News Brief: Unions, Gaza, and Labor’s Checkered Relationship with US Militarism

Citations Needed | June 19, 2024 | Transcript

Citations Needed
31 min readJun 19, 2024
Labor unions lead a pro-Palestine demonstration in New York City in December 2023. (Selcuk Acar / Anadolu via Getty Images)


Nima Shirazi: Welcome to a Citations Needed News Brief. I am Nima Shirazi.

Adam Johnson: I’m Adam Johnson.

Nima: You can follow the show on Twitter @citationspod, Facebook Citations Needed, and become a supporter of the show through On this News Brief, we are going to be joined by labor historian and author Jeff Schuhrke, who has been writing really important stuff about the labor movement and its response to the ongoing genocide in Gaza. So, we thought he would be really a great person to have on. Also, he has a book coming out later this fall called Blue-Collar Empire, which we will talk about as well.

Adam: Yeah, he’s really been doing a ton of great reporting and interviews and research on labor’s response to US militarism in general, but specifically, this instance of US support of Israel’s onslaught of Gaza. So, I’m excited to talk to him.

Nima: Jeff will join us in just a moment. Stay with us.


Nima: We are joined now by Jeff Schuhrke, labor historian, journalist, union activist, and assistant professor at the Harry Van Arsdale Jr. School of Labor Studies, SUNY Empire State University in New York City. He is a frequent contributor to publications like In These Times and Jacobin and his scholarship has been published in journals such as Diplomatic History and Labor: Studies in Working-Class History. His new book, which will be released on September 24 of 2024 is Blue-Collar Empire: The Untold Story of US Labor’s Global Anticommunist Crusade, which is published by Verso Books. Jeff, thank you so much for joining us again on Citations Needed.

Jeff Schuhrke: Thank you for having me. It’s great to be here.

Jeff Schuhrke

Adam: Yeah, so obviously, a lot’s happened since we had you on last to discuss the history of American labor’s relationship with US militarism in general, imperial meddling, things of that nature. Episode 182, we discussed the kind of broader history and media coverage of US military and US militarism relationship to labor, sometimes fraught, mostly, unfortunately not. Mostly, kind of compliant, if not overtly sinister. So obviously, when Israel’s destruction of Gaza began in earnest in October, and obviously continues to this day, people look to labor, especially because there’s been a resurgence in interest in labor. There’s way more media coverage in labor over the last couple years than there was before. And so, their position as a kind of fulcrum, as a kind of progressive branding for a lot of Democratic politicians, gave them unique leverage, not this positive leverage but some leverage to intervene in this particular issue. So, it fell squarely within your wheelhouse. So, I want to sort of begin by asking you kind of a broad question, which is generally speaking, and I know that there’s a huge spectrum here. Do you feel like labor has responded differently than they did to things like, say, the Iraq war or Vietnam or other major “foreign policy” causes of the anti-war left.

Jeff Schuhrke: So, yeah, I should preface my answer, I think, by saying that within the labor movement, these discussions and debates and activities around foreign policy controversies and wars almost always start with high-ranking officials in the mainstream labor movement, namely, the AFL-CIO and its affiliated unions coming out in support of whatever the US government’s position is. And that’s what my book is about, how organized labor, at least at the top, has for a long time, been a full partner with Washington in implementing its imperial, militaristic foreign policy objectives abroad, working hand in hand with the State Department and US Agency for International Development, the CIA, National Endowment for Democracy, taking millions and millions of dollars from these agencies to carry out projects on the ground in other countries, designed to make sure that foreign labor movements won’t in any way disrupt the US government’s objectives in those countries.

So, during the Vietnam War, for example, it wasn’t just that the AFL-CIO’s top leaders like George Meany were vocally expressing support for the war, which was significant in itself because it helped give political cover to Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon. But the AFL-CIO was also like active on the ground in South Vietnam, propping up the Vietnam General Confederation of Labour, which was the anti-communist, pro-US labor federation that was always working to try to undercut the influence and popularity of the Vietnamese communists, the National Liberation Front, or during the US occupation of Iraq. Twenty years ago, the AFL-CIO Solidarity Center, its international arm that’s funded by USAID and the National Endowment for Democracy, was helping establish new pro-Western trade unions in Iraq. So, that’s the default position of the labor movement, and I think it’s really critical to understand because I think often the perception from the outside is that it’s the anti-war, anti-imperialist lefties in the labor movement who are the ones who start these discussions about foreign policy, and they’re the ones stirring things up. And that leads folks to say, you know, well, why are unions talking about this? You know, stick to the bread-and-butter collective bargaining issues.

