Members of local labor unions rally for a cease-fire in Gaza in downtown Oakland on Dec. 16, 2023. (Aaron Levy-Wolins/J. Staff)
Members of local labor unions rally for a cease-fire in Gaza in downtown Oakland on Dec. 16, 2023. (Aaron Levy-Wolins/J. Staff)

Anti-Zionist event announced by public sector union of 11,000 Bay Area workers

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A large Bay Area public sector union is planning to hold an event featuring anti-Zionist groups on Wednesday, raising concerns about whether it will foster bias against Israel and Jews among municipal workers.

IFPTE Local 21 represents over 11,000 engineers, architects, city planners, fire inspectors and members of many other professions who work for Bay Area municipalities, including San Francisco and Oakland. The event, “The Future of the Labor Movement and Palestine,” is scheduled for Wednesday at 5:30 p.m. at the union hall on Mission Street in San Francisco.

The event comes as American labor unions’ pro-Palestinian activism continues to draw national scrutiny. On Tuesday, witnesses testified before a House subcommittee on Capitol Hill about their unions’ intense focus on Israel, which they argued is creating a discriminatory environment for Jewish employees. “They spend all their time protesting against Israel,” a graduate student worker at MIT said.

A Local 21 chapter called Planners and Environmental Specialists (PES) organized Wednesday’s event. Its president is Adrian Leung, who did not respond to a request for comment. 

J. spoke with Justin Kran, a Jewish San Francisco city planner who was disturbed when he found out about the forum — he called it frightening. “We should not be biasing our city officials with antisemitic rhetoric,” he said. “That’s just setting a dangerous precedent.”

Kran said he and other Jewish union members were outraged and some were “threatening to cancel their dues” if they could not reach a resolution with union leadership.

Kran said he quickly raised concerns with chapter leaders, complaining that Jewish perspectives were not represented. The chapter’s response was to add a speaker from Jewish Voice for Peace, an anti-Zionist group that rejects the existence of a Jewish state in Israel.

The event also comes as San Francisco’s government has struggled publicly with concerns about hostility toward Jews and Israel supporters since Oct. 7. For months, as the Board of Supervisors considered a cease-fire resolution, activists attended meetings and demonstrated boisterously against Israel. Their actions sometimes turned vitriolic in incidents that circulated widely online, such as when a man whose relatives were killed on Oct. 7 was shouted down, pro-Israel Jews were met with snorts and called “Zionist pigs,” and evidence of rape on Oct. 7 was labeled “lies.”

It is not uncommon for issues surrounding social justice to come up in the workplace, Kran said, particularly since 2021. “The planning department has developed a very strong equity, social inclusion network in response to the George Floyd protests. With Oct. 7 happening, this is a newer topic within that framework, I guess,” he said.

“The conversations that we’ve had around race and social equity and stuff thus far haven’t seemed volatile to this degree,” he added. “It hasn’t seemed like we’re trying to bring in antagonistic organizations. This seems very different from the actual framework that we’ve set up.”

The union announced the event in an email to members on July 1, nine days in advance. It advertised “special guests” AROC, the Arab Resource and Organizing Center, alongside representatives from SEIU 1021 and ILWU Local 10 unions. The forum is to be the first in a series “created by union members to discuss topics facing us and our communities.” 

Protesters from the Arab Resource and Organizing Center, Jewish Voice for Peace and others attempt to block a ship from departing the Port of Oakland, one they believed was headed for Washington state to pick up military materiel for Israel. (Photo/Courtesy AROC)

AROC, which advocates on behalf of Arabs and Muslims in the Bay Area, is also a staunchly anti-Zionist organization. Members of the Jewish community have accused it of antisemitism for its unsparing opposition to the Jewish state.

The San Francisco-based group blamed Israel for the Oct. 7 attack in a statement released days after Hamas militants massacred 1,200 people in the worst terrorist attack in the country’s history. AROC’s executive director, Lara Kiswani, recently appeared at a “People’s Conference for Palestine” in Detroit, saying during a talk that focused on cooperation between labor movements and pro-Palestinian activists that AROC was working to “overcome Zionism.” 

“Palestine is the roadmap for global justice. Palestine is the roadmap for freedom of all people,” Kiswani said.

State Sen. Scott Wiener, a progressive from San Francisco who boasted of an “over 99% voting record” in support of unions, spoke to J. on Tuesday, criticizing the decision by Local 21 to hold the event.

“The labor movement is incredibly important. It’s disappointing that Local 21 would have a forum that includes an antisemitic organization, which AROC is,” he said. “And a tokenized Jewish voice, in JVP, which does not speak for the broad Jewish community.”

“This forum is platforming two organizations that want to eliminate the Jewish homeland,” Wiener said.

Kran shared an email exchange he’d had with Leung and Jessica Nuti, an IFPTE organizer, answering his complaint. “I recognize that JVP, similar to AROC, also identifies as ‘anti-Zionist,’ Leung wrote, “and I know there is a strong useful dialogue needed around if/how ‘anti-Zionism’ and ‘anti-Semitism ‘overlap.” Leung shared articles about South African apartheid and told Kran, “I sincerely hope you’ll join us to explore this issue in a safe, respectful and productive effort.”

Nuti, an outspoken supporter of the Palestinian cause on social media, did not respond to a J. request for comment. Bianca Polovina, IFPTE Local 21’s president, also did not respond to a request for comment.

Even as the American labor movement has historically shown support for the Jewish state, activism for the Palestinian cause since Oct. 7 has been widespread. Over 200 American unions and labor organizations issued cease-fire calls, according to Jacobin, a left-wing magazine.

The union representing 48,000 University of California academic workers went on strike in May because of the university system’s response to pro-Palestinian encampments on campus. In June, a judge ordered the strike to cease after the UC system argued it was illegal because it was not tied to workplace conditions.

Gabe Stutman
Gabe Stutman

Gabe Stutman is the news editor of J. Follow him on Twitter @jnewsgabe.