By Cindy Mindell
It is a dizzying proposition to try and keep up with BDS, the decade-old global boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement against Israel. From world leaders to student groups to academic associations, the list of pro- and anti-BDS voices seems to grow and shift daily. At its core, the movement seeks to increase economic and political pressure on Israel to end occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, provide equal rights to Arab-Israeli citizens, and allow the right of return for Palestinian refugees.
Many see the movement as an attempt to prove Israel a racist and apartheid state, and therefore an illegitimate entity with no right to exist.
In recent months, BDS achieved a foothold in the Connecticut AFL-CIO, the statewide labor federation that represents more than 200,000 union workers. AFL-CIO is the largest labor federation in the country, comprising dozens of unions with a combined membership of almost 13 million workers as its affiliates.
In October, a resolution “Supporting Justice and Peace for the Peoples of Palestine and Israel” was approved at the organization’s 11th Biennial Constitutional Convention held at the Foxwoods Resort Casino in Mashantucket. The decision followed a pro-BDS resolution adopted in August by the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America, the first national U.S. union to endorse the movement.
Three months later, the resolution was declared invalid.
The resolution — Convention Resolution 7 — grew out of a relationship between Connecticut AFL-CIO leaders and the Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions (PGFTU). In 2013, Connecticut AFL-CIO had partnered with Tree of Life Education Fund, based at the First Congregational Church of Old Lyme, to invite PGFTU executive and legal secretary Mahmoud Abu Odeh to address the 400 delegates of that year’s Biennial Constitutional Convention. The PGFTU then invited Connecticut labor leaders to visit the Palestinian territories.
Last September, Tree of Life (TOL) hosted a “Trade Union Journey to Israel/Palestine,” led by John Fussell, labor attorney and TOL board member; Rev. David W. Good of the First Congregational Church of Old Lyme; and Jiries Atrash, TOL coordinator and board member. The delegation included former Connecticut AFL-CIO President John Olsen, and Connecticut Building Trades President David Roche, as well as representatives from the Machinist Union, the Steelworkers Union (Indiana), and the United Electrical Radio and Machine Workers Union.
Upon the delegation’s return to Connecticut, Roche co-sponsored the pro-boycott resolution with John Harrity, president of the Connecticut State Council of Machinists. The resolution indicates that Connecticut AFL-CIO President Lori Pelletier “encouraged a labor delegation to witness first-hand the effects of the Israeli occupation on Palestinian workers and their families.”
The resolution concludes with a call “to adopt the strategy of Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) in connection with companies and investments profiting from or complicit in human rights violations arising from the occupation of the Palestinian Territories by the state of Israel, and to urge its affiliates and related pension and annuity funds to adopt similar strategies.”
In addition, the resolution recommends that the Connecticut AFL-CIO and its affiliates appeal to the national AFL-CIO to demand that the U.S. government “apply all diplomatic and economic tools to bring an end to the Israeli occupation of Palestine and to support a fair and just peace in which the people of Israel and Palestine can live in peace and security in accordance with International law and the universal Declaration of Human Rights.”
The blogosphere was soon abuzz. Some 10,000 emails cheering and criticizing the resolution flooded Pelletier’s inbox. Online petitions and email campaigns were initiated in support and praise of the action, including one by Jewish Voice for Peace.
Connecticut Senator and Assistant Majority Leader Gayle Slossberg learned of the resolution through an online publication and contacted Pelletier, who agreed to a meeting in early November. Pelletier explained to Slossberg that, as per AFL-CIO rules governing state federations, the resolution would only be fully ratified after a review by the national AFL-CIO office.
“None of the people in the group that proposed the resolution had ever spoken with anyone from Israel, nor did they have any background as to the antisemitic position of the BDS movement,” says Slossberg.
“I shared with Lori how terribly offended I was that the labor movement in Connecticut would take this position and become the first labor organization in the country to take this vote without having done the appropriate homework, and how terribly wrong that was. After a very long and in-depth conversation, Lori recognized that this is a problem. She acknowledged that she had heard from a number of other people who had expressed similar concerns about the BDS movement and antisemitism, and said that she would look into what an appropriate response was.”
In a Nov. 18 email to her executive board, Pelletier explained that the AFL-CIO is an affiliate of the International Trade Union Confederation and is therefore bound to abide by its position that clearly rejects BDS. Resolution 7 was deemed contrary to national policy and therefore declared null and void.
Pelletier wrote, “As president of the state federation and as a member of the national board, I am obligated to uphold the position of the AFL-CIO on this issue, but just as important, since our convention, I have heard from community leaders, elected leaders and leaders within the labor movement, all of whom have expressed strong opinions, and after all these conversations it has become clear to me this is an emotional and complicated issue. So for our federation, the action of the national was in our best interest as well and I personally support it.”
Pelletier also announced plans to convene an educational program on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
She concluded, “Our state federation is and always will be committed to opposing antisemitism, Islamophobia, and all acts of racism, human rights violations and the exploitation of workers.”
Word from the blogosphere reached Robert Fishman, executive director of the Jewish Federation Association of Connecticut (JFACT) and Steve Ginsburg, director of the Anti-Defamation League Connecticut Region. The two sent a letter to Pelletier requesting a meeting, also representing the Jewish Community Relations Council of New Haven and the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Hartford. The letter writers cited a 2007 Statement of Opposition to Divestment From or Boycotts of Israel, signed by the presidents of every major U.S. labor union, as well as the AFL-CIO.
According to Fishman, Pelletier did not respond to the letter or follow-up phone calls until State Representative David Baram contacted her, resulting in a Jan. 21 meeting between Pelletier, Fishman, and Ginsburg. There, Pelletier discussed her meeting with Slossberg and reported that the forthcoming educational program would be designed by Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale & Department Store Union; Julie Kushner, director of UAW Region 9A; and Arieh Lebowitz, associate director of the Jewish Labor Committee national office.
“Lori seemed very open to educating her leadership on this issue in a much broader way,” Ginsburg told the Ledger. “She’s open to building bridges with organizations like ADL in ways that have nothing to do with Israel, like [exploring] our A World of Difference or anti-bias and anti-bullying programming. We’re turning this into a way to build a great relationship between very important labor organizations and Jewish-run groups – where there is already a long history. We didn’t have those relationships with Lori before the union took this action and maybe they wouldn’t have if we had an ongoing dialogue.”
The Ledger contacted Pelletier, Appelbaum, and Kushner to learn more about the educational program. Calls and emails to Pelletier and Appelbaum have gone unanswered; a representative from Kushner’s office explained that the UAW leader was in negotiations and therefore unable to comment.
While Slossberg commends Pelletier’s “willingness and openness” to address the concern of fellow community leaders, she says Resolution 7 signifies a more critical matter.
“This should be a wake-up call to the Connecticut Jewish population and our friends,” Slossberg says. “There is a movement out there that is very well-organized and has made great headway and they are not our friends. We need to be aware, organized, educated and we need to speak up. We cannot afford to have another moment like this when we wake and discover that a very large group has decided that they don’t like us.”