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UE Demand For Ceasefire Built On Decades Of Education And Debate

Above photo: Representatives of UE and other unions rallied at the White House December 1 to support hunger strikers demanding a ceasefire. UE.

Unions representing more than half of the U.S. labor movement have now called for a ceasefire in Gaza, as has the AFL-CIO and some 70 city councils—the result of actions by many local and international unions and rank-and-file activists.

Our union, the United Electrical, Radio & Machine Workers of America (UE), was able to mobilize quickly on this critical issue because we have a strong tradition of international solidarity and taking a critical view of U.S. foreign policy.

When Israel launched its brutal assault on the people of Palestine in the wake of the unconscionable Hamas attack of October 7, the UE leadership recognized that this was an issue that the labor movement had to take action on.

Within two weeks, working with United Food and Commercial Workers Local 3000 and other union leaders, we were able to convene a national labor call on the conflict and issue a statement, “The U.S. Labor Movement Calls for Ceasefire in Israel and Palestine,” which has now been signed by six national unions and hundreds of local and regional bodies.

Our members joined ceasefire rallies, lobbied their senators, and initiated efforts to get their cities to pass ceasefire resolutions.

Guns vs. butter

Why were UE members ready to act? We educate our membership on the issues, discuss and debate them in a democratic fashion, and our members make union policy at conventions held every two years.

Our foreign policy resolution, “For Jobs, Peace, and a Pro-Worker Foreign Policy,” which includes a demand that the U.S. end all military aid to Israel, was reaffirmed at our 78th convention last September. Several delegates spoke passionately from the floor about the importance of labor solidarity with the Palestinian people.

UE convention delegates voted to leave the Congress of Industrial Organizations in 1949 because it was taking no action to prevent its other affiliates from raiding our shops, but also because of the CIO’s increasing tendency to simply follow the Democratic Party in all matters, and especially in foreign policy. We believed that the labor movement should promote its own foreign policy ideas based on diplomacy and labor solidarity, rather than going along with the embrace of militarism and imperialism by both parties after World War II.

UE was the first union to oppose the war in Vietnam, and we were an early critic of U.S. military intervention in Central and South America. We expressed our solidarity with the working class of South Africa in its long and ultimately successful effort to throw off apartheid. We opposed Ronald Reagan’s military build-up in the 1980s and both Bush wars in Iraq. We also opposed Bill Clinton’s bombing of Kosovo and Barack Obama’s complicity with right-wing coups in Honduras, Brazil, and Ukraine—the last of which led directly to the outbreak of war with Russia in 2022.

At our 2015 convention, UE became the first U.S. union to endorse the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, initiated by Palestinian unions and civil society organizations as a nonviolent means of pressuring the state of Israel to end its apartheid oppression of Palestinians.

In all of these discussions, we have consistently connected the decisions that the U.S. government makes about foreign policy to the effect those decisions have on our members’ pocketbooks and lives. As UE General President Albert Fitzgerald told the 33rd UE convention in 1968, “You cannot have guns and butter at the same time in this country. You cannot have decent wages, hours, and working conditions; you can’t have decent homes and decent schools; you can’t have freedom for anyone in this country as long as our resources are going down the sink being expended in futile wars.”

Members of UE Local 150, calling on the city of Durham, North Carolina, to support a ceasefire in December, made a similar point. While UE members who work for the city can’t afford to live there, “every year, Durham residents send $4.3 million in our federal tax dollars directly to Israel’s military. This is money we need to support workers and our communities here.”

The connection between foreign policy and our pocketbooks became painfully clear in the later decades of the 20th century as employers began to move our jobs to countries which had been made “safe for capital” by U.S. military intervention.

Solidarity at home

Our union’s preamble, adopted at our founding convention in 1936, commits us to being “an organization which unites all workers on an industrial basis, and rank-and-file control, regardless of craft, age, sex, nationality, race, creed, or political beliefs.”

That commitment to uniting all workers made it clear to us early on that immigrants, including undocumented immigrants, are fully deserving of union organization. We have consistently organized immigrant workers throughout the decades, even at times when most labor unions shunned or even attacked them. More broadly, our union has opposed the war on workers of color and immigrant workers at home as consistently as we have opposed unjust wars abroad.

The positions adopted by our union are made through a fully democratic process. Policy resolutions are submitted by locals, refined by a convention resolutions committee made up of dozens of rank-and-file delegates, and discussed on the floor where all delegates have a chance to speak. Read the pages of UE convention proceedings from the 1960s and you will find vigorous debates about the Vietnam War.

Our members know that they have the right to speak their minds about any aspect of union policy, not only at conventions but also at twice-yearly regional council meetings and at regular local membership meetings. While our membership is not immune from the political polarization that has gripped the country in recent years, the majority of our members, of all political persuasions, understand that the union’s positions are decided democratically by the members, not imposed by the leadership.

Especially in the globalized economy of the last half-century, working people must recognize that workers in other countries are no less our brothers, sisters, and siblings than the other workers in our workplaces. Our unions are the most powerful and democratic organizations we have, and we have a responsibility to use them to fight not only for a decent life for ourselves and our co-workers, but also for a world of peace and justice for all.

Carl Rosen is the general president of UE.

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