But really, the anti-war progressive unionists are typically not the ones who start this stuff. They’re only responding to what national labor officials are already doing and have been doing for decades, which is using labor’s influence and resources such as they are to bolster US imperial interests abroad. And the more left-wing anti-war unionists are saying, we don’t want this being done in our name by our unions with our dues money. And that’s why they really feel so strongly the need to start speaking up and passing resolutions in their local unions and organizing against imperialism and war and occupation and apartheid and genocide. So, that’s typically been the pattern historically with other past wars and foreign policy issues where national labor officials are the first ones to take a position, and it’s always in line with the US government, and then the rank and filers start to dissent. And so, with the assault on Gaza, the genocide in Gaza, it’s been pretty much the same, only I think the pattern has been moving a lot faster than it has in the past. The broader context is the US labor’s long-standing support for Zionism and the state of Israel going back 100 years, giving hundreds of millions of dollars or possibly billions of dollars to labor Zionist institutions like Histadrut to literally help construct the state of Israel. And traditionally, US labor has issued strong public statements of support for Israel whenever it’s been at war with one of the neighboring Arab countries. And so, after October 7, the very first statements that came from the labor movement, they were pro-Israel statements.

Adam: Yeah, so let’s read one of those. I’m gonna, if you’ll indulge me, this is from the AFL-CIO on October 11, 2023. This is a kind of classic, kind of generically pro-Israel statement. So it says,

There can be no justification for the unspeakable atrocities and carnage carried out by Hamas against Israelis over the past several days. The labor movement condemns and stands resolute against all terrorism.

Presumably, what the Israelis were doing at that time because again, at this time, 3000+ had already died in Gaza too, right? So, they’d already surpassed the death toll. And would go on to say,

…and we are concerned about the emerging humanitarian crisis that is affecting Palestinians in Gaza and throughout the region. We call for a swift resolution to the current conflict to end the bloodshed of innocent civilians, and to promote a just and long-lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

So, here we have condemnation of terrorism, atrocities, carnage, right? So, you have this kind of asymmetrical language, and then there’s a passive humanitarian crisis.

Nima: That’s right.

Adam: That has no author, that suddenly emerged in Gaza.

Nima: And it’s just affecting people from nowhere.

Jeff Schuhrke: It’s like an earthquake or a hurricane hit Gaza or something.

Adam: Yeah, it’s a natural disaster, right? And so, this was kind of typical liberal Zionist pablum that kind of came out of a lot of these big labor movements and other big liberal institutions. And with the piece I did with The Intercept back in January, we talked about the asymmetry of emotive language. So, one side is sort of terrorism and murders and butchers and atrocity. The other side is kind of this natural disaster that kind of emerges out of nothing. So yeah, that statement, it basically could have been written by the Biden White House, which I suppose is kind of the point, right?

Jeff Schuhrke: Exactly. And that was one of the earliest statements coming from the labor movement. And similarly, the AFT, American Federation of Teachers, also had a statement around the same time talking about concern for Palestinians caught in the crossfire, implying it was like a war between two equal sides with civilians caught in the middle as opposed to a one-sided slaughter by the strongest military in the Middle East.

Adam: Yeah, no, they like to talk about it like it’s the War of Austrian Succession.

Etching of the Battle of Dettingen during the War of the Austrian Succession, 1743. (National Army Museum)

Jeff Schuhrke: Right, right.

Adam: Just two armies lined up going at it. And then there’s the innocents in the middle, right?

Jeff Schuhrke: Right. And so, this was week one, you know, the earliest days of this. And so, this kind of gets back to what I was saying, that when you start to have unions start calling for a ceasefire, which, you know, those the AFL-CIO statement, the American Federation of Teachers statement, and others from those first few days didn’t say anything about a ceasefire because —

Adam: Yeah, they used the term “swift resolution,” which could mean anything, and of course, could just mean going in and blowing up a bunch of people, right?

Jeff Schuhrke: Exactly. And like you said, it’s completely in line with the White House’s position. So, soon after this, by mid-October, a lot of individual union members and local unions started passing statements, speaking out in solidarity with Palestinians, and calling for a ceasefire. And it’s important to remember that at this point, you know, this is when the White House Press Secretary was saying that calls for a ceasefire were “repugnant” and “disgraceful.” So, calling for a ceasefire was actually a brave move in these early days. So, the United Electrical Workers, UE, which is, you know, an independent union, not part of the AFL-CIO and traditionally, very progressive, started a petition, along with the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 3000 demanding a ceasefire, and they circulated it for other unions to sign on to. And a lot of rank-and-filers were pushing their local unions and state labor federations and central labor councils to sign on to this petition or issue statements of their own calling for a ceasefire. And over the course of four months, hundreds of unions at the local, state, regional, national level were signing on or issuing their own ceasefire statements. And that included a lot of major national unions like the United Auto Workers and American Postal Workers Union and SEIU and the National Education Association, and even the AFT eventually. And then by early February, when ceasefire had become the mainstream position of the labor movement, even the AFL-CIO issued a really brief statement supporting a negotiated ceasefire.

