Socialist Action /August 2002
U.S. Unions Bankroll Israeli Aggression
By BOB MATTINGLY
Labor voices are being raised against the AFL-CIO’s collaboration with the U.S. government’s backing of Israeli aggression against the Palestinian people.
Unionists are petitioning the labor federation’s officers, stating that they “deplore the fact that AFL-CIO President John Sweeney recently associated U.S. labor’s name with support for the Israeli invasion of the West Bank, which has resulted in the widespread death and destruction of the Palestinian people and property.”
The petitioners charge that “all the world knows the murderous assault on the Palestinians with the most modern tanks, helicopters, and missiles is financed by our taxes.”
But what the world and even most U.S. unionists may not know is that U.S. union dues monies and union pension funds are being used to buy Israeli government bonds, also helping to finance what the petitioners accurately term Israel’s “horrific aggression.”
Michael Letwin, the president of UAW 2325, which represents legal aid lawyers, says, “It’s bad enough that our tax dollars are going to fund Israel, but our union dues-that’s intolerable.”
Yes, it’s intolerable, and the money is considerable. The Jewish weekly Forward on March 22 quoted the National Committee for Labor Israel’s director as estimating that “the American labor community holds $5 billion in Israel bonds.”
And judging by the mutual praise regularly exchanged by U.S. union officials, the Jewish Labor Committee, Israeli politicians and the Israel Bonds National Labor Division fund raisers, there can be no doubt that U.S. unions will continue to buy Israeli bonds in significant amounts.
For example, in November, the Israeli bonds sellers will hold a tribute dinner for Terence O’Sullivan, president of the 800,000-strong Laborers Union, according to the Israel Bonds National Labor Division’s web site.
A later tribute is being organized for the A. Philip Randolph Institute, headed by Norman Hill, also a member of the Israeli Bonds Labor Advisory Board, which is co-chaired by Barbara Easterling, Secretary-Treasurer of the Communication Workers Union.
In 1999, AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Richard Trumka called on unionists “to invest in the [Israeli] bonds that are such a tangible link between our movement and the continuing struggle to nurture and protect the State of Israel.”
A year earlier, AFL-CIO head John J. Sweeney accepted the Israeli Bonds 50th Anniversary Labor Achievement Award.
But those American trade unionists that are slapped on the back by the Israeli bond sales staff shouldn’t think that the bond sellers are all that selective with their praise and awards. In1975, the Israeli Ambassador inducted the notorious Teamster official Jackie Presser into the “Prime Minister’s Club, a group made up of people who personally (or in Presser’s case, through his union) bought more than $25,000 worth of bonds” (Steven Brill, “The Teamsters”).
By 1977, Brill reported, the Teamsters “had bought $26,000,000 worth [of Israeli bonds] out of total American union purchases of $100,000,000.”
The Forward reported that recent honorees and speakers at a March Jewish Labor Committee dinner included Richard Trumka; Michael Monroe, general president of the Painters Union; Morton Bahr, head of the Communications Workers Union; Dennis Hughes, president of the AFL-CIO, New York State; and Mike Sacco, president of the Seafarers Union, who, when introduced, “removed the napkin tucked into his collar and waved it in the air.”
What the bond money buys
In a May 30 report, the International Labor Organization (ILO) charged that Israeli aggression has resulted in a “socio-economic meltdown,” devastating to Palestinian workers.
An ILO statement on its report said, “‘The escalation of violence and the military occupation of the territories have caused great physical damage to the infrastructure and agricultural land ‘ Preliminary figures put the cost of reconstruction of public and private buildings and infrastructure in the West Bank alone at some USD 432 million.
“Real growth of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of the Palestinian areas declined by 12 per cent in 2001 and real Gross National Income (GNI), the sum of GDP and of factor income earned abroad (wages of Palestinian earned in Israel) dropped by 18.7 per cent, according to the report.
Further, “Preliminary ILO estimates suggest that ‘unemployment could have reached nearly 43 per cent in the occupied territories during the first quarter (January-March) of 2002.’
“‘The percentage of the population living in poverty (less than USD 2.1 per day) increased from 21 per cent in 1999 to 33 per cent in 2000 and 46 per cent in 2001. The figure could possibly reach 62 per cent in 2002,’ the report said.”
Union members shouldn’t think that Israeli government bonds bought with their dues monies and pension funds pay high interest rates. According to the Multinational Monitor report by Mokhiber, “The bonds pay interest rates below those of other available securities and well below what most investors would expect from loans to a foreign government, especially one as economically troubled as Israel….
“And unlike most bonds, State of Israel securities are not easily converted into cash. The institutional bonds cannot be traded on the open market, and can only be sold to pension funds, charities and other non-profit organizations [labor unions]. Israel bonds not only pay a poor return, they carry a high risk as well. Although Israel bonds, like other privately placed securities, are not given a credit rating, if they were they would almost certainly be considered a poor investment.”
1500 labor groups buy bonds
Given the poor financial returns from buying Israeli bonds, and putting aside the anti-Palestinian aims some union officials undoubtedly share with the Israeli and Zionist establishment, why have so many unions (1500 labor organizations, reported Lee O’Brien in “American Jewish Organizations and Israel,” and cited by Mokhiber) put their members’ dues monies into Israeli bonds?
It’s hard not to conclude that a large part of the answer has to do with the uncritical backing that high union officials have traditionally given to bipartisan foreign policies, including the Marshall Plan, the Vietnam War, and the current military intervention in Afghanistan.
It’s well documented that the highest echelons of the AFL-CIO have worked hand in hand with various U.S. administrations to oppose, subvert, and destroy democratic movements, especially in Latin America, targeted by the CIA (giving a new meaning to the term “company” men).
Even today, the AFL-CIO receives more than $15,000,000 a year from the government, which suggests to some critics that the U.S. labor federation might have had a role in the recent failed coup attempt in Venezuela.
In April, AFL-CIO chief Sweeney spoke at a Washington, D.C. gathering billed as a “Solidarity Rally for Israel. Sweeney said that “the American labor movement has a long and enduring relationship with the state of Israel, a relationship grounded in our solidarity with the Israeli Trade Union Federation, the Histadrut.”
Although he acknowledged that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is fueled by poverty and despair,” he knowingly ignored the February Israeli bombing of the Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions in Nablus.
Nor did Sweeney choose to speak in defense of ordinary Palestinian workers employed in Israel who must register at official labor exchanges and then are subjected to huge deductions from their pay: “I worked for three years through the labor office and no one ever told us what benefits we were entitled to. They were taking over 25 percent of our wages and give us nothing in return” (“Attacking Labor,” by Marty Rosenbluth, Multinational Monitor, April 1988).
Nor did Sweeney denounce the Israeli’s forcing of Palestinian workers to return to the territories each night, bringing to mind the racist segregation of the former South Africa apartheid regime.
Sweeney told the Washington rally that he spoke on behalf of the union federation’s 13 million working members. But some union members would dispute Sweeney’s claim, including New York trade unionists who in May picketed the AFL-CIO’s Executive Council’s meeting with Israeli Consul general Alon Pinkus at the Sheraton Hotel.
The union pickets called for divestment from Israeli bonds, an end to Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories, and the right of Palestinian refugees to return home.