Since the May 19 vote by the San Francisco teachers’ union condemning Israel’s actions during the conflict in Gaza and supporting the boycott movement, others have followed in its wake: two union chapters in Los Angeles, the teachers’ union in Seattle and the statewide union in Vermont.
And on Tuesday, the National Education Association, the largest teachers’ union in the country with 3 million members, will vote on two pieces of legislation that would “educate members and the general public about the history, culture, and struggles of Palestinians, including the detention and abuse of children in the Occupied Palestinian Territory,” and “publicize its support for the Palestinian struggle for justice and call on the United States government to stop arming and supporting Israel and Saudi Arabia.” The latter resolution describes Israel’s actions against Palestinians as “ethnic cleansing.”
If approved, the two resolutions will cost the national union $214,920 for “staff and resources” to implement the changes. (The resolutions in S.F., L.A., Seattle and Vermont have no costs attached to them.)
It is a significant moment for the labor movement. Until San Francisco’s vote, not a single K-12 teachers’ union in the country had ever passed a resolution condemning Israel. Similar resolutions have been approved by only a handful of unions in other industries.
The S.F. union has voted on resolutions on other national and international issues in the last few years. On June 3, 2020, in the wake of mass protests surrounding the murder of George Floyd, the executive committee unanimously passed a resolution demanding justice. And in 2019, the same body unanimously passed a climate-related resolution.
But the new resolution “is kind of new and different,” said Jeff Schuhrke, a labor historian and professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “I think it is significant in the sense that this is the most visible support for Palestinian people that we’ve seen from the U.S. labor movement ever.”
Alex Schmaus, one of the resolution’s authors and an instructional aide at Francisco Middle School, said it originated from discussions over the recent unrest in Colombia that occurred around the same time as the violence erupted between Israel and Gaza.
“We wanted our union to respond to that,” they said in an interview with J. The labor movement, they said, “needs to be international.” The union’s delegate assembly also approved a resolution the same day in support of the people of Colombia in the face of civil unrest.
Some in the Bay Area pushed back against the Palestinian resolution, including the Jewish Community Relations Council and the Anti-Defamation League, as well as Jewish and non-Jewish parents who expressed their concerns during a San Francisco school board meeting on June 8.
The issue has received plenty of national attention and caused fissures between local affiliate unions and the teachers’ union’s national leadership. Since the advancement of the resolutions by the United Educators of San Francisco and chapters of the United Teachers Los Angeles on May 19 (there will be full vote in September), the Vermont State Labor Council AFL-CIO on June 16 and the Seattle Education Association on June 15, Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, has faced increasing pressure to come out and make a statement opposing the votes. The AFT is the country’s second-largest teachers’ union and represents 1.6 million members, according to its website.
On June 9, the Anti-Defamation League’s CEO Jonathan Greenblatt sent a letter to Weingarten expressing concern, pointing in particular to the L.A. votes. Weingarten has been supportive of Israel over the years, while at times calling out the government for actions she sees as antidemocratic.
“While we appreciate that there are strong feelings about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and respect the rights of all to express their opinion, we believe this resolution is not only unconstructive, but potentially detrimental to Los Angeles area students, parents, faculty and administrators,” wrote Greenblatt.
The BDS campaign “is not an effort that promotes constructive initiatives promoting a peaceful resolution of the conflict,” he wrote, mentioning the increase in antisemitic incidents across the country.
Weingarten, who is Jewish and recently went to Israel with her rabbi wife, wrote a lengthy reply to Greenblatt, dated June 14 and provided to J. by her press secretary, Andrew Crook.
“Like you, I am very concerned about the spate of antisemitic incidents happening across this country,” Weingarten wrote. “I completely understand your unease about Jewish students and educators feeling harassed and frightened in response to the wave of antisemitism that has taken hold in the United States and the world.”
During her trip to Israel in May, she noted, she met with members of the Knesset’s Labor Party faction to share her union’s “interest in the AFT being an ally, promoting the values of social well-being as well as peace and justice between our two countries.” (The Labor Party has had ties to Israel’s powerful trade union, the Histadrut, since 1920.)
At a national level, she told Greenblatt, the AFT “has never supported BDS.” But she made it clear that she wouldn’t be intervening in the decisions made on a local level.
“We believe strongly in dialogue, debate and the free ability to express a range of viewpoints,” she wrote, adding that “the ‘federation’ in American Federation of Teachers has real meaning: Locals have broad autonomy, and the national union does not override locals over differences or questions of policy.”
Greenblatt posted his letter to Twitter, commenting that it was “deeply disappointing” that the AFT had taken “a hands-off approach to the damaging resolution being proposed” by the L.A. teachers’ union.
— Jonathan Greenblatt (@JGreenblattADL) June 17, 2021
Weingarten also heard from a consortium of religious and conservative groups, which in a letter suggested that she call on the union affiliates in S.F. and L.A. to repeal the resolutions, “engage” with the unions “to develop a plan to repair the damage that has been done by their recent actions” and implement antisemitism training programs for AFT affiliates.
Schuhrke, the labor historian, said he was “not surprised” that in her letter to Greenblatt Weingarten had reiterated the national union’s opposition to BDS; she previously has criticized the movement. But Schuhrke, who has written in support of American and international unions endorsing BDS, said it was “encouraging” to see Weingarten “respect the will of local members.” In the past he said, union leaders have nullified resolutions supporting BDS, such as a 2015 vote by executives of the United Auto Workers.
Schuhrke said it is “too early to say” whether more unions will come out with similar resolutions; he believes it depends on how much pushback union leaders face.
Following the BDS measures, teachers’ union executives in San Francisco and Los Angeles passed resolutions calling out antisemitism and condemning violence on both sides of the conflict, in part a result of public pushback.