And in contrast to past wars, like with Vietnam, it took years before the majority of the labor movement was calling for an end to the war, not until around 1970 or ’71. And in many ways, that was because Nixon was now the president, and it was easier for labor leaders to criticize the war under a Republican than when Johnson was in office. So, the fact that so many major unions and the AFL-CIO have come out in favor of a ceasefire only in a few months while a Democratic president is still in office during an election year, I think, is kind of significant. But also, I don’t want to get carried away because most of these unions and the AFL-CIO are still fully behind Biden and endorsing him, and they’re not using any leverage to pressure him on cutting off or conditioning military aid to Israel. And after all, even the Biden administration’s language now is saying, you know, yeah, we support a ceasefire too, but, you know, what they mean is a temporary ceasefire, just long enough to release the hostages and then carry on decimating Gaza. And I think if you press some of these top union officials to explain their ceasefire stance, I’m sure a lot of them would kind of have the same position as the Biden administration.

Adam: Yeah, the week before the Michigan primary, just to be clear, and I wrote about this for The Nation at the time. Actually, the State Department banned the use of the word ceasefire for months. They literally wrote a memo saying no one can use this in the US government at all. And then the week of the Michigan primary, in the face of the uncommitted campaign, they then just rebranded their push for a temporary pause as a ceasefire so they could say they support one because it became this buzzword and lost all meaning. Because again, in the context of Israel, Gaza, from 2012 to 2014 to 2021 to 2023, 2024, everybody in the humanitarian, human rights, and anti-war universe knows what the word ceasefire means. It doesn’t mean what the White House was trying to push. So, just to clarify, there was a lot of that going around in kind of these chickenshit Democratic politicians where they were trying to have it both ways. They were releasing these statements that were ceasefire, but it has to meet these four conditions. And it’s like, well, then that’s not really ceasefire. That’s surrender.

Nima: Yeah. Well, I actually want to pick up on this idea of a ceasefire, Jeff. The notion that, you know, especially in those early months, it was viewed as and certainly rendered in political speech and the media as being the highest order of peace activism, anti-war activism. Like, if you were calling for a ceasefire, man, were you progressive. And you have argued that simply calling for a ceasefire, especially with all of those conditions as Adam outlined, is far from sufficient. It’s actually the floor of demands that could and should be made. You’ve argued in Jacobin that labor really needs to go beyond this bare minimum and approach this issue of stopping the violence and potentially following it with some semblance of justice and reparation and a change of the current apartheid occupation, siege, status quo. Tell us, please, what you think labor ought to be doing to stem the ongoing US and Israeli war machine. And what it maybe ought to have done much sooner to stem the bloodshed? I mean, I love that you kind of outlined that, you know, even this process has been so much faster than what we’ve seen in the past, but still with it being insufficient, and still with so many people dying in Gaza every day, would be curious to hear what you think could have been done.

Jeff Schuhrke: Yeah, I mean, I think, if you’ll allow me, this gets to bigger questions about what the labor movement can be and what it can do. Because over the last 40 years or so, or maybe even as far back as the 1947 Taft Hartley Act, the labor movement has mostly been talking about what it can’t do because of, you know, so many militant types of collective action are technically illegal or at least we’re told they’re impractical or unlikely.

But if you look at the UAW strike at The Big Three automakers last fall, it showed that things don’t have to be like that because it was an unorthodox strike. They struck at all three companies simultaneously. They did it in a unique way, only strategically walking out at certain plants and continuing to escalate. And most experts in the labor movement hadn’t really imagined you could do something like that. And they made bold demands. They included things that technically weren’t supposed to be able to bargain over like expanding collective bargaining agreements to the new electric vehicle battery plants or reopening a shuttered Stellantis plant in Illinois, which they actually achieved.

UAW members march through downtown Detroit in September 2023. (Paul Sancya / AP)

And so, it kind of proved to me that when Labor wants to be bold and imaginative, it really can do things that we’re often told can’t be done. And I mean not that it’s easy, you know, or that you get everything you want, of course, but there’s a broader horizon. So, I think if the labor movement really wanted to stop the genocide in Gaza or play a role in helping to stop it and really wanted to help secure a free Palestine, end the occupation, and end apartheid. I think it certainly could do more than just, you know, issue some statements. I think the ceasefire statements are important in themselves, but they’re ultimately only tools to facilitate further organizing and action.

