Analysis: Building Labour for Palestine

Dec 3, 2023

Analysis: Building Labour for Palestine

Labour for Palestine logo.

One of the most significant developments in Palestine solidarity in Canada has been the increasing shift to direct actions targeting the companies that arm and profit from Israeli state occupation and genocide. These are actions that hit exploiters and oppressors where it hurts – profits. Recent examples include blockades of factoreis that manufacture arms (e.g. INKAS, GeoSpectrum, and L3 Harris), pickets, rail blockades, and occupations of corporate offices (such as ZIM Lines).

Some actions, especially rail blockades, are reminiscent of the Shut Down Canada actions in 2020 in solidarity with Wet’suwet’en land defenders, which were ramping up before being derailed by the COVID pandemic. These echoes are not without meaning, as both are direct actions against occupation and genocide, reminding us that Canada too is an imperialist state founded on settler colonialism and genocide. Right now, growing numbers of people are making connections between the settler colonialism of Israel against Palestinians and the invasion, occupation, and genocide of Indigenous nations on Turtle Island. And here as there, there has always been resistance.

One major challenge remains for movements and actions targeting corporate power. With a few exceptions, organized labour has largely been absent, particularly in terms of on-the-ground mobilization. The real power of the working class has not been unleashed and its potential for truly shutting down the economy has been only that – potential.

On November 29, more than 100 people, mostly unionists, gathered in a room that seated half that capacity to take a step in remedying this lack of labour mobilization and action for Palestine. The occasion was a first meeting for a Labour for Palestine (L4P) chapter in Metro Vancouver.

Now is a time of great urgency for acting collectively as union activists, and convening a Labour for Palestine chapter can contribute to this. Labour cannot be neutral. It must stand up and act collectively. This means standing against occupation, settlement, and genocide. It also means affirmation of the Palestinian right to exist – and to resist. Unions should be showing up, visibly, in the streets and in actions at workplaces.


The Labour for Palestine Event

Unionists, both rank-and-filers and some union executive members, came from a range of unions in diverse sectors, from health workers to postal workers. Unions represented included the Health Employees Union (HEU), UNITE HERE (Local 40), Canadian Postal Workers Union (CUPW), Service Employees Union (SEIU, Local 2), the BC Teachers Federation (BCTF), the Teaching Support Staff Union (TSSU), and IATSE (Local 938).

Unionists in the education sector are aware of the policing and surveillance of what is being taught in classrooms. This is a period in which students and educators alike are being subjected to reprisals for speaking out. It was noted that the repression is also a sign of capitalist weakness as well as, of course, a threat to be countered.

Speakers were clear to stress that what is happening in Palestine is genocide, not a conflict or even a war. And this understanding needs to be regularly presented within unions and in union public statements.

The evening began with a welcome and introduction to Labour for Palestine by James Hutt, a member of Canadian Office and Professional Employees Union (COPE) Local 225, from Ottawa. Hutt described some of the work that the cross-Canada volunteer network of unionized workers has been doing since its founding in 2005. In the early days, L4P took up the call for boycotts, divestments, and sanctions (BDS). Members looked to pass BDS resolutions in unions, labour councils, and union federations. Personally, I was involved as a Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) member at the CUPE-Ontario convention that passed the BDS resolution. He also noted that CUPW has built solidarity with postal workers in Palestine. Hutt said that after a period of dormancy, L4P revived about four or five years ago. At that time, it was realized that many resolutions had been passed but not acted on.

Following the greetings from unionists were several longer presentations, from Omri Haiven (Jews Against Genocide), Charlotte Kates (Samidoun), and Hanna Kawas (Canada Palestine Association). Haiven stressed how the bludgeon of anti-semitism accusations is being used against Jews and well as non-Jews who speak up about the activities of the Israeli state. This, he said, is a new McCarthyism silencing those who do, or would, speak up. We need a broad anti-racist and anti-fascist movement that can actively support oppressed people. This means unions active in the workplace and in the streets.

Charlotte Kates of Samidoun reminded the room that Palestinian resistance has always been a working-class issue. She noted that in the late 1930s, Palestinian workers led a general strike for freedom from British control. Labour organizers then were assassinated or held in administrative detention, as is the case today. Palestinian labour is used to build the Israeli economy, in factories and construction for example, and hyper-exploited in doing so.

