As Israel continues its brutal and illegal attack on the people of Gaza, many Canadian politicians and journalists have predictably turned their ire on those calling for a ceasefire and an end to both the war and the occupation. This is unsurprising. Canada’s support for Israel is unequivocal, despite that country’s lurch to the extreme right and its unconscionable treatment of Palestinians in Gaza, Jerusalem and the West Bank. People standing in solidarity with Palestinians frequently find themselves in the crosshairs.
This past week, president of Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) Ontario, Fred Hahn, became a public target of the pro-Israel backlash. Federal and provincial politicians, right-wing journalists, and an army of internet trolls descended on Hahn over posts the labour leader made on Twitter and Instagram.
Attacks like these directed at the CUPE Ontario president are part of the overall campaign to silence and discredit those who express support for and solidarity with Palestinians. In this case, however, the ‘controversy’ over Israel-Palestine presents an added opportunity for the right to attack labour as well as internal union democracy. Right-wing commentators are openly calling for union members to withhold their dues from CUPE, despite support for Palestinians being a union position democratically determined through the union’s own internal structures.
The initial Twitter post that generated the backlash, by itself, appeared rather innocuous. On October 8, Hahn tweeted: “As we all think about reasons to be thankful this #thanksgiving2023, I know I’m thankful for the power of workers, the power of resistance around the globe. Because #Resistance is fruitful and no matter what some might say, #Resistance brings progress, and for that, I’m thankful.”
What ostensibly drew a reaction was Hahn’s use of the hashtag “resistance.” The first problem to note is that the hashtag “resistance” on Twitter does not only encompass posts related to Palestine, let alone posts in support of Hamas’ armed struggle. Indeed, one can find plenty of “#resistance” posts from liberal and formerly neoconservative opponents of former United States president Donald Trump, as well as from other political ‘resistances’ from around the world.
Nevertheless, supporters of and apologists for Israel’s military attack on Gaza, as well as many commenters on Hahn’s tweet, apparently took the reference to “resistance” to mean that the CUPE leader was celebrating Hamas’ attack on Israeli soldiers and citizens the previous day. Nothing in the post makes this direct connection. Earlier in the day — and in the days following — Hahn shared and re-shared many articles and posts supportive of Palestinians as well as posts calling for an end to the military attack on Gaza.
Hahn’s Instagram post apparently contained an image with the text, “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” which some inaccurately claim is a call for Israel’s destruction. Opponents of Hahn, and of Palestinian solidarity more generally, apparently grouped these various posts together, but it’s not entirely clear that this was Hahn’s intention with his initial “resistance” reference.
Yet, even if this was Hahn’s intention, those now attacking the labour leader are simply equating all solidarity with Palestinians with de facto support for Hamas, a common tactic. Scrolling through the CUPE Ontario president’s many posts related to Palestine, it’s impossible for any honest reader to conclude that Hahn supports Hamas or was “glorifying violence” in his Thanksgiving message.
On October 11, Hahn responded to such accusations, writing: “For anyone to imagine that I would ever endorse violence is horrific to me - it speaks volumes about the times we're in - I have spent my adult life fighting for justice for workers - building power & solidarity for working people to resist - to win better. These are deeply tragic and troubling days - days that call on all of us to be clear - so let me be clear. I have never celebrated violence. Hoping for people to be free is not violence. Criticism of governments who misuse their power over people is not violence. I'm well aware that this will likely bring an onslaught from those who have labeled me in ways that are simply not true. But I post this for those who I had hoped might know better - calling on us to use Solidarity and to do all we can to call for a ceasefire - for peace. For real respect for international law - to work for justice here and support justice around the globe. Every person, regardless of who they love or how they worship or how they define themselves, deserves to live in peace.”
CUPE Ontario and its International Solidarity Committee also released a strong statement supporting Hahn and reaffirming the union’s support for Palestinian rights, an end to apartheid, and the decolonization of historic Palestine. The statement reads, in part: “[I]n these volatile times, the same principles that guide us also make us targets of others’ hate and intolerance. Recently, CUPE Ontario became the focus of far-right extremist hate because of our role in the counter-protests to the September 20 anti-trans demonstrations. Now we find ourselves targeted by a highly organized pro-Israel lobby that seeks to control the anti-Palestinian narrative fed to Canadians and intimidate any person or organization that fails to comply with its agenda.”
Predictably, the political backlash continued, especially from those on the right.
Ontario Premier Doug Ford issued the following statement, quoted in The Globe and Mail: “The comments by the president of CUPE Ontario glorifying and celebrating the rape, abduction and murder of innocent Israeli people are disturbing, and I denounce them wholeheartedly.” The premier added, “They do not reflect the views or values of Ontario, and I do not believe they represent the opinions of the workers he claims to speak for. Ontario does — and always will — support Israel’s right to defend itself and its citizens against the brutal violence waged by Hamas terrorists.”