Within unions themselves, they could be divesting their pension money from Israel and companies that it does business with and divesting the hundreds of millions of dollars that unions are invested in state of Israel bonds. And some unionists within AFSCME and other unions are demanding that right now. That’s what was done in the 1980s with apartheid South Africa where AFSCME and other unions divested billions of dollars from South Africa, and it had a real impact. Or the United Mine Workers and other unions organized a consumer boycott of Shell oil because it was doing business with South Africa. So, these are types of things that have been done in the past that could be done now, and unions could be putting more pressure on Biden and other elected officials, threatening to withhold or withdraw endorsements until they cut off or condition military aid to Israel. Not that I’m saying that’s going to happen, but it’s just the kind of thing unions could be doing or at least considering if they wanted.

And more importantly, at the workplace itself, there’s a lot that unions or really any group of organized workers could collectively do. There’s the great example of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, the ILWU, the West Coast dockworkers who have a proud tradition of refusing to handle cargo coming from or going to oppressive or fascist or colonial regimes like imperial Japan and Franco Spain and apartheid South Africa. And ILWU members in recent years have refused to cross community picket lines at ports blocking Israeli cargo ships.

Or academic researchers and lab workers whose labor often goes towards serving the military-industrial complex, including the Israeli military. They can be and have been demanding that their research not go towards such activities. The UC Santa Cruz astronomy department has been making that demand. That’s part of the demands of the academic workers who are on strike at the University of California right now, for researchers to have the right to say, I don’t want my work going towards militarism. And they’ve recently formed a group called the Researchers Against War, trying to organize around some of these things about their research going towards the war machine.

Or tech workers with Google and Amazon, their labor is used by the Israeli occupation for surveillance through the Project Nimbus, this $1.2 billion cloud computing contract. And for the last few years, these workers have been organizing the No Tech For Apartheid campaign, demanding that Google and Amazon cancel this partnership.

And then, in the weapons industry and other manufacturing sectors where they actually make the arms or make other equipment used by the Israeli military that’s literally being used to kill Palestinians, workers there could take action. You know, at least a fair number, maybe a few hundred thousand in the weapons industry are unionized with the UAW and other unions. And I know, leftists ideally would love to see workers shutting down the production of weapons factories, but I think for that to be possible, there has to be a lot of political education for the workers and especially the union workers in those industries, and an alternative vision of what economic conversion or just transition for how they could maintain or even improve their livelihoods while still making products that aren’t deadly weapons, you know, like socially useful products like medical equipment or electric train cars.

And this is all what a coalition of Palestinian unions has been directly asking for from organized labor around the world. They put out a call to action on October 16th, asking workers and unions in other countries, especially in the US, to not participate in manufacturing or transporting weapons for Israel, or at least to try to disrupt or slow down the Israeli war machine in any way feasible. And so, I think the US labor movement can be doing more of that type of activity even if experts will say, oh, that’s impossible or illegal. And here’s all the reasons why you can’t. But if they have the will and the imagination and the vision, they could do a lot more.

Adam: Yeah, because the GBU-39 bomb that destroyed the tent in Rafah that killed dozens, I think, charring several children, it was produced by Boeing, which, of course, has 32,000 members in the International Association of Mechanics. So, obviously that gets a little dicey when you start talking about the fact that there is just the reality that in the US so much of labor is involved in the manufacturing of weapons. Because again, if I’m Boeing and I’m building a civilian plane to fly me from New York to LA, it’s like, yeah, okay. Climate concerns aside, it’s a perfectly benign, good thing to have. But if I’m building that plane to go drop a bomb, it’s a different deal, right?

I want to talk about this withholding endorsement because I think there was initially the UAW, beloved by a lot of lefties, for, I think, pretty good reason. You know, Shawn Fain says the right things. He says the right things on immigration. Obviously, they’re expanding. He comes from a more progressive wing of the reform within the UAW. But then, of course, they issued this ceasefire statement. Like, again, activists are like, we’ll take what we can get. That’s good. But then a couple days later, he’s on stage with Joe Biden, you know, holding hand in hand, giving him their full-throated endorsement, lending him progressive credibility. And I think this offended a lot of people, and you see this with a lot of high-profile progressive politicians like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, where it’s like, I’m gonna endorse Biden because he’s better than Trump. And of course, there’s no doubt that Biden has been better for labor than Trump. I think that’s objectively true in terms of, you know, NLRB appointments and court appointments, all that stuff does matter. So, I don’t want to sort of flatten that or trivialize that, but there was a sense that, why not try to hold out an endorsement to at least run through the motions to say you can’t take our endorsement for granted while there’s an ongoing genocide that we’re supporting. But then it’s like, oh, never mind. We’ll go on stage. We’ll sort of promote them and then issue statements.

