American Unions Long Backed Israel. Now, Some Are Protesting It.

American Unions Long Backed Israel. Now, Some Are Protesting It.

“Why are we here?” said Brandon Mancilla, a leader with the United Automobile Workers. Mr. Mancilla faced a crowd of hundreds of union members gathered on the steps of the New York Public Library’s Fifth Avenue branch, huddling against the cold as they rallied for a cease-fire in Gaza.

“Cease-fire now, solidarity forever!” Mr. Mancilla, 29, said as the crowd cheered, waving union banners and Palestinian flags. “Let’s get more and more unions behind us.”

On display in that Dec. 21 protest — which came shortly after the 350,000 member U.A.W. voted to support a cease-fire — was a shift in the American labor movement’s relationship with Israel.

For decades, the most prominent American unions were largely supportive of Israel. Today, though, amid a resurgence of the American labor movement, some activists are urging their unions to call for an immediate cease-fire in Gaza and succeeding — a change that reflects a broader generational shift.

But many unions are divided over what stance to take or whether to take any stance at all.

Some American labor leaders have remained supportive of Israel’s war against Hamas, and moved swiftly to condemn Hamas’s attacks on Oct. 7. They are dismayed by the views of a younger generation of organizers who in some cases oppose Israel’s existence as a Jewish state.

“There has been a shift in society, and that’s reflected in the labor movement as it is every place else,” said Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Jewish Labor Committee and head of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union.

The American labor movement’s traditionally close relationship with Israel stems from decades of Jewish labor leaders staunchly backing the state, even before its founding. In 1917, the American Federation of Labor passed a resolution supporting the Balfour Declaration, which called for the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine, and throughout the 1920s and ’30s unions donated millions to Histadrut, Israel’s national labor union.

After Israel’s founding in 1948, American unions started investing in the country’s bond program, using money from strike and pension funds. Some also donated money to build stadiums and children’s homes in Israel. By 1994, $1 billion had been invested in those bonds by around 1,700 American trade unions, according to archival research from Jeff Schuhrke, a labor historian at Empire State University.

“In many ways, you can argue that U.S. unions helped construct the state of Israel,” Mr. Schuhrke said.

In 1980, the president of the A.F.L.-C.I.O., Lane Kirkland, declared that a Palestinian state would be “a terrorist state” and “an unmixed disaster to the United States” before hundreds of labor lawyers and union officials. In 1982, the union took out an advertisement in The New York Times declaring support for Israel in its war against Lebanon: “The A.F.L.-C.I.O. is not neutral.”

Union support for Israel sometimes bred internal tensions, with some of the union rank-and-file membership protesting the relationship. In 1949, the same year the International Ladies Garment Worker Union made a $1 million Israeli bond purchase, a group of its members asked the union to support Palestinian refugees. In 1973, thousands of Arab American auto workers in Detroit briefly walked off the job to protest the U.A.W.’s financial support of Israel. In 2002, after John J. Sweeney, then the A.F.L.-C.I.O. president, spoke at the National Rally for Israel, a group of union members circulated a petition condemning his support for the country.

Since the Israel-Gaza war broke out, debates over the fighting have exposed deeper rifts over how unions should represent their diverse membership, and how to balance political advocacy with professional ramifications.

The Writers Guild faced an outpouring of frustration from more than 300 members when the union didn’t immediately condemn Hamas’s attacks on Oct. 7. Starbucks and its union, Starbucks Workers United, are suing each other over the union’s use of company imagery in a pro-Palestinian social media post. Chris Smalls, head of the Amazon Labor Union, drew backlash for a pro-Palestinian post that included the phrase “from the river to the sea,” — a decades-old Palestinian nationalist slogan that many see as a call for Israel’s annihilation — echoing an outcry The New Yorker’s union faced in 2021 when it posted the phrase on social media.

When a proposed statement calling for a cease-fire circulated in early November at the Association of Legal Aid Attorneys, a U.A.W. sub-union of more than 3,000 public defenders and legal workers, a heated internal debate broke out. Those who opposed it said they didn’t understand why the union had to weigh in on the issue, which had little direct connection to their work.

One legal aid lawyer, Isaac Altman, said in an interview that he found the union’s proposed resolution to be one-sided. He said he couldn’t understand why the resolution did not shine a greater spotlight on the violence of Hamas militants. But he was also concerned that the statement would anger the legal establishment in Nassau County, potentially posing a harm to the clients he represents.

So he, along with three other legal aid lawyers, sued to stop the union from voting on a cease-fire resolution. A court issued a temporary injunction.

