Practicing Labor Internationalism in a Time of Crisis

How are local, national, and international labor organizations contributing practical solidarity to the people of Palestine?

Most labor and socialist movements around the world celebrate International Workers’ Day on May 1 with rallies and marches. The US is an exception. This is ironic since that day was chosen to honor the five anarchists who were hanged in the aftermath of a bombing that killed seven Chicago policemen on May 4, 1886 during a rally for the eight-hour day.

Instead, US workers have the Labor Day holiday in September, usually celebrated with family picnics, motorcades, and breakfast speeches by labor leaders, and politicians angling for the labor vote. I usually participate in May Day events in the Boston area, consisting of marches for immigrant rights in Chelsea and East Boston, and small rallies and speeches by leftist groups on Boston Common.

Because of my global labor organizing work, I had the opportunity to participate in May Day events in several other countries. In Geneva, Switzerland, the annual May Day marches normally had fewer than a thousand participants, but with large contingents of international solidarity activists, most notably Kurds. In Stockholm the parades were working class family events, decorously Social Democratic but large and spirited. In Marseilles, where May Day was a semi-official holiday and the unions curtailed most public transport, most participants were older white and black industrial workers mobilized by the Communist Party, but with a notable lack of international participants and little interest in the North African neighborhoods through which the march proceeded. In San Salvador in 1986, the march was relatively small but militant, vocal and understandably concerned about military or police repression. Key worker organizers that I met with there were assassinated in following years.

May Day events are so different from place to place because they reflect specific characteristics of working-class existence in their respective societies. I have not been to countries where May Day consists mainly of showing off the latest military hardware and long speeches by party officials, but that sadly may be what most people think May Day is about.

Fellow DSA member Jana Silverman and I made a case for supporting global class struggle through labor internationalism in a previous issue of Socialist Forum. To buttress that case, we referenced the twinning of socialist organization and working-class organizing over nearly two centuries at the international level. We also referenced specific cases up to that point where DSA’s International Committee had sufficient consensus to move forward together on creative and positive campaigns, as well as a few areas where we failed to show solidarity with unions under attack outside the US because of internal dissension. What I will do here is to discuss the role of labor internationalism in the concrete case of Gaza and Palestine, which is still developing as of this writing.

Gaza and Palestine

The National Labor Network for Ceasefire (L4CF) was formally launched on February 22 with a Zoom webinar called “Building Bridges for Peace,” which attracted over 500 participants. The webinar, capably moderated by Juan Gonzalez of Democracy Now, featured speakers Wendy Pearlman of Northwestern University, United Auto Workers (UAW) President Shawn Fain, National Education Association (NEA) President Becky Pringle, and US Representatives Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) and Summer Lee (D-PA).

As both Shawn Fain and Becky Pringle pointed out on the webinar, trade union rights and human rights should be inseparable. Social justice and peace are traditional goals of workers’ movements throughout the world, including the US. An unbroken chain of solidarity stretching from workplace to the globe based on a mobilized rank-and-file is an indispensable part of international socialism. An injury to one is an injury to all.

Ten major national U.S. unions and some 230+ local labor organizations endorsed an immediate ceasefire in Gaza. Together these national unions represent nearly 60% of total union membership in the US. Seven national unions are formally part of L4CF (UE, UAW, NEA, IUPAT, APWU, NNU, AFA), while SEIU, AFT and CWA (and even the AFL-CIO, if tepidly and late) have also endorsed some form of a ceasefire.

The creation of the L4CF less than five months into the Israel-Gaza conflict represents the most rapid and successful mobilization of US unions against a war supported by the US government. In parallel historical cases like Vietnam, Nicaragua and Iraq, labor mobilization against the war was relatively slow to develop and fragmented when it did, never reaching the broad basis of union support this campaign is now gaining.

Some of this accelerated mobilization can be attributed to the sheer magnitude of suffering that’s been inflicted on Gaza’s civilian population, much larger in scale than the Hamas attack of October 7, 2023 inflicted on Israeli civilians. But another major factor is the powerful bottom-up rank-and-file-based mobilizing strategy within several U.S. labor unions.

Evidence for this can be viewed in the comprehensive list of union caucuses, state and local unions that endorsed a ceasefire even before most national unions did. In the case of the UAW, Regions 6 and 9A and the Unite All Workers for Democracy rank-and-file caucus led the parade. For the NEA it was several state and city teachers’ associations that led the way. The 1199 healthcare workers division of SEIU signed on months before the national SEIU leadership issued its own statement.

Many DSA labor members were key organizers within their own unions and councils throughout the country. I will focus on two examples from Massachusetts.

The Graduate Students Union HGSU-UAW Local 5118 endorsed a ceasefire through a mass democratic vote that went to its thousands of members. HGSU-UAW President Evan Mackey commented on the “UAW’s commitment to democracy, informed by our reform caucus UAWD, Unite All Workers for Democracy. Brandon Mancilla, the UAW 9A Regional Director who announced the national UAW support for a ceasefire at a rally in DC, comes from the HGSU-UAW.” Evan and Brandon are both members of DSA.

