CUPE BC dodges flak from Israel boycott

When the Ontario section of Canada's largest union decided last month to sign up to a worldwide, Palestinian-led campaign to boycott Israel, the result was an unholy mess that British Columbia's largest union is still busy trying to clean up.

“It's been a little crazy, unfortunately,”  a weary Barry O'Neill, president of the 70,000-member B.C. division of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, told me the other day. “It's gotten to the point where it's really hateful,”  O'Neill said. “And we don't even agree with what Ontario is saying.” 

By hateful, O'Neill meant such vituperative telephone calls as the one in which a CUPE BC receptionist was shouted at and called a “fucking Nazi”  and an e-mail blasting CUPE BC for being “a bunch of racist antisemitic scumbags” .

The calls and e-mails pouring into CUPE BC's offices have come from its own members and from people across Canada and as far away as Israel. Some complaints have been perfectly reasonable and some letters and calls have been supportive. But the uproar has all been a bit much for O'Neill.

A plainspoken, big-hearted, up-from-the-ranks guy who has spent half his 52 years working for his union, O'Neill finds one thing about this particularly galling, as well he should: the persistent, sneering complaint that unions should mind their own affairs and stay out of international politics.

O'Neill takes particular pride in CUPE BC's international-solidarity work. The union contributes to a women's centre in Nicaragua, participates in a solidarity campaign for persecuted trade unionists in Colombia, helps out with a health-and-safety training program in Cuba, and runs a distribution network for “fair-traded”  coffee. At CUPE BC's last annual convention, delegates voted to establish a permanent fund””which is expected to raise about $350,000 a year””to respond to humanitarian crises.

The reason CUPE BC has been so closely associated with the CUPE Ontario's boycott resolution””adopted unanimously, and without debate, at its convention on May 27””is that CUPE Ontario has explained itself, in part, this way: “CUPE BC has firmly and vocally condemned the occupation of Palestine and have initiated an education campaign about the apartheid-like practices of the Israeli state.” 

In fact, CUPE BC's only condemnation of the “occupation of Palestine”  is a five-year-old resolution that refers to Israel's illegal settlements in the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem. Since then, Israel has withdrawn its settlements in Gaza, and is making plans to withdraw from almost all of the West Bank. So the term occupation, as it appears in the CUPE Ontario resolution, doesn't make much sense unless it's meant to condemn Israel's existence in what some people prefer to call Palestine.

CUPE Ontario also says the point of the boycott is to force Israel to recognize the right of the Palestinians to self-determination. But Israel already does recognize that right. The resolution further demands that Palestinians be granted the “right of return”  to Israel set out in the United Nations Resolution 194. But UN Resolution 194 was passed in 1948, and its intent has been overtaken by events. A Palestinian “right of return”  now would pretty well finish off Israel as a distinctly Jewish nation-state.

You can see why some people find the whole thing, well, disturbing.

CUPE's national office has stated flatly: “We will not be issuing a call to our local unions across Canada to boycott Israel,”  and several Ontario CUPE locals””including the locals representing several hundred employees of Jewish service agencies””are up in arms. Meanwhile, Buzz Hargrove, head of the Canadian Auto Workers””Canada's largest private-sector union””has come out swinging against the idea of boycotting Israel, and he points out the rather more pressing problem of a Palestinian government that's at least partly run by the terrorist organization Hamas, which is devoted to destroying Israel entirely.

O'Neill, though no fan of Hargrove, takes more or less the same view of the boycott.

“I'm not sure what a boycott would even look like. We can't even pull off a decent boycott of the biggest retailer [Walmart] in the country,”  O'Neill said. “I'd be more interested in seeing real negotiations and real dialogue.” 

To make matters just a bit more complicated””and this is about Mideast politics, after all, so what the hell””the other reason CUPE BC got dragged into the Ontario mess is the CUPE BC “education campaign”  that CUPE Ontario cited. That campaign, decided at a 2003 CUPE BC convention, resulted in a pamphlet called “The Wall Must Fall” . CUPE BC describes the pamphlet as just “an educational resource for members”  and “not an official position paper” , but it's sparked some controversy of its own.

Vancouver forensic psychologist Michael Elterman, chairman of the Canada-Israel Committee's Pacific region, described the pamphlet's problem in the most gentlemanly language he could muster.

Elterman said the pamphlet doesn't even go to the trouble of acknowledging why most Israelis wanted the “wall” , almost all of which is actually a wire fence that follows a tortured path in and around the West Bank. It was built in response to a wave of Palestinian terrorist attacks associated with the al-Aqsa Intifada, especially a June 2001 suicide bombing that killed 21 people and injured 120 at a Tel Aviv disco.

“A barrier is temporary,”  Elterman said. “The end of a human life is permanent.”  And as things turned out, the “wall” ””or fence, or security barrier””proved enormously effective in protecting Israeli civilians from terrorist attacks.

Elterman said labour unions are right to take on international issues, and are properly concerned about social justice and workers' rights in the Middle East. But he said he's not at all surprised by the public debate touched off by the CUPE Ontario resolution.

Since 9/11, a decision by a major Canadian labour organization to mobilize public support for an ill-considered and strangely worded plan to marginalize and isolate Israel is not something that should be expected to go unnoticed or undebated.

“There has been a sea change in public opinion,”  Elterman said.

About time, too.

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