Because again, people like Ocasio-Cortez are going on TV calling it a genocide, which is a little bit of cognitive dissonance because then you’re saying we have to vote for the guy supporting which is like, okay, but like, why eight, nine months before the election? Why was there no coordinated attempt at all to use the leverage of these progressive pillars, I don’t know, to get something. Maybe I’m being pollyannish here, but there was this weird thing where everyone sort of jumped in and endorsed Biden while meanwhile conceding, either implicitly or explicitly, that he was funding and arming a genocide. And I think that disappointed a lot of people because it’s not a decision that even really needed to be made this far out. It seemed like it was the ultimate other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play? If genocide is in fact, the crime of crimes, and if you do indeed think genocide is taking place, it seems weird to sort of handwave it away.

Jeff Schuhrke: Yeah, I completely agree. And the thing with the UAW, you know, they hadn’t withheld their endorsement of Biden last year. I mean, several major unions and the AFL-CIO came out and endorsed Biden in June of 2023 over a year and a half in advance, like way, way early. And the UAW under Shawn Fain was one of the few major unions to say, well, we’re going to hold off, especially because they were getting ready to go on strike at The Big Three automakers. And they wanted to use that leverage to say, come out and support our strike. And Biden did vocally support the strike. He came out onto the picket line. The first sitting president to ever join a picket line. And it worked, more or less, you know, they withheld their endorsement. I mean, I wouldn’t call it withholding because it was still two years before the election. But compared to other unions in the AFL-CIO, they were withholding.

And then to come out in support of a ceasefire on December 1st, which is when the UAW national leadership came out for a ceasefire. And then, yeah, just like a little over a month later, endorsing Biden without getting any kind of assurance from him that he was going to try to withhold military aid or bring an end to the killing or anything like that. It really sent the message that yeah, we support a ceasefire, but it’s really not that important. And it gave a sense to a lot of the rank-and-file pro-Palestine activists in the UAW and other unions that the top leaders of unions have only been issuing these ceasefire statements as a way to try to placate the members, to say, okay, you can stop bothering us now, you know, stop protesting.

Adam: Yeah, because the statement means nothing, but withholding endorsement means everything.

Jeff Schuhrke: Yes, exactly.

AdamI think this gets to the issue. Because what people would say and you correctly debunk this in your first response, but the rejoinder is: look, labor is about looking after labor. You know, the pejorative now people use: Gaza is an omni-cause. Everybody is supposed to care about Gaza. And again, if you believe it’s the G word, if you believe it’s genocide, then that would, by definition, be an omni cause. Again, the thing we are raised to believe is the crime of crimes, is the quintessential, highest crime you can do, which is the attempt to eliminate in whole or part a people. It’s kind of like eh, whatever. It’s sort of like, you know, capital gains tax or zoning regulations. It’s just this other cause. It’s really sort of not existential.

Nima: And something also just baked into our policies.

Adam: Oh, and there’s nothing we can do about it. Right. It’s gravity or the tides. Yeah, there’s nothing we can do about it. Biden’s made his decision so we just got to learn to live with it. He has no agency or moral responsibilities whatsoever. But there, yeah, there’s a sort of general idea that these pesky activists want labor to go out of their lane, and I think you correctly know that they were already out of their lane. They had already intervened in the conflict in support of Israel or in mostly support of Israel with some facile throwaway line about yeah, it sucks Palestinians are dying.

So again, this is something we’ve seen over and over again. I wrote a piece in In These Times about this recently. It reminds me a lot after school shootings, when politicians say we shouldn’t politicize a tragedy. When people say we shouldn’t politicize X, what they mean is that X has already been politicized, but now I’m getting pushback from someone else, and I don’t like that, so therefore we’re going to end politics now. And you saw that with all these liberal institutions that issued statements on Ukraine and issued statements after October 7, and then suddenly, 37,000, 40,000, who knows how many people dead in Gaza? And then suddenly, it’s, oh, no, no, we don’t do politics. That’s outside of our scope. It’s outside of our lane. And it’s all very selective. So, I want you to talk about this common thing where people say, look, labor’s job is to look after the bottom line, paying for diapers and groceries of its members. And that’s it. That’s all it is. What do you say to that kind of faux populist’s line that people throw out a lot?