“I felt there was a real concern that judges would look negatively at this resolution and take it out on our clients,” said Mr. Altman, 27, who is Jewish.

Mr. Altman’s organization, the Legal Aid Society of Nassau County, gets its funding from contracts with the Republican-controlled county. He and his colleagues worried about how the proposed resolution might affect their funding.

“We have a higher duty or obligation to our clients that I think trumps people’s right to speak,” said Ilana Kopmar, another plaintiff in the suit and a legal aid lawyer for 31 years. Ms. Kopmar said she was also worried about the impact such a statement could have on Jewish and Israeli clients.

The injunction was dissolved on Dec. 15 by a federal judge in the Eastern District of New York, and a few days later, the cease-fire statement passed, by a vote of 1,067 to 570.

The president of the Neighborhood Defender Service union, which is also part of the legal aid lawyers union, resigned on Nov. 6 over concerns that his organization’s funding would be at risk if it released a statement on the war. The Bronx Defenders, another public defense organization in New York, faced calls to be defunded across the city after its union released a statement in support of Palestinians.

Other union organizers worry about the internal tensions provoked by these debates. NewsGuild-CWA, which is the parent organization of The New York Times’s union, and represents more than 26,000 members as part of the Communications Workers of America, heard from some of its members who wanted the union to take a position in favor of a cease-fire. A group of journalists at The New York Times, concerned this would undermine coverage of the war, then formed an Independence Caucus.

“We want the Guild leadership to avoid public positions that compromise the journalistic independence required of many members and could undermine our work,” said Megan Twohey, a leader in the caucus.

The union, which represents workers outside the media industry too, has not taken a position on the war. It has made statements about journalists killed in the conflict.

Within some newer unions, there’s been a reticence to weigh in on a cease-fire. The Alphabet Workers Union, for example, at Google’s parent company Alphabet, which has about 1,400 members, hasn’t voted on whether to call for a cease-fire, partly because the union is nascent and worried about alienating potential members, particularly tech workers in Israel. The issue has come up for discussion at membership meetings and on the messaging app Discord.

Changes in union attitudes toward Israel are coming at a moment of wider revival for the American labor movement. After strikes in Hollywood and at auto plants, public approval of unions stood at 67 percent last year, up from 54 percent a decade ago, according to Gallup.

“For a few decades, coinciding with the labor movement’s decline, its vision became much more narrow,” said Mr. Mancilla, the U.A.W. leader. “It was on the defensive.”

Now, many activists are eager to see their unions seize on the momentum of this period by taking bold stances on progressive issues, which they see as part of a history of American labor’s involvement in national and international politics. (Labor unions helped organize the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, which tied demands for fair wages and civil rights.)

“People who have become very engaged in their unions want their unions to be the full expression of their politics,” said Rebecca Givan, an associate professor of labor studies at Rutgers. “There’s always a risk that can alienate some people, and it is likely to energize others.”

And some union organizers feel that if they’re taking on political fights at home, they should be taking on battles abroad as well.

Peter Lyngso, 30, a part-time package handler at United Parcel Service and a Chicago union activist, drew a parallel between younger union members’ push for a new contract and their urge to speak out on the conflict. “What you’re seeing is this new activist layer saying these are one and the same fight.”

Longtime labor experts say that the demand for pro-cease-fire statements from American unions is evidence of a generational shift. There’s a new wave of leadership from young activists who grew up after the Oslo Peace process of the 1990s collapsed.

“This is being generated by social-movement young people, Gen Zs, millennials,” said Seth Goldstein, a labor lawyer who has worked with the Amazon Labor Union. “ I don’t think they’re anti-Israel, necessarily. But what they’ve seen in Israel is the Netanyahu government.”

At the same time, some American labor leaders remain adamant about their support for Israel, including Mr. Appelbaum of the Jewish Labor Committee.

Randi Weingarten, 66, president of the American Federation of Teachers, is a longtime supporter of Israel. She went to Israel after the war broke out to meet with civil society groups, pay shiva calls and visit the families of hostages.

On Dec. 18, dozens of protesters outside the Museum of the City of New York demanded that Ms. Weingarten call for a cease-fire. She has since posted that she supports “a bilateral, negotiated ceasefire” that brings the hostages home, provides aid to Gaza and “starts the process of 2 states for 2 peoples.”

Ms. Weingarten said she felt it was important for unions to engage with geopolitical issues, beyond their contract negotiations, even when labor leaders are faced with protest and dissent.

“There will be people within the labor movement that say, ‘Just do the economics, just do collective bargaining,” she said. “Then there are people within the labor movement that say intersectionality is imperative.”

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Kyle C. Garrison

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