It is time the labour movement takes a stand for Palestine

It is time the labour movement takes a stand for Palestine

In 2019, not long before the Canadian province of Quebec moved to pass Bill 21, a law outlawing religious symbols in the public sector, I travelled to the Pennsylvania countryside to take part in training provided by the United Steelworkers (USW), a trade union with members across North America.

One evening at dinner, I raised my concerns about the bill with Fred Redmond, who was then serving as the union’s international vice president for human affairs.

I shared with him my conviction that the proposed bill was nothing but an appeal to rising populism in Quebec and would serve no other purpose than to force Muslims there to assimilate into the province’s francophone identity.

The consequences of this legislation had been debated extensively in civil society, so even without my intervention, the union would have been aware of these developments.

The provincial government, led by Coalition Avenir Quebec (CAQ), had made it clear that under this bill, wearing the hijab would render one ineligible for government positions. Those who were “grandfathered in” could maintain their positions, but would be ineligible for promotion. Muslims spanning all strata of government stood to be affected, whether they be a teacher or a judge.

After listening to my case, Fred assured me that he would personally bring this issue to the attention of the union’s national director in Canada.

This was not the first time I had vocalised my fears about the threats facing Muslim workers in Canada. Weeks before, I had approached our district office in an attempt to persuade them into taking a formal position. Still, Fred’s assurances left me hopeful that the USW would fall on the right side of history.

This did not happen.

Ultimately, despite my internal advocacy, the union maintained total silence while Bill 21 passed in the provincial legislature – with devastating effect. As a Muslim member, I found the selective vision and sensitivities of my union deeply troubling.

This problem is by no means unique to the USW. Rather, it impacts much of the labour movement in Canada, the United States, and beyond.Generally, unions are far more democratic and horizontal in architecture than the corporate world. As such, many feel threatened by the wide range of political ideologies and conflicting interests represented within their membership. Many labour bodies struggle with this diversity.

Solidarity is essential to the efficacy of such movements. A fractured membership can undercut collective bargaining efforts and other critical work. Naturally, the question of unity arises when such bodies consider taking a controversial political stance. For years, we have seen this with clean energy and other emerging sectors, which to some, appear at odds with more established labour markets.

Such considerations are understandable – but should never result in unions abandoning workers from minority groups, or turning a blind eye to blatant human rights abuses against their brethren committed with the help of our states and leading industries.

Unfortunately, in 2019, several unions failed to stand with us, Muslim workers, against legislation that was designed to placate the most divisive voices in Canadian society, violate our basic human rights, and hinder our equal participation in the labour market.

Now, as we watch the ongoing devastation in Palestine in abject horror, and desperately push for a humanitarian ceasefire, many of our unions are failing to stand with us again.

There is no doubt that unions across North America recognise the risky political terrain associated with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Also clear, however, is that these same institutions wield unique leverage over the Biden administration, which from the very beginning has assumed an unequivocally pro-union position.

As Israel began its latest assault on Gaza in October, and the civilian death toll began to mount at unprecedented speed with ample evidence of countless war crimes and crimes against humanity under way, Palestinian unions appealed directly to the global labour movement for support in ending the conflict. While some unions have become increasingly vocal in their support for the Palestinian plight, many others have not; their muted response is representative of a continued trend of sidestepping issues facing the broader Muslim community.

Flimsy press releases and token donations are wholly insufficient given the current scale of suffering, and the decades-long history of occupation, apartheid and oppression in Palestine.

This failure to firmly demand an end to Israel’s campaign of ethnic cleansing constitutes an outright betrayal of the very ethos of our unions.

More than ever before, unions are uniquely poised to exert meaningful political pressure. This pressure can save lives. Efforts to distance ourselves from this reality are intellectually reductive, especially as our governments are actively buttressing the Israeli war machine, and our workplaces are contributing to the broader military-industrial complex.

For many of us in the labour movement, and especially Muslims, the sanctimony of those leading our unions is almost too much to handle. How do you square mourning those who were crushed to death or left to suffocate in collapsed mines, but not the thousands of children in Palestine who were crushed to death or left to suffocate under their collapsed homes – homes that were reduced to rubble by US munitions?

The world’s most respected nonprofits, from Amnesty International to Israel’s own B’Tselem, have been condemning Israel’s apartheid and occupation of Palestinian territory, and calling on the international community to take action to end the oppression of the Palestinian people, since long before Hamas’s horrific October 7 attack on Israel that marked the beginning of this latest round of violence in the nearly century-old conflict.

Since then, Israel has attacked hospitals, schools, bakeries, homes and other civilian infrastructure across the Gaza Strip indiscriminately. It has left most of the besieged enclave inhabitable, killing some 20,000 people and pushing its population of 2.2 million, mostly women and children, into ever-shrinking “safe zones” near the Egyptian border. All this has caused leading international scholars, including UN experts, to warn that Palestinians in Gaza are facing an immediate threat of ethnic cleansing. Meanwhile, Palestinians in the occupied West Bank continue to face the threat of forced displacement and unlawful detention, alongside daily attacks by settlers and Israeli armed forces.

By every possible standard, our duty to act has been engaged.

Those in the labour movement know well how important human rights are to our community. We all take pride in our movement’s historical contributions to the development of the international human rights regime – and have even developed a mythology of sorts about this. Go to any union training and you will hear unions proudly qualifying themselves as human rights organisations. Most unions, in fact, have vibrant human rights committees.

This is the time for unions to live up to this image, and show that they are still ready and willing to stand up for what’s right, when it matters. Unions can only fail to represent key constituencies for so long before they lose the moral standing to employ such nomenclature. If advancing human rights, including those of Muslims, are indeed part and parcel of the global labour movement, our unions need to act now.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.

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