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SEIU forces leader out

The cost of speaking out for Palestine

Tempest’s Eric Maroney reports on how the Connecticut SEIU pushed executive director Kooper Caraway from office in the wake of Caraway’s public support for Palestine.

Last month, the Connecticut State Council of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) announced the departure of its executive director Kooper Caraway following comments he made at a rally in support of Palestine. Caraway, a progressive labor leader, has long drawn the ire of conservative politicians; however, this time Democrats and fellow union leaders joined the attack. His departure is part of a broader wave of censorship targeting those critical of Israel’s ongoing displacement, colonization, and now collective punishment of the Palestinian people.

On October 19, the council’s Facebook page gave notice that SEIU had received Caraway’s resignation effective immediately, but that the council would offer no further comment. The announcement appears alongside a statement that “unequivocally condemns the horrific terrorist attack by Hamas” but also affirms that the union “joins other organizations calling for an end to attacks on civilians [and] immediate humanitarian aid to the people of Gaza.” But the departure of Caraway, an outspoken and progressive leader who has been central to the council’s efforts to build coalition work in the state, contradicts that affirmation.

In his remarks at the rally, Caraway reminded the crowd, “Every single person who has fought against apartheid, who has fought against colonialism, has been called a terrorist by the State Department.” He went on to note, “The people who built the union movement, they were called terrorists,” and affirmed, “Our enemies are not in Gaza, our enemies are the CEOs who are cutting our pay and benefits. … Our enemies are the politicians who lock our people up and leave them to sleep on the streets.”

Kooper Caraway via Facebook.

In response to his speech, some on the right have accused Caraway of support for Hamas. A letter signed by four Republican state legislators urging Democratic governor Ned Lamont and union officials to call for Caraway’s dismissal states, “Mr. Caraway’s branding as murderous terrorists Hamas as ‘our comrades’ is offensive to us, our Jewish friends and families, and the House and Senate Republican caucuses.” The Wall Street Journal took things a step further. An October 15 opinion article by editorial board member Allysia Finley dishonestly inserts the name Hamas into Caraway’s speech.

Following the backlash, Governor Lamont, whose relationship with Connecticut labor is already tenuous, responded that Caraway’s comments were “absolutely inappropriate and dead wrong.”

And sources close to the situation report that Caraway’s resignation was tendered following a near-unanimous vote by the council’s presidents. SEIU’s state council is composed of 1199, largely representing healthcare workers; 32BJ, largely representing custodial workers; the 4Cs, largely representing community college faculty; and CSEA and CEUI, representing state and municipal workers. In total, the council represents over fifty thousand workers in the state.

Caraway’s forced resignation will have a chilling effect on labor leaders and union activists engaged in Palestine solidarity work. His removal comes amid a wave of censorship and discipline faced by those who are speaking out as Israeli officials continue to starve Gazans of food, water, and fuel during the IDF’s escalating assault. Last week, the U.S. Senate passed a resolution condemning what it calls “anti-Israel, pro-Hamas student groups” and, in Florida, Governor Ron DeSantis ordered that all chapters of the organization Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) be disbanded on public university campuses. At the University of Vermont, a planned appearance by poet and journalist Mohammed El-Kurd was also canceled. Caraway’s departure from SEIU can be understood as part of this broader crackdown, but what is unique about this situation is his position as a labor official.

While Carraway is not the only union employee to face discipline over Palestine solidarity, his dismissal signals a dangerous move by union officials to regulate and censor pro-Palestine speech. Tania Singh, a labor organizer with the Minnesota Nurses Association, an affiliate of National Nurses United, was also let go from her position after her union employer received screenshots of Palestine solidarity statements Singh had made online.

Thus far, labor leaders have largely lined up to pledge their support for Israel with any mention of Palestinian casualties appearing as mere footnotes. This is not at all surprising given the close relationship between labor’s leadership class and the Democratic party. Just days after Hamas’s initial October 7 attack, the American Federation of Teachers issued a press release in which union president Randi Weingarten wrote, “President Biden’s swift response supporting Israel is welcomed” and that “Israel has every right to defend itself as it will now do.”

But there are cracks in the labor edifice. At a recent meeting of the national AFL-CIO, Mark Dimondstein, a self-described “anti-Zionist Jew” and president of the American Postal Workers Union, is reported to have given an impassioned 30-minute defense of Palestine; the Rutgers AAUP-Executive Council recently published a statement calling for an “immediate ceasefire”; and UE Local 150, the UNC Chapel Hill Campus and Graduate Workers Union, posted a statement endorsing solidarity with the resistance organizing of Jewish Voices for Peace, the UNC Chapel Hill SJP chapter, and the congressional “Ceasefire Now” resolution introduced by Representatives Rashida Tlaib and Cori Bush. Likewise, the Oakland Education Association posted a statement calling for an “immeadiate ceasefire” and “unconditional solidarity with Palestine,” though it is rumored that the OEA Executive Council is receiving pressure from their labor council to walk the statement back.

SEIU CT could take a lesson from Dimondstein, Rutgers AAUP, UE 150, and the OEA particularly as it claims its commitment to the McAlevey model of building power and fighting for democracy. Any meaningful attempt to build a coalition with Connecticut’s marginalized communities, as well as the Connecticut unions outside the council, is undermined by its response to Kooper Caraway’s call for solidarity with Palestine. Labor cannot privilege its relationship with Democratic party officials over calls for justice. Nor can it afford to join calls for censorship of dissenting voices.

Featured image credit: Wikimedia Commons; modified by Tempest.

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Eric Maroney View All

Eric W. Maroney teaches English at Gateway Community College in New Haven, Connecticut. He is a member of the Tempest Collective.