Home Opinion/Commentary For better or worse, unions have always taken a stand on global issues

For better or worse, unions have always taken a stand on global issues

by The Conversation
By Gerard Di Trolio, McMaster University

There has been a curious response by some in the Canadian media to the support of Palestinians by certain Canadian unions.

National Post columnist Rahim Mohamed wrote last October that the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) “seems hell-bent on picking internecine fights over issues that have nothing to do with its mandate.” He was referring to the controversy that erupted when CUPE’s Ontario president, Fred Hahn, voiced support for Palestinian resistance on Oct. 8, 2023, the day after Hamas’ attack on Israelis. Hahn later apologized.

In the Globe and Mail, a columnist recently asked why Hahn tweets so much and criticized organized labour: “The union movement, and the progressive movement as a whole, is less interested than ever in issues of class … and more and more focused on seeing its mission, and the world, through lenses of race, gender and anti-colonialism.”

Both columnists suggest that unions like CUPE are squandering the increased popularity among the public that they’ve experienced since the COVID-19 pandemic.

But unions staking a position on issues as contentious as Israel-Palestine is hardly unprecedented.

Global ambitions

For generations, the labour movement has had ambitions that are global in scope. That legacy is evident today with the word “international” included in the name of many unions.

Their global aspirations were often undermined when union leaders retreated into nationalism, with all the racism and chauvinism it entailed. An infamous example is American Federation of Labor (AFL) President Samuel Gompers.

Gompers headed the AFL almost continuously from 1886 to 1924. His approach involved collaborating with business, avoiding politics, promoting racially exclusionary policies and focusing only on narrow economic issues pertaining to the skilled craft workers who made up the AFL’s membership.

Despite an increase in labour radicalism in the 1930s and 1940s, things changed with the advent of the Cold War. After infamous anti-communist purges, the American labour movement retreated back into a Gompers approach and supported the United States government’s Cold War foreign policies.

But even in Gompers’ time, there were organizations like the Industrial Workers of the World that sought to organize all workers regardless of race, gender, industry or skill.

International solidarity in action

This divide in the labour movement spilled over into international issues. The Russian Revolution and resulting Red Scare led to divisions among the labour movement over the Soviet Union. Some unions were strongly anti-communist while others had sizable communist membership or were formed by communist parties.

Two decades later, the Spanish Civil War would also create tensions in the labour movement as the Soviets supported the left-wing Spanish Republicans while Nazi Germany and fascist Italy supported the right-wing Nationalists. The Nationalists launched a military uprising against the elected Republican government in July 1936.

Organizations like the International Transport Workers’ Federation donated humanitarian aid to Spanish civilians, helped Spanish refugees and saw members of its affiliated dock worker unions block arms shipments to ports controlled by the Nationalists.

Similarly today, dock workers in Barcelona have refused to allow boats with arms shipments to Israel to enter their ports.

Large swaths of American union leadership supported the Vietnam War. However, American labour scholar Penny Lewis’s historical research has challenged the conventional wisdom of a conservative American working class in the late 1960s.

Lewis notes a third of all unions in the U.S. had turned against the war by 1972, a majority of union members opposed the war and thousands participated in anti-war activism through their union.

By the 1980s, more unions were willing to publicly rebuke the pro-Cold War line taken by the AFL-CIO (formerly the AFL). Some unions took the step of forming the National Labor Committee in Support of Democracy and Human Rights in El Salvador (NLC).

The NLC took up a flurry of activity, including congressional lobbying, to cut off military support to El Salvador and sent union members to the Central American country on fact-finding missions regarding its civil war.

Major American unions like the United Autoworkers, United Mine Workers and American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees also became heavily involved in the anti-apartheid movement. They were critical of then-president Ronald Reagan’s “constructive engagement” policy towards South Africa that involved quiet dialogue with South Africa’s white minority leaders to encourage an end to apartheid.

Today, it shouldn’t be surprising that a union local that once refused to unload ships with cargo from apartheid-era South Africa is standing with the Palestinians. In South Africa itself, the labour movement has always been highly supportive of the Palestinians.

Unions will continue to speak out globally

Unions are often torn between the interests of securing improvements for their members and broader activism within society. But their history of activism on international issues makes clear that union stances on the Gaza conflict are not an outlier in organized labour behaviour.

The positions unions stake can be either reactionary or progressive and can shift over time. Many American unions have supported Israel since its creation as a state in 1948.

Some have bemoaned the complacency that led to the decline of unions in the Global North. In response, many unions are now adapting elements of social movements. They are realizing that social justice in the workplace must be combined with social justice in society to win lasting and transformative change.

That’s why it’s hardly surprising that more and more unions are endorsing the call of Palestinian unions to boycott Israel.

As many other pressing global issues like climate change and trade wars continue to dominate the news cycle, unions will continue to take positions on international efforts in the hopes of playing a role in solving these crises.

Gerard Di Trolio, PhD candidate, Labour Studies, McMaster University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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