Andrew Ross’ position in this debate at Truthout over Israel and Palestine bothered me because he calls for the American labor movement to support the BDS movement. Although I personally support BDS, I don’t see why American labor would do that. How would this benefit American workers? What possible upside is there here? Who would make such a decision? Would it be democratic or would it be a top-down decision made by the big union bureaucrats the left loves to hate? Because when it comes to foreign policy and organized labor, the left does seem to be interested in a top down approach to these problems. Well, either that or this debate is existing in a fairyland that believes American workers would care enough about the issue and then vote or otherwise democratically decide to take a position on a foreign policy question that does not concern their lives specifically–and that those workers would take the left-wing position on that foreign policy question.
In other words, this is the kind of the debate that a place like Truthout loves (and that’s fine) but which doesn’t have any real resonance for American workers as they exist in the real world.
There is a weird relationship between the left and organized labor on foreign policy. We all know how horrible the AFL-CIO was in the Cold War, supporting right-wing coups, serving as willing dupes of the CIA, etc. It’s an awful and inexcusable history. I think there is also absolutely no question that to extent that American rank and file workers had opinions on these issues, the overwhelming majority were anti-communist and would have fully supported its leaders in fighting communism. But left more unquestioned is why American labor should have a foreign policy on issues outside of those affecting workers overseas. When, broadly conceived, there are lots of workers in both Israel and Palestine, it’s unclear what the point of getting involved would be. Justice, you say. But is worldwide justice on all issues in fact the point of the labor movement?
In the end, the left wants organized labor to be the IWW. But while the Wobblies were very good at international solidarity, they not only had very little ability to mobilize American workers on these questions, but these positions were largely held by even a small number of Wobblies–its small leadership class, some of its east coast unions, and the hard-core syndicalists. Even for the IWW, the majority of its rank and file members ranged from not caring to being quite pro-patriotism on foreign policy issues, at least in my reading of the union’s history and exploring the relationship between committed Wobblies who wrote in Industrial Worker and people who joined up because it gave them some hope to improve their lives.
If the left critiques organized labor as having a bad foreign policy, in the past if not in the present, the other major critique is that unions are undemocratic and that this lack of democracy is a major reason for the decline of the labor movement. While I agree that there isn’t a lot of democratic decision making in many unions, I rather strongly disagree that it is why labor is struggling today (the structural changes of automation, globalization, capital mobility, and the organized business lobby are far more important). I think a real problem a lot of leftists have in conceptualizing labor is that they assume democracy=the position in which they believe. But of course, democratic decision making in labor unions in the last 50 years would have meant (and often did mean) racial segregation. It meant gender discrimination. It meant hating environmentalists who were not at fault for workers’ lost jobs. It also meant a Cold War foreign policy. And today, it would probably mean supporting Israel, not Palestine. And if Ross and others want the AFL-CIO leadership to make bold pronouncements on these issues, I do think they have to reconcile it with whether such a decision would represent the rank and file in any meaningful way.
Personally, I don’t think American labor has too much business getting involved in these questions, especially given the dire situation it finds itself in. Yes, taking more positions on international issues that aren’t directly related to its own interests but that are just might endear it to the left, but that’s a very small number of people and it always was. When the communists ran the International Woodworkers of America in the late 1930s, the newspaper ran tons of stories on the Spanish Civil War and other anti-fascist stories. The newspaper focusing on this stuff instead of the actual organizing of Northwestern loggers was a powerful tool in the hands of the anti-communists, who eventually won control of the union with the assistance of John L. Lewis and his lieutenant Adolph Gerner. But that battle wasn’t just top down. It was basically the entire rank and file in Oregon revolting against the communists near the Canadian border. It does not help us understand the labor movement to assume the rank and file always wanted to move to the left and the big bad leadership wanted to move to the right. Often, it was the opposite of that. I’m not confident the situation would be any more favorable to the left with the American rank and file today.
This is probably too long of a post for a relatively minor article, but I think the point is important. Promoting American labor taking controversial foreign policy stances is probably pretty undemocratic and doesn’t help American unions organize workers or represent the ones they have under contract. If American unions do want to take this issue on, then they should go for it, but I don’t see much evidence that it would be on the side of Palestine and if it wasn’t, it’s far too easy to just dismiss this as another example of the legacy of the Cold War. Because again, I’m not seeing a rank and file clamor for American labor to expend political capital support Palestine.