Ontario Minister of Labour David Piccini followed up. In a letter sent to Hahn and reported on in the Toronto Sun, Piccini wrote, “It is unacceptable for anyone, especially the head of a major labour union in Ontario, to support glorifying the persecution and murder of innocent Jewish people,” which Hahn never did. “What’s worse, instead of taking responsibility for the harm you have caused, you have doubled down and resorted to blaming others for your shameful comments,” Piccini added.” Piccini is now apparently unwilling to meet with Hahn, which ostensibly means he won’t meet with CUPE Ontario’s president on any political issue, including those related to labour and social policy in the province.
Politicians coming down on Hahn weren’t confined to Ontario, however. Federal labour minister Seamus O’Regan joined “the chorus of condemnation” directed at Hahn as well, calling the CUPE Ontario leader’s statement a “glorification of violence.” O’Regan went so far as to characterize CUPE’s statement in support of Hahn as “spreading antisemitic conspiracy theories.”
Never willing to pass up an opportunity to attack Canadian labour or its leaders, the right-wing media of course got in on the action as well.
For example, Joe Warmington at the Toronto Sun bemoaned that “high-ranking CUPE officials are not on the side of Israel at all.” While cataloguing the political backlash against Hahn, Warmington painted CUPE in Ontario and nationally as antisemitic for being broadly supportive of peace and freedom for Palestinians.
Other right-wing commentators used the occasion to issue a broader attack on unions, which wasn’t helped by the fact that some union leaders as well took the opportunity to heap scorn on Hahn and CUPE.
Calls went out from several quarters for CUPE members to send their dues to charity rather than to their union, and a petition on change.org, since removed, called for Hahn’s removal from leadership.
Lawyer Daniel Ableser went a step further, arguing that this occasion shows why Canadian governments should rethink “mandatory membership,” (i.e., the Rand Formula, which prevents workers from free-riding in unionized workplaces by requiring automatic dues deduction). Ableser points to the entirely unworkable model imposed in Alberta, whereby unions are required to distinguish between direct representational activities and activities that are not directly related to bargaining and representation, and members are entitled to withhold dues if the money will be used for the latter.
This type of arrangement is a direct attack on unions’ political capacity and undermines social progress and policy. Historically, unions have been at the forefront of struggles for economic justice — for universal healthcare, income security, and many other social rights. Ableser’s proposal would cripple unions’ ability to engage in these fights. Of course, that’s the entire point.
Still other commentators used Hahn’s posts to question CUPE’s overall conduct as a union. Rahim Mohamed’s article in the National Post is exemplary. “[T]he unspeakable bloodshed in Israel this week has shown that the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), Canada’s largest labour union, is no longer in the business of obtaining the best possible deal for its more than 700,000 members. Instead, the union has revealed itself to be little more than a glorified campus democratic socialist club, handing out leaflets to disinterested classmates,” Mohamed wrote. Instead of capitalizing on union popularity, according to Mohamed, Hahn and CUPE are disgracing their union and sabotaging their future bargaining. Surely Mohamed has the best interests of CUPE members in mind.
On October 21, Hahn ultimately issued an apology in an open letter that also went out to CUPE members and subscribers to the union’s email communications. “Hamas committed a horrific terrorist attack on civilians in Israel. On the day immediately following that, I tweeted about resistance. The timing was wrong. That was an error, and I apologize,” Hahn wrote. That Hahn relented and seemed to walk back his earlier comments and their misinterpretation might be read as caving to the pressure of the political attack outlined above. It’s more likely that pressure from within CUPE itself led Hahn to issue the apology.
It’s clear that forces on the right seek not only to silence dissent and shut down solidarity with Palestinians but also to use this moment to broaden their attack on labour and the left. For right-wing politicians like Ford, it also offers an occasion to blast political opponents fighting his backdoor attempts to sell off public land.
As Hahn remarked in a later post on Twitter in which he shared an article from The Globe and Mail about Ford’s condemnation of his posts: “It's hard not to imagine that the Premier of #onploi [sic] - who is now under criminal investigation by the RCMP over his #GreenbeltScandal - & who was forced to withdraw legislation last fall targeting @osbcucscso @CUPEOntario members - might just be trying to deflect attention.” Indeed.
Hahn has long been one of Canadian labour’s most reliably critical voices. Attacks against him for expressing support for besieged Palestinians are deplorable but unfortunately all too predictable. His weekend apology shouldn’t detract from the positive position that CUPE has taken on Palestine. But this episode offers an abject lesson of why it’s so vitally important that the left stand together on this issue.
Hahn deserves our full support, not only because he’s standing on the right side of this issue but also because the ultimate objective of this type of political backlash is to silence Palestinian allies and divide the left. We can’t let that happen.
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