Jeff Schuhrke: Yeah, I mean, well, you know, I already talked about the hypocrisy of that in a sense that labor is already taking positions on foreign policy and then actively involved in carrying out US foreign policy on the side of whatever Washington wants. You know, that’s historically been true, and it’s been true on Israel and Palestine for a long time, including at the beginning of this genocide.

And when that happens, you don’t hear that pushback. You don’t hear, well, why is the AFL-CIO working with the State Department? And why is the AFL-CIO working with the CIA to overthrow Goulart in Brazil in 1964? You don’t hear that kind of pushback. But then, when union members and union locals actually start opposing imperialism and militarism, that’s when suddenly it becomes a problem.

So, I think it’s clearly just like a smokescreen to try to shut down any criticism or dissent. And it’s especially frustrating because the main ideological justification for US imperialism and why the US government and the media establishment say why the US government has a right to go to war anywhere and have military bases everywhere and give deadly weapons to whatever country they want and prop up dictatorships is because the US is a democracy, and the quintessential democracy the most democratic country in the world.

And then, when you start to see attempts at democratizing our foreign policy by having regular citizens or working-class people express opinions or views about foreign policy, which is the kind of thing you would expect in a robust democratic society, suddenly that gets shut down. It’s like, well, no, you don’t know what you’re talking about. Leave it to the experts. Leave it to these national security experts who are the ones who know how to keep us safe, and you don’t even want to know what they know because there’s so many dangerous things out there, and leave it to them. Or, you know, the sage foreign policy people who got their degrees at Georgetown or whatever, they know what’s best about how to handle the rest of the world. And it’s not for you regular common folk to question their wisdom, which is a completely undemocratic point of view. So, it’s just, again, inherent hypocrisy. And another thing I would just note that another argument that I’ve seen, and especially from this piece by Jonathan Chait a few months ago is that —

Nima: Trigger warning.

Jeff Schuhrke: [Laughs] Right, trigger warning. That the anti-war, and especially the anti-genocide, the pro-Palestine sentiment within the labor movement, especially within the UAW in particular, since that’s the union that gets so much attention these days, is only coming from the academic workers, the graduate student workers, the more intellectual workers and not coming from the real blue-collar workers who work with machines.

A New York Magazine column by Jonathan Chait from February 2024.

Adam: Jonathan Chait is the Joe Six-Pack whisperer. You didn’t know that. He’s a man of his toil. He goes out every day and toils.

Nima: He’s got his ear to the assembly line, Adam.

Adam: He shows up to the sparks and steam factory. And overall, he puts in his eight hours and he just wants to go home and do the, drink a brewski and watch the game. He’s an average New York Magazine columnist.

Jeff Schuhrke: Exactly. And funnily enough, when the New York Magazine unionized with the NewsGuild a few years ago, Chait refused to sign a union card. And he wrote a public post on his Facebook page, saying I don’t think all workers need to have unions, you know, and this kind of thing. But he wrote a piece a few months ago, basically lecturing union members, saying the graduate student workers and academic workers, they’re the ones driving this, and they’re not real workers. But that’s been debunked as well. Actually, within the UAW Local 551 of auto workers at the Ford assembly plant in Chicago, they passed a very strong resolution that called it a genocide and supported the Palestinian trade unionists’ call for unions to not support the manufacture or shipment of weapons to Israel, and that was all auto workers.

Or the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, several locals of that union in Texas were some of the very first to be pushing for a ceasefire, and they pushed the Texas AFL-CIO to come out in favor of a ceasefire. Or the president of the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades, Jimmy Williams, was one of the first union presidents to be talking about how there’s no military solutions to this and criticizing dropping bombs on heavily populated areas. So, you know, it’s just another fake thing that’s being used to try to just —

Adam: Doesn’t it feel true? Doesn’t it feel like all the blue-collar workers are a bunch of apolitical fuckin’ morons, right? Doesn’t it kind of just feel true?

Nima: But also, you know, what Chait said is wrong on multiple fronts as you pointed out, Jeff. Not only is it not true that it’s only the eggheads coming out in opposition to genocide as you just outlined, it’s also these assembly line blue-collar, real American workers as well. The common narrative is we’re supposed to trust the egghead experts when it comes to foreign policy, but only when they are on the side that is already in power, that is already dropping bombs. But it’s like, oh, they’re the experts. They know that the only way to stand up to Hamas is blah, blah, blah, right? And so, there’s the trust on that side as long as it doesn’t go the other way. As you said, perceptions are only deemed “political” when you are saying something contrary to the prevailing power structures and policies that are already in place.

