Why is Canadian labour so slow to support BDS?
Illustration by Marina Djurdjevic
At the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) convention held in Toronto in May 2017, an emergency resolution in support of Palestinian prisoners’ Freedom and Dignity Hunger Strike received support from the CLC Canada Council (executive committee). The resolution was later adopted after a good debate on the convention floor. The significance of the resolution lies in its adoption and in the fact that, despite several attempts, we have not seen any Palestine solidarity debate on the CLC convention floor for many years.
Over this same period, some unions and organizations have been less reluctant to engage in debate and solidarity. CUPE Ontario, the Canadian Union of Postal Workers, CSN, CSQ and the Conseil regional FTQ Montréal metropolitan, church groups (United Church of Canada and Quakers), political parties (Québec solidaire, Communist Party of Canada and the Green Party), student groups, NGOs and civil society organizations have adopted Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) positions against Israeli apartheid.
The BDS movement aims to pressure Israel to comply with international law by meeting the following: 1. End its occupation and colonization of all Arab lands and dismantle the wall; 2. Recognize the fundamental right of the Palestinian-Arab citizens of Israel to full equality; and 3. Respect the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN Resolution 194.
BDS, as a non-violent tactic aimed at exposing and ending ongoing Israeli colonization and occupation of Palestine, is in fact gaining significant momentum internationally.
In 2011 Palestinian trade unions came together to issue an appeal for international trade unions to join the BDS movement. So why has the CLC and most of the Canadian trade union movement (particularly in English-speaking Canada) shied away from heeding this call for international solidarity from the workers and people of Palestine?
I see three key reasons for this:
1. Fear of being labelled anti-Semitic: Israel and its apologists are quick to condemn any position or policy that is nominally critical of the state of Israel as being anti-Semitic. This charge has targeted supporters of BDS, primarily because of the increasing success of BDS in exposing and isolating Israeli apartheid in a way reminiscent of the South African anti-apartheid campaign of the 1970s and ’80s.
The fact that most labour leaders lack a deeper understating of the Palestinian struggle for liberation, as well as the nature of the settler-colonial state of Israel itself, leaves them ill equipped to defend their positions against the charge of anti- Semitism. Instead of seeking more knowledge through deeper links of solidarity with Palestinian workers and activists, they often choose to bury their head in the sand and shut down any debate.
2. The nature of the relationship between the trade union movement and the NDP: Notwithstanding excellent MPs and international solidarity activists within the NDP, the party establishment has an entrenched pro-Israel stance. Masked by objectivity and balance, every criticism of Israeli atrocities must be matched by criticism of Palestinian violence. The formula of equating oppressed and oppressor, colonized and colonizer, is an unprincipled political strategy that has been used by the party to assure Israel and its apologists that the NDP is a safe party, so much so that NDP election candidates have been prevented from running on the NDP ticket if deemed risky based on their position on Palestine.
Several trade unions not only see the NDP as “their party,” but act as though they are the organizing arm of the party, rarely deviating from or applying pressure on the NDP to push progressive policy, especially on international issues.
3. Little pressure from the bottom up: As much as we may have legitimate reason to criticize labour leaders for not taking a principled position in support of the Palestinian struggle, historical evidence suggests that without concerted and sustained pressure from the rank and file, the labour movement is not likely to take better positions. In fact, support for the South Africa anti-apartheid struggle did not come easy. Just as the labour movement during the cold war feared being labelled communist if they supported black South African liberation, today they fear being labelled anti-Semitic by supporters of the state of Israel. In both cases, anti-black and anti-Arab racism played a role in the positions (or lack thereof) taken by the trade union movement.
In the South African anti-apartheid struggle, the tide turned when rank and file activists organized in union halls and on convention floors in support of the international boycott movement. Today, Palestine solidarity activists within the labour movement must come together, chart a strategy to educate, mobilize and organize workers to support Palestinian workers and people in their 70-year-old struggle against ethnic cleansing, dispossession and apartheid.
Hassan Husseini is a negotiator with the Public Service Alliance of Canada and a member of Unifor. He also teaches Political Science at Carleton University and is a member of CUPE 4600 (for identification purposes only).