Reconstructing Internationalism with Labor For Palestine
Zachary Wales, The Electronic Intifada, 23 May 2005
Those who follow Palestinian activism, from the McCarthyist “Campus Watch,” to the intrepid Jews Against the Occupation, are aware that Labor For Palestine (LFP) has emerged over the past year as a new campaign in labor internationalism. Yet as LFP prepares for its first national conference in Chicago on July 23, 2005, few know how it began.
Officially, LFP was born in June 2004 when I met Michael Letwin in Manhattan’s Union Square to discuss drafting the Open Letter, LFP’s founding document. Letwin’s unrelenting pro-Palestinian advocacy had recently cost him his presidency of the Association of Legal Aid Attorneys/UAW 2325. It came down to a choice between title and conscience, he recalled, and “which one I would rather have when the day is over.” Across from where we sat, the Virgin Music Store stood like a garish backdrop for Union Square’s arena of musicians without record labels, dancers without agents, farmers without franchise supermarkets — we were off to a good start.
But the notions behind LFP were in the works long before this. They started in South Africa, where an international divestment movement in the 1980s threw a wrench in apartheid’s brutal turbines, yet where people still vanish in the night over political struggles like water privatization. Johannesburg is where academics are screened. Soweto is where Reagan-era “terrorists” form community crisis committees to defy corrupt authorities. It was where, two years ago, at a freezing August meeting in the Workers’ Library, people began speaking of a U.S.-based solidarity campaign for Palestinian workers.
The notions arrived in the U.S. in late 2003, and ruminated through the midnight hours in Al-Awda’s Brooklyn office for months to come. They were articulated at conference panels about apartheid and the AFL-CIO’s estimated $5 billion Israel Bond investments, or in the memory of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, which blocked South African cargo from entering San Francisco’s docks in 1984. By the time it debuted at the Million Worker March in October 2004, LFP had a global following.
As the LFP Open Letter states, “international solidarity, the right of national self-determination and social justice are among the most basic trade union principles.” Those principles, also known as working-class internationalism, emerged as early as the 17th century and eventually heralded the anti-slavery movement.(i) By 1864, workers from Poland, Germany, Italy, France, Britain and Switzerland convened in London to found the First International, driven by Karl Marx’s dictum, “Proletarians of all countries unite!”(ii) This was the beginning of the International Workingmen’s Association (IWA), which was affirmed in two successive conventions, and which inspired other global labor collectives, such as the Wobblies — the Industrial Workers of the World — who established themselves in Chicago in 1905, and gave rise to the legendary labor martyr, Joe Hill.
The IWA, however, did not have an unblemished historical record, if its overtly masculine profile is anything to go by. Despite its noble worldliness, the movement was often tainted with bigotry and xenophobia. One well-known agent of this abuse was the American Federation of Labor’s (now the AFL-CIO) founder, Samuel Gompers, who told the 1898 Anti-Imperialist League, “How vital then is the importance of saving American labor from the evil influence of close and open competition of semi-barbaric laborers in the Philippine Islands?”(iii) Likewise, following World War I, white mine workers in South Africa formed armed commando units, one of which used the slogan, “Workers of the World Unite, and Fight for a White South Africa.”(iv)
These fallacies were familiar to Tony Cliff, who was born into a Zionist Jewish family in Palestine in 1917, and later founded the Socialist Workers Party. Internet-based biographies on Cliff note how early on he was puzzled by the way that Zionist activists smashed Arab farmer market stalls in the name of “Jewish produce only,” or how Zionist trade unionists promoted “Jewish labor only.” In this light, Israel’s kibbutz-style “socialism” was an existential farce, particularly because it was built on stolen Arab lands.
But as Lewis L. Lorwin writes, the real legacy of the IWA was inside peoples’ heads, and it spawned “the tradition to which the movements of a later day turned for inspiration and to which they were eager to trace their own ideas and doings.”(v) As a campaign, LFP is a part of that consciousness, that ongoing deliberative process of interrogating the principles of labor internationalism. Or, as Brenda Stokely, the president of New York’s AFSMCE DC-1707, said at LFP’s launch last year, “In the same vein that DC-1707 has stood, and still stands up for Jews as a persecuted minority in the U.S., so it is time to stand up for Palestinians, the persecuted minority of our world today.”
The very essence of LFP is to apply the critical, revolutionary lens of labor activism to the plight of Palestinians who endure the catastrophe of Israel’s division, dispossession and ethnic cleansing. It is these workers who raise children under the anarchy of sniper bullets and home demolition, who freeze or suffocate at meaningless “security” checkpoints, who endure the multi-fold indignities of occupation. They are women and men, Christian, Muslim and secular, and they are workers like any of us.
The day-long LFP First National Conference will take place at Truman College in Chicago, Ill., and will coincide with the AFL-CIO’s week-long quadrennial convention. The event will include speakers on topics ranging from academic persecution, to organizing labor delegations to Palestine. Finally, the conference will debut two new documentaries: The first is titled “Breaking Walls,” and was produced in 2004 by a delegation of European trade unionists. The second, titled, “Bonds of Disaffection,” examines the historic, contradictory relationship between U.S. labor and Israel.
Zachary Wales is a journalist and masters student in social policy at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs.
i Linebaugh, Peter and Rediker, Marcus. The Multi-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic. Boston: Beacon Press, 2000.
ii Frank, Dana. “Where is the History of U.S. Labor and International Solidarity? Part I: A Moveable Feast.” Labor: Studies in Working Class History of the Americas Volume 1, Issue 1, 2004: p. 100.
iii Scott, Jack. Yankee Unions, Go Home! How the AFL Helped the U.S. Build an Empire in Latin America. Vancouver: New Star Books, 1978: p. 93.
iv Thompson, Leonard. A History of South Africa. New Haven: Yale University, 2001: p. 160.
v Cited by Frank: p. 100. Referring to Lorwin, Lewis L. Labor and Internationalism. New York: Macmillian, 1929: p. 58.