Australian unions and the BDS campaign

The increasing isolation of the Israeli state as a result of its assault on Palestinians in Gaza in late 2008 and the slaying of nine solidarity activists on the MV Mavi Marmara aid ship in June has given rise to a qualitative change in support to the rights of Palestinians within the Australian union movement. A growing number of unions internationally have also taken action in protest against the Israeli state’s policies.

Reacting to a 800-strong picket in Oakland, California, members of the US dockworkers’ union (ILWU), refused to handle cargo of an Israeli shipping line on June 20 for 24 hours, the first action of its kind in the US. It spurred dock workers in Sweden, Malaysia and India to follow suit. Unions have also called for a boycott of Israeli goods to express their anger at the continued apartheid-like oppression of the Palestinian people.

The growing solidarity by unionists internationally has given impetus to the international Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign launched in 2005 by a wide range of Palestinian organisations. Its aim is to win international non-violent solidarity and takes its inspiration from the successful campaign to isolate and defeat the apartheid policies of South Africa.

In Australia, the BDS campaign has been slower to gain acceptance within the union movement because of the traditional ties of the official leaders of unions to the ALP, which strongly supports Israel. Nevertheless, the solidarity movement is gaining considerable ground. Over a dozen unions or state branches of unions have adopted resolutions condemning Israel’s attacks on the Palestinians and their supporters. These include the national bodies of the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union and the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union, which have also endorsed aspects of the BDS campaign.

The first union body to adopt the BDS campaign was the Western Australian branch of the Maritime Union (MUA) in January 2009, directly inspiring South African unionists in turning an Israeli Zim line cargo ship around in Port Durban*.

The solidarity movement within the unions began to gain strength following a tour of Palestine organised by APHEDA, the international aid arm of the ACTU in March this year. Union members from the ACT, NSW and Queensland formed Australian Unions in Solidarity with Palestine (AusPalestine) and began winning support from their union branches and state-based Labour Councils.

While this support from unions is welcome and other unions need to be brought on board the BDS campaign, unions need to go further than just recommending boycotting goods and products from illegal Israel settlements in the West Bank. Such goods are extremely difficult to identify and the only really effective means to isolate Israel is for a complete boycott of all Israeli-made goods.

Unions can also help the solidarity campaign by taking on other measures. At its May monthly meeting, the WA MUA unanimously adopted a campaign against Caterpillar, the US-based manufacturer of earthmoving equipment. Caterpillar is directly implicated in the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians through its sale of armoured bulldozers to the Israeli army. These are used to demolish the homes of Palestinians. Whole villages have been cleared and the bulldozers have been responsible for many deaths including that of the international activist Rachel Corrie. Caterpillar regularly sends earthmoving and mining gear through the port of Fremantle.

[Ian Jamieson is an MUA delegate working on the wharves in Fremantle and a member of the Revolutionary Socialist Party.]

*For the record, a couple of socialist papers, Green Left Weekly (June 5) and the June edition of Socialist Alternative incorrectly reported that the action of SATAWU wharfies predated the resolution of the WA MUA. I moved and spoke to the BDS resolution along with Alex Whisson, then convener of Friends of Palestine (WA), at the January 2009 WA MUA monthly meeting. At the WA MUA state conference in late February 2009, representatives of SATAWU and COSATU visiting from South Africa praised the resolution, explaining it inspired their members’ action a week before.