But I want to shift gears just a little bit, Jeff, to talk about something else that you’ve written about. You wrote in Jewish Currents that conservatives in Congress and also throughout corporate America are using anti-anti-semitism laws now to actually attack unions. We’ve seen this kind of manipulation, weaponization, targeting of plenty of other communities, of course, over the years. But when it comes to unions, I really want to get your opinion on this. Tell us about this extraordinary development in weaponizing these anti-hate laws, and what it means for the future of the right wing’s attacks against labor in general.

Jeff Schuhrke: Yeah. I mean, we know there’s nothing new about anti-Palestinian groups accusing anyone who criticizes Israel or sympathizes with Palestinians of being anti-semitic. And in the last few months especially, we’ve seen how that cynical weaponization is really effective, a really effective instrument of repression being used to justify silencing people or firing people or violently shutting down protests. And then, we also know there’s nothing new about corporate-funded right-wing lobbying groups and think tanks and law firms trying to undo all the social legislation passed since the New Deal and basically privatize and deregulate everything, and how their number one target is organized labor because they understand how labor can be an effective counterweight to their agenda. And we’ve seen this through so-called right-to-work laws and the Supreme Court’s Janus decision a few years ago, which are all aimed at trying to defund unions and bankrupt them. And it’s all this strategic, long-term effort by corporate-backed right-wing lobbyists to decimate the labor movement.

But now what we’re starting to see, especially as some unions are expressing solidarity with Palestinians or calling for a ceasefire, what’s starting to emerge is those anti-Palestinian arguments where people are accused of anti-semitism in order to silence dissent. Those arguments are now being employed by the anti-union right.

So, the same right-wing law firm that was behind the Janus decision a few years ago recently filed a lawsuit against the Association of Legal Aid Attorneys, which is a union of public defenders in New York City. And this lawsuit is trying to expand the scope of Janus to further undermine unions because the Association of Legal Aid Attorneys passed a pro-Palestine resolution last fall where the membership had a vote. It was a democratic process where it was approved. This resolution was approved with 65% of members in favor. Basically, the resolution criticized the genocide, it said support BDS, the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions Movement, and end the occupation and apartheid. But literally, two members of this union or not even members, just public defenders who are represented by the union, and they’re anti-Palestinian, they were very angry about this resolution so they turned to this anti-union law firm that’s behind the Janus case, and now, they’re filing this lawsuit so that they won’t have to pay their fair share of dues or agency fees to the union even though they’re still represented by the union, they still benefit from the union contract.

And there’s, you know, another lawsuit involving the Professional Staff Congress, which is the Faculty Union at CUNY that’s trying to overturn the principle of exclusive representation where unions represent all the workers in a particular bargaining unit because, again, that union also passed a pro-Palestine resolution.

And you know, we’ve seen the House Committee on Education & The Workforce, and the chair of that committee, Representative Virginia Foxx, who is an extremely right-wing MAGA Republican. They’ve been grilling these university presidents about supposed anti-semitism on the rise on college campuses because of the pro-Palestine protests, this new McCarthyism. And they’re issuing subpoenas and all this type of stuff. And, of course, people like Virginia Foxx, I don’t think they care at all about Jewish safety. You know, they’re anti-immigrant and they’re anti-LGBTQ. They’re just using it as a pretext to go after higher education, which they don’t like to begin with. But now that Foxx and that committee are also going after unions again, this Association of Legal Aid Attorneys, the same union that’s facing this lawsuit by demanding to see the documents related to this democratic resolution that was that the union membership voted on and actually subpoenaing the officers of the union and threatening to hold them in contempt of Congress. So, it’s very reminiscent of the Red Scare where unions that were opposed to the emergent Cold War in the late 1940s were red-baited, and a lot of unions were expelled from the CIO because of their left-wing sympathies. And it’s an attempt to try to repeat this, I guess.

And I think what’s noteworthy about it is just the fact that this weaponization of anti-semitism, as I said, has been such an effective tool of repression, and now it’s being used by these corporate-backed groups related to the Koch brothers and DonorsTrust and all these dark money groups that for years have been determined to annihilate the labor movement, and now, they’re using this weaponization of anti-semitism to go after organized labor. And I think it’s only going to continue, especially as unions more and more come out in support of Palestinians. And I think it’s a reason why unions should not only be speaking up for the rights of their members, for their free speech rights but also to actually be taking on this repression, this anti-Palestinian repression because it’s coming for the labor movement itself. It’s not just about workers’ right to free speech. It’s also about workers’ right to have a union because if these anti-union forces win, then there won’t be unions to begin with.

Nima: Yeah. And just to note, I believe the right-wing law firm that brought the Janus case before the Supreme Court has one of those amazing Orwellian names. It’s called the Liberty Justice Center.

Jeff Schuhrke: Yes.

Adam: Naturally, yeah.

