Sunday, October 19, 2014

Reflections on the Fall 2014 UAW 2865 Joint Council Meeting: Or How Zionism Stifles Union Democracy

The views expressed in this blog post reflect the views and opinions of the individual poster and not any organization he is affiliated with, including but not limited to the UAW 2865, the Joint Council, the AWDU caucus, the Anti-Oppression Committee, the BDS caucus, and more.

Summary1. Zionism and labor law (which I guess I didn't mention labor law as much as I should have) can restrict union democracy and force us into practices which are overly formal  2. it is these root problems that we must blame, not AWDU or the e-board or the BDS caucus for the way the Fall JC was conducted and 3. asking (because I don't have an answer other than "fight!") how can we move forward democratizing the union when the obstacle is much bigger than for example just an admin caucus in power, but is social conditions far greater in scope than the UC?

Background on the UAW 2865 Joint Council Vote to Call for a Membership Vote to Join the BDS Movement

This summer, especially in light of the massacre in Gaza, my union, UC Student Workers Union UAW 2865 - which represents academic student employees across the entire UC system, voted to support the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement in solidarity with the Palestinian people and particularly in response to the call from Palestinian unions and civil society to engage in these actions to help stop human rights abuses and hopefully eventually bring justice and end the occupation of their land (and all that is implied with that - the system of apartheid or Jim Crow style 2nd class citizenship that Palestinians living in Israel must live with, the lack of a right of return to the millions of refugees who were cast out of their home by the Israeli military, the stealing of land and resources, and more). This vote was made by the Joint Council, the body of all elected officers, and which is the largest and most representative body in the union.

The Joint Council makes political decisions all the time. It has that right as the largest most democratic and representative body of the union.

However, because this is an issue that we felt is of such importance that we needed to engage the membership in educational campaigns about the situation in Palestine and furthermore, to allow the members to be more engaged in this process of joining the BDS movement, we decided to also hold a vote sometime in the Fall in which all members could participate - like voting on contract ratification or electing officers.

This step was completely unnecessary. There are no laws, nothing in the UAW constitution or the UAW 2865 bylaws, which say that we had to do this. Further the UC Davis unit had already voted during a membership meeting to call the UC to divest from companies profiting from human rights abuses in occupied Palestine.

Despite these steps being unnecessary, since our union leadership is made up of progressive/radical folks committed to bottom-up participatory democracy, engaging the members in education campaigns and allowing them to vote would be a great way to develop a base of support for this decision or allow the members to vote against our decision.

In the lead-up to the Fall JC (Joint Council) meeting Zionist groups, both hard-line and soft-liberal Zionist groups, emerged as well as warped articles on zionist "news" sites and a Zionist think tank even sent a letter to the UC president about their "concerns" about our actions.

In light of that, with the Steven Salaita case still ongoing, and knowing that a prominent tactic of Zionist groups to silence any criticism of the Israeli government is to both publicly sling mud and to use frivolous litigation to silence people as well as penalize them for their criticism with the cost of that litigation, the union leadership decided to consult with the union's lawyer about how to handle the JC meeting and the potential balloting of the membership (if the proposal to ballot the membership, or other ballot proposals, passed at the meeting).

The Fall Joint Council Meeting 

Giving Equal Time to "both sides/all sides"

Due to legal concerns, at the advice of the union's lawyer, the meeting was structured to give "both sides/all sides" equal time on every issue and every vote and to strictly  follow Robert's Rules of Order. This is very problematic for many reasons. The most glaring problem was that because there were really only two people opposing the vote while the rest of the JC, like forty-plus people supported it (the remaining abstained or weren't present), two people, both white men, got to speak for almost half of the entire meeting. As one comrade put it: "40-0 vote and half the time went to the 0. It truly doesn't make sense."

