolution supporting Palestinian human rights was
unanimously adopted by the CLC’s Canadian Council. The resolution calls out the Israeli state’s ethnic cleansing of Palestinians and pledges to work on a campaign to oppose it, alongside international unions, CLC affiliates, and civil society groups. The resolution commits the CLC to support a ban on goods produced in Israel’s illegal settlements, promote divestment from Israeli military and security companies, and call on Canada to halt arms sales to Israel, among other measures.

Canadian labour’s solidarity with Palestinian national liberation struggle is always important. But recent developments suggest that in the coming period it will be especially so.

An upturn in Israeli repression and Palestinian struggle

2021 witnessed a dangerous escalation in the repression of the Palestinian people under Israeli occupation. Israel’s campaign of ethnic cleansing in Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood – which is ongoing – and the assault on Gaza in May stand out as two of the most prominent examples of Israel’s colonial violence against Palestinians last year. These, however, were only the events that elicited the most media attention. Behind the scenes, Israel continued to make extensive use of “administrative detention” to jail Palestinians without charges or trial; house demolitions, which increased by 21% last year alone; campaigns of assassination and extrajudicial killings; settler violence and attacks on Palestinian villages; and expansion of illegal settlements. Israel also targeted Palestinian human rights organizations, declaring six of them to be “terrorist organizations,” in an attempt to silence those exposing the brutality of Israel’s settler-colonial apartheid regime.

In 2021 as well, the prominent international human rights organization Human Rights Watch (HRW), along with the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem, declared Israel an apartheid state – at last acknowledging a fact that has been the lived reality of Palestinians for decades. (Amnesty International has recently joined that chorus.) Such recognition amplified the voices of Palestinians internationally as well as within the state of Israel.

In spite of the collaboration of the Palestinian Authority (PA) (a sub-government installed by Israel and the US) with the Israeli occupation and Israeli colonialism, Palestinians demonstrated an unprecedented level of resistance and unity in 2021, transcending the geographical fragmentation that has characterized their existence since the Nakba in 1948. Palestinian resistance was not localized to Jerusalem, Gaza, or the other territories occupied by Israel in 1967, but spread to cities and towns like Lydd, Ramle, Yafa, and Umm el-Fahem, inside 1948 Palestine or what is now referred to as “Israel.”

Israel’s escalating repression of Palestinians in 2021 was given diplomatic and political cover by the imperialist-installed, anti-democratic, authoritarian regimes of the Gulf states, Morocco, and Sudan, to name a few. But while those regimes normalized relations with Israel, signing economic and military/security cooperation agreements with the Israeli state, popular opinion in most Arab countries remained supportive of the Palestinian liberation struggle.

The gap between ordinary people and ruling classes on this issue is not unique to Arab countries; we are witnessing an equivalent divide develop in much of the West. Whereas western ruling classes continue to support, enable, and arm Israel’s settler-colonial apartheid regime, western publics in general – including in Canada –  are increasingly supportive of the Palestinian people’s struggle for liberation. For example, there is growing support for the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement from a wide cross-section of Canadians: faith groups, civil society organizations, students’ groups, women’s groups, the LGBTQ2S+ community, artists, and organized labour.

The call for BDS – a non-violent tactic aimed at exposing and ending Israel’s ongoing colonial occupation of Palestine – was made by 170 Palestinian unions and other civil society organizations in 2005. The three goals of BDS are simple and clear: 

  1. An end to the occupation and colonization of Arab lands, including the dismantling of the Wall, an illegal separation barrier in the occupied West Bank;
  2. Recognition of Israel’s Arab-Palestinian citizens’ fundamental right to full equality;

  3. Respect for, and protection and promotion of, the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties, as stipulated in UN Resolution 194.

In 2011, Palestinian trade unions issued an appeal for international trade unions to join the BDS movement. Since then, international unions, including here in Canada, have answered the call and endorsed BDS. This has been done despite the fear of being falsely labelled antisemitic by apologists for the settler-colonial apartheid state of Israel.

The support of the Canadian labour movement for the BDS campaign is critical, as labour unions are key mass democratic organizations that represent millions of workers across the country, wielding significant political and economic power. Labour played an important role in the struggle against the South African apartheid regime in the 1970s and ‘80s, and can play that role again today in the global fight against the Israeli version of apartheid.

Labour as revolutionary, not colonial

Organized labour and the working class can be agents of revolutionary change, but they can also serve colonial forces. If labour is rooted in settler colonialism and apartheid, it will evolve (or deform) along a path shaped by the conditions of its foundation. Alternatively, it can ground itself in principled internationalism and adopt two key liberatory functions. One: to challenge the domestic and foreign policies of the ruling class, which has a material interest in exploiting, dispossessing, and oppressing the masses both at home and abroad, and especially the masses of the Global South. Two: to link arms with labour movements abroad, particularly those that are challenging colonialism and imperialist wars.

In historic Palestine, two different labour movements existed: one emancipatory, the other colonial, each struggling to achieve a very different vision of the country. The Palestinian labour movement struggled for liberation from both British colonization and Zionist occupation.  The Israeli labour movement, on the other hand, was from the outset an arm of the Zionist colonization project in Palestine, a dynamic that continues to this day. The Histadrut, Israel’s trade union federation, was founded in 1920 not as a class-based workers’ organization but rather as a Zionist “colonizing agency,” in the words of former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir: an institution entrenched in the foundations of settler-colonialism and apartheid in Israel. 