Nima: It’s like, let’s put all those words together that are the opposite of the thing that we —

Jeff Schuhrke: Like right-to-work, right?

Nima: This has been so great, Jeff. Before we let you go, we’d love to hear a little bit more about the book that you have coming out very soon. Again, it’s Blue-Collar Empire: The Untold Story of US Labor’s Global Anticommunist Crusade. You know, I know we’ve been talking about these issues not only today but when we’ve had you on in the past. Tell our listeners a bit about the book, what they can look forward to, and also maybe what’s one of the most surprising or remarkable things that you learned during your research for this book.

Jeff Schuhrke: In one sense, the book is a history of the AFL-CIO as an institution and its top leaders and their relationship with the US government. On the other hand, it’s also a history of the Cold War and US imperial interventions all around the world in the name of anti-communism during the Cold War and how that served to destabilize, not just destabilize, but cause all kinds of destruction and oppression all over the world. And the sort of fusing of these two histories of labor history and the history of US foreign policy in the 20th century but also how a lot of union members at the rank-and-file level or various dissenting union leaders tried to offer a different vision of labor internationalism that was more anti-imperialist and more based on genuine solidarity with workers’ movements in other countries.

But it’s ultimately sort of a sad story of how labor went into decline in the late 20th century. That yes, it was corporate attacks and deindustrialization and all of these things, but also it was the short-sightedness of a lot of high-ranking labor officials within the AFL-CIO. By undermining workers’ movements abroad, they only made it easier for capital to be able to move anywhere in the race to the bottom and exploit workers both at home and abroad. So, it’s kind of a sweeping story that covers 1945 to 1995 and all over the world, virtually every continent except, I guess, Australia and Antarctica is covered in the book. So, yeah, that’s what it’s about.

The most surprising thing…that’s hard to say. I mean, there’s so much that’s really kind of surprising and disturbing, I guess, about the close-knit relationship between high-ranking labor leaders and CIA, for example, and other agencies of the federal government. One of the most disturbing stories is the coup in Chile in 1973 and how in the run up to the coup, the Chilean economy was destabilized by a lot of workers, especially more middle-class professionals, going out on strike and shutting down the economy and doing that with funding and support from the AFL-CIO as well as the CIA. And the brutal, violent results of that. You know, unions are supposed to be and they are a progressive force but when they’re active in these bloody coups and supporting right-wing military dictatorships, it’s pretty surprising and disturbing. So, the book is an attempt to make sense of why that happened and why we should make sure it stops and doesn’t happen in the future.

Adam: Where can people pre-order? Their local bookstore, Amazon, whatever?

Jeff Schuhrke: Yeah, you could go to Verso’s website and look up Blue-Collar Empire and pre-order it there. It’s currently 30% off. Or any online bookseller has it there so you could pre-order it now.

Nima: Any respectable book dealer will have Jeff Schuhrke’s upcoming book, Blue-Collar Empire: The Untold Story of US Labor’s Global Anticommunist Crusade, which comes out in late September of this year.

Jeff, it has been so great to have you on the show again. Thanks for joining us. We’ve, of course, been speaking with labor historian, journalist, union activist, and assistant professor at the Harry Van Arsdale Jr. School of Labor Studies, SUNY Empire State University in New York City. A frequent contributor to outlets such as In These Times and Jacobin, his scholarship has also been published in journals such as Diplomatic History and Labor: Studies in Working-Class History. Head over to the Verso website. Pre-order his book. Get it on your bookshelves. It sounds really amazing. I can’t wait to get it myself, but thanks again, Jeff, so much for joining us today on Citations Needed.

Jeff Schuhrke: Thank you.

Nima: And that will do it for this Citations Needed News Brief interview. Thank you all for listening.

Of course, you can follow the show on Twitter @citationspod, Facebook at Citations Needed and become a supporter of the show through All your support through Patreon is so appreciated, as we are 100% listener-funded. We will be back very soon with more full-length episodes of Citations Needed. So stay tuned for that, but yeah, thanks again for listening.

I am Nima Shirazi.

Adam: I’m Adam Johnson.

Nima: Citations Needed’s senior producer is Florence Barrau-Adams. Producer is Julianne Tveten. Production assistant is Trendel Lightburn. Newsletter by Marco Cartolano. Transcriptions are by Mahnoor Imran. The music is by Grandaddy. Thanks again, everyone. We’ll catch you next time.


This Citations Needed News Brief was released on Wednesday, June 19, 2024.

Transcription by Mahnoor Imran.



Citations Needed

A podcast on media, power, PR, and the history of bullshit. Hosted by @WideAsleepNima and @adamjohnsonnyc.