As disheartening as it has been to watch the stain of anti-Israel boycott fever spreading through Great Britain’s trade union movement, the greater legacy of the episode may well be the angry rise of American labor in defense of the Jewish state.
Two of Britain’s most influential unions, the public service union Unison and the venerable Transport and General Workers’ Union, have adopted resolutions in the past month calling for a complete boycott of Israeli goods and imports. The boycott calls come on the heels of less successful efforts in two other unions: the university teachers’ union UCU, which urged its members to “consider” a boycott of Israeli academia, and the journalists’ union, which narrowly turned back a similar proposal.
The boycott calls have aroused widespread revulsion and condemnation, from British and American Jewish agencies to the Royal Society and the European Union, not to mention Israel’s own labor movement and academic community. None of these protests, however, had much of an impact on the ideologically driven radicals who dominate British labor.
Not so the American labor movement. When 29 top leaders of American unions issued a joint statement this week condemning the boycotts and “questioning the motives” behind the singling out of Israel — “one country in one conflict” out of a “diverse range of oppressive regimes around the world about which there is almost universal silence” — American labor signaled that the British radicals had a real fight on their hands. It didn’t go unnoticed that the signers of the statement included the presidents of the AFL-CIO and some 25 major unions, including such giants as the steelworkers, autoworkers, teamsters, mineworkers and garment workers. It was important, too, that the signatories also included the heads of the two most important black labor organizations, the A. Philip Randolph Institute and the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists.
And it was noteworthy that the Jewish Labor Committee was able to line up such a top-tier list of union leaders on a week’s notice, a clear sign of the Jewish community’s continuing clout within the American labor movement.
What’s most telling, though, is the fact that the labor leaders’ statement is not the end of the American counterattack against union boycotts, but the beginning. While the Jewish Labor Committee was releasing its joint statement in New York this week, leaders of the American public service unions were organizing internationally, labor leaders told the Forward, to block the campaign by the head of the British service union, one of the boycott leaders, to win the presidency of the world federation of public service unions. Meanwhile, leaders of the American Federation of Teachers were in Berlin at the fifth world congress of Education International, the world federation of teachers’ unions, derailing a plan by the British university union to promote its boycott efforts abroad. Working closely with the German unions, the American representatives appeared at press time to have stopped the British boycotters in their tracks.
It’s been generations since Jewish community activists lost the habit of viewing organized labor as an ally, let alone an important one. Jews have grown more affluent. Unions have lost strength. Not least, Jewish leaders have gotten used to equating “left-wing” with “anti-Israel.”
We’ve lost sight of the fact that organized labor is not a fringe element or special interest group, but the heart of a healthy democracy. No one understands better than labor the importance of a democracy that respects the weak, downtrodden and misunderstood, that guarantees the general welfare and dispenses equal justice to all. For all those reasons, no segment of American democracy has been a more reliable friend to democratic Israel over the past six decades than the labor movement.
It’s important to note, too, that unions are responsive to Jewish concerns at least partly because Jews continue to be an important part of the union movement. It’s little noted and rarely advertised, but even now, decades after the glory days of Jewish labor, close to 10% of the presidents of major national unions are Jewish. Some lead unions because of historical legacies of Jewish workers and of Jewish baby-boom activists. Others have risen through the ranks of unions whose members include the many thousands of American Jews who haven’t made their first million or bought their second country home: teachers, store clerks, postal workers, social workers, public servants and many, many more. These are the forgotten Jews who may not be able to afford membership on the boards of major Jewish organizations — perhaps not even to join a synagogue or Jewish community center — but who can vote in their unions and fight the good fight in their own ways.
Most important, we forget that for all the losses American unions have suffered in strength and bargaining power over the past generation, their 13 million members remain a unique power in the world labor movement, and the single largest force for social justice and progressive values within American society.