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Harvard’s graduate student union voted on Friday to endorse national union statements supporting the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement against Israel and calling for a ceasefire in the ongoing Israel-Hamas war.
In the largest non-contract vote in the union’s history, more than 60 percent of roughly 600 votes from members of the Harvard Graduate Student Union-United Auto Workers were in favor of signing the two statements.
Approximately 64 percent of the union voted to support a statement signed by UAW rank-and-file members endorsing BDS, a movement advocating for the economic and cultural boycott of companies, organizations, and institutions with ties to Israel. The statement, which calls for the end of “occupation and colonization of all Arab lands,” has not been adopted by the UAW.
“As members of the labor movement, we call on U.S. labor unions to cut all ties with Israeli unions,” the UAW rank-and-file statement reads.
Around 69 percent voted to support a second statement primarily signed by the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America calling for a ceasefire in the ongoing war in Gaza.
“We commit ourselves to work in solidarity with the Palestinian and Israeli peoples to achieve peace and justice,” it reads.
The union’s decision comes as more than 11,000 Palestinians and 1,200 Israelis have died in the fighting that ensued following Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel. Harvard has garnered significant national attention after more than 30 student groups signed a statement holding Israel responsible for the violence.
Despite both votes’ high turnout and double-digit approval margins, HGSU-UAW’s decision to sign the statements sparked outrage among many members of the union.
Shani Cohen, a former bargaining committee member who voted for the statement calling for a ceasefire and against the BDS endorsement, said she will resign from the union over its handling of the crisis.
“The union kind of failed its basic role in protecting members and being in solidarity with members that are Israeli or Jewish,” she said.
Cohen, who was a peace activist in Israel before coming to Harvard, said she felt the union ignored Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel and that the UAW rank-and-file statement implied support for “eradicating” Israel.
She said she believes HGSU-UAW’s actions were “contributing to the climate of campus in which we as Israelis are demonized not based on any qualities but based on our identity.”
The union also faced significant backlash over a decision not to vote on an amendment to a statement condemning doxxing attacks on students allegedly connected to pro-Palestine activism. The amendment would have also condemned antisemitism and acknowledged safety concerns among Jewish students.
HGSU-UAW Trustee Max G. Ehrenfreund ruled the amendment out of order at an Oct. 19 meeting.
Ehrenfreund said he deemed the amendment out of order only because it didn’t specifically address the doxxing attacks. He added that a different statement that also condemns antisemitism was referred for membership comment and review and is still being discussed.
The union’s condemnation of doxxing was a statement about “specific labor management questions” on freedom of expression and protection from discrimination, Ehrenfreund said.
“It’s not really appropriate to discuss other kinds of questions when we’re concentrating on one issue that we all recognize is somewhat separate from broader questions about the conflict,” Ehrenfreund said.
But HGSU-UAW member Ari Ne’eman called that decision “a serious breach of trust.”
“It doesn’t make any sense to me, it doesn’t make sense to anyone at least that I’ve spoken to why we would condemn one but not the other,” Ne’eman said of Islamophobia and antisemitism, respectively.
“I do not feel like I can trust this union anymore. And that makes me very sad. Because a month ago, before October 7, I would have sung its praises to the sky,” he added.
Amelia Spalter, who joined the union after Oct. 7, said the decision not to vote on the amendment was undemocratic.
“The union unilaterally, undemocratically, and counter to our shared values as union members, announced that Israel and antisemitism were not relevant to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” Spalter said.
Ehrenfreund said it would be a “mischaracterization to suggest that the union tried to suppress debate.”
“The union is committed to combating discrimination, harassment, and prejudice in all its forms,” he said.
HGSU-UAW member Oliver S.L. Lazarus, who voted for both statements, wrote that the union’s conduct reflected more “immediate concern” over doxxing as a result of pro-Palestinian advocacy. He added he has always felt supported by the union as a Jewish member.
“American unions have historically failed to offer our solidarity with Palestinians, and our support of the UAW and UE statement offers one small corrective to this broader history. Labor plays a fundamental role in the struggle against occupation and war,” Lazarus wrote.
Ehrenfreund acknowledged that many members were upset with how organizers handled the votes and said the union can be effective in combating antisemitism “as well as other forms of racial hatred.”
The disagreement over HGSU-UAW’s political affiliation reflects a broader debate in labor organizations, according to UAW staff organizer and former HGSU-UAW President Koby D. Ljunggren.
“Labor does and should play a strong role in pushing political issues, whether that’s directly related to our working conditions or standing in solidarity with other workers, nationally and internationally,” Ljunggren said.
Spalter said the union should only engage in political advocacy when it affects pay, working conditions, and benefits “directly and materially,” which she said neither statement did.
At HGSU-UAW’s next general membership meeting this Thursday, the union can put additional statements to a vote.
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