The boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel experienced twin setbacks this week as both a major labor union and the endowment foundation of a Bay Area university rejected BDS measures recently passed by students.
On Dec. 15, the United Auto Workers International Union granted an appeal filed by University of California graduate students that nullified a BDS measure the local union had passed a year previously.
UAW Local 2865, which represents 13,000 graduate student workers in the U.C. system, had approved the measure by a nearly two-thirds margin. It called on U.C. and the UAW to “divest from companies involved in Israeli occupation and apartheid” and further called on the U.S. government to end military aid to Israel.
More than 1,100 members of the local union also voted to support an academic boycott of Israel.
A statewide anti-BDS group of union members called Informed Grads appealed to the UAW International, the parent entity of the local, and received pro-bono legal counsel. Both sides submitted briefs and made statements to the UAW International’s executive board at the Detroit headquarters.
“[The executive board] did a thorough investigation” that lasted months, said Jonathan Kummerfeld, a U.C. Berkeley grad student and Informed Grads member who fought the BDS measure on his campus. “They solicited statements from both sides and tried to get the full picture. Then they went away and considered it, which is why it took so long.”
In its ruling, the board stated that the local had “overstepped its constitutional parameters” by enacting divestment, that the resolution would “harm UAW-represented workers and other union members,” and that “the provisions of the [resolution], despite semantical claims to the contrary by the local union, can easily be construed as academic and cultural discrimination.”
The board further declared that BDS “espouses discrimination and vilification against Israelis and UAW members who are of Jewish lineage.”
Kummerfeld considers the victory significant beyond simply a rejection of BDS.
“There is an important result here in that the other side tried to frame this as a labor issue,” he said. “This ruling tells other unions that here’s a carefully considered position from union leadership, that [BDS] is antithetical to the social goals of the union movement. It could have an impact on what would happen elsewhere.”
Also this past week, the Tower Foundation, which is responsible for San Jose State University’s endowment, unanimously voted to reject divestment called for by the student government.
In November, the SJSU student senate passed a resolution by a vote of 10-5 demanding that the Tower Foundation board of directors divest from companies “complicit in the Israeli occupation of Palestine.” San Jose State became the first campus in the California State University system to pass a divestment measure.
According to Sarita Bronstein, executive director of Hillel of Silicon Valley, students, Hillel, faculty and other Israel supporters subsequently met on several occasions with Tower Foundation CEO Leslie Rohn, SJSU’s interim president, Susan Martin, and members of the university’s finance committee to make the case against divestment.
The issue came to a head at the foundation board’s Dec. 15 meeting, where representatives on both sides of the divestment issue spoke during 30 minutes of public comment. The 35-member board then voted unanimously to endorse a written statement rejecting divestment.
In that statement, the board’s executive committee did not comment directly on the merits of BDS, but said rather “Growing the Foundation’s endowment… is our singular focus. … Therefore, we cannot agree to this divestment request.”