On the other hand, Kates said that Zionism has not been about solidarity between Palestinian and Israeli workers or with workers internationally. Rather, it has enforced division and separation of the working class. Zionists have identified the labour movement as a major threat – a threat to the broader forces of imperialism that sustains them.

Zionist colonialism is backed by every imperialist power in the world. This explains the stand of the Canadian state. Canada has always been a key partner in building and buttressing Israeli occupation and settler colonialism. As Kates noted, it is important to remember the Canada-Israel Free Trade Agreement. It is important to remember that recruitment for Israeli forces is happening here. Companies like Indigo Books receive tax breaks to recruit, a point highlighted by the calls to boycott and picket Indigo.

Thus, we need to build anti-imperialist unionism here. Anti-capitalist struggle means breaking imperial power. The working class here owes it to Palestinian resistance, as it owes it to land resistance here. Kates argues that this is not an orientation of pity – it is necessary for a better world, a future free of the horrors of capitalism, colonialism, imperialism, and ecocide.  

These are some of the reasons why Labour for Palestine needs to be built, particularly now as it becomes more pressing to defend workers who are being disciplined or even fired for showing solidarity for Palestine.


The Latent Power of Organized Labour

The withdrawal of labour in production and distribution remains the greatest power of the working class. Unions are still the largest working-class organizations and are the ones with the greatest logistical resources and capacities. As someone who grew up in a union family, and has been a union member for decades, I have long argued that these are broadly working-class resources, built up by working-class people, their families, and their communities. They should be deployed for the benefit of the working class more broadly, not limited to bargaining.

These resources can and should be wielded to undermine the Canadian state’s complicity in, arming of, and profiting from genocide. Working-class struggles, and struggles against ecological crisis, colonialism, and imperialism are all interconnected.

Key questions remain to be answered. Fundamentally, how do we as working-class people organize effectively, on a mass scale, to shut things down? How do we push against Canadian state policies as organized workers? How do we reach and mobilize organized workers? How do we act collectively?

Since October 7, there have been key resolutions calling for a ceasefire and an end to occupation. But there is a need to commit labour organizations to action. Unions can take steps right now to support BDS, but also to divest union pensions and change union procurement (e.g. not buying or supplying HP printers in union offices). 

Job actions can play significant parts in ending production and distribution that supply the Israeli occupation. Unions should be organizing, supporting, and participating in blockades of weapons manufacturers, sit-ins, and the shutting down of political events. Economic costs must be imposed on those in power.

One of the best examples has been the port shutdowns and Block the Boat actions against Israeli shipping companies like Zim Lines. The rest of the labour movement needs to support and defend dock workers who are refusing to work. Those workers can face legal and economic consequences and must be supported materially (including with financial and legal resources).

I have previously outlined the limitations of Block the Boat actions in Vancouver, that I participated in, due to the lack of involvement of dock workers. In Oakland, Block the Boat actions have been more effective than in Vancouver because the ILWU there has a relationship with community organizers and recognition of respect for community pickets in their contract.

One of the essential tasks is to build working-class organizations that move beyond models of business unionism and trade unionism. This means moving beyond bureaucratic structures operating in a top-down manner and largely focused on contract bargaining. It also means moving beyond organizations separated according to trade, job type, or workplace. In place of trade unions, we need industrial unionism that organizes all workers in an industry on an industry-wide basis.

Historically, labour movements have been composed through many vibrant examples of militant, rank-and-file, class-wide, and anti-capitalist and anti-state forms of organization. Today we need to learn from and draw on examples of these, perhaps most notably the living histories of anarcho-syndicalism which are active especially in many areas outside of Canada and the US. We need community-union alliances, what some might call a community syndicalism.

One of the frustrations of protest movements is that they lack the capacity to shut down sites of economic power – workplaces, the sites of production and distribution. Thus, they are left with protests, dissent, and appeals to authorities. So often the futility of these efforts drains people, and the protest waves subside as people tire of rallies and marches. We are already seeing this to some degree in Vancouver, as the regular rallies at the art gallery and marches have noticeably lost numbers.

Workers actually have the power to stop production and distribution instantly – this is the power of the strike that workers wield. It is a collective power, one that requires some degree of organization to pull off and sustain. This is the experience, organizational capacity, and organizational memory that many unions hold.

Jeff Shantz is a long-time anti-authoritarian organizer, researcher, and writer who lives and works on Kwantlen, Katzie, and Semiahmoo territories (Surrey, British Columbia).

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