With the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948, the Histadrut tried to portray itself as a legitimate labour federation, but its discriminatory practices against Palestinian workers – especially in territories occupied by Israel in 1967 – exposed it as an organization tasked with maintaining apartheid more than with defending workers’ rights. For example, a 2010 report by Israeli economists revealed that the Histadrut had been complicit in defrauding more than USD $2 billion from Palestinian workers employed by Israeli companies, making deductions from those workers’ salaries for benefits to which they had no access. The Histadrut also routinely and publicly supports Israel’s violent repression of Palestinians. 

Israeli labour is founded upon the dispossession of Palestinian wealth and land. It is fundamentally built on the ethos of the settler-worker displacing indigenous Palestinian labour, as a precondition for building an ethno-racially exclusive settler-colonial state where Palestine once existed. Dispossessed Palestinian workers are used as a cheap, subjugated reserve labour force with hardly any rights.

The future of Canadian labour solidarity with Palestine

We can no longer pretend, as business unionists would have us do, that social and political change in other parts of the world is irrelevant to our interests as a working class here in Canada. On the contrary, principled working-class international solidarity has material implications for us and must be the anchor of our efforts as a Canadian labour movement. 

While the Canadian Labour Congress’s 2021 resolution in support of Palestinian human rights did not provide a full endorsement of the BDS campaign, it represented nevertheless an important change in policy among major unions in the Canadian state. Some at the CLC may have been influenced by the close relationship between Canada’s labour movement and the New Democratic Party (NDP) – whose grassroots activists, at the party’s April 2021 policy convention, won a resolution to ban trade with the illegal Israeli settlements and support an arms embargo on Israel.

While the CLC has been a little slow to take a strong position in support of Palestinian liberation, other organizations in Canada have been less reluctant to offer their solidarity. Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) Ontario, Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW), Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC), Confédération des syndicats nationaux (CSN), Centrale des syndicats du Québec (CSQ), and the Montreal metropolitan regional council of the Fédération des travailleurs et travailleuses du Québec (FTQ); labour councils and locals across the country; church groups (including the United Church of Canada and the Canadian Quakers), political parties (Québec solidaire, the Communist Party of Canada, and the Green Party), student groups, NGOs, and many other civil society organizations have adopted Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions positions against Israeli apartheid. They have done so from as early as 2006, when CUPE Ontario adopted its Resolution 50 in support of BDS.

The challenge for labour activists in the coming period is not only to push for the adoption of better policy positions in support of Palestinian human rights and national liberation, but also to act on existing resolutions in concrete ways. International solidarity must not be reduced to symbolic gestures. While taking principled positions on key international liberation struggles is an important first step, we must also build deep links with workers engaged in those struggles, and undertake measurable actions in solidarity with them. 

Unions in Canada must directly engage with Palestinian workers and their unions, including independent organizations and not only those under the auspices of the Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions (PGFTU), which is closely aligned with the Palestinian Authority. Canadian unions should attempt to foster links between workers in Canada and their peers in Palestine, not just between labour leaders. Those unions should also identify Israeli companies, or companies benefitting from the Israeli occupation, as targets for boycott, divestment, and sanctions; in particular, identify and target security/weapons manufacturing companies with relations to the state of Israel; organize a broad-based campaign to pressure the Canadian government to halt the bilateral arms trade with Israel and Israeli companies; and declare any weapons technology imported from or destined for Israel to be hot cargo, and refuse to handle it. Such campaigns can and must be built by labour and community organizations, and must seek to activate broad working-class support, to exert the needed pressure on Israel and its enablers here in Canada. They can also help Canadian unions build the working-class power that is integral to confronting the neoliberal austerity agenda in this country.

This list of ways to act on BDS resolutions is by no means exhaustive. But whatever tactics are chosen, it is no longer sufficient for labour organizations just to take a good formal position in support of Palestinian human rights. Israel’s dangerously escalating ethnic cleansing, settler colonialism, and repression of Palestinians demand concrete responses. The labour movement must come together and chart a strategy to educate, mobilize, and organize workers to support the Palestinian people in their century-old struggle. Breaking the chains that bind other people will help us break our own.

Moe Alqasem is a Palestinian community organizer based in Toronto and a graduate of York University. Originally from Nablus, Palestine, Moe is active in many parts of the Palestine solidarity movement, including the BDS movement, building support for Palestinian prisoners and organizing on university campuses, in the labour movement, and in the Arab community. Moe is currently serving as the president of the Canadian Union of Public Employees Local 1281, and as the young workers representative on the board of CUPE Ontario. He is also an organizer in the Toronto chapter of the Palestinian Youth Movement and a writer who occasionally contributes his political analyses on the Palestinian national liberation struggle. IG: @m_abualqasem | Twitter: @M_AbuAlqasem.

Hassan Husseini is a long-time labour and social justice activist. He is a member of Unifor Local 2025, an organizer with Labour for Palestine-Canada, and a national negotiator at the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC).