United Educators of San Francisco (UESF) became the first public school educators union in the United States to heed Palestinian civil society and endorse the movement for boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) against Israeli apartheid. UESF also called on President Joe Biden to end aid to Israel, and called for an end to the bombardment of Gaza, and a stop to the forcible expulsion of Palestinian families from Sheikh Jarrah.
The Bay Area union, which represents over 6,200 teachers and other school employees, passed the resolution endorsing BDS (reproduced below) at its monthly delegate assembly on May 19. It was an important step that should be repeated to re-start the BDS movement and spread it in U.S. labor unions.
In 2005, 170 organizations of Palestinian civil society, including trade unions, put out a call for international solidarity to challenge the flagrant disregard of international law by Israel. The call laid out a strategy—modeled on the successful movement to put pressure on apartheid South Africa—of carrying out campaigns to boycott and divest from Israeli and international corporations and cultural institutions complicit in apartheid. They also called for sanctions on dealings with Israel. The movement internationally has been rooted in large national trade union federations endorsing the call and divesting. In the United States, BDS had an explosive surge on campuses and important endorsements by major churches. It was one of the forces that have transformed U.S. politics so that the question of Palestine has moved from a suppressed topic to being considered widely as a just cause in progressive circles. However, labor unions here have been laggard in endorsing BDS. This is related to the general weakness of U.S. labor unions that have faced decades of defeats and capitulation to the Democratic party.
Hints of what a new labor movement could look like were seen during the wave of educator strikes in 2018-2019—the so-called Red State Revolt. These massive strikes—influenced by the 2012 Chicago Teachers Union strike—were oftentimes illegal, political strikes that included social movement demands beyond the issues of wages and job security.
One effect of that revolt was the formation of San Francisco Movement of Rank and file Educators (SFMORE), a new group of activist members of UESF. The caucus contains a number of socialists from Democratic Socialists of America, and other groups.
SFMORE met on May 11 as Palestine erupted in massive demonstrations and uprisings on both sides of the Green Line, and as Israel’s massive bombardment of Gaza was just days-in. The group discussed raising solidarity resolutions at the UESF delegate assembly—the highest deliberative body of the union—both in solidarity with the social movement in Colombia and with the Palestinian cause.
It was felt that the time was right. There was the explosion of demonstrations in occupied Palestine, the uprisings within the parts of Palestine that Israel seized in 1948, and massive demonstrations in solidarity around the world. There was also a very public battle in the media against the conventional narrative that Israel uses to obscure its crimes. The union activists wanted to take a lead from an inspiring expression of Palestinian resistance that was opening up new paths of struggle. That heroic resistance was exposing the racist nature and daily violent practice of Israeli apartheid, forcing a change in consciousness around the world. Now was the time for full-throated expressions of solidarity. SFMORE activists came to this conclusion after attending the 5,000-person demonstration in San Francisco on May 15, seeing the pace of history being forced by Palestinians living under occupation and organizing in the diaspora. Sometimes conditions can change quickly. The labor movement needs to be prepared to swiftly respond when there are people in the street fighting back—that is when minds begin to change and the horizons of what is possible shift.
So on May 17, the resolution was submitted with nine signatories. The incoming UESF leadership slate, Organizing for Union Power (OUP), expressed support and the scene was set for debate and vote on May 19.
At the delegate assembly, the outgoing UESF president suspended the rules which usually permit only three speakers for and three speakers against any resolution to allow for as much democratic discussion and debate as necessary.
Speakers who argued in defense of Zionism were outnumbered, with four speaking against and about a dozen speaking in favor of the solidarity resolution with Palestine, mostly from SFMORE, but also from OUP, and some independent delegates. Some were able to speak more than once.
There was an attempt to move a Zionist substitute resolution that was exposed as drafted by an outside organization, the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC). The JCRC is a wing of the Jewish Council of Public Affairs—a group that also created Israel Action Network, which attempts to counter the “delegitimization” of Israel and undermine efforts to pursue justice for Palestine. The JCRC attempted to neutralize the solidarity resolution by turning support for Palestinian rights into the liberal narrative that ethnic cleansing and collective punishment of Palestinians is simply a “conflict” between two sides. SFMORE activists responded by arguing that this was an issue of the oppressed—Palestinians, and the oppressor—the Israeli state. The Zionist attempt to whitewash the resolution failed: 8 delegates voted for the substitute resolution, 25 voted against, and 4 abstained.