Why this is problematic:
  • Created the false sense of equal sides (I just kept thinking about the John Oliver clip about the climate change "debate" and how the "giving both sides equal time" issue skews the dialog to seem like this is much more of a debate than it is.
  • Not only reinforced white male privilege, but was an exaggerated spectacle of privilege where two white men (one of which wasn't even a JC member and couldn't even vote) had as much a voice as the rest of the entire room combined
  • Reinforced the idea that there is a conflict between two equal sides also in Israel and Palestine, instead of exposing the nature of the problem as one of colonizer and colonized, oppressor and oppressed
  • The meeting became a space where not only were the ideas of the colonizer allowed (which they shouldn't be) but where they were treated as a legitimate opinion of other union members that we needed to respect

Zionism Stifles Union Democracy

Before AWDU took leadership of UAW 2865 our union was very top-down, centralized (no campus autonomy), exclusionary (ex: closed bargaining), and stressed formal representative democracy. Since 2011 when AWDU took power the union has shifted to a more participatory bottom-up democracy (for example this vote that this post is about). 

Joint Council meetings and bargaining team meetings have often followed a model of trying to find consensus first, and then falling back on majority-rule if that doesn't work. Joint Council meetings were a space where everyone could voice their opinion and a real organic conversation could happen -- I'm not saying there weren't times of high contestation in which it felt like no one was listening to each other and that votes weren't just called because people were sick of talking, but democracy is messy. Think of Occupy - sure the thumbocracy got annoying and meetings lasted forever, and though sometimes the consensus model felt like it was a failure, those meetings always had a feeling of realness to them, they felt like a real conversation, that anyone could participate in - and that is what drew many people sick of the two party symbolic vote once every few years system into occupy who were looking for real democracy.

In the Fall JC meeting though, Robert's Rules were followed to the T. A proposal was made, there was time for questions, there were two speakers for and two speakers against, and then a vote. Everything was strictly timed and the whole "discussion" and the entire meeting just felt like a ritual. It was overly structured and mechanistic. It didn't feel like any other JC or activist space I had ever been in. I was never in the union pre-AWDU takeover (I started the next Fall), but I am doubtful that things were that bad even then - though I should ask some people who were around to see what they say. Either way, all the progress AWDU had made in the last 3 1/2 years (example) seemed gone (I don't mean to imply permanently gone, just under the situation of having this particular issue being voted on).

Combine this strict following of Robert's Rules with the issues raised above about how two people got nearly 50% of the entire JC time (I say nearly 50% only because we spoke about more than just BDS related issues, so they got 50% during the BDS discussion, but on non-BDS issues the two of them didn't constitute the "other side of the debate), and how it also legitimized the viewpoint of the colonizer/oppressor which inherently normalizes the situation of the colonized/oppressed, and we can see how unconducive to real democracy this meeting was - and all in order to protect the union from frivolous legal costs brought on by Zionist attempts to silence criticism of Israeli state policy.

This is how Zionism is bad for union democracy. Opposition to Zionism is about more than just solidarity with the Palestinians, it is also about democratizing our union. So long as Zionism is strong in society our union remains vulnerable to repression of democracy. Some people talk about the movement in solidarity with Palestine as if its just a moral calling (which it is also), that its about just "ending our own complicity" by divesting and boycotting (which it is), BUT it is also important to highlight how Zionism is something that we must also struggle against for our own democracy and self-determination. The old slogan "An injury to one is an injury to all" isn't just words, it is a reminder, a cautionary tale : When Palestinians are colonized, slaughtered, displaced, and robbed of natural resources and political autonomy, our ability to speak up against these atrocities is also under attack. Our democracy, our very own voices are under attack.

I heard some people at the JC say that "this is not a labor issue" (and by labor issue they mean wages and benefits), but I think I have just proven how this is a labor issue. BDS is a labor issue just as much as wages and benefits. 
The proposal to poll the membership did pass, so there will be a UC-wide vote December 4th 2014, to see if members of UAW 2865 want to join the BDS movement.

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