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When Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) Ontario president Fred Hahn expressed his support for besieged Palestinians, a political backlash ensued. Thankfully, many in the labour movement supported Hahn, with some minor exceptions

Crises like the on-going war on Gaza are tests of the labour movement’s unity and morality. Confronting Israel’s occupation and the cause of the Palestinians can be divisive and uncomfortable. Surely there are many in the ranks of labour leadership who would prefer to stay silent and avoid the controversy altogether. The magnitude of Israel’s assault on Gaza, however, forecloses this option. 

Labour in Canada and internationally has an obligation to stand for peace and Palestinian freedom. Despite decades of counterattack from employers and governments, workers and unions still hold strategic and symbolic power in our economy. The labour of rank-and-file workers gives them leverage in their workplaces, and the collective resources of unions make organized labour our primary basis of power. 

When those in positions of power in unions and labour federations show leadership on issues like freedom for Palestine, this emboldens workers and lets them know that leaders have their back. 

More directly, unions can, and should, protect their members from reprisal when taking public political positions. Employers and governments may react harshly against workers for showing solidarity with Palestinians. Unions are the primary institution to protect workers from such retaliation. 

Perhaps most importantly, unions are the only institution in which working people can democratically come together, not only to improve their conditions at work but also to make their voices heard on pressing political issues. Across a broad range of unions and labour organizations, this is exactly what’s been happening over the past three weeks. 

Following Hamas’ initial surprise attack on Israeli soldiers and civilians, Canadian labour’s response was somewhat understandably muted. For example, the Canadian Labour Congress reshared the International Trade Union Confederation’s (ITUC) October 9 statement which began by “condemning attacks on civilians” and called for “​​a just outcome through dialogue, respect for international law, in particular human rights law, and the full implementation of the relevant UN Security Council Resolutions to bring about a two-state solution.” 

Since then, the ITUC has released a further statement calling for an immediate ceasefire and the return of hostages from both sides. The statement reads, in part: “We support the UN Secretary General’s position for a major humanitarian effort for the people of Gaza and others displaced since October 7. The Palestinian people, who have been living in very difficult conditions for years, should not have to pay for the current escalation. Just as the Israeli people should not live in fear of attacks coming from Gaza or elsewhere.” Although more strident in its calls for peace and security than the previous statement, the ITUC nevertheless shied away from linking the conflict to Israel’s ongoing occupation or violations of international law. 

In Ontario, the Ontario Federation of Labour (OFL) issued a statement asking “all trade union allies” to demand the Canadian Government call for an immediate ceasefire, “call for an end to the blockade of Gaza and for the restoration of humanitarian aid and access to the basic necessities of life,” and call for the return of all hostages and civilians held in detention. Importantly, the OFL highlighted that, “The labour movement has a long tradition of speaking out against war. In our own organizations, we pledge to create safer, welcoming, and inclusive spaces for members to continue discussing this issue.” 

Calls from Palestinian unions, however, have been more urgent. On October 16, Palestinian unionists called on international union allies to “end all complicity” and “stop arming Israel.” Their statement makes clear workers around the world have the power and an obligation to refuse to build and ship arms to Israel. “As Israel escalates its military campaign, Palestinian trade unions call on our counterparts internationally and all people of conscience to end all forms of complicity with Israel’s crimes—most urgently halting the arms trade with Israel, as well as all funding and military research. The time for action is now—Palestinian lives hang in the balance,” their call reads

In the past couple of weeks, rank-and-file union members have responded. For example, on October 20, the Hamilton and District Labour Council (HDLC) issued a call for an immediate ceasefire that reaffirmed the labour council’s “position for an end to the occupation of Palestinian territories.” 

The HDLC’s statement continues: “Further, we call on the Canadian government to stop arming the Israeli government and instead supply humanitarian aid to the Palestinian people to help offset the crisis that continues in Gaza. We condemn federal, provincial and municipal politicians who are using the crisis in the Middle East to smear and slander those who speak out in defense of Palestinian human rights as being ‘pro-terrorist’ in a way that undermines freedom of expression and democratic rights.” Following this, the Service Employees International Union’s (SEIU) large Canadian Local 2 adopted the HDLC’s position. 

At CUPE’s national convention this past week in Quebec City, members passed an emergency resolution in support of Palestine by a two-thirds majority. The resolution states that CUPE will, “Demand the Canadian government call for an immediate ceasefire in Israel/Palestine, an end of its sale of arms to Israel, an end to diplomatic immunity for the state of Israel, and an end to Israel’s blockade of Gaza and the restoration of aid and the basic necessities of life,” as well as, “Conduct member education about the history of Israel’s occupation and colonization of Palestine, Canada’s complicity, and what trade unions can do to support a just peace.” That Canada’s largest union passed such a member-driven resolution is extremely important. 

As well, the Canadian Staff Union (CSU), which represents staff employed at CUPE, passed an especially strong four-point resolution in solidarity with Palestinian civilians and trade unions. 

“We’re watching an unprecedented genocide before our eyes, one that’s only getting worse with every passing day,” said Amy Kishek, a CSU member who helped advance the emergency resolution as part of Labour for Palestine CSU Caucus. “In this moment, we decided to respond to the call from Palestinian trade unions. They’ve told us loud and clear that trade unions must play a role in educating members about occupation and the escalating genocidal violence and displacement unfolding now, as well as the complicity of countries like the one we live in.”

According to CSU’s press release, “The action items for the resolution calls for the CSU to: Respond to calls from Palestinian trade unions to end the violence and pressure Canada to stop all military trade/support for Israel; Protect CSU members from being disciplined or silenced for speaking out; Conduct member education; [and] Strike a committee to investigate, and report on, CUPE Employees’ Pension Plan investments in companies on the boycott [divestment and sanctions] list.”

“We came together, organized, mobilized, and put together a resolution that we felt was in time with what is going on currently in the political context,” said Kimalee Phillip, a staff member at CUPE and CSU member. 

As Phillip reiterated, “We’re calling for the union to actively protect CSU members through collective bargaining [and] through the grievance procedures, and to take political action to ensure that staff who speak out in support of Palestine, but who also are critical of the state of Israel as an apartheid state and its occupation, that we don’t face retribution for those positions.”

Importantly CSU has centred the issue of divestment by committing to examine any potential pension investments its fund may have in Israel. “We have one of the best pension plans as staff within CUPE and we want to make sure that our funds are not being invested in ways that support the apartheid regime. So we’re calling on our union to strike a committee and work with our pension trustees to investigate and report to the membership. We want to make sure our pension fund isn’t invested in companies that are benefiting from the occupation,” Phillip told Class Struggle.  

These various statements and commitments from Canadian labour are both promising and necessary, but much more could be done. Labour for Palestine Canada, a pan-Canadian network of labour activists working to deepen solidarity with Palestinian workers and people, has an ongoing letter writing campaign urging union leaders to issue calls for a ceasefire and an end to Israel’s blockade. At the time of writing, more than 2,300 letters have been sent. Unions members are clearly speaking up. 

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