And so overwhelmingly the delegates of UESF voted in favor of a resolution expressing solidarity with Palestinians and endorsing BDS: 23 in favor, 6 against, and 7 abstentions. With that the union and San Francisco educators have chosen to be on the right side of history.
The passage of this resolution is not the end of the story but only the beginning. Endorsement of BDS is only the start of ensuring that the union and San Francisco schools are de-linked from Israeli apartheid. There are more campaigns to be waged. The resolution itself will not ensure that UESF is vocal in its support of Palestinian rights, and against racist apartheid. We are even still waiting on a public statement from the union itself. There may be Zionist retaliation and the labor movement must be prepared for the fight.
This is a story about changing perceptions of Israel and Palestine and the enhanced possibilities for international solidarity. It is also a story about the transformation of an educator union, influenced by recent school strikes in Los Angeles, Oakland, and around the country. It is about the need to bring socialist, solidarity politics into the U.S. unions in order to rebuild a fighting labor movement.
We hope that this spreads. The time is right. We hope that a new movement for Palestine spreads its wings and that BDS campaigns flourish in the U.S. labor movement. We hope that symbolic statements can seed the ground for more action like the refusal of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union to unload an Israeli freighter last week. We hope that a labor movement is organized to fight for better working conditions and also better conditions in the broader world. We are for a labor movement that strikes not just for ourselves, but for Palestinians and oppressed people the world over. Indeed, Palestinian unions have called for immediate and urgent action from international labor unions as recently as May 22. We have to show that the working class and its institutions can lead with solidarity.
Resolution in solidarity with the Palestinian people
Whereas, over 1,500 Palestinians from neighborhoods in Jerusalem are facing the threat of forced displacement and home demolitions by Israeli authorities, and children make up a large percentage of the families threatened with homelessness.
Whereas, this pattern and practice of dispossession and expansion of settlements has been found to be illegal under international law.
Whereas, many reputable international human rights organizations such as Human Rights Watch and the Israel-based B’tselem have designated these practices of Israel as “apartheid” and a regime of legalized racial discrimination perpetrated against the Palestinian people. The International Criminal Court has opened an investigation into these practices.
Whereas, in response to Palestinian demonstrations against these illegal practices and the forcible displacement of families in Sheikh Jarrah, Israeli police attacked demonstrations in many instances, injuring hundreds including a raid on the Al-Aqsa Mosque, a place of worship.
Whereas, since May 10 the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) has began an intense campaign of bombing and mortar fire on the territory of Gaza. At the time of writing nearly 200 people, more than a quarter of them children have been killed. Over 1,300 have been wounded, and 40,000 Gazans have lost their homes.
Whereas, as public school educators in the United States of America, we have a special responsibility to stand in solidarity with the Palestinian people because of the 3.8 billion dollars annually that the US government gives to Israel, thus directly using our tax dollars to fund apartheid and war crimes.
Whereas, since 2005 over 170 Palestinian organizations of civil society including educator unions have—modeled on the movement to end South African apartheid—asked the international community to join the campaign to boycott, divest, and call for sanctions against Israel. Since then many educators unions, including the largest educators union in Europe (the National Union of Teachers) and many national trade union federations throughout the world have endorsed that call.
Therefore, be it resolved, that United Educators of San Francisco (UESF) express our solidarity with the Palestinian people and call for Israel to end bombardment of Gaza and stop displacement at Sheikh Jarrah.
Therefore, be it further resolved, that UESF calls on the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden to stop aid to Israel.
Therefore, be it further resolved, that UESF endorse the international campaign for boycotts, divestment, and sanctions against apartheid in Israel.
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Alex Schmaus is a member of San Francisco Movement of Rank and File Educators, United Educators of San Francisco, the Tempest Collective, and the Democratic Socialists of America. brian bean is a socialist organizer and writer based in Chicago, a member of the Tempest Collective, a part of the Rampant Magazine editorial collective, and an editor and contributor to the book Palestine: A Socialist Introduction.