Ruth Jennison and Phan Huang of River Valley DSA, both longtime pro-Palestine activists, helped win the support of the Massachusetts Teachers Association (MTA) for a ceasefire as leaders of its faculty division. The MTA has been led by members of its reform caucus for several years since Barbara Madeloni,who now works for Labor Notes, was elected as MTA president in 2014.

Labor for Palestine activists were able to mobilize quickly within the own unions because they were already part of internal networks of solidarity forged around reform campaigns, as shown in the case of the UAW and the MTA.

The United Electrical Workers (UE) helped launch the National Labor Network for Ceasefire because of its long-time commitment to international solidarity.  As UE President Carl Rosen writes in Labor Notes, the UE demand for a ceasefire was anchored in decades of membership education and debate.

International Level

Global Union Federations (GUFs) responded both with statements and with concrete measures of material and political support to Gazan workers. GUFs include unions from different countries in specific broad sectors of work. Their members are not individual workers, but unions from multiple countries. Most of the time GUFs are mostly concerned with creating global networks of unions and workers in their respective sectors to create a counter-power to capitalist corporations and governments. For an analysis of how one particular GUF, the International Union of Foodworkers (IUF), functioned in creating global networks of workers within Coca-Cola and Nestle, please see a paper I wrote with colleagues from Russia, the Asia-Pacific, and Latin America.

Most Palestinian unions are affiliated with one GUF or another. When the Palestinian Trade Union Federation issued a general call for solidarity with workers in Gaza, all GUFs responded positively. Although their affiliated unions and their own governing structures come from politically diverse traditions, they usually agree on basic principles of human rights, peace, and social justice. While their means of direct intervention are limited and making rapid decisions in a sprawling global organization is often cumbersome, a genuine humanitarian crisis faced by Gazan workers and families evoked unusually concerted action.

Most GUFs have made impassioned statements and expressions of sympathy for the plight of workers in Gaza and their families, focused on unions and workers in their sectors. For instance, the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), to which the Palestinian Journalists’ Syndicate (PJS) is affiliated, campaigns against the heavy losses of journalists and other media workers trying to cover the slaughter of civilians in Gaza. On March 25, the IFJ partnered with the PJS and the League of Arab States to organize a parallel event to a meeting of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva to call for the protection of Palestinian journalists. PJS President Nassar Abu Baker told representatives of the missions from 70 countries: “If you aggregate all the journalists killed since October – without counting those who have been seriously injured – you will find that nearly 10% of the 1200 journalists from Gaza have been targeted and obliterated. This is perhaps the largest number of journalists killed in any war since Vietnam.”

As the war in Gaza continues, GUFs are coordinating to throw light on the crisis workers in Gaza are facing across all sectors. GUF websites are sharing essays and articles on their websites to expose the devastating impact on the safety and well-being of all workers and their families in Gaza, while stressing the urgent need for a ceasefire. For example, on the website of IndustriALL I found an eloquent statement from another GUF, Public Services International (PSI), about the conditions facing Gazan public sector workers of all kinds, including emergency responders, health care and utility workers. PSI is organizing donations to its Gaza Solidarity Fund to provide humanitarian assistance and support to these public service workers and their families.

As the US affiliate of Education International (EI), the NEA joined the pledge to provide aid to teachers and students in Gaza, where all universities and most school buildings have been destroyed. Rather like the MTA transmitted rank-and-file pressure upward to influence the NEA’s support for a ceasefire, the NEA as a member of EI influences its policies.

As you go to the highest level of labor’s international structures, the rival International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) and the World Confederation of Trade Unions (WFTU), the air becomes more rarified and the possibility of action other than statements diminishes. At that level, the main activity is trying to influence organizations connected with the UN, such as the International Labor Organization and the Human Rights Council. The letterhead Council of Global Unions (the ITUC, the GUFs and the Trade Union Advisory Committee to the OECD) has focused on restoring UNRWA funding to feed and educate civilians in Gaza and in Palestinian refugee camps in the Middle East. The WFTU has issued a statement supporting Palestinian Land Day protests on March 30. This level is several layers distant from the interests and needs of any real workers in Gaza or anywhere else.

What possibilities exist for workers who support Palestinian rights to act directly? The problem is that effective solidarity among the workers of the world, long a slogan and goal of socialists, is difficult to organize and maintain across a global working class that is very fragmented among multiple union structures and political ideologies. It functions at a few crucial nodes where the conditions are most favorable, for example the solidarity shown by unions in Sweden and other Nordic countries for a few score Tesla workers in Sweden. The unions where other more general appeals to international solidarity achieve some kind of resonance are in countries like South Africa and Brazil, which themselves benefited in the past from international solidarity.

A resilient global labor solidarity network will be built out the same way that genuine unions emerge at local workplaces and through focused national reform caucuses. DSA is focused on a sophisticated rank-and-file driven strategy in domestic union organizing that can play a similar role at the international level, in coordination with like-minded democratic socialists in other countries. UAW President Shawn Fain, for example, is trying to create a building block for that aspirational approach by trying to line up contract expiration dates for a potential general strike on May Day, 2028. Can we imagine that on May 1, 2028 workers in many countries could mobilize a one-day general solidarity strike against global capitalism and repressive governments? Think big, and organize at the molecular level!

Image: Drawing of a scene from the May 1886 Haymarket Riot from Harper